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    Rokansai and the emergence of bamboo crafts in Japan


    The history of flower baskets travels back to the mid-Edo period in Japan, having been imported from China along with the culture of sencha tea, continuing its own transformation in Japan uninterrupted. Among its rich history, Maiko Kurogouchi was particularly fascinated by the works of Rokansai Iizuka, a pioneering artist who elevated bamboo basket culture in Japan to the realm of art with his original creations. The 2023 collection throughout the year for both Spring/Summer to Autumn/Winter, were inspired by the works of Rokansai and bamboo basket culture. We sat together with Mr. Masamitsu Saito, a collector, exhibition curator and promoter of bamboo baskets to learn about its surrounding culture.

    To deepen our understanding about Rokansai Iizuka, there is a special piece of work, a large bowl called ‘Kokkou’※. Created in 1939, Rokansai used a technique he was skilled in called bundled-plait, the motif being the chrysanthemum, the national flower of Japan. The meticulously crafted work resembles the spread of chrysanthemum petals, relying solely on the artist's imagination and hand-weaving sense, with no blueprints such as sketches. This creativity and skill of Rokansai, who weaves complex and delicate baskets, is unparalleled. This technique of bundled-plait is derived from the thin bamboo being bundled and woven. Take for example, the ‘mizuhiki’, a decorative art form of knot-tying made from beautiful ornamental cords, used for gift envelopes. One of Rokansai’s strengths is to sublimate such traditional Japanese designs into bamboo baskets. Bending the strips of bamboo, it creates a beautiful curved shape, the epitome of bamboo baskets. Unlike metal or glass where materials are melted to create shapes, for bamboo baskets one must visualize the final piece, and it all begins with the preparation of materials. At times, one must retrieve bamboo from bamboo groves or forests, and cut them to adjust the thickness and thinness. The ‘Kokkou’ uses high-quality bamboo, cut from well-maintained bamboo groves, and uses thin, flexible bamboo created by splitting the bamboo lengthwise. The knot is carefully calculated and woven in a delicate balance, as if the knot reaches the top of the curve it may break. In this way, Rokansai compromises and combines the bamboo's characteristics and his own production intention in harmony. This idea of ‘Art that Compromises’ and ‘Art though not conquer’ is truly Japanese.” ※Kokkou (国香)= Country + Scent

    Bamboo baskets have been woven into various expressions over time. Initially, bamboo baskets spread from China to Japan as utensils for sencha tea. As sencha culture flourished in Japan, in order to meet the growing demand, bamboo baskets, so-called flower baskets used in tea rooms began to be made. At the time, most were called ‘Karamono Utsushi’, where most designs imitated the Chinese flower baskets. However, Rokansai incorporated a unique Japanese interpretation, pioneering the creation of flower baskets not only as a utensil for sencha, but also as objects. Flower baskets woven with his own uniqueness soon came to be appreciated as works of art, finding crossroads for bamboo baskets that go beyond sencha and Kado, a traditional Japanese ikebana tools. Interestingly, even such works of high artistic quality are accompanied by its use and function as flower baskets. Rokansai mentions his own baskets as ‘Able to contain flowers, or not contain flowers.’

    Bamboo baskets made from bamboo and its unique curves, with a design that balances practicality and decorativeness. And sublimating folk craft into artwork by having a careful perspective towards everyday life. The many stories shared with Mame Kurogouchi strongly resonated with her consideration towards women’s daily lives, silhouettes, and beauty in curves.

    Photography: Yuichiro Noda / Words & Edit: Runa Anzai (kontakt) /Translation: Shimon Miyamoto