Handbook for the Appreciation of Japanese Traditional Crafts



Right: Himi Kodo Senzogan hirajo (Table, wire inlay decoration) (detail) The beauty of this work lies in the gold and silver wire inlay decoration and the quality of the zelkova grain.

Left: Iizuka Shokansai Matsuba-ami shirasabi hanakago "Hakuryu" (Flower basket, "White Dragon", woven bamboo, pine needle weave) (detail) Pine needle and several other weave patterns have been used in this basket, which is a wonderful celebration of the simple beauty of bamboo.

Woodwork is a craft that exploits the natural beauty of wood, emphasising its solidity and organic vitality at the same time as making use of its unique qualities of grain and texture.

Japan's varied climate and geography have long ensured an abundance of timber suitable for the making of buildings, furniture and household utensils.

Wooden artefacts excavated from ancient sites of the Jomon (10,500-300 BC) and Yayoi (300 BC-AD 300) periods include bowls, stem-cups, combs, bows and wooden boats, the making of which became increasingly sophisticated as improvements in the tools used for their production were made. Several splendid examples of woodwork have been preserved in the Shosoin Treasury.

The urban culture of the Edo period (1615-1868) saw the development of woodwork into a craft of great artistry. Highly specialised skills were employed by master woodworkers in the creation of marvellously intricate designs. Since the Meiji period (1868-1912) the system of competitive exhibitions that has operated in Japan has offered woodworkers the opportunity to employ traditional skills in the making of artistically innovative work. This has led to the establishment of woodwork as a major discipline in the world of contemporary craft.

Himi Kodo Daihannya risho bunkyo no hako (Sutra box, wood marquetry) The lozenge patterning of the wood marquetry is reiterated in the frizzled silver wire inlay.

Kuroda Tatsuaki Tochimoku fuki-urushi tebako (Cosmetic box, horse chestnut with wiped urushi finish) The base and lid of this box have been carved from a solid block of wood in such a way as to emphasise its weight and solidity.

Shono Shounsai Muso-ami take moriki (Round bowl, woven bamboo, muso-ami weave) Woven from wide strips of bamboo, this basket makes sensitive use of the pliancy and natural simplicity of bamboo.

Iizuka Shokansai Takesashi-ami hishimon teiban (Tray with handle, woven bamboo with lozenge patterning, takesashi-ami weave) A fine weave structure and the colouring of the bamboo combine to give this piece a highly dignified air. The geometric pattern is particularly beautiful.


Various factors give rise to irregular and complicated patterns in timber. Known as moku or burls, these are particularly valued by woodworkers. Terms such as tama-moku (circular burl), budo-moku (grape burl), sasa-moku (bamboo leaf burl) and uzura-moku (quail feather burl) are used to describe the different kinds of patterning found. Timbers are also chosen on the basis of hardness, colour and quality of grain.

KIDORI (Timber preparation)

Timber has to be left to dry for several years after being felled. It is then sawn or split according to need in a process known in Japanese as kidori. Timber may be cut with or across the grain. In the case of straight-grained cutting (masame-dori), the growth rings appear as a series of parallel lines on the surface of the timber (as in the set of ornamental shelves by Suda Sosui). Cross-grained cutting (itame-dori), in contrast, results in irregular patterning (as in the octagonal box by Ono Showasai).

Timber taken from the outer part of a tree tends to have a more attractive grain and glossier lustre than timber taken from nearer its centre.


Woodworking techniques are classified into sashimono (joinery), kurimono (carving from the block), hikimono (turning) and magemono (bentwood work). The two major techniques used in the decoration of woodwork are horimono (carving) and moku-zogan (inlay). Woodworkers select which processes to use according to the effect they wish to achieve.


Masame-dori (straight-grained cutting)

Itame-dori (cross-grained cutting)

Photographs (burls)

Tama-moku (circular burl)

Uzura-moku (quail feather burl)


Trees are categorised broadly into two groups: coniferous trees (shinyoju) such as Japanese cypressihinoki), Japanese cedar (sugi), pine (matsu) and Japanese yew (ichii), and broad-leaved trees (koyoju) such as mulberry (kuwa), zelkova (keyaki), horse chestnut (tochi) and paulownia (kiri). From a woodworking perspective, they are also divided into three groups according to their overall properties: hardwoods (koboku, e.g. mulberry, zelkova and persimmon (kaki)), softwoods (nanboku, e.g. Japanese cedar, Japanese cypress and paulownia) and imported foreign woods (karaki, i.e. hardwoods from South and Southeast Asia such as rosewood (shitan), ebony (kokutan) and Bombay blackwood (tagayasan)). There are also timbers known as jindaiboku (lit. 'trees from the age of the gods') that have been submerged in water or buried in the ground for a long period of time. Their elegant qualities are much prized, the best known varieties being jindai sugi (ancient cedar) and jindai keyaki (ancient zelkova).

