Exploring the fishy tale of a woven basket

by Jasper Morrison

Special To The Japan Times

If you have spent any time at or around Tsukiji fish market you may have noticed large rectangular woven baskets in the hands of the regular shoppers, or strapped to the backs of scooters and bicycles ferrying the mornings catch back to numerous sushi bars and izakaya (pubs). The basket is so popular with these market-goers and has been in use for so long that it’s widely referred to as the Tsukiji basket.

Wondering about its origins I tracked down a knowledgeable source, a store that has been distributing the basket for decades. Matsunoya in Nihonbashi-Bakurocho, Tokyo’s leading distributor of woven (and other) crafts, is an Aladdin’s cave of specialist woven baskets, canvas bags and other daily items described as aramono. Over numerous cups of tea, Hiroshi Matsuno, Matsunoya’s third-generation owner, explained to me how his grandfather set up the original store on the same plot in 1945 selling canvas shoulder bags, totes and rucksacks. Matsuno first noticed the basket in use at Tsukiji market about 30 years ago and traced it back to Iwate Prefecture, where numerous household makers were producing it.

The basket was originally handleless and used by farmers to transport produce from the fields to local markets. After World War II, the distribution of food became more centralized and the basket followed the produce to markets like Tsukiji. It seems probable that handles were added by individuals noticing its usefulness and adapting it to their own shopping needs. The producers followed up on the demand by adding bamboo handles, which were prone to breaking, and then switched to rope, which was more durable but less hygienic. More recently, in its current form, the rope is enclosed by a transparent plastic hosepipe.

I left Matsunoya the proud owner of my first Tsukiji basket and can report on its excellent function with the following observations: It’s extremely stable, having a large, flat base and tapering sides; its seamless woven construction — in itself a masterful achievement — makes it highly rigid and crush resistant (ideal for transporting fish, fruit, tofu or other delicate foodstuffs); the hosepipe is easily cleaned and comfortable in the hand while its transparency preserves the visual impression of a rope handle; and it holds a lot of shopping.

These days the number of basket producers in Iwate Prefecture has fallen to two or three. The skill involved in making the item depends on a fair amount of patience and experience, and one wonders how much longer the tradition will survive. With Tsukiji market due to relocate across the Sumida River to the area of Toyosu in November — a sanitized version of its old self — will the famous basket be left behind in the move? Or will its function remain unbeaten by modern alternatives, holding out as a souvenir of a more colorful past?