Meetings With Remarkable People in Japan: Jozan Sugita

Photo by Helen Hasenfeld.

With a few simple tools, Jozan Sugita sits on the floor in front of his studio's window and performs "alchemy" by transforming rough-hewn bamboo poles into one-of-a-kind, museum-quality baskets. Thanks to a mentor in the late 1940s, he has performed another kind of "alchemy" by transforming life's hard knocks into opportunities for successful, creative and truly inspiring living.

Born in Osaka in 1932, Sugita experienced a severe illness at age 13 that caused him the loss of his hearing. Soon after came massive fire bombings of Osaka in 1945. The Sugita family fled the burning city to neighboring rural Shiga Prefecture as the war ended.

Photo by Helen Hasenfeld.

There was no school for the deaf available in postwar Shiga. Though he was very disappointed, it was at this time that his fascination with basketry began. He had seen a farmer weaving a basket made from bamboo, and began teaching himself the craft. Eventually, he entered a middle school for the deaf and took classes in bamboo work. Determined to learn, he practiced diligently and improved rapidly but the public high school, unable to accommodate his handicap, denied him entrance.

Fortunately, Sugita met American-educated Makiko Hitotsuyanagi, head of the Omi Brotherhood School she had founded with her American husband, William Merrrill Vories, architect, missionary and visionary. She became Sugita's mentor, personally taught him English and typing, and gave him a work study job. Most importantly, she instilled in him the belief that "handicapped people could accomplish great things if they put forth the effort" and encouraged him to take advantage of any opportunities he could find.

Sugita went on to earn a degree in industrial design and obtained a teaching certificate, enabling him to begin a lifelong career teaching bamboo crafts to the deaf. Throughout his years teaching, he created his own body of work and bamboo basketry became a serious avocation.

Japanese fine art basketry dates back to the 1700s when the literati, who practiced flower arrangement, imported expensive baskets from China. Admiring Japanese craftsmen created imitations in secret, and soon the imitations surpassed the originals. Long before Sugita's years, Japan was leading the world artistically and technically in basket creation. Sugita was particularly inspired by the work of Tanabe Chizuunsai II, a great bamboo artist of the 20th century. He very much admired the characteristic hexagonal plaiting. Through intensely focused practice he was able to acquire similarly fine precision skills and the restrained and subtle style we now know as characteristic of his own work.

Photo by Helen Hasenfeld.

Sugita explains that of the 250 varieties of bamboo that grow in Japan, only a few are suitable for basket construction. After he properly dries the appropriate green, thus removing the oil, he cuts it to precision dimensions, dyes it, plaits it and applies lacquer.

"I especially like fine, delicate work. I began to create patterns which are doubled, where two identically patterned baskets are woven in parallel, slightly staggered, one inside the other."

By winding durable and pliable rattan vine through the fragile bamboo patterns, he is able to control the strength of the basket while preserving the design.

The continuing process of refinement in design and technique has defined the course of Sugita's work, evident with the successive completion of each new basket. Each surpasses the prior one in innovation and quality of execution. Weaving flat surfaces can be demanding, creating an underlying connection to the wave is technically challenging, but it is the transition from flat to curved surfaces within a basket that reveals Sugita's complex artistry. The process of creating a basket takes many periods of thought, many tries, many errors; a single piece can take three months. Though weaving a second one identical to it would take only a third of that time, Sugita chooses instead to move on to a new and untried design.

Over the years, Sugita's work became increasingly successful in craft competitions. He gained exhibitor status with the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten) and the Traditional Japan Association shows. He was also selected as an Intangible Cultural Asset for the Shiga district, the local equivalent of Living National Treasure. When he retired from teaching a few years ago, Sugita was already an internationally known artist with representation by TAI Gallery of Santa Fe. His works are in the renowned Lloyd Cotsen Collection and in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga and the Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art in San Francisco.

"Making bamboo baskets brings joy into my life, and I hope into the life of other people. When I make a basket, I want it to be sure to have technical excellence and good design."

Personally speaking, my life has been significantly touched by the beauty and delicacy of his work and by his focus and intention. When Sugita speaks about his childhood mentor and points to her photograph on the wall of his studio, he shares that he wants to "help create a world where handicapped people are judged fairly by their abilities and accomplishments and are not limited by prejudice for their handicaps." He hopes to continue to make works based on his own techniques, and "to leave a legacy that will encourage other handicapped people to reach high in their pursuits."