So much talk on washoku and anime, Japan abounds in a lot more exotic charms hidden and buried for you to explore. I’m Nathan Shiga, a writer assigned to write on Japan’s traditional arts and handicrafts 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 handicrafts. The pleasure is all mine to keep you company.
Make believe you are in a rusty wooden pavilion displaying traditional handicrafts. Here’s the corner featuring Japan’s traditional woven fabrics. This episode has to do with one of them – an exotic silk fabric Kumejima Tsumugi (or pongee) of which I’m sure few foreigners have seldom heard. A respected friend of Japan keen enough interest to visit our somewhat recherché site, you might as well familiarize yourself with the term tsumugi as it is too local to be translated pongee or otherwise.
So, here we are – Tsumugi. As mentioned earlier, it’s a rusty silk fabric and Kumejima Tsumugi is a tsumugi produced in a southern island called Kumejima near Okinawa. What’s unique about this tsumugi is, one, that the island of Kumejima is the cradle of Japan’s tsumugi culture and, two, all dyeing and weaving skills of silk fabrics date back to the 14th century when the entire process of manufacture was brought in from China.
The yarn is vegetable/mud-dyed and as such each bundle is unique – one color different in shade from another. What they use are the root of a plant locally known as Sarutori Ibara or Smilax aspera for dark brown, Tekachi or Rhaphiolepis indica. Embelleta for deep brown, Yuuna or Malvaceae for elegant grey, etc. These plants are found growing wild in the island and it produces colors so natural that fit just right for rusty silk fabric as woven into tsumugi.
Let’s take a moment to study a bit on the history of this silk fabric. As earlier, silkworm culture reached the island late in the 14th century and with it came weaving skills to start a cottage industry. The Kingdom of Ryukyu, the new ruler, taxed the islanders 70% in kind, that is by Tumugi. That’s how valuable it was then.
In 2004, Kumejima Tumugi was designated an important intangible cultural asset and an independent organization was set up for the preservation of skills and training artisans to inherit knowhow.
Now, take a look at Kumejima Tumugi and note that it’s basically glossy black in color and some variations in grassy green and yellow. Note again that the whole process is done manually – amazing. I, for one, feel every breath of the weaver as she tosses the spindle back and forth to weave each inch of the way. Should you ever have the chance to wear a tsumugi dress, I certainly wish you would someday, you will feel the warmth of silk all around you and enjoy the softness of tsumugi enclosing you.
Kumejima Tsumugi was designated a traditional handicraft by the Minister of Trade and Industry in 1975, an intangible cultural asset in 1979 and an important cultural asset by the government of Japan in 2004. It goes to prove then that Kumejima Tsumugi stands out just as a unique cultural assent as an industrial commodity of a world of its own- hence this site to promote Kumejima Tsumugi in a global perspective.
Just how is Kumejima Tsumugi competitive then as an export commodity? Well, let’s be realistic, this is no daily wear that you casually slip on and off; it’s more a formal garment you wear for special occasions. So, Kumejima Tsumugi is costly – running anywhere between 250 thousand to 980 thousand yens for roughly 12.5 Mx37CM with or without sewing charge. Competitive? Yes and no, depending on what you look for in Kumejima Tsumugi. Living in an age of throwaway principle, we ought to sit back and ponder how it would be to own a garment ‘somewhat’ dear to acquire and wear it as long as you live.
That reminds me of an anecdote you might enjoy sharing with me. It goes like this:
The Tsumugi culture later propagated far up north in Japan, a place called Yonezawa, to flourish as Yonezawa Tsumugi. Local farmers engaged themselves in silk fabric cottage industry and young women worked as weavers for income’s sake. As it took them such an effort to weave each roll, they had so hard a time parting with them the night before shipment that they would hug them in their beds and bade farewell in tears.
Speaking of Yonezawa Tsumugi, there are today over a dozen local tsumugi production sites in Japan manufacturing tsumugis with respective brands. Besides Yonezawa Tsumugi, you might do well remembering Ohshima Tsumugi and Yuki Tsumugi. Both are equally superior in quality and dear in price. Had you any chance to meet a knowledgeable Japanese, you might ask him/her which reminds him/her tsumugi – Kumejima or Ohshima. Chances are he/she might echo back “Ohshima”. That’s because for some decades now Ohshima has made itself better known as the home of tsumugi probably by virtue of its modernized marketing. Would this demote Kumejima Tsumugi ? Hardly. Its historical significance, let alone its seasoned skill of manual production, is here to stay. Kumejima Tsumugi is a piece of Japan’s authentic traditional handicraft in the world of its own.
To conclude our brief tour of Kumejima Tsumugi, here’s a piece of wisdom that might come in handy when you ever come to wear a tsumugi garment: Don’t you wear it afresh – don’t you be the first one to wear it.
A renowned master stage storyteller bought him for the first time an expensive Kurejima Tsumugi kimono for his stage wear but he had let his apprentice wear it through one full year before he wore it himself. Why? Because, a genuine silk fabric is stiff and edgy and requires some “beating” to let out that soft, velvet touch tsumugi is so well known for. Do the same when you ever own one of your own. (Nathan Shiga)