Grass poets: Japanese baskets 1845-1953

I’ve written previously about a bamboo Japanese ikebana basket given to us by ESP’s parents. So last week we went to a talk organised by the Japan Society entitled “Grass poets: Japanese baskets 1845-1953” by Joe Earle.

Bamboo is very important in Japan, as an element of simplicity. Before the 16th century, most bamboo baskets were imported from China and used for ikebana in the chanoyu tea ceremony during the summer months. When the Japanese started making their own baskets they were largely copies of Chinese styles and, unlike other crafts of the time, were unsigned. So we know little about the earliest Japanese basket makers.

Hayakawa Shokusai (1815-1897) was the first Japanese basket maker to sign his work, perhaps because he started to combine twining with more open weave techniques to create a more distinctive Japanese style rather than simply copying the Chinese. One of his most unusual works was a Western-style rattan bowler hat!

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Basket making seems to run in families. Shokusai’s son also went on to become a basket maker. Tanabe Chikuunsai (1877-1937), who created an art-deco inspired Japanese style, had a son and grandson who also went on to become great basket makers.

Tanabe Chikuunsai I
Chikuunsai II
Chikuunsai II
Chikuunsai III

According to Joe Earle, probably the greatest basket maker of all was IIzuka Rokansa (1890-1958). Inspired by rustic found objects, he often used smoked bamboo from the ceiling of workers’ houses. He also named all his pieces.

“Fish” by Rokansai
“Prosperity and longevity” by Rokansai
“Spring rain” by Rokansai

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rokansai also had a son, Iizuka Shokansai (1919-2004), to carry on the tradition. Shokansai was recognised as a Living National Treasure of Japan in 1982.

Bamboo basket by Shokansai
“Mount Fuji” by Shokansai
Woven box by Shokansai

Sri Lankan crafts

Just back from Sri Lanka after an 11.5 hour flight that left Colombo at 5am, only to find that there’s been a leak in the house while I’ve been away, with wallpaper peeling off the ceiling. 😦

Never mind – even that can’t take the gloss off the amazing craft experience I’ve had in Sri Lanka. The last hotel I stayed at was actually in the middle of setting up a craft centre, with weavers, basket makers, lace makers, woodcarvers and mask painters all giving demonstrations and even letting me have a go. As part of my assignment I interviewed a few of them and will post some of these later.

Also, shops like Barefoot have a fantastic selection of goods, from colourful handloom and embroidery work to contemporary batik designs, ceramics and carving. I came back with a bulging suitcase and had to buy another bag to hold everything!

I’ll post more details over the next week or so, but the photo above shows a few of the items: two cushion covers (one an example of Dumbara weaving, the other embroidered) and a couple of purses woven from indikola, a kind of palm.