Object description and manufacturing process

fig2: general view of the goblet

Fig. 2: General view of the goblet

Thin strips of bamboo are woven delicately to form a container, appearing similar in shape to a chalice[2]. Its intrinsic qualities of being bendable without breaking as well as its abundant availability make bamboo the cheap, pertinent material for household goods, such as this goblet. How exactly does this goblet look like, and which plaiting techniques and embellishments did the craftsman embed in order to form this attractive and surprising container? Despite a lengthy preparation of the raw material, plaiting itself is done quite fast, thus it becomes inexpensive compared to wooden lacquer works. In Edo Period with its restraints to social class, bamboo works are still approved by the shôgun government in its Sumptuary Laws (Shively 1964, p. 130f.) and thus easier obtainable for some straights of society like the urban merchant middle-class, which the artisan intended to reach.

Depending on the preparation of the bamboo as well as the plaiting technique, the creation of a balanced and stable construction becomes possible.  On the other hand, the raw material and possible usage, even if not daily, make the goblet prone to abrasion.

Bamboo as a fast growing, easily attainable material was used to manufacture household goods since ancient times. Ever since the late Yomon period (10000-ca. 300BC) excavation sites such as korekawa site in Aomori Prefecture reveal plaited bamboo baskets painted with lacquer (Kaneko 1985, p. 15). The Chinese influence on Japan up from the 6th ct. left traces among others in culture, art and craftsmanship – thus also accelerated the development of plaited bamboo objects.

The way of processing bamboo may differ from craftsman to craftsman but as Durston (1996, p. 102) suggests: “The particular characteristics of bamboo make it difficult to craft and weave by mechanical means, so most of the work is still done by hand with simple tools.” After choosing the suitable type of bamboo – the whitish-beige madake is according to Rinne (2007, p. 137) the most popular type, Spörry (Brauen 2003, p. 69) describes him as “the true, authentic, useful bamboo” – the time-consuming preparation of the strips begins. It includes cleaning the tubes, shaving of skin and nodes and splitting it into thin, pliable strips, which has to be processed into the right shape with “uniform width and thickness and chamfered edges” (Rinne 2007, p. 126). Finally this cheap material is fettled and ready to be plaited. Now it is – due to its flexibility – only limited by the imaginative power of the skilled craftsman, which form it takes in his hands.

And this form in combination with the crafted material is unique. With its 35cm of height the goblet comprises an arced foot merging into a waistline shaped stem merging into a 20cm wide bowl. A lid covers this bowl and occludes the red lacquered inside of both bowl and lid. This sealed inner surface is perfectly suited to serve sweets or fruit. It works as protection for the sweet treats and at the same time astonishes with unexpected smoothness and sheen when opened. This contrast between rough surface and sleek interior combined with ingenious workmanship may have attracted potential buyers such as 19th ct. townspeople. These townspeople’s businesses had flourished to the effect that they were able to afford lacquered objects for daily use. According to Forrer (2000, p. 66) the combination of plaited bamboo and red lacquer was an innovation in the early 19th ct.  For this combination of materials our chalice is an extraordinary example, manufactured by a bamboo craftsman, who tried to respond in his very own manner to the rising demand of objects that could revamp the interior of those townspeople’s houses.

fig3: bottom view

Fig. 3: Bottom view

Taking a closer look from bottom to top, the lidded goblet from Fisscher’s collection reveals a surprisingly unadorned underside. On this plain and compared to the rest of the object coarse underside, plaited in a technique called ajiro ami (twill plaiting: Rinne 2007, p. 130ff), Fisscher’s object number (360 N.4872) is written. With thin rattan strips this, while standing, invisible bottom is secured decoratively to a plywood ring frame, on which the whole container actually stands. Also attached to this base are bamboo strips that continue lengthwise from the bottom to the top rim, tapering at the slimmest point of the stem. Those broad, vertical visible and hidden strips, tate higo, are responsible for the stability of the structure and wider spaced than the strait, narrowly woven horizontal ones, yoko higo, “creating a horizontally faced surface” (Rinne 2007, p. 130). This plaiting technique, which is applied to the whole body of the goblet, is called gozame ami or nuki ami (mat plaiting: Rinne 2007, p. 130ff). According to the Ôita Industrial

fig4: side view with variation in pattern

Fig. 4: Side view with variation in pattern

Research Institute (Brauen 2003, p. 277), this type of weave is particularly popular for items of daily use. The research institute also marks that “even though the vertical and horizontal higo are arranged simply, to achieve a balance is a delicate matter, as the basket will look somewhat squat if some of the higo seem too strong or too flimsy” (Brauen 2003, p. 277). Full of praise for the appearance of a proper woven gozame ami, the institute states further: “its character is calm and relaxed and yet powerful” (Brauen 2003, p. 277).

fig5: loops on bowl

Fig. 5: Loops on bowl

Still, to add some variation, the gozame ami pattern is interrupted more than once. At the area where the foot devolves into the stem, ten slightly broader yoko higo overleaping two (instead of one) tate higo are inserted. And just above those, two yoko higo, also overleaping two tate higo are applied. Those two variations lead to the third one, where bold stripes are woven above and around the thinnest point of the stem.

