text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Some believe it is the pine; and the trademark Japanese pines, especially when they become bonsai, the well known dwarf-trees/sculptures certainly evoke instant memories of Japan (that’s one of the reasons the pine is the only background in Noh theater). Even more believe it is the cherry tree, with its short-lived blossoming that every year becomes a spectacle and a celebration, the tree that has connected its name with the transience of being; Japan’s “live beautifully, die young” answer to the American “live fast, die young”. Some believe it is the chrysanthemum, the majestic emblem of the emperor, some others the rice plant, the source of the country’s staple food and some others the tea plant, the source of its staple drink –and of one of its basic cultural elements.
Very few will think of the bamboo as a symbol of Japan. But it is everywhere, more than all the other plants combined. From the calligraphy and painting brushes to the tea ceremony implements, from the fans and the sudare blinds that offer some cool during the intolerable Japanese summer to the vases for ikebana flower arrangements, from the classic Kabuki work “Osimodoshi” to the classic menus, where it symbolizes the medium category (the pine is the highest and the plum, the lowest), from the Tanabata decorations in July to the New Year decorations in January, from the kendo school as a shinai practice sword and the music hall as a sakuhachi flute, to the kitchen as an ingredient for many dishes and as chopsticks, the bamboo is hidden in plain sight in all aspects of Japanese life.
Obviously this comes from the abundance of bamboo all over the country; when a material is offered so generously and effortlessly, man will find ways to use it as much as possible. And even though this practical answer is satisfying enough, I can’t but think that after so many years of coexistence with the bamboo, the Japanese have borrowed its basic quality: the flexibility that helps it endure the elements of nature. The old martial arts’ teachers never failed to compare the right technique to the bamboo and always urge their students to find in their mind and body the plant’s balance between compliance and power. And even though Japanese society seems monolithic and unmovable (and very frequently it is), its tolerance against major and minor difficulties always brings to this writer’s mind the image of a bamboo tree during a typhoon.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.