Presenting the Power of Okinawa “Power of Textiles”
How did the unique view of the world shown in traditional Okinawan textiles come about?
Muneyoshi Yanagi, a researcher of folk arts with a deep understanding of Okinawa’s traditional culture, said “Wherever you go in Japan, there are few regions that can match the exceptional and diverse fabrics found in Okinawa. Fruit is not only used for the fabrics but also the dyes.” Basho-fu is a beautiful type of cloth that originates from Okinawa.
Leaves of banana plants swaying in the wind, red-tiled roofs of wooden houses… This Ryukyuan scenery can be found all throughout Ogimi-son Kijoka, a small coastal village in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island where basho-fu, or Basho cloth, is produced.
There are over 20 different steps from making the thread to weaving the cloth, starting with the cultivation of banana fibers (basho) which are the raw materials used to make the thread. Basho-fu is the only fabric in Japan that continues to be made by hand, and no chemicals are used at any stage of the process, from the banana fields to the dyes.
“With a light and cool touch, Kijoka Basho-fu is like a medicine to wear and can be worn with confidence.” says Mieko Taira. Toshiko Taira from Kijoka was the reason behind the revival of the art of basho-fu in post-war Japan. During the war, she had travelled to Kurashiki as a member of the volunteer corps, where she visited the Ohara spinning mill. Here she had the opportunity to meet Kichinosuke Tonomura, who was deeply involved in the folk arts movement, and learn textiles. This experience encouraged her to protect and nurture the growth of Okinawa’s textile industry, and she returned to Okinawa with this wish.
Unfortunately the fields of banana plants, whose banana fibers are the raw materials for making basho-fu, were attracting mosquitoes and so had been cut down. Amidst these hardships, the women of Kijoka continued to work painstakingly hard so to continue the production of banana fibers and to not lose mastery of the skills necessary to create basho-fu, restoring the art of basho-fu. In 1974, the “Yoshika basho-fu Preservation Society” was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, while Ms. Toshiko Taira also received recognition as a Living National Treasure. New possibilities for basho-fu have been pursued by using plant dye along with designs from the Ryukyu Dynasty and elements of dyed weave.
“The hardest and most important job is the farming.” According to Mieko Taira, the wife of Toshiko’s eldest son and Toshiko’s successor.
3 or 4 times a year, the leaves are cut off to help soften the fibre and the trunk trimmed to ensure it grows at an equal thickness. The banana fibers of approximately 200 trees are needed to weave the cloth for one kimono made of basho-fu. In a field that covers 2500 tsubo (over 8,000 m²) maintenance jobs such as weeding and cutting the leaves and trunks are essential for producing high quality threads, and harvests take place throughout autumn and winter when the trees are ripe. The new buds that grow from the cuts on the side of the trunk are said to be precious, and it can take 2-3 years before fibers are ready to be taken.
The Basho-fu Kaikan was built to teach apprentices, but visitors can also observe the production process and purchase small items.
Address : 454 Kijoka, Ogimi-son, Kunigami, Okinawa
Phone : 0980-44-3033
Research / Author : Noriko Nii
Editors : Shiro Takagi, Yu Kimura, Tomoko Kotake, Shihoko Kubo
Last updated 2021/12/20
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INTOJAPAN is a web magazine created by Shogakukan’s “Waraku Magazine” editorial department, which provides a gateway into Japanese culture and delivers the charms of real Japan.