Photographs (timbers)

Hardwood (koboku)

Mulberry (kuwa)

Zelkova (keyaki)

Black persimmon (kurogaki)

Softwood (nanboku)

Japanese cedar (sugi)

Pine (matsu)

Japanese cypress (hinoki)

Foreign wood (karaki)

Rosewood (shitan)

Ebony (kokutan)

Bombay blackwood (tagayasan)


Joinery involves the fixing together of wooden boards and panels to create shapes of all different sizes and degrees of complexity ranging from cosmetic boxes to writing tables and ornamental shelves. The joints must be strong as well as neat, and care must be taken to select timbers with grains and other qualities that are in balance with and contribute to the structure and composition of the work. There are many techniques in joinery. Among the most frequently employed are hagiawase (butted joints), whereby two or more boards are joined edge to edge, kumitsugi (box joints), whereby boards are joined at right angles, and hozogumi (tenon joints), whereby lengths of timber are joined at right angles.

Photographs (techniques)

Hagiawase (butted joint)

Hagiawase (butted joint)

Hagiawase (butted joint)

Kumitsugi (butted joint)

Kumitsugi (butted joint)

Hozogumi (tenon joint)

Hozogumi (tenon joint)

Ono Showasai Kuwa budo-moku hachiryobako (Octagonal box, mulberry with grape burl patterning) A fine example of joinery that fully exploits the beauty of the grape burl patterning.

Suda Sosui Enju zayudana (Ornamental shelves, Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) The clean lines of the straight-grained timber (masame) is employed to maximum effect.


Carving from the block is a technique that involves the use of knives, chisels and planes in the fashioning of shapes such as bowls and trays from a single block of wood. While not suited to the production of multiple copies of the same shape, it allows woodworkers much freedom in the exploration of new shapes marked by a high degree of sensitivity to the organic qualities of the timber and a sense of solidity and mass.

The first step in carving from the block is the rough shaping of the form. Careful attention has to be paid to the quality of the grain and other characteristics of the timber. As the carving progresses the artist can adjust the form according to his or her intention and in response to the grain or other features of the wood. The delicacy of the process often requires the making of tools specifically tailored for the work at hand.

Osaka Hiromichi Hosoge ganso hanagata koza (Incense tray with lobed sides and wire inlay decoration) Carved from very hard wood

Nakadai Zuishin Rinka moriki (Dish with lobed sides) Carved from soft wood


Turning involves the use of blades to form shapes from blocks of wood revolving on a lathe. It is ideal for the production of regular, circular shapes such as trays and bowls. In the case of one-off rather than mass-produced works, individuality is expressed through careful attention to the choice of material and sensitivity to shape and quality of grain. Although there are limitations to the range of shapes that can be made by turning, so-called sujibiki, whereby chisels and small blades are used to impart different configurations of concentric rings and other types of patterning to the wood surface, is a decorative process unique to turning.

Mizukami Soei Keyaki fuki-urushi futamono to kizara (Lidded box and dishes, zelkova with wiped urushi finish) The material for this work has been chosen with the utmost care. The artist has sought to achieve originality of shape and has made full use of the complicated grain of the timber.

Kawakita Ryozo Jindai keyaki moriki (Tray, ancient zelkova) This work is distinguished by the clarity of its grain and the beauty of its curved contours.


In bentwood work thin sheets of softwood such as Japanese cedar or Japanese cypress are softened by soaking in hot water and then shaped into a cylinders or ovals to form the sides of fresh-water jars or waste-water containers.


Horimono is a general term referring to relief or semi-relief carving of the sort found on decorative transoms (ranma), door panels and Buddhist altar fittings.


This decorative technique involves the carving of grooves or holes into a wooden body followed by inlaying or embedding with other materials. These include shell, stone, ivory and metal as well as other kinds of wood. Research into and reproduction of historical works have revealed a wealth of techniques that contemporary makers use in the creation of freely innovative designs.

Akiyama Issei Rinkamon shimakokutan imbako (Seal box, floral inlay decoration on striped ebony) The distinctively striped ebony box is brilliantly decorated with inlaid patterning executed in gold, boxwood, stained horn and ivory.


Bamboowork is a craft that makes use of the pliability and other natural qualities of bamboo in the creation of beautifully woven patterns. Vessels made from woven bamboo are known to have been in use as far back as the Jomon period (10,500-300 BC). There are also a number of early survivals in the Shosoin Treasury as well as flower baskets from the Heian period (794-1185). During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), largely as a result of demand from the tea ceremony, a wide variety of bamboowork forms such as stands, round tables, ladles and flower vases were made.

During the Edo period (1615-1868) bamboowork was widely used and appreciated by townspeople. Bamboowork techniques of a characteristically Japanese nature have been handed down through the generations and today, as a result of the participation of bambooworkers in the system of competitive exhibitions established since the Meiji period (1868-1912), are employed in the creation of a highly distinctive form of contemporary craft.


