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Japanese Basketmaker Weaves Tradition, Taste, and Function

Look around and notice what people carry: purses, briefcases, and backpacks, impersonally pieced together in a factory. Riding the subway or on the street, you may notice someone else with your bag - the same size, color, and logo.

But Kazuo Hiroshima's customers leave his shop with personalized vessels - baskets that fit function and individual taste.

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Now the last professional basketmaker in the mountainous Hinokage region of Japan, Mr. Hiroshima's disappearing craft is the subject of ``A Basketmaker in Rural Japan'' at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here. This kind of basketmaking in Japan has been replaced by mass-produced baskets and plastics, and need has diminished as farming has dwindled. The exhibit includes 103 baskets, replicas of Hiroshima's tools, and a video of Hiroshima.

More than half a century ago when Hiroshima began his career, baskets were used throughout the day as fishing creels, backpacks, drying racks, sieves, and eel traps. The demand for baskets and repair was constant for household use and for the processing of agricultural products like shiitake mushrooms.

At age 16, Hiroshima was apprenticed to a professional basketmaker. He began learning simple designs, like the round-bottomed bean-paste sieve, and assisting his teacher in cutting and preparing the bamboo for weaving. He also studied with an itinerant known as Ushi-don, whom he considers his true teacher. After several years, Hiroshima himself began the life of an itinerant basketmaker. In the late 1940s, he set up a shop.

``Mr. Hiroshima almost always made baskets to order,'' writes Louise Cort, curator of the exhibit. ``An example is the small backpack used to carry working tools and lunch into the forest: this karui was made to be no wider than the wearer's shoulders so that it would not brush against the trees on the narrow mountain paths.''

Hiroshima chooses the live bamboo himself, then splits the shoots into strips. He weaves the strips into one of about 80 styles. The type of weave depends on the basket's use: For farming, an open weave is used for a hip-basket which allows drainage of water; for transporting grains, a tight weave keeps loose seeds inside.

Hiroshima says that basketmaking is not respected: Basketmakers were looked down upon because many did not have homes and supported themselves by selling baskets made from free bamboo. But Hiroshima, who still takes orders in his shop in Yato, Japan, feels satisfied with his position in life, Ms. Cort says. ``I think that he is very detached and at peace with that social status.''

Nakamura Kenji, a Hinokage businessman who is interested in preserving crafts from his native region, has worked in conjunction with the National Museum of Natural History to collect Hiroshima's work. In recent years, Hiroshima has been recognized as an ``Outstanding Contemporary Craftsman'' by the Japanese Ministry of Labor and has received awards for his work in folk-craft exhibitions.

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* ``A Basketmaker in Rural Japan'' runs through July 1995.

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