The Ryuku Kingdom in the 14-15th centuries actively traded with the southeast Asian countries and China and, in the process, took in various weaving skills, which over hundreds of years culminated in a variety of local fabrics in all parts of its domain.
Shuri Ori is the term for a woven cloth produced in Shuri, the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was in part exclusively woven for the royal family, aristocrats and samurai in later years when Satsuma Clan of Japan invaded the Kingdom. Shuri Ori comprises several variations, Shuri Hanaori, Shuri Tsumugi, Tejima, Routon Ori and Routon Ori and Hanakura Ori. We will revert to details in later paragraphs. Suffice to remember for now that Shuri Ori features this richness in variety.
Shuri is a hilly town, lots of bends and twists all over. You can easily lose your way in and out. Dead-ends are everywhere. That reminds me of a cab driver, who confided in me half jokingly Shuri would be the last place he would care to go. I’m risking all those bends and curves to take you to a place to have you take a bird’s-eye view of Shrui Ori and Okinawa’s fabrics in general: Shuri Ori Crafts Center.
The center stands at a most peculiar location – at the end of a hilly road one would wonder if there is a road ahead. Off the cab; onto another slope ahead. Way ahead, we spot a structure: Shuri Ori Crafts Center.
As we step in the center, the trainees are seen at the looms weaving. A quick look at the yarns on the looms already tells here’s a unique fabric being woven – brilliant colors, variety, everything.
Shuri Ori features variety – it sure does. The visual impact convinces you that Shuri Ori meant for the royal family – colorful and elegant, all in one.
The center offers a PR video that tells every detail of Shuri Ori production. It is interesting that of the several variations Hanakura Ori and Douton Ori used to be exclusive to the royal family and aristocrats and were woven only in Shuri.
Shuri Ori is woven with silk, cotton, hemp etc., basically vegetable-dyed with Ryukyu indigo, fukugi, Yeddo hawthorn, kuru, and partially chemical dyes. The way different shades of brilliant colors mingle in unique combinations suggests plenty of influence from China and the southeastern countries. There are said to be over 600 different patterns of design usually in two tones.
As earlier mentioned, Shuri Ori comes in several variations, namely Shuri Hanaori, Shuri Tsumugi, Tejima, Murodocchiri , Routon Ori and Hanakura Ori. Shuri Ori is the general term for them all. Shuri Ori was designated a traditional craft by the minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1983. Of all the fabric-production localities in Okinawa, Shuri tops them all in the number of types and variations.
Now, let’s take a closer look at them.
Textile arts found a unique path of development in and around the capital city of Shuri in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Active trade with nearby countries in the Southeast Asia brought a variety of dyeing and weaving techniques to Ryukyu. Artists in the employ of the Ryukyu government created thousands of patterns for local craftswomen to apply to their weaving and dedicated the products to the throne. Womenfolk of the ruling classes studied the advanced weaving skills to contribute in turn to enriching the culture. Shuri thus became a home of varieties of fabrics.
The war momentarily decelerated the industry but it picked up momentum and, as the prefectural government designated Shuri Ori an intangible cultural property, the art of dyeing and weaving in Shuri restored the glory of yesteryears.
Now, it is a great comfort that the traditional weaving skills are being passed on to the younger generations in Shuri and the prefectural textile cooperative founded in July, 1976, is taking the initiative in promoting the industry.
In Naha the tradition of indigo and white kasuri is quite alive and the products enjoy poplar support far and wide. Also thriving is an elegant, multicolored fabric that used to be favored by the ruling classes in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This exquisitely colorful fabric, done in silk, cotton, and hemp, has found young enthusiasts who wear them stylishly today. The floss silk tumugi, in particular, is a unique material with a 500-year tradition.
Misako Azama is a veteran weaver of Shuri Ori and is currently chairwoman of the board of directors of the Shuri Ori Cooperative. Her mother hails from Shuri and a kimono enthusiast. Misako took after her and she always had Shuri Ori around. She has “lived” with Shuri Ori for over twenty years. Here’re her thoughts on Shrui Ori:
“Shuri Ori charms me with a rich variation both in skills to weave it and colors the products are woven in. A few of them used to be worn only by the royal family and aristocrats. Weavers had them in mind every minute of their work. So, the end products tended to be elegant and refined.
“I remind myself first to digest what I learn from the classics and then to create my own.”
Misako Azama is pleased to find more young people joining her cooperative to take part in the production of Shuri Ori. Upon accepting trainees, she bears in mind to recruit those who care to stay in Shuri. She adds:
“I believe it vital to have the tradition properly handed down to future generations. That’s why I prefer rearing people who care to stay in or around Shuri to engage in weaving or serve the cooperative. You know, it’s so helpful to work for the cooperative.”
Misako Azama assumed the post of chairwomanship in 1997 and today finds it essential to raise awareness of the members of the cooperative for the future of Shuri Ori.
That concludes our tour of Shuri Ori. It’s amazing how many unique fabrics Okinawa has to offer to the world of traditional crafts, each with its own characteristics. Shuri Ori stands out with its rich variety and diversity. (Nathan Shiga)