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Basketry: Japan's Bamboo Art

By:  Michelle Diaz

Think of Japan. Think of the culture, the lands, the atmosphere. It is a beautiful place, mystical, one with a rich history and cultural beginnings. What do you imagine when you think of the landscape? Do you picture bamboo groves spanning into the distance? What do you think of when you think of the homes, and everyday objects used there? Can you picture mats, beds, and baskets made out of natural materials? Do you think of bamboo?

I have always been very interested in the Japanese culture. For years now I have been learning new things about the history and society of Japan. I currently have a great interest in the amazing Japanese woodcut prints, their forms of theater, and I am a big fan of the anime show Tenchi Muyo. Every time I learn something new about Japan I am always in awe when I discover or am told about something interesting in Japan. Japan is such an inventive and naturally artistic country that even everyday objects, methods, practices, and common forms of simple art are amazingly beautiful.

The sad thing though is that many of these traditional ways and objects are becoming less and less common. The unintentionally beautiful everyday things are now starting to disappear. One such tradition and object almost lost, is the art of bamboo craftsmanship. Luckily though, there is still a hope for the continuing existence of the bamboo arts.

The Japan Crafts Art Association hopes to ensure this continuing existence. In 1955, a sudden drop in the areas of traditional craft in Japan, due to the greater use of plastic, started to worry the Japanese government. That is what initiated the creation of this association. Through the Japan Crafts Art Association and through the fall Japan Traditional Crafts Art Exhibit, the tradition of bamboo craftsmanship is kept alive.

Bamboo's History

When I asked you earlier if you pictured bamboo groves in the landscape, it was because there are innumerable bamboo groves in Japan. In fact, bamboo is one of the most important products in Japanese history. In earlier years, almost everything essential to everyday life was made out of bamboo. Bamboo was used as rafters for thatched roofs, beds, inside clay walls, as fences, cups, umbrellas, brooms, gutters, brushes, flutes, in religious objects, and more. The greatest amount of bamboo was split into strips and made into bamboo baskets.

An interesting thing to consider is why bamboo is used so much to make baskets when there are many other materials around to make them with. Well simply, it is the best choice. Bamboo is widespread, easily found and in mass quantities. It is more accessible, and is easy and takes little time to grow. Another reason is that bamboo is light and hollow with fibers running vertically, making it strong and resilient. Lastly, crafting bamboo is relatively easy.

With hundreds of different kinds of baskets so easily made, it is hard to understand why bamboo baskets and bamboo craftsmanship is becoming so rare now. Well, think about it. Before, these baskets were very necessary to everyday life. The terrain of Japan was not easily traveled with animals and carts, and motor vehicles did not exist until fairly recently. Baskets were used to carry everything.

First of all, baskets carried food. They were storage containers, cooking utensils, strainers for vegetables, and even traps for fish, crab or lobster. Now what is common? Roads and highways crowded with bustling cars and trucks easily, effortlessly, and efficiently transporting goods. Plastic. Plastic containers, strainers, utensils, and furniture are what are common now.
Industrialization has almost completely wiped out the use for bamboo baskets.
Industrialization threatens tradition and this beautiful art's continuing existence.

Preserving a Lost Art:
Portraits of Several Leading Basket Craftsmen

Iizuka Shokansai was born into a family of bamboo basket makers. His father was one of the most famous bamboo artists of the twentieth century. Iizuka was not originally going to be a basket maker, though, his older brother was. Soon after his brother was killed in war, Iizuka was asked to return home from the Tokyo University of Art where he majored in oil painting. He was asked to return home to study under his father and carry on the family business. In 1982 Shokansai was named a Living National Treasure by the Japan Crafts Art Association with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Katsushiro Soho learned first from his father how to make utilitarian baskets. He then studied under many people as an apprentice, and later, after going independent, under a renowned bamboo craftsman. Soho was admitted to the Japan Traditional Craft Arts Exhibition in 1968 and has been exhibited twenty-nine times since then. He became an official member of the Japan Craft Arts Association in 1972 and has won numerous awards since then.

Honma Kazuaki was born on Sado Island, and at twenty-two apprenticed himself to a prominent basket maker. In 1965 he began making pieces for exhibition and was admitted to the Japan Modern Craft Arts Exhibition. He has been admitted nine times after that. Kazuaki has won numerous awards and has had many solo exhibitions since.

Yamaguchi Ryaun graduated in bamboo craft from the Beppu Vocational School in 1957. At twenty-three he was apprenticed to one of the Living National Treasures. He has won countless awards since then. He was admitted to the Japan New Craft Arts Exhibition in 1987.

These artists are only a few of the many very talented bamboo craftsmen that still exist. Though they are far fewer than what used to be, they are still significant in their accomplishments. I only hope that this wonderful, beautiful art does not fall out of practice someday. I hope we will not forget the beauty of the bamboo arts.