Works made from bamboo frequently employ a multiplicity of techniques, the overall quality of a piece depending to a large extent on how these techniques are combined. The same technique gives totally different results depending on the shape of the work, the handling of the bamboo and the size and width of the materials used. Bamboowork can be divided into three main categories: henso-mono (basketry woven from split strips of bamboo), marutake-kiri (cutting of round unsplit bamboo) and marutake-kuminono (weaving of round unsplit bamboo).

The first of these, basketry, is the principal technique used in bamboowork. Various techniques are employed in combination, the quality of artistic expression depending on the balance between the weaving techniques used, the width of the bamboo strips and the overall shape of the work.

In terms of finishing, works may be stained, treated with urushi lacquer or left in their natural state. In the case of staining, the bamboo strips are coloured with dyes prior to weaving.

The handles, corners and edges of woven basketry forms are often reinforced with finely split rattan, which also provides added decorative effect.

KOWARI SAGYO (thin splitting)

Before weaving can begin, bamboo has to be processed into thin strips following drying, degreasing and the removal of the nodes. It is either split at right angles to the surface of the bamboo (masamewari) or in parallel (hirawari).


Masamewari (straight-grained splitting)

Hirawari (parallel splitting)


Over 600 varieties of bamboo grow in Japan, although only a limited number are suitable for basketry. The most commonly used types include madake (common Japanese bamboo; Phyllostachys bambusoides), which can be easily split, peeled and bent, mosochiku (thick-stemmed bamboo; Phyllostachys pubescens), the biggest of all the bamboos that grow in Japan, and hachiku (black bamboo; Phyllostachys nigra).

Bamboo that has turned dark brown as a result of having been used in ceilings above hearths or kitchen stoves is known as susudake or smoked bamboo. It is a much sought after material that is nowadays increasingly difficult to find.

Bamboo is felled and dried in winter, when insect activity is low. It is distinguished by its tube-like structure, its lightness and its ability to bend without breaking. Its hollowness allows it to be fashioned into wind instruments such as the shakuhachi (five-holed bamboo clarinet), sho (Japanese panpipe) and fue (Japanese flute), while its lightness and resilience make it suitable for use as poles and ladders. Bamboo has a greater number of vascular bundles of large surface area than wood and can be split very easily. Because split bamboo is highly flexible and has a low degree of shrinkage, it is ideally suited to weaving.

Photographs (varieties of bamboo)

Madake bamboo

Hachiku bamboo

Kurochiku bamboo

Mosochiku bamboo

Medake bamboo

Tochiku bamboo


There are many different types of basketry weave, many of them having been developed in particular regions of Japan, all with different names. It is usual to combine several techniques when making a single work.

Photographs (categories of basketry weave)










Iizuka Rokansai Hanakago "Anko" (Flower basket, "Anko") Woven from bundled strips of bamboo (tabane-ami), this basket has a relaxed air despite its solid appearance.

Iizuka Shokansai Tabane-ami kikkamon teiban (Handled tray, chrysanthemum pattern, tabane-ami weave) The combination of tabane-ami and mutsume weaving imbues this work with a feeling of great elegance.

Maeda Chikubosai II Inyo hanakago (Flower basket, leaf pattern) The delicate structure woven from fine strips of bamboo projects a sense of coolness.

Shono Shounsai "Doto" ("Surging Waves") The dynamism of this work derives from its emphatic use of the natural flexibility of bamboo.


Karaki (foreign wood) = Woods imported from South and Southeast Asia such as rosewood (shitan), ebony (kokutan) and Bombay blackwood (tagayasan) that are very hard and have been classified as a special category since ancient times.

K?bon (incense tray) = Special tray on which to place an incense burner. Incense trays may be made of wood or other materials such as black or maki-e decorated lacquerware.

Jindai (lit. 'from the age of the gods') = A term meaning 'very old' used to describe timbers such as zelkova (keyaki), cedar (sugi) and chestnut (kuri) that have been buried in the ground or submerged under water for a long time. Timber of this kind is much prized for its elegance and refinement but requires the utmost care when being worked.

Susudake (smoked bamboo) = Bamboo used as a ceiling material in buildings with thatched roofs that has turned brown over the years as a result of impregnation by smoke. Its subdued colour is highly valued.

Fuki-urushi (wiped urushi) = A finishing technique whereby urushi lacquer is rubbed on to wood with a cloth or brush and immediately wiped off before it hardens. This results in an urushi coating that emphasises the richness of colour of the wood and highlights the beauty of its grain.

Marudake (round (unsplit) bamboo) = The term is used in reference to bamboo that has not been split into thin strips. Bamboo of a large diameter can be fashioned into vessels such as flower vases, while thinner bamboo can be woven to make baskets, shelves and tables.

Mokuga (lit. 'wood picture') = The term mokuga includes kaigamon-mokuga (pictorial wood inlay) and kiji-mokuga and kikamon-mokuga (geometric patterning), the latter two being more narrowly defined as yosegi (see next entry).

Yosegi (marquetry and parquetry) = Pieces of wood of different kinds are assembled into a pattern and glued on to a flat surface. A wide range of interesting effects can be achieved by combining woods with different grains and of different colours.





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