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Chicago Shimpo
Bamboo Inspires Man into Art of Traditional Craft
Interview with Noboru Fujinuma,
Living National Treasure of Japan

Visiting Living National Treasure of Japan, Noboru Fujinuma, instructed students of Japanese culture in the traditional art of bamboo craft on October 25 at the Japan House in the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Fujinuma stopped in Illinois upon request of Shozo Sato, Professor Emeritus of the College of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, following his visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Fujinuma presented lectures and demonstration there upon invitation.

Fujinuma, 72, is a Living National Treasure of Japan in the traditional Japanese craft of bamboo work. At the workshop, he explained his art to the 15 students of Sato’s, using the words “create” and “make.”

Creating requires having one’s own original ideas, and making means a technique with which you express your original ideas. “The purpose of today’s workshop is to create, so if you [the participating students] listen to your bamboo and let it express its own characteristics as you feel them, then the end result will be something that expresses your own personality,” Fujinuma said. Any artwork is an expression of the creator’s feelings [and personality], and the unique character of the creator is expressed through the material he/she uses. Each single bamboo material has its own unique character, and in the end that’s what drives the creator. “That’s why every single final product is unique in its own right,” he added.

Sato said that the workshop was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and his students to experience the Japanese attitude of “leaving the other’s existence intact while taking it into one’s own mind” through the act of bamboo weaving.

Fujinuma first visited Chicago in 2001 to demonstrate bamboo craft making during the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Expo at Navy Pier. Subsequently, upon learning that Chicago was the city of many art collectors, Fujinuma offered the Art Institute of Chicago to donate one of his large-sized bamboo baskets (about 80 centimeters in diameter) in 2008. The Japanese Art curator Janis Katz then invited him to the museum to present a demonstration, with Shozo Sato as the translator. It resulted in Katz’s suggestion of holding an annual 3-month exhibition of his works.

That year, Katz visited Fujinuma’s studio in the Tochigi prefecture along with Roger L. Weston, a Japanese art collector. Upon their visit, Fujinuma donated 22 of his works to the museum.

In 2011, a six-month exhibition of Fujinuma’s works was held at the museum. Since then, Fujinuma has continuously donated his works, and the museum now owns 38 of Fujinuma’s creations. He aims to increase the number to 100. Currently, the museum’s Japan Gallery has a permanent exhibition of Fujinuma’s works. They are also owned by the British Museum in London, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, MOA Museum in Atami, Japan, and Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art.

Interview with Noboru Fujinuma

Q: We understand that you initially wanted to become a photographer.

Fujinuma: I started as an amateur photographer. I joined Singer Corporation as a designer because of a chance to visit America for business, but found out that you wouldn’t have a chance until you become 50, so I quit.

Then I was employed by Nikon, where I contributed as a photographer for the company’s PR newsletter. There, my photographs were highly appreciated – I believe I had a good photographic sense. But you must take pictures of well-known models in order to become a pro, which is costly. If I had someone who paid for it, I would have been a professional photographer.

Q: Then what?

Fujinuma: When the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo in 1972, I got into skiing. I visited Mt. Blanc to take a picture of the Alps.

There, in Zermatt, I took a rift to climb the 3800-meter-high peak. I could see the entire snow-covered world below me. But when I tried to photograph the entire view, I couldn’t do it in one shot – you have to divide it into three separate shots. I believed that the best medium was something that can convey what you feel to the others in single try. So I gave up photography.

During that three-week travel to Europe, I visited the Louvre, the Triumphal Arch, etc. Then I realized that Japan has a cultural heritage that we can be proud of. I was 27.

Q: Then you began bamboo art?

Fujinuma: No, I didn’t think about that then – I wanted to do something to carry on the Japanese cultural heritage, so I took a lot of classes to learn it.

When I was learning tea ceremony, I realized that it involved many levels of traditional crafts and craftsmen, including pottery, lacquer work, bamboo craft, and so on. I chose bamboo craft because there were less and less people willing to learn it.

My older brother always said that you can become a professional if you discover what you want to do in your life before you turn 30. It was my 30th birthday when I held the hatchet to cut bamboo for the first time.

Don’t be Jack of All Trades

Q: It’s rather a luxury to be able to keep searching for your calling until you become 30. Tell us about your life before that.

Fujinuma: I was born in Nasu in the Tochigi prefecture, and my ancestors were horse keepers at an inn in the Edo period. My grandfather also made “geta” sandals. He was good at many trades, but ended up poor after getting involved in too many businesses. You know what they say about that kind of people.

