Hanakago: The Art and History of Japanese Bamboo
by Anita Meyer: Excerpt from Daruma 36
Bamboo baskets for carrying sake, harvesting tea and storing rice have been part of daily life in Japan for centuries. The subject of this article, however, is bamboo basketry for flowers (hanakago). Their development reflects Japan’s creative genius for assimilating and making its own an art form that is important to its cultural heritage.
The union and interplay between materials, color and design of the basket in fig. 4 invite response, but also challenge description. The undulating movement created by what appears to be a single strip of coarse bamboo and the seamless root-wood handle defy basket conventions.
Perhaps the dynamic complexity and compelling presence of hanakago transcend one’s image of a basket, spurring interest in the Japanese aesthetic, once esteemed only by tea ceremony and flower arrangement patrons.
True appreciation of hanakago comes not only from personal observation, but also from knowing its cultural background.
Utilitarian bamboo basketry in Japan has been traced back to the late Jômon period (ca 10,000-300 B.C.), but hanakago for the tea ceremony and flower arrangement begin with their emergence as imports during the Muromachi period (1392-1573).
The evolution continues through a revolutionary movement in the mid-20th century that elevated hanakago from craft to art, a Western distinction not traditionally recognized in Japan.
Learning about the basket-making process, the use of baskets for the tea ceremony and flower arranging and basketry’s ascent from craft to art, we appreciate how hanakago evolved over the centuries into a sophisticated, quintessentially Japanese art form.
Japan has always benefited from other countries’ culture, especially China’s; in the past the elite studied it for prestige and distinction. Although retaining political independence, Japan recognized China’s cultural excellence by borrowing not only its religion, but also many art forms like painting, bronzes, ceramics, lacquer and basketry.
The absorption and creative assimilation of these influences and their relationship to the preparation and drinking of tea imported from China have played a significant role in shaping the Japanese aesthetic.
By the 16th century, the Japanese ritual tea ceremony (chanoyu), had become an orchestrated social gathering for monks, high-ranking warriors and aristocrats. Special attention was given to philosophy, aesthetics and etiquette in preparing, serving and drinking a powdered green tea known as matcha.
Chanoyu and its close association with flower arranging as a secular art form then spurred the use of Chinese and Southeast Asian baskets.
Although flowers were often arranged in imported bronzes and ceramics, ornate baskets were also used. Special alcoves, known today as tokonoma, showcased these treasured art objects, commanding the recognition of their beauty from patrons and masters of chanoyu and flower arrangement.
These early Chinese baskets (karamono or Chinese objects) are identifiable by their restraint and classic symmetry, with narrow strips of bamboo, intricate weaves, and complicated knots, stitches and wraps.
You can read the rest of this article by purchasing Daruma 36 from our Back Issues page. Anita Meyer worked in Japan for 15 years. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she runs a Japanese antique gallery specializing in basketry, textiles, pottery, screen paintings and folk art. Inquiries may be directed to Hanakago Antiques, Tel: 303-938-8989,