Tobishoku (鳶職)

Tobishoku (same as hikiya [a workman who moves a whole building without demolishing] and yarikata [a workman who make a rough design before building]) generally means a workman specializing in working in high places in the construction industry. Tobishoku is collectively called 'steeplejack and navvy' since it is engaged in foundation work including jigyo (the part under the foundation) and basic kenchiishidumi (kenchiishi stone masonry work) in machiba (the housing market in which local workmen engaged in constructing traditional wooden buildings).

Depending on the type of work and occupation, tobishoku is sometimes classified into 'ashibatobi,' 'juryotobi,' and 'tekkotsutobi.'

Among the workmen in the construction sites, tobishoku is also called 'on-site brilliance' because it gracefully moves about in high places.

Tobishoku is called tobi (a black kite) because it literally flew from one beam (structure) to another one at the time of muneage (ridgepole-raising).

The main tool used by tobishoku was tobiguchi (a firefighter's hook), meaning that it is linked to machihikeshi or fire brigade (used when demolishing fire-spread houses), hashigonori or ladder-top performers (used when supporting the ladder) or kiyari or heavy load pullers (used when carrying the log). It is also said that tobishoku was named after this tobiguchi.

For the origin of hikiya, please refer to 'the rope-pulling ritual' of jotoshiki (a framework raising ceremony). For the origin of yarikatashu, please refer to 'foundation works' below.
Additionally, kiyarikata and kiyarishu are other names for tobishoku, originated from the word 'yarikata.'

In Asuka period, tobishoku was called ukan and sakan, which vaguely refers to either the current plasterer and other fushingyo (construction workers) as ukan, or the plasterer and the carpenter; however, it is recorded that some Anoshu (group of stonemason), who were active in building castles in Azuchi-Momoyama period, switched jobs and became hikiya after the castle construction was terminated. It was after Edo period when people started to call them tobishoku. Carpenters were called jishadaiku (same as miyadaiku, who were specialists in the construction of temples and shrines), machidaiku, or nochobadaiku, which can be traced back to machi bugyo (town magistrate) and jisha bugyo (magistrate of temples and shrines) in Edo period, who were self-governors with administrative jurisdiction, and tobishoku were called machitobi and nochobatobi in the same manner, but not jishatobi at all.

The original scope of work
Tobishoku is a worker mainly engaged in building houses using timber framework method. The work includes jigyo (ground leveling, excavation), foundation work, scaffold erection, and muneage (framework assembly). The other work includes building demolition, hikiya (refer to the below classification for the details) and kiyari (lumber carrier). Rites and festivals include jichinsai (ground-breaking ceremony), jotoshiki, and shunkoshiki (ceremony of completion).

Tobishoku is also called machitobi and machibatobi. There have been the communities such as machi (town) or machiba as a unit of mutual aid across Japan since ancient times, and such communities had a variety of authority as a public unit of self-government in the cities until the Edo period. Matsurigoto (self-government, and rites and festivals) for people living in the cities was traditionally administered by this unit, and many places still continue to have such customary practice. In these autonomous places, machitobi was engaged in mutual activities for ceremonial occasions, fire activities (as machihikeshi or fire brigade), rites and festivals (construction of dashi [floats] and mikoshi [portable shrines]), construction and maintenance of town infrastructure including bridges; well roofs; well sweeps and water supply manholes; and wooden pipes and ditch covers, working together with machidaiku (carpenters). It can be described in modern language that infrastructure was created by carpenters and events were conducted by tobishoku. In construction industry, it was an unwritten law that people hire their own local tobishoku if they live in the same town, or if not, they had to have a decent excuse or offer some apologies. This kind of things was not particularly unique to tobishoku and it explains how the money circulates in a town as a form of mutual aid. The shop owners and the workmen were strongly favored among the town communities; however, the unwritten law had less binding, implying that people took pride in their own workers with the prefix 'machi' in the occupational titles, such as machitobi, machidaiku, and machihikeshi.

Culture and performing art
It is likely that most well-established tobishoku are shrine parishioners, as well as yorishiro (person who is capable of attracting kami [the spirits] who receive the oracle).

Performing art
Kiyari, which means carrying (transporting or moving) logs and lumber, refers to a song (a work song) sung by machihikeshi (fire brigade). Since building temples and houses itself was considered auspicious events, kiyari began to be sung as the festive song. In the middle of Edo period, kiyari was actively sung among tobishoku, and since machihikeshi was mainly composed of tobishoku, kiyariuta (kiyari song) naturally spread into machihikeshi and was passed on from one to another. When singing a kiyariuta, a kiyarishi (kiyari workman) as a leader and other kiyarishi who chant chorus sing alternately. Today, kiyariuta is often sung at the Shinto-style wedding ceremonies, jichinsai, muneage, and shunkoshiki, and it is said that it has a power (the divine power) to bring the state of perfect health, the safety of one's family, and prosperous trade.

Tobishoku mainly carries on the traditional performing arts such as shishimai (lion dance), hashigonori (ladder-top stunt), and matoimai (dance using firemen's flags) with the rewards since there are no officially registered jobs today such as kagura dancer (Shinto theatrical dancer) and machihikeshi.

Lucky charm
At rites and festivals, there are many tobishoku (same as tekiya [street vendors]) who sell rakes, daruma (Dharma dolls), hagoita (battledores) and morning glories in the precincts of shrines and temples holding festivals, fairs and markets (Tori no ichi [open-air market], Daruma-ichi [fair of Dharma dolls], Hagoita-ichi [battledore fair] and Asagao-ichi [Morning-glory fair]), and along the sando (approach to the temples) or in Monzen-machi (temple towns), after receiving the oracle by communicating with temples.

