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

As the threads are rewoven into new fabric by nimble-fingered island women, they slowly reveal perfectly formed patterns, ranging from starkly minimalist shapes to elaborate scenes of bamboo groves and flying storks.

“The weaver has a tremendous responsibility,” said Mifuko Iwasaki, 70, who has been teaching young islanders how to weave these perfectly aligned patterns on hand looms for 35 years. “If we make a mistake, we undo all the hard work of those who spent so much timing preparing this thread.”

Iwasaki says that when she began teaching her yearlong classes, she typically had 40 students, who were drawn by the fact that weaving offered higher wages than fishing, farming and logging, the island’s other industries at the time.

These days, she says she is lucky to get more than two or three students, because weaving no longer pays as well. The myriad middlemen in the cumbersome distribution system each take a cut, making it hard to reduce prices at the same rate as other items in deflationary Japan. Worse, the brunt of what price cuts have been made inevitably falls on the island’s dyers and weavers. As a result, while a new Oshima kimono can still cost US$3,000 to US$6,000 in Tokyo, weavers say they are lucky to get more than US$400 for a month’s exacting work. Other craftsmen in the production process get even less.

ECONOMIC MICROCOSM

Nonetheless, islanders say they are reluctant to bypass the antiquated distribution system, saying they feel bound by generations-old obligations and a fear of change. This makes them a microcosm of Japan as a whole, which has been slow to give up its outdated postwar economic model despite years of stagnation.

“It is ironic that we can no longer make ends meet producing something so expensive,” said Shigehiko Furuta, 67, who uses colored pens and graph paper to design the minutely detailed patterns.

Shinichiro Yamada, 83, the head of the producers’ union, said the island’s ornately woven patterns have their roots in the colorful culture of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, centered in current-day Okinawa. They ruled Amami Oshima until the early 17th century, when the island was conquered by Japanese samurai, who claimed the island’s kimonos as tribute.

Mud-dyeing started when disobedient islanders buried kimonos in the ground to hide them, only to discover on digging them up again that the fabrics had turned a beautiful dark color, said Kanai, who owns the mud-dyeing workshop.

His son, Yukihito, now uses those same centuries-old dyeing techniques to color new types of items, including T-shirts, jeans and even guitar bodies. He is experimenting with selling these over the Internet, to avoid the onerous distribution system.

“We need to become more like artisans in Europe or artists in New York,” said the younger Kanai, 35, who said he is one of the few “young successors” in the island’s kimono industry. “Even traditions have to evolve.”

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