When I was a kid, the adults around me told me: “Don’t be Jack of all trades and master of none like Grandpa; you look just like him.”

Q: Is that why you decided to do only bamboo craft?

Fujinuma: No – I thought I’d never be a bamboo basket maker. There were a lot of them in my neighborhood. Bamboo basket makers are not highly regarded; you don’t have to study much to become one to make a living.

Q: What were you like when you were a boy?

Fujinuma: I hated to be compared with my older brother and sisters, and I didn’t have a lot of expectations for praise from my parents.

When I was in the first grade, I made a huge craftwork with 100 papier-mâché mice and one large cat based on the Aesop’s tale. It won the best award from the town and the prefecture, and they handed me the commendation at school in front of the 2000 students.

I took it home and showed it to my mother. She just tossed it aside, saying: “We all have received one of these.” I stopped expecting praises from my parents then.
At junior high school, they told me what good students my older siblings were. I hated it, so I chose to go to a newly opened technical high school.

I think too many compliments can destroy us. I was always on the receiving end of bashing, so I don’t expect much in the form of praise. Rather, I tend to concentrate my absolute effort on what I can do at the moment. For example, I learned to play the trumpet in one day - after having severe stomach cramps.

My father was a carpenter, and his younger brother, a Zero fighter pilot during World War II, became a craftsman of Japanese traditional woodwork after the war. Carpenters’ tools were lying around in the house, and I knew how to use them.

At high school, I was the best of my class in drawing blueprints. I never felt intimidated in manual handiwork, but had no idea how the world worked. I was always searching for what I truly wanted to do.

The Road to Bamboo Craft Master

Q: Then you discovered bamboo art and trained under Keizo Yagisawa.

Fujinuma: It was only a year and a half that I trained under him. He told me that he was done with me because I’d learned enough. I implored him to teach me two more years, but he wouldn’t allow it.
t’s almost as if I taught myself. The most important thing I learned is how to decide whether I want to create something beautiful or something powerful. As a material, bamboo is pretty simple - it allows the creator’s feelings to resonate in the final product.

I used to compete in contests. It’s hard because judges are often a lot older than I am, and their art senses are quite different from mine. Many of my works exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago didn’t win any awards in contests.

Today, my work is appreciated by collectors. I came to understand that such collectors and I share the same senses.

Q: Were you able to make a living as a bamboo artist from the start?

Fujinuma: My bamboo baskets sold from the outset. I think I’m good at making people appreciate my work. American collectors who buy my baskets are often successful businessmen and they are quick to recognize values in my work.

Living National Treasure

Q: You were designated as a Living National Treasure in 2012 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Keiko (Daughter): Titles as such attract people. It’s nice for us to develop relationships with people in the area of education, with whom we had no previous connections. We want to do our best to contribute whenever required.

We have turned down a lot of requests [for Fujinuma] to assume public positions. For instance, a local government wanted him to accept the position as an honorary citizen. That would mean an annual pension of ¥200,000 [for him]. We turned down the offer because the pension was to be paid from the city’s tax revenue, but the city insisted. So we used the money to start up a fund to provide children with art education.

Q: Did your art change after you became a living national treasure?

Fujinuma: There’s no change, but my attitude toward my work got more serious. It makes me think that every single artwork I create leaves a mark in this world.

My theme over the past 20 - 30 years is “ki” – spirit, power, sensitivity. I try to express the concepts of power, strength and delicacy represented in my work.

Strength can’t be put into art just as my personal attribute; I have to draw the strength and power from bamboo itself. Bamboo and bamboo grass together have as many as 800 different kinds. Large bamboo can be split into very thin strips, which would make a very delicate basket. In contrast, bamboo that grows on the altitude over 1,000 meters tolerates the weight of heavy snow and has attributes of toughness and strength.

I discovered something in my 60s. It’s about the importance and balance of the five senses that we all have, such as taste.
You go to a restaurant when you want to eat something tasty, but some restaurants may have a dress code that could bar you from entering. When your taste gets more sophisticated, your fashion sense must follow in order to satisfy your sense of taste. So it follows that, if I want to create high-quality art, I must have a good fashion sense too. When I turned 60, I came to realize that if my five senses get improved, so will my art.

I believe my work expresses myself, which appeals to collectors. These days, I’m only focusing on how I can express and communicate myself through my work.

Q: Thank you very much.

Living National Treasure of Japan, Noboru Fujinuma, gives a lecture at
the Art Institute of Chicago.

The below basckets are works of Fujinuma

Noboru Fujinuma answers Chicago Shimpor's interview.