In many cases, either tobishoku, or gardeners and farmers who work as tobishoku at the same time, make and sell New year's decorations and kadomatsu (a pine tree decoration for new year).

Festivals across Japan and tobishoku
At Onbashira-sai Festival (log-rolling in Suwa) held in Nagano Prefecture, a person who sings kiyari at the edge of the sacred tree is a successor to his ancestor who used to be tobishoku.

At Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri Festival held in Osaka Prefecture, daikugata (a young star who dances on top of danjiri [decorative portable shrine]) refers to machitobi and machidaiku among daikugatashu (group of carpenters).
In addition, changing the direction of danjiri at the corner is called 'yarimawashi.'

Additional notes
As a performer who plays a role in the same traditional performing arts, tobishoku has a strong connection with other performers in grand sumo tournament, kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors), rakugo kyokai (association of Japanese verbal entertainment), and karyukai (world of the geisha), and is often invited to their grand naming ceremonies to highlight the atmosphere.

The consideration of the time and effort spent by tobishoku for the lucky charms sold at rites and festivals and for the mutual aid activities was paid by showing appreciation or giving congratulatory and commemorative gifts, not by offering the payment.

Because tobishoku can be engaged in activities with cultural values besides its regular trade and regarded as a cross-trained worker, it can also called machitobi and machidaiku.

Today, tobishoku can be mainly classified into the following three types. However, depending on the companies or the workmen, multiple works may be done at the same time.

It is called 'nochobatobi' instead of machitobi (machibatobi).
(The term nochoba [also written as '野丁場'] means the areas where the future towns will be built, such as developed lands or reclaimed lands, or the work sites where its size cannot be categorized or over-categorized as a town, or the properties not registered based on land survey (or without registration).)

Ashibatobi is a workman who assembles scaffolds required on construction sites. Besides working simply in high places, ashibatobi is required to assemble scaffolds based on proper judgment of the condition or the workability in the area and the efficiency at the time of disassembling depending on the various situations. In most cases, ashibatobi, as a member of the company organization, has a contract for scaffold rental, erection and disassembly on construction sites.

Tekkotsutobi is a workman who operates a crane to hoist and assemble (also called 'takekata' or 'tatekomi') steel members such as columns and beams manufactured in iron factories to construct steel buildings.

For civil engineering, juryotobi is responsible for assembling the main girders for bridges. Juryotobi is also responsible for installing heavy items (such as large machines) inside buildings. In comparison to ashibatobi and tekkotsutobi, juryotobi requires a high level of expertise and is often engaged in plant work, air conditioning and plumbing work, and a partial work on electrical equipment.


The official name of sodentobi is sodensen-kasenko (overhead power line engineer). Sodentobi has knowledge of electrical work and is engaged in the installation and maintenance of high voltage overhead power lines. It is said that the workers are mainly graduates of industrial high schools or technical colleges. Nowadays, due to the shortage of workers, overhead power line companies have a difficulty in securing the human resources.

Foundation worker
Foundation worker is mainly specialized in foundation works for housing in machiba. Foundation worker became independent from machitobi or performed as machitobi as well. In the preparatory stage of foundation work, the enclosure can be built with wood piles and rails as benchmark, which is called 'yarikata,' another name for tobishoku. It is also said that the term is the origin of 'yarikata ("やり方")'.

Hikiya worker
Hikiya worker separates a structural building from its foundation, and moves or relocates the upper portion of the building to another place without demolishing or dismantling it. Although hikiya worker had a long history and was engaged in a part of occupational competence required by tobishoku, many specialists nowadays use the jack up system controlled by highly-industrialized computers.

Demolition worker
Demolition worker is responsible for demolishing buildings and structures (there is also a specialist called chimney demolition worker). It is mandatory to assemble scaffold structures. Demolition worker became independent from tobishoku or performed as tobishoku as well. Speaking of firefighting activities performed by machihikeshi, the activities were regarded as rough works involving the prompt demolition of fire-spread houses and their neighboring houses to create fire lines, and it is undeniable that such techniques used in dangerous areas in emergencies became the cornerstone of demolition work.

Chimney cleaner

Chimney cleaner is mainly engaged in cleaning the chimneys of public bath houses. After boiler rooms were built into public bath houses, chimney installations and heights were specified by a law. Accordingly, chimney cleaners became independent mainly from machitobi as a specialist who cleans and inspects chimneys; however, it is now said that there are only a few remaining even in the metropolitan area because the number of public bath houses decreased drastically.

There are many tobishoku who are the certificate holders of 'Operation chief of assembling, etc. of scaffolding.'
Among skills tests, there is a skills assessment test for First Class, Second Class, or Third Class of 'Certified Steeplejack.'

Contents of test for certified skilled worker
First Class: The following performance tests will be conducted.

To build western-style roof structure using logs or steel pipes.

To carry heavy loads on sleigh.

To conduct visual estimates of three types of heavy loads.

Test duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes for performance with logs, 2 hours and 5 minutes with steel pipes.

Second Class: The following performance tests will be conducted.

To build shed roof structure using logs or steel pipes.

To conduct visual estimates of three types of heavy loads.

Test duration: 2 hours and 5 minutes for performance with logs, 1 hour and 55 minutes with steel pipes.

For the most part, tobishoku wear distinctive work clothes. There is a work clothes called tobifuku (steeplejack work clothes). Tobishoku sometimes wear flare pants, jikatabi (split-toes heavy cloth shoes with rubber soles), tekko (covering for the back side of the hand and the wrist), and kyahan (foot cover).

[Original Japanese]