At the passage between stem and bowl yoko higo jump double as often, using the “hidden” tate higo, which then become visible, resulting in a more dense appearance of the plaiting. In those “double jumps”, loops of flat bamboo strips are attached to the surface; the same are attached to the lid of the container. Those loops may in appearance, but not manner of preparation, remind on Suruga basketry with its round splints that make up the typical look of this basketry from Shizuoka Prefecture (see Durston 1996 p. 104 on that topic).

As the circumference of the upper part of the goblet grows wider, the visible tate hige become slightly broader and the distance between them increases. The last fourteen yoko higo again jump double via the “hidden” tate higo, to be then attached to a rattan rim with wrapped and knotted rattan strips.

The lid caps off the bowl accurately, covering the upper rim of the container. The lid’s shape reminds on a circular circus tent. Its rim is again attached to the gozame-plaited body of the lid with knotted strips of rattan. Directly above that rim the afore-mentioned loops are attached in the same way as described before. The loops cover the first steep part of the “circus tent’s roof”. Up from there, the body becomes flatter and the circumference of the lid decreases rapidly and eventually mounts towards a flat base to which the knob is attached.

fig6: lid with loops

Fig. 6: Lid with loops.jpg

Again three alterations, which are getting narrower towards the top of the lid, break the evenly plaited gozame ami. In the first alteration the plaiting shifts one jump to the left, disguising until now visible tate higo. Starting from this point only half of the tapering tate higo remain visible. The next two modifications are plaited again with double jumps, the last of which is considerably narrower compared to the first one. The last distance to the top base of the gozame-plaited part of the lid is plaited again with very densely woven yoko higo forming at its top a base with radiused edges.

This upper part appears quite compact and impervious compared to the rest of the goblet, which seems a comprehensible choice of the craftsman in order to hide the attachment of the knob. The space between the body of the lid and the knob is further hidden with bolder strips plaited above and around in the same way the thinnest part of the stem is accentuated.

fig7: knob

Fig. 7: Knob

The knob itself seems manufactured independently, as not only it is plaited in an until now unused, very dense variation of gozame ami but also the bamboo’s colour and shine differs slightly. The plaiting technique applied here seems to be a variation of the gozame ami where the “leading” higo twines around the core, resembling a corkscrew.

The knob is the part of the whole container that is touched most, thus prone to abrasion. And that is visible: on the top of the knot some strips are loose.

Luckily, by that little imperfection a bit of the “inner life” and construction of the goblet becomes visible, otherwise it is nearly completely hidden.

To add some solidity to the knob, its core consists of a pine-nut shaped piece of wood, hidden attached to the main part of the lid.

For the rest of the object counts, that its stability and balance results mostly from the three rims and the bamboo plaiting attached to them. Surprisingly no wooden core forms the base of the plaiting as one can see through some broken higo at the stem. Again some usually unwanted signs of wear allow this conclusion.

Furthermore, the goblet is a ”light-weight”. A wooden base, even if extraordinarily thin, would not only add weight, but is also unnecessary, as the plaiting technique and the material itself ensure a high degree of stability on one hand and flexibility on the other.

fig8: bowl's shiny interior

Fig. 8: Bowl's shiny Interior

Besides that, the inner finish of the chalice’s body and lid endows the whole object, not only in appearance but also in adding strength to the construction. According to Herberts (1959, p.  257) before lacquering, the object is first prepared to offer an even base by applying and abrading priming coats. After that the object is covered with hemp cloth. Dean (2002, p. 13) adds “the weave of fabric is filled with coarse-grained paste of urushi and burnt, powdered clay.” Especially at the inner side of the rim, both the lid’s and the bowl’s, the weave of the fabric that is used to cover and acts as an undercoat, is visible. After lacquering and rubbing down many times the shiny, glossy finish appears.

Adding fabric, undercoats and lacquer to a light permeable bamboo plaiting agglutinates the whole construction, adding a somewhat firm core to the delicate exterior.

Still, Okada (1995, p. 84) is concerned about the durability as “unsealed basketwork shrinks permanently”. Besides that, bamboo is as all vegetable fibres a perishable material. No wonder, no object comparable to our chalice, which was manufactured for everyday life, survived in Japan – or anywhere else in the world. At that point of time, in the early years of the 19th century, the Dutch still hold quite the monopoly on exporting things Japanese. In this special case, the goblet was exported by a member of the Dutch delegation (Fisscher) that visited the shôgun, from the sub-tropical temperate climate of Japan to the moderate maritime climate of the Netherlands. It was treated together with the rest of Fisscher’s collection as a valuable curiosity and later exhibited in the first ethnological museum of The Netherlands, today the RMV. Only due to the great care taken during transport and in Holland, we are fortunate, to still admire this object with its “exotic” shape and craftsmanship.


Next: The origin of the goblet and its craftsmen


[2] Origins and sources of inspiration concerning this shape will be discussed in the next chapter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *