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Traditional builders return from Japan project

A group of traditional builders who travelled to Japan to build a Samoan faletele have returned after eleven weeks outside of the country.

The seven-member group fronted the media during a press conference at Tiapapata Art Centre on Wednesday.

The crew of traditional builders from Sa’anapu arrived back in the country last weekend.

Lead by Lesā Faanū Togipau, a master builder with over 30 years experience in traditional house building, the building in Japan was an opportunity for the crew to apply their skills and deepen their knowledge of the artform. 

The idea of keeping the spirit of this form of Samoan architecture alive is seen through the concerns of the Matua o Faiva or master builders on passing on the craft to future generations.

In Samoa there are no schools where one can learn these required skills and the art of traditional building, with master builder Lesā Faanū Togipau having to study under a well known builder from his village, Mulitalo Kirifi.

Project Coordinator Galumalemana Steven Percival told the Samoa Observer that he considers this invaluable work in up keeping this form of intangible knowledge and hopes to inspire young people from the villages to learn more about the subject.

"This work is very important for the future of the skill, as it is not something found in textbooks. To me and my role as a documentarian and filmmaker, this will have a long reaching implications far into the future. It is only when you are able to record these in a form that future generations can observe and watch and read about, then you can be assured that some knowledge can be retained by future generations."


Mr Percival told this newspaper that the language associated with house construction is very particular, and it is an important part of the knowledge which the Tōfā Moe ma le Āiga Salenalama of Sa’anapu take very seriously.

"Many of the words used here are unique to this work is not used outside of house building environment, it's jargon if you like. A lot of this has been taken by orators and incorporated into their speech making. I think this work makes it easier for future generations to understand."

The language barrier in Japan also proved to be troublesome for the crew, as none of them spoke Japanese or knew their way around the area.

But that communication hurdle was overcome when a Samoan native and Japanese translator, Esipito Nagakubo, accompanied the group as it was their first time to be in Japan. Her engagement appeared to be a masterstroke as her presence among the group over the two-months duration of the project was a relief for everyone.

The traditional Samoan structure was built for the Little World Museum of Man near the city of Inuyama in Aichi prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.  The open-air museum celebrates cultures and architectures from 23 countries and regions, with 32 traditional houses from around the world on display. 

In 1983, the Little World Museum of Man arranged for 12 builders also from Sa’anapu, to build four Samoan houses to add to their collection, and has only Samoan architecture as their sole display from Polynesian culture.


"We were there to rebuild one of the four original houses that were built by builders from the same village and it is a great honor for us to continue this work again,” Mr Percival said.

The central post (poutū) is the only part of the new faletele retained from the original built in 1985 by other builders from the same village of Sa’anapu.  

The faletele is the only Samoan house of its kind in Japan and is supported by 26 posts and lashed with 7000 ‘afa measuring up to 14,000 meters of coconut sennit. 

Speaking on the overall accomplishment and completion of the faletele, all the builders were happy to be home and have plans to build more faleteles in Samoa in the near future.

"It has been a privilege to build the only Samoan house in a foreign country and to have it on display for the museums half a million annual visitors has been a great achievement, but to choose Japan was basically for their love of authenticity."

The environmental challenges in the creation of the afa, or sinnet weaves are known and respected by all builders, as it took months of preparation in order to send a 40-foot container of materials to Japan.

Japanese Ambassador to Samoa, Genichi Terasawa, met with the traditional builders prior to Wednesday’s press conference to convey his thanks and appreciation. 

He expressed his thoughts on the environmental concerns of the traditional house building and his plans on future projects with the team.

“I think that this Faletele portrays two important meanings. Firstly, cultural exchanges through the Faletele promotes mutual understanding and friendship between Samoa and Japan,” he said.


 “The second significance is that Samoa's traditional architectural method gives important hints that the rest of the world can learn from in order to help solve the environmental problems that are an urgent agenda for the modern international community.”

An umusaga and ava ceremony for the house’s official opening was held last Sunday in Japan, the event starting with a church service and was attended by representatives of the local museum and over 100 observers.

Mr Percival added that he sees a large tourist appeal to simply dwell inside a traditional faletele, for travelers to experience and appreciate the construction of the traditional stone floors and thatched roofing of the Samoan architecture. But he says, that all depends on the plans of the master builder crew who have to wait for their tools to be shipped back from Japan later this month.

The crew for the Samoan Faletele who travelled to Japan were: Galumalemana Steve Percival (Ta’ita’i Malaga, Project Coordinator), Lesā Faanū Togipau Laufale Motusaga (Matua o Faiva, Master Builder), Esipito Nagakubo (Translator), Tuigamala Suiselani Lea’anā, Falesigano Filemū Fa’alia, Vaivaimalemālō Siaosi Nu’u, Faanū Togipau, Tiumalu Tai Pulemau, and Leaosailimālō Tufue Filipo.

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