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

Japanese ikebana basket

My best Christmas present was from ESP’s parents – who previously presented me with the tortoise shell.

It’s a Japanese ikebana basket (ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging). The basket is made of woven bamboo and dates from the early 20th century. It’s about 20cm high, has a lovely leather-like patina and is signed on the bottom.

The smooth rim contrasts with the texture of the woven body and the knotted handles and ornamentation. It’s amazing what delicate work can be done with bamboo – there’s an interesting article here on Japanese bamboo baskets through the ages.