Bamboo in Japan - Cover

The Bright Side of Bamboo
Donald Richie

A Review of
Nancy Moore Bess
Bibi Wein

Bamboo, the ancient, ubiquitous grass, is everywhere in Japan. Of the over 1,500 species worldwide, nearly half are found here. It is very much a part of the history and culture of the country; as Basil Hall Chamberlain noted early on, "So extensive is the part played by bamboo in the Japanese domestic economy that the question is rather, what does it not do?"

Apparently, little. Bamboo, as Nancy Moore Bess discovers, has its own crafts, its own part in the traditional arts, in the home, in the garden, in the cuisine. It has permeated the language, it plays its part in rituals, in architecture, in the grand assembly hall as well as in the humble kitchen.

Bess and Bibi Wein spent years poring over written sources, dictionaries, collections, whole libraries, collating everything they could find about bamboo. The result is a compendium of information that is not likely to be soon duplicated.

It is also richly illustrated. Using period designs and modern photographs, the myriad forms of bamboo are displayed on every page. Most of the photographs are by Takama Shiji, but others are from local photographers such as Ken Straiton and Ben Simmons, and the author herself. Text and photos are combined in one of the best-designed books of the year.

Also included are a glossary, notes, bibliography and a listing of sources "for observation and research," listing bamboo museums and craft centers in Japan and the United States, as well as local bamboo specialist stores. Heretofore, the best book on the subject was the 1970 "Bamboo" by Robert Austin and Ueda Koichiro, with photographs by Dan Levy and published by Weatherhill. Now out of print, it has found a fine successor in this work.

So full is the coverage that I can think of only one use of bamboo that is not mentioned. This is bamboo as a torture instrument -- not only the common bamboo chips under the fingernails and bamboo poles used for piercing the hanging body, but also an ingenious torture whereby the condemned was staked out over a bamboo root that was then copiously watered. The fast-growing plant thrived and its culm (or cane) pierced the body of the unfortunate victim secured above it. The length of time required by this form of punishment depended upon the variety of the bamboo.

It might be objected that the failure to include this use was because the torture was actually Chinese (or Malay, or Burmese). This is what some Japanese authorities maintain. On the other hand, China has long ascribed it to Japan. In any event, this practice constitutes one of the many accredited utilizations of bamboo in Asia.

I mention this not to be disagreeable or to spoil the reader's breakfast, but because it gives me a way to further describe the volume under review. This handsome publication is much more than a coffee-table book, but at the same time it is not (nor does it attempt to be) a full scholarly study of its subject.

It is definitely reader-friendly. The authors "offer" this book to those who have yet to experience the "wonder" of bamboo; bamboo objects are "lovingly fashioned" and possess a "warm, golden glow"; readers are (in the Californian manner) invited to "share" emotions, and people are thanked "who continually said 'yes' and with a smile."

With such a tone, one does not expect torture. Rather, one expects an affectionate excursion into a much-loved subject, nicely arranged and well-illustrated, and this is what one gets.

The Japan Times: June 17, 2001

Price of Book Ordering Information

Arrow Bamboo In Japan Main Page
ArrowRead the Preface to this book

ArrowFlute Craft Manuals & Books Menu
Arrow Tai Hei Shakuhachi Homepage
Arrow Main Menu