I’m Nathan Shiga, a writer assigned to write on Japan’s traditional arts and crafts with a view to promoting Japan over and beyond, and I’m here to navigate you through a fanciful journey into Japan – into its world of traditional arts and crafts. The pleasure is all mine to assist you in your short journey.
Here you are in a rusty wooden pavilion displaying traditional crafts. Here’s the corner featuring one of Japan’s traditional woven fabrics: Yuntanza Minsa. A theory has it that Minsa fabric originated in Afganistan, traveled through Tibet and China and reached Okinawa to culminate in a refined craft known today as Minsa in Ryukyu, while Ryukyu’s link with the southern parts of Asia does imply Minsa could have come southbound among a number of goods brought in over the years. Whichever way, Minsar arrived in Ryukyu with a variety of textile fabrics and grew up to be a refined fabric with a world of its own.
Yuntanza Minsa, hereinafter Minsa, was introduced and developed in the same way as did Yuntanza Hanaori. Minsa means a narrow sash or belt woven with pre-dyed yarn in typical southern color combinations. Also available Gushibana, heddle and splashed patterns. A rich variety of designs combined with unique lines have made Minsa a truly exquisite fabric. That, in fact, is an important characteristic, a Minsa craftsman confides. “Minsa affords craftsmen and craftswomen an elbow space to create a world of their own”, a local Minsa weaver points out.
Minsa subtly differs in characteristics in localities, namely Yuntanza, Shuri, Yaeyama and Yonakuni. Minsa is woven of cotton, thick and artless, originally for male but lately there are versions for female as well. Minsa is made into decorative products.
Setsuko Makabe, a noted craftswoman from Oroku, Naha, is currently a product inspector. She married a Yuntanza villager and learned how to weave Hanaori and when she did she had had no particular interest in textiles. Years ago there was not enough job within the village and she commuted to Okinawa to work. She then chanced to read a notice inviting applicants to the classes for training Hanaori weavers in her then home village of Yuntanza and applied. She passed, and there she settled in for two decades on.
Setsuko recalls most of the Hanaori weavers were in the 40’s – housewives, child-rearing mothers and women with individual problems.
Let’s take a closer look at Minsa.
“Min” means cotton; “sa” means narrow. Manufactured also in Shuri, Yaeyama and Yonaguni, Minsa is generally 3.75 meters long, 10 cm wide and basically in dark blue. Designs and skills differ from one locality to another. It takes about a week to weave one. Patterns are woven in a combination of 3 and 5 signifying a “long, uneventful life”. Designs at both ends portray “Come visit me as does a centipede”. A bamboo skewer scoops the warp yarn while weaving out patterns – a southeastern Asian weaving skill called gushibana surviving in Yuntanza Minsa. It was popular in the Ryukyu Kingdom but faded in the Meiji era. Now, it’s back to life as does Hanaori. In Okinawa, weavers are mostly women but in not a few localities men folks are engaged in dyeing.
Takashi Niigaki is one of them. He is an expert dyer with 27 years of live experience in dyeing both Hanaori and Minsa.
Niigaki, however, was alien when he graduated from college a chemistry major. He knew nothing of Hanaori, Monsa, much less of the fading traditional textile industry in Okinawa. Amid a booming economic growth, Okinawa set out to revive the textile industry. Few remembered how to weave, not to mention how to dye with what, etc. No decent weaving looms were around. But the project was nonetheless kicked off to jump on the band wagon in 1964. A chemist fresh from college was in great demand, no doubt. Niigaki recalls:
“It was in 1973 that I was fully involved in this project. They counted on me for technical knowhow in dyeing. But it was no easy work to adopt theory to practice.
“Yuntanza Hanaori and Minsa were not a product of academism but a pure and simple ‘work of nature’, so to speak, everything done by sense and intuition. The weavers once came to me complaining they couldn’t weave the yarn I dye!”
Work fairly well done, the merchandize found few customers though, with no wholesalers around, nor market to display. In Okinawa, only descendants of samurai used to be allowed to wear garment in colors and the tradition was somehow alive. Hanaori and Minsa are basically in dark blue, and the manufacturers discussed adding a variety of colors to draw attention.
Efforts paid off, and today production is busy catching up with consumption. Last year, the Yuntanza Hanaori Business Cooperative sold out a tune of 130 billion yen by three weaving looms in the village. Niigaki chairs the cooperative’s board of directors.
By tradition vegetables dyes are used in Yuntanza: Ryukyu indigo for dark blue, bark of fukugi (Garcinia subelliptica), shaved trunk of Yeddo hawthorn for brown. The ingredients are boiled in a big pan. The yarn is soaked in the dye liquor repeatedly till a desired color shade is brought out. Also used are Okinawa Sarutori Ibara (Smilax china, species of sarsaparilla) for brown and Chinquapin for beige.
Chairman Niigaki believes traditional fabrics should best be vegetable-dyed but wants to challenge sweet potatoes, seaweeds, and other locally abundant materials.
Lastly, a few words may be due on Yomitan, the home of Yuntanza Minsa. Yomitan is a village located in Nakagami, western coast of Okinawa, 13.58 sq. mi. populated by 40,000. The villagers are anxious to size up in population as a village over 50,000 is to be classified a city gaining a measure of autonomy and independence. Zakimi Castle was designated with other castles in Okinawa a World Heritage by UNESCO in November 2000.
The shape of the village resembling a flying phoenix, the bird represents its symbol. Bougainville is the village flower. (Nathan Shiga)