It is not quite certain when Yaeyama Jofu originated but it was listed among items for taxation in the mid 17th century under the rule of the Satsuma Clan of Japan. It was thus co-named Satsuma Jofu. Three other jofu fabrics are known in Japan: Echigo Jofu in Niigata, Miyako Jofu from Miyako Island, Okinawa, and Ohmi Joju in Shiga – designated intangible cultural properties.
Jofu is a hemp fabric. Yaeyama Jofu is woven with yarns dyed in kasuri patterns. Fine yarns are favored as it is generally worn in summer.
Yaeyama Jofu is a quality fabric woven in Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, known for small dark-brown kasuri patterns against the white background. As aforementioned, as the fabric was woven in quantities as poll tax and in the process the weaving skills advanced in proportion and by the time the tax was lifted near the end of the Meiji Era the craftsmen organized guilds to make a cottage industry of Yaeyama Jofu.
All materials are natural; craftsmen resort only to their hands and wisdom. Yarns are dried in the sun; dyes are fixed by seawater. Yaeyama Jofu is light and soothing most suitable in the subtropical climate in Okinawa.
Locally known as “boo”, ramie grows on the farmland in Ishigaki and is the key material for Yaeyama Jofu. From the mid 17th century onward to the early 20th century Yeyama Jofu was, as briefly mentioned earlier, a tax in kind for every woman in the island to weave and pay. The raw material was plentiful when the tax was lifted; a cottage industry bloomed.
The war came and crippled the industry; weaving dwindled and boo cultivation eased. Seasoned weavers were scarce; few knew how to turn boo into yarns fine enough to weave Yaeyama Jofu. Weaving skills are customarily passed on from mother to daughter and happy cycle was badly torn during and after the war. Boo is harvested four to five times a year but no sufficient skill to efficiently utilize it. The industry virtually died once and was brought back to life by a few craftsmen.
One of such craftsmen is Sachiko Aragaki, a promising Yaeyama Jofu artist awarded several prizes for her highly acclaimed original works. She was no heir to any traditional weaver but her devotion for Yaeyama Jofu was such that she left her job and called on the prefectural industrial experimental station to seek technical assistance in reviving the industry. It was rare for a layman alien to weaving to study the art from scratch.
After a year’s study at the station, Aragaki returned home in the island of Ishigaki, home of Yaeyama Jofu. She revived the traditional skill of tying the yarns when dyeing. She recalls her experience at the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo where she witnessed for the first time hand-tied Yaeyama Jofu. The print-type was in fashion at that time and she found original hand-tied fabric most attractive. That was the time she decided to revive the hand-tied Yaeyama Jofu.
Aragaki stresses that hand-tied dyeing chooses no particular dye of any particular color and adds:
“In Okinawa, the sunshine is plentiful and affords all plants to express strong colors. What a waste not to make use of their expressive colors.”
She says the plants carry colors of identical tone that can be mixed in any combination of your choice. She obtains any color of her choice from growing plants.
Itagaki Island is the home of Yaeyama Jofu, home of Sachiko Aragaki now 70 years of old. A brief history of the island is perhaps due here – as told by Sachiko Aragaki.
Though the island is today a part of the Okinawa prefecture, Japan, it was in most part of the past several centuries controlled the once-formidable Ryukyu Kingdom. Situated closer to Taiwan than to mainland Japan, the island was prone to oppression from all sides. Typhoons and other natural disasters were bad enough; harsh taxation in kind added to the agonies of the islanders – locally woven fabric known as Yaeyaa Jofu.
Aragaki recalls the plain white fabric was accepted for general tax and printed fabric with patterns earned rice as payment. The intricate patterns in traditional works of Yaeyama Jofu are hard to decipher even for the lifetime of knowledge and experience of Aragaki. She says she has pored over books about Yaeyama Jofu for examples of patterns and tried to reproduce them on her wooden loom – often in vain. No grandmother is around to guide you way. What a woman, Sachiko Aragaki.
Now, on the aesthetics of Yaeyama Jofu. A glance at it impresses you with its chic brown shade. This brown alone is enough to attract you. A natural plant “kuru” is found nowhere else but in Yaeyama. The dyers grind the plant with a radish grater. The brown is innocent brown as first dyed out and it gradually turns umber or dark brown – a shade so inexplicably unique.
Most vegetable-dyed colors normally discolor but the kuru brown augments brown-ness under the strong southern sunshine for ten long days. A splash of perspiration spoils all – the entire lot goes down the drain. The fabric is then bleached in seawater to fasten the colors – kasuri patterns standing out and the basic white sinking gracefully white.
Yes, Yaeyama Jofu distinguishes itself in the whiteness of the background as Miyako Jofu does in dark blue. Sun drying in May and bleaching in seawater lift up Yaeyama Jofu’s exquisite beauty. Yaeyama Jofu is designated a traditional craft and intangible cultural property of the Okinawa prefecture; a recommended traditional craft of the city of Ishigaki and traditional craft designated by the minister of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Lastly, Yaeyama Jofu is just as extraordinary in price as in quality. A kimono done by Sachiko Niigaki, for instance, calls for 2.8 million yen and rolls are priced 1 million yen or thereabouts and obi (sash) anywhere in the range of several hundred thousand. Well, take a pick – either be a kimono enthusiast yourself or be content with chic pieces made of Yaeyama Jofu. Either way, you can count on a lifetime pleasure of owning Yaeyama Jofu. (Nathan Shiga)