Fri, Feb 20, 2015 - Page 12 News List

A dying art

Old ways prove hard to shed, even as crisis hits kimono trade

By Martin Fackler  /  NY Times News Service, AMAMI OSHIMA, Japan

A woman, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono, poses for tourists in Kyoto, western Japan last November.

Photo: Reuters

Kazuhiko Kanai uses the traditional method to dye the elegant kimonos for which this small, semitropical island is renowned: He carries a bundle of pure white silk to a nearby rice paddy and hurls it into the mud.

Kanai is one of the last practitioners of a method known as dorozome, or “mud-dyeing,” which uses the island’s iron-rich soil to turn silk the color of the darkest chocolate. This is just one step in an elaborate production process that can take a year to produce a kimono with the glossiest silk and most intricately woven designs in all Japan. In a nation that esteems its traditional form of dress as high art, Amami Oshima’s kimonos became some of the most prized of them all, once capable of fetching more than US$10,000 apiece.

But those heady days are over, as a shift to Western fashions and Japan’s long economic squeeze have led to plummeting demand, especially for high-end kimonos.

On Amami Oshima, production has fallen so far in the last two decades that only 500 people on an island with 73,000 residents remain employed full-time in kimono production, and many of them are in their 70s or 80s. That’s down from 20,000 people a generation ago, according to the Authentic Amami Oshima Tsumugi Association, the island’s union of kimono producers.

The union says the island’s production of kimono silk has similarly plunged, from enough to make 284,278 kimonos during the height of the postwar boom in 1972, to enough for just 5,340 kimonos last year.

ANTIQUATED SYSTEM

Amami Oshima has fallen harder than most of Japan’s famous kimono production centers, dragged down by a complex web of wholesalers, dealers and specialized retailers who distribute and sell the island’s kimonos. While this antiquated system once benefited the remote southern island near Okinawa by spreading its kimonos to the rest of Japan, islanders say it has now become a burden, keeping the kimonos prohibitively expensive while driving down wages.

Yet, the old ways have proved hard to discard, despite a growing sense of crisis. Many fret that there will soon be too few islanders left with the skills to sustain each of the 30 separate steps needed to produce one of the kimonos.

“If we lose one link in the chain, we lose our ability to make kimonos,” said Kanai, 56, who owns a dirt-floored wooden workshop where silk is dyed in bubbling iron caldrons and then hung from the ceiling to dry. “If we cannot make kimonos any more, what will be left here?”

COMPLICATED PROCESS

Kanai says the mud-dyeing process alone takes more than a month, as the silk is first colored a burgundy hue with natural dye made from the pulp of a local plum tree. Getting the right shade of red requires repeating the cycle of staining and drying the silk 30 times, he said. Only then is the silk ready to be immersed in the black mud, whose iron reacts with tannins in the tree dye to create the coveted dark brown color.

That is not the most elaborate step. Even before the silk arrives at Kanai’s workshop, it is first woven into a temporary fabric as part of a unique method that the islanders have devised for creating minutely detailed patterns.

After this temporary fabric has been mud-dyed, it is unraveled back into its original silk threads. Each colored thread now has thousands of tiny white stripes where it overlapped with another thread, blocking the mud from touching it at that point.

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