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”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Q: Thank you very much.