Among Japan’s traditional crafts are a number of fabrics bearing difference local names – Kumejima, Yaeyema, Miyako, etc. Further, raw materials used for spinning out yarns give them difference names also, so it takes a bit of remembering to do to recognize each and every brand name.
I’m Nathan Shiga, your tour navigator, to do just that to get you acquainted with some of the incredibly fascinating fabrics that make Japan’s textile industry so unique. We have elsewhere covered Kumejima Tsumugi, a silk-woven fabric known to be the origin of Japan’s weaving cottage industry, and today we take up another authentic hemp-woven fabric called Miyako Jofu, a product of another southern island of Miyako.
A saying goes: Miyako from West; Echigo from East, in recognition of two topmost fabrics produced in Japan. Miyako Jofu is a hemp fabric of extraordinary quality spun out of ramie (Boehmeria nivea var. nipononivea). The yarn is dyed in “kon” or dark blue and woven into predominantly dark blue cloth with white cross-shaped “kasuri” designs arranged in different patterns. Mid-way adjustments, called “kasuri-awase”, are necessary to retain the original pattern. All this takes time, so much so that even a seasoned artisan can weave no more than 20-30 centimeters a day. A beginner can never hope to finish a roll in a year’s time.
You can imagine then how costly a top-quality Miyako Jofu can be. The National Traditional handicrafts Center in Aoyama, Tokyo, sells a roll, roughly 12 meters by 37 centimeters or so, for 1.2 million yen and still higher elsewhere in mercers and department stores. These stores normally do not have Miyako Jofu in stock and consult the local manufacturers in Miyako. Incidentally, the term Jofu means “super cloth” – no wonder the cost and rareness.
As of 2009, 92 artisans are engaged in the manufacture of 20 rolls of Miyako Joju a year. This again explains why Miyako Joju is incredibly rare and dear.
A brief history of Miyako Jofu is due here.
Some 435 years ago, in 1580, there lived a village official named Shin-ei, called Muategara while young, who excelled in swimming. Grown up, he married a daughter of local village official named Inaishi, a woman of fine will.
As he was himself appointed village official, Shinen-ei was assigned in 1580 to report to the central office in the capital town of Shuri. On his way back, his ship was hit by a storm and drifted to China. Luckily, he landed in a trading port near Fukien where a Ryukyu tribute ship was ready homebound. Shinen-ei boarded the ship and, what a bad luck, the ship was hit by another violent storm and the wheel rope was torn apart.
No wheel, no chance of survival. Shinen-ei grabbed a spare rope and plunged into the raging waves. He ran the rope through the hole and tied the wheel to the ship’s body.
The ship made it back home in tact. Shin-ei’s courageous work was reported direct to the king, who commended him with a high official post in Shuri. Back in Miyako, he told his wife what had happened and what reward bestowed upon him. His wife Inaishi pledged herself to weave a decent fabric for the king in her token of gratitude.
Three years afterwards, Inaishi finished a roll of help fabric of extraordinary quality and presented it to the king – known today as Ayasabi. The king cherished the fabric and rewarded her amply. Thereinafter, Inaishi kept on donating the hemp fabrics for two successive kings over 2 decades.
In 1609, the Satsuma Clan of Japan came to rule the Ryuku islands and introduced Inaishi’s rare product to the Shognate in Yedo. The fabric came to be called Miyako Jofu and later Satsuma Jofu as the clan made of it an invaluable trade item.
In 1903, Miyako Jofu was adopted the key product in a private enterprise. In 1914, the Miyako Textile Research Institute was set up to open curricula in the elementary school for tutoring pupils how to weave.
In 1921, Miyako Jofu participated in the Peace Memorial Tokyo Trade Fair and won the first prize.
Today, Miyako Jofu clears all perquisites and was formally designated a traditional handicraft in February, 1975, and an important intangible cultural asset in April, 1978.
Now, data show that production of Miyako Jofu has drastically dropped over the last 40 years, most noticeably in the past 20 years. In 1975, a total of 532 rolls were woven and mere 10 rolls in 2014. Since our space is limited to explore causes behind this phenomenon, suffice it to say that the workmanship of Miyako Jofu is such that today’s demand and supply mechanism finds hard time accommodating this otherworldly product.
That said, I’m of the opinion that quality products good enough to be designated traditional handicrafts are bound to be short of supply and slip out of common commercial transaction. Miyako Jofu, for instance, costs over a million yen for a roll and, as such, is hardly viable for worldly consumption. Such are traditional handicrafts.
And yet, there should be, or rather must be a fair breaking point where artistic values and commercial utilities happily meet where fair citizens of fair tastes can enjoy the luxury of living in a harmonious balance.
As often mentioned, Miyako Jofu is of a hemp fabric of the finest yarn, splashed patterns exquisitely minute, and the texture waxy smooth. It breathes air, as it were, and amazingly sturdy and durable – often called “three-generationer”.
The variety of items
Apart from kimonoes, Miyako Jofu is processed into a variety of men’s and ladies’ small items – bags, purses, fans, ties, etc., featuring its characteristic dark-blue with rich patterns.
Talking about harmonious balance, we could enjoy the luxury of living with Miyako Jofu by accommodating small clothes here and utility articles there. If a new, full size Miyako Jofu kimono is much too heavy on your budget, we might settle for used Miyako Jofu. Don’t you say “no way”. Remember, Miyako Jofu is astoundingly durable. I have a short coat of Miyako Jofu worn fifteen years – not a sign of wear and richly deep blue. Guess how much I paid for this then – 80 thousand yen, rather dear that many years ago. But, let me tell you it’s worth the burden. (Nathan Shiga)