Ask any average Japanese what fabric reminds him/her of Okinawa. The answer is almost obvious: Bingata. Bingata is certainly synonymous to Okinawa in the world of fabrics. Of the 14 designated traditional handicrafts in Okinawa 12 are fabrics – of which Bingata is one.
I’m Nathan Shiga assigned to navigate you in your tour Okinawa’s traditional handicrafts and today none other than Bingata. I hope you’ll enjoy this short excursion.
Now, Okinawa is one of the prefectures located southernmost some 2000km from Tokyo. It’s in fact of the largest of the numerous islands that constitute Okinawa prefecture. Each of the major islands has its own unique fabric, Yaeama Minsa for example, and today we talk about Bingata, probably the most colorful and eye-catching of all Okinawa fabrics.
Bingata means “bin” for crimson red and “gata (kata)” for form, though Bingata comes in rich combinations of a variety of bright colors. Patterns reflects the nature of the southern islands in combinations of fish, water and flowers. Bingta dates back to the 14th at the height of Okinawa’s trade activities with the south eastern countries which brought in foreign dyeing and weaving processes – Indian, Chinese and possibly Javanese. Bingata is worn in traditional Ryukyu performances and historical reenactments.
Later in the early 17th century the Satsuma Clan, Japan, invaded the then Ryukyu Kingdom and banned its trade with nearby countries and imposed tribute in kind. Bingata was one of the fabrics handpicked for that purpose; foreign craftsmen were employed to upgrade skills and finished products. In a century’s time Bingata dramatically improved both in quality and general appearance, so much so that a Chinese envoy cited on Bingata in his report back home as “being a product of some secretive methods unknown to others”.
Nothing secretive about coloring, really, as ground chalk or powdered shells were used to bring out white and other colors dyed out of cochineal, vermillion, arsenic and sulphur. Some of the pigments were no longer available after the trade ban, the locals had to turn to locally available materials, such as indogo. Finer and brighter Bingata vanished and indigo-dyed fabrics became more predominant.
There were three houses in Okinawa granted permission to manufacture Bingata, each with its own patterns passed on over the years. Over 45 dyers, the best ones concentrated in the capital city of Shuri were engaged in the highly intensive cottage industry. Only the royal and wealthy could afford Bingata. Certain designs were restricted to certain statuses and strict control banned any interflow; thus, one could tell social status by the type of design worn. Yellow was the color for the royal; pale blue for nobilities. Commoners were recognizable from far away as they were dressed simple in dark blue or black.
The warring years 1941-45 left Bingata to lie in repose. Immediately thereafter, a local Bingata artist, Eiki Shiroma, went to mainland Japan to trace down what few left of the authentic stencils taken away by Japanese soldiers or in the hands of Bingata collectors. Luckily he found a few, with which he barely helped revive the art of Bingata.
So much on the history of Bingata, let’s take a closer look at the makes of Bingata and the process of manufacturing Bingata.
How to make
The initial make of Bingata is said to have evolved in the Ryukyu capital of Shuri and Urazoe primarily as formal wears for women and for religious rituals. The dyes were made from such plants as Indigo, Fukugi of Hypericum family, Suo or Caesalpinia sappan, and Yamamoto or Myrica rubra. Later in 14-15th centuries foreign skills penetrated from India, China and Java to start a new generation of Bingata to set the foundation of Okinawa’s original Bingata as we know it today.
A roll of Bingata fabric for kimono takes three dyers and three full days to just paint the material and another month to finish. Ten intensive steps are there for expert craftsmen to follow to get a roll of Bingata done for sewing – from stencil cutting, painting, background painting, color-setting to washing.
One unique feature of Bingata design is an impressively bold way colors are combined in depicting objects rooting in ancient Chinese propitious omens – indicative of how Bingata was employed to guard high-status women and young boys before coming of age.
Another characteristic feature of Bingata – of all other Okinawa fabric for that matter – is striking lack of the sense of seasons. Should you find “Hagi (bush clover)” or “Snow Ring” in any of the Bingata you see, take it as a sign of Satsuma Clan’s influence as neither of these are existent in Okinawa. Likewise, if you should find a dragon or Chinese phoenix, think of their influence on Ryukyu through trade.
If you agree that Bingata is an utterly colorful, full of red, yellow and blue, you are right with me to visualize the very climate of Okinawa in Bingata – the penetrating sunshine, gorgeously colorful flowers blooming all over and of course the endless expanse of bright blue sea surrounding the islands.
An expert on Bingata confided in me that “Bin” for Bingata is not necessarily “red” alone. The Ryukyuans had conceived every color “bin” and to them Bingata had merely meant “Color-Form”. This is quite new to me – I’ll remember this.
So, you can see that Bingata tops other Okinawa fabrics in the sense that it is best woven wearable in modern lifestyle. The works of a leading Bingata artist demonstrate the depth and breadth of application of Bingata in everyday life.
Morio Miyagi is no seasoned Bingata artist, at age 38, but undisputedly an energetic evangelist of Bingata culture. His workshop “Moribin” opened in 2002 is home of a wide range of textile products based on Bingata from authentic furisode kimonos down to book covers and Teddy bears. Miyagi attracts fans for his brilliant sense of colors. Asked to comment on how to approach Bingata for the first time, Miyagi says:
“My advice is to leave kimonos and sashes for later occasions and familiarize yourself with casual pieces to get to know Bingata. I put in just as much time and effort energy in smaller works as in kimonos. Cherish and enjoy Bingata, whatever the cost, whatever the size.”