A Basketmaker in Rural Japan
He made bamboo baskets for everyday use, not for display.
So begins what is considered to be the oldest story in Japanese literature (late ninth or early tenth century), which in its simplicity conveys Japan's fondness for bamboo. This mysterious, treelike tropical grass - so clean and noble - seems ideally suited to cradle the heavenly Moon Princess, who briefly appears on earth.
And nowhere is Japan's love affair with bamboo better revealed than in the remarkable basketry of Hiroshima Kazuo, the last itinerant professional basket maker in the mountainous Hinokage-cho on Japan's southern island of Kyushu. Hiroshima's meticulous work - the complete repertoire of baskets that he learned to make during his sixty-four-year career - is now on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. A Basketmaker in Rural Japan, which features 103 objects by the gifted craftsman, is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on the now - fading art of making Japanese baskets for practical use.
When Hiroshima began his work, prior to World War II, traditional Japanese arrangements of natural flowers seemed most fitting for bamboo baskets, which have a soft, relaxed quality about them. After the war, however, the introduction of cheaper, mass-produced vases of glass, porcelain, and bronze - which are better complemented by contemporary abstract arrangements of artificial flowers and dried plants - led to a rapid decline in the number of bamboo artisans in Japan. Some of Hiroshima's designs have even been used as models for these artificial substitutes.
"It saddens me that bamboo work is done only by ill people, handicapped people, and people disdained by the rest of society" says Hiroshima, who was himself ridiculed by farmers when starting his craft. Today's surviving basket makers are mostly elderly people, since young people are unwilling to spend three or four years working without salary to learn the exacting skills of the bamboo artisan.
The beauty that abounds in Hiroshima's craft can be traced to his consummate skill and keen attention to detail: in the fineness of the weaving strips, the evenness of the weave, and the meticulous finishing of the rim. The artist transforms fine, locally grown bamboo into works characterized by their durability and usefulness. "A craftsman's proudest moment is when the customer likes what has been made and is happy to have it" he notes.
Thanks to artistic contributions such as those made by the gifted Hiroshima, contemporary basket makers no longer identify themselves by the old-fashioned term kagoshi (basket maker) but rather consider themselves to be takekogeika (bamboo craft artists). Their work is more than artisanship; it is a new genre of art, known since shortly after World War II as takekogei.
"Shono Shounsai of Beppu, who was the first bamboo craftsman to become a Living National Treasure, said himself, 'I'm just doing this disdained bamboo work, but I managed to raise it to the level of craft'" explains the artist. "When I learned that he said that, although I cannot compare my work to his by any means, I felt as though his honor had honored me as well. ... But someone like a carpenter can rise in the modern world by going to work for a construction company. Bamboo ends here - there's no further use for it. That's ...
Hiroshima Kazuo Works from THE HUNTINGTON ARCHIVE