Japanese Umbrellas and Zen Design

 In Blog

Above: Underside of Japanese Umbrella. © OpenCage Systems / Wikimedia Commons / CC-by-SA-2.5

Photo Credit: Stephanie M. Chambers

By Stephanie M. Chambers

History and diverse cultures have much to teach us about the fundamentals of good design. The bangasa umbrella, a coarse oilpaper parasol, was typical rain gear in the late Taisho Period in Japan. Beneath its simple shape lies complexity. These two ideals coexist, not as opposites, but integrated in harmony. The natural material of washi paper, bamboo, cotton thread, cashew and sesame oil, persimmon tannin, and tapioca glue were combined with complex construction requiring several paper and wood specialists who split, shaped, affixed, and refined its parts to effect precision opening, snap-hold, and closing functions. Kanso, one of the seven guiding principles of the Zen arts, avoids the gaudy, ornate and embellished in favor of sparse, fresh, and clear. The bangasa umbrella perfectly demonstrates a dynamic interplay of the natural world and complex man-made construction. In our architectural practice, we strive for this same aesthetic: to produce clarity in simple, honest, and pure forms that perform continuous, complex functions.

Bangasa umbrellas appear quite often in Japanese culture, and are often associated with traditional dance, geisha, tea ceremony, wedding ceremony and daily utility. Bangasa umbrella shops in Gion have classified their clients into categories for different styles of oilpaper umbrella:

  • Geisha use purple
  • Dancers use pink
  • Middle aged clients like green or red
  • Men and elderly use dark blue
  • Actors tend to pick black or brown

Different colors have distinct meanings and symbolism; in traditional weddings, brides are usually covered under a red bangasa umbrella.

In the gallery below: photos from the mid 1800s to early 1900s

Click above thumbnails for image attribution

Furoshiki Textiles

Click HERE to read about Furoshiki, a traditional, sustainable Japanese wrapping cloth.

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