A community college in Oakland, California has become an unlikely hub for traditional Japanese carpentry in the United States. For almost 20 years, Laney College has served as a center of traditional Japanese woodworking. This artistic achievement is all due to one man: woodworking teacher Jay van Arsdale.
A farm boy from Kentucky, van Arsdale is no stranger to traditional art forms. He comes from a long line of country blacksmiths. However, his first love was sculpture. In 1970, he moved to California to earn his degree in sculpture at Mills College. While he was living in California, he happened to attend a demo given by renowned Japanese daiku (carpenter) Makoto Imai. A native of Hida, Japan, Imai had studied traditional sukiya-daiku (teahouse carpentry) since the age of 15. Later, he went on to learn miyadaiku, the construction style used in building Japanese temples. When he met van Arsdale, the master Japanese craftsman found a willing pupil.
Van Arsdale studied with Imai for several years, learning Japanese joining and framing techniques. To van Arsdale’s surprise, his weekend workshops at local stores like Hida Tool, a tool and hardware store owned by Imai’s brother-in-law, were very popular. In 2000, van Arsdale became an instructor at Laney College, where he began teaching a whole new generation of woodworkers traditional Japanese joinery and the use of Japanese hand tools.
In 2015, van Arsdale and a group of like-minded woodworkers launched the American branch of Kezurou-kai, a prestigious woodworking association in Japan. Today, the California branch has over 15,000 members and remains the only officially sanctioned branch of the organization in the United States.