Crafts: Beauty from Poverty

European food—Every blasted plate

Is round.

From such light senryu poetry, limited to 17 Japanese syllables, and their strictly modular architecture, down to the way farmers bundle hay as if it were a semiprecious material, the Japanese are artists to their fingertips, and their tight little island is a showcase for the crafts.

Early in their history, the Japanese learned to conserve the natural mate rials of their narrow archipelago, and their arts reflect this economy. A rice bowl, a fob (or netsuke), a lantern, kites and kimonos—each became a masterpiece of workmanship. In fact, not until the late 19th century was...

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