Twelve of Okinawa’s fourteen designated traditional handicrafts are fabrics; each of them features unique characteristics of the islands they are manufactured in. I’m Nathan Shiga, your navigator in your tour of Okinawa’s charming handicrafts.
Today, we take up Kijoka Bashofu, probably the most delicate of all the twelve, so delicate that it requires extra care in handling the material throughout the entire process of manufacture. Kijoka Bashofu is durable, comfortable to wear and, above all, exceptionally beautiful. The tropical and partly subtropical climate in Okinawa calls for an easy-to-wear fabric like Kijoka Bashofu.
Basho is a local plant of banana family, Musa liukiuensis, that provides the raw material for Kijoka Bashofu. Like other long vegetable fibers – line, hemp, ramie, etc.- Basho doesn’t cling to the skin and is light and airy. By the way, it takes 40 Basho trees to weave a roll of Kijoka Bashofu.
How to make
Now, let’s take a closer look at how a roll of Kijoka Bashofu is manufactured from raw material to end product. Basho trees, Ito Basho (thread basho) to be precise, take about years to grow for the trunks to reach roughly the height of a taller man. During these three years, the leaves and cores are chopped off regularly, three to four times a year, to keep the fibers soft and even in height.
The trunks are harvested from fall to winter. The cross section of each trunk looks like that of an onion – multiple layers of rings. The trunks are peeled off lengthwise into four parts: three layers of rings and the core. The outer rings are for tablecloths, the middle rings for ties and sashes, and the inner rings for kimonos. The core part is for dyeing.
The peeled trunks are boiled and softened in water of certain alkalinity. The pH level of the water determines the quality of the end product. Half-dried peels are combed into finer threads of fiber, each tied to another into longer threads for spinning, dyeing, weaving, etc. It’s amazing how all these works are done by hand – totally by hand – by local craftsmen, rather craftswomen. (http://bashofu.jp/process.html)
Speaking of craftswomen, a brief reference is due here to one of the legendary Bashofu artists Toshiko Taira of Kijoka, a living national treasure who salvaged Bashofu from near extinction after the last war’s end and elevated it to a prestigious height of traditional handicraft today. Born in 1921 in Oogimi, Kijoka, Toshiko Taira is an established craftswoman still active at age 91.
In her turbulent days during the war and toward its end, Taira met President Soichiro Ohara of Kurashiki Textiles and through him came into contact with a prestigious book by Soetsu Yanagi, “Bashofu Story”. In the autumn of 1946, she bade farewell to Ohara and headed for her now alien island of Okinawa. Upon departure, she heard Ohara whisper behind her back: “If only you could hang on to Okinawa’s regional fabrics…”
Taira returned home to find a totally blighted home village of Kijoka. Basho farms were barren, the trees cut off to drive mosquitoes away. She searched and found a few Basho trees growing wild in the hillside bushes and a score of Bashofu craftswomen barely making desperate living in the nearby war-torn villages. She located every Bashofu craftswoman and helped support their livelihood, making no fuss in buying up their works at a rate higher than the average market rate. Toshiko Taira was motivated by a strong sense of obligation – “Who else but herself would protect Kijoka Bashofu?”
Meanwhile, the last words of Sochiro Ohara lingered in her mind for years on; Toshiko Taira kept reminding herself what she had read through the pages of Yanagi’s “ Bashofu Story”. And at last in 1951 she set out to squarely tackle her mission of reviving Bashofu production, when the author of “Bashofu Story” passed away – Soetsu Yanagi. Shocked, downhearted, and embarrassed for having been out of contact with Soichiro Ohara for over a decade, Toshiko Taira instinctively hopped on a ship to call on Ohara unannounced.
Taken by a complete surprise, Ohara welcomed Taira and commenced highly the Bashofu she had brought along.
In 1965, Toshiko Taira was awarded the Okinawa Times Culture Award in the name of Toshiko Taira of Bashofu. In her message then Taira said she had received the award on behalf of all who had taken part in the production of Bashofu, and she distributed the prize money equally among all the parties concerned.
In 1972, Okinawa was reverted to Japan and two years later, 1974, Bashofu was designated an Important Intangible Property of Japan. The Kijoka Bashofu Preservation Society was founded for the preservation of the tradition.
Further in 2000, Toshiko Taira was designated a Living National Treasure.
Today, Kijoka Bashofu has won global recognition as one of the outstanding traditional crafts of the day. Yet, the environment in which it survives today is far from being stable. For one, the tradition is barely sustained by aging generations. Particularly alarming is a dramatic decrease in the population of u-umi artists (tying threads of fiber); second, the scarcity of raw materials is threateningly serious.
In a nutshell, the culture of Bashofu is facing heaps of challenges. We all know the production of Bashofu is an important traditional craft and a pride of the village of Kijoka, let alone Okinawa, but of Japan as a whole.
Okinawa certainly has a variety of traditional handicrafts to boast of. Kijoka Bashofu stands out of them all for its genuine authenticity, its affinity to nature, artistic accomplishment, and its cultural value.
A textile critic is quoted as saying: “If more people were willing to not only watch over us, but also work together with us, then the tradition of Bashofu production would surely survive for many generations to come. This is something we believe and hope for.”
How true that is. It takes a concerted attention of all those mindful of the importance of cultural tradition to keep alive irreplaceable cultural heritages – of which Kijoka Bashofu is one. (Nathan Shiga)