Yaeyama Minsa is a sister product of Yuntanza Minsa – raw material, utility, etc. and displayed jointly with Yuntanza Minsa. I’m Nathan Shiga to navigate you through another fanciful journey into Japan – into the world of a cotton sash called Yaeyama Minsa. The pleasure is all mine to assist you in your short journey.
Now to start, a brief geography of where we are, Yaejima. Yaejima is the name of a group of 32 southwesternmost islands of Japan with the total area of 228.36 square miles, 400km from Okinawa, 2,000 km from Tokyo. Ishigakijima is the third largest island in Okinawa, next to the Okinawa island proper and Iriomoteshima.
Records show cotton was harvested and traded to China during the reign of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Yaeyama Minsa was already among the trade commodities in 17-18th centuries. This is a hand-woven fabric originated in Taketomi Island and was officially designated a traditional craft in 1989 and is now manufactured in Ishigaki and Taketomisho.
As mentioned in the outset, Yaeyama Minsa has a sister product in Yomitansan or locally Yuntanza. Minsa is a men’s sash or belt to go with a kimono. You might be interested to know a certain romantic overtone to this fabric. A legend has it that in olden days women would call on men for courtship and leave some goods to convey passionate attachment and Minsa was commonly used for that purpose; another merely puts it that a marriageable woman would send her suitor a Minsa in lieu of her consent to the marriage proposal.
The basic design of a Minsar combines a pattern of four squares with another of five squares, meaning “for many years to come”. (Sorry, you would have to know a bit of Japanese to decipher this riddle.) And the fine horizontal strips signify “come as often as you can to meet me”. The point is this fancy fabric, Minsa, has a lot to romantic messages to pass on. Not to forget, the basic color, dark blue, is dyed several times over – meaning “love me over and over gain”.
Allow me to introduce you to a Yaeyama Minsar master weaver Kinue Ara. She was born in 1926 in Taketomijima, opened the Minsa Textile Institute in 1972 and the Minsa Craft Center in 1976. She has won numerous awards in textile exhibitions and received prizes for her mastery of traditional craftsmanship.
Apart from men’s sashes, Yaeyama Minsa is made into a variety of goods in an effort to have traditional flavors come alive in modern living. Customarily, Yaeyama Minsa is dark blue but today clothes are dyed in red, yellow and colorful shades, full of modern designs.
Modernized in color and design, Yaeyama Minsa is steadfastly woven by hand to give out warmth and rich texture. In Yaeyama, weaving has always been part of everyday life, recalls Ara, and the villagers were in a habit of weaving daily clothes from underwear to kimono.
“My mother-in-law was a weaving wizard and taught me how to weave. I opened a dressmaking shop to run my family. The war ended and many gave up weaving and cooperatives closed. I felt a sense of cultural crisis,” she reminiscences.
What if the traditional fabrics should vanish from our island?
Ara asked around encouraging people to keep on weaving to preserve the village’s years-long tradition. Luckily, many responded to her call and barely saved Yaeyama Minsa from extinction. Then, another crisis ensued. Lifestyle fast changing, fewer people turned to kimono for daily wears, much less sashes. The weavers soon had heaps of Minsas stuck up in the warehouses.
Ara found a cool way out of the crisis: remaking Minsa into secondary merchandise. Too thick to process into handkerchiefs and wrapping clothes, Minsa needed other areas to explore to find a new market. This Arai did marvelously; she turned cratesful of Minsa fabrics into fashionable purses, pouches and handbags.
The fashion magazine “More” featured a reader’s blog lauding Minsa she found in Yaeyama and romantic stories associated with it. The incident eventually led to Yaeyama Minsa participating in the Paris Collection in collaboration with other brands. The original Minsa is now woven broader, more colorful and richer in design.
History tells how Minsa had survived ages of hardship when the fabric was used part of the poll tax imposed uniformly on villagers over certain age. The ancestors toiled and moiled to keep alive the traditional art of Minsa culture and Ara believed it her mission to preserve and pass on to future generations the traditional art of Yaeyama Minsa – hence the Minsa Textile Institute and the Minsa Craft Center (http://www.minsah.co.jp/).
For more information
A peep into the homepage of the Minsa Craft Center should visually update our knowledge of Yaeyama Minsa. Fresh from the center’s laboratory is a new set of Minsa pouches and handbags in soothing shades of blue/green. Branded “Ino” after a local dialect for a shallow sea surrounded by corals, the fashionable set Minsa goods symbolize an impressive departure from the traditional dark blue sashes.
The Okinawa Prefecture Handicrafts Cooperative Center sponsored an ambitious exhibition in Kyoto, January thru 31-February 2, to promote Okinawa’s traditional handicrafts. “Okinawa’s Handicrafts in Kyoto” as it was titled, the exhibition was held at Kyoto’s Miyako Messe participated by leading craftsmen of all 14 traditional handicrafts in Okinawa including Yaeyama Minsa.
Japan is undoubtedly having her share of adverse effects of modernization, much of her traditional culture sidelined, if not lost and neglected, in its process over time. Nonetheless, it is reassuring to know that untiring efforts are made to help preserve some pivotal areas of Japan’s culture – distinguished skills in wood carpentry for one, and traditional handicrafts for another.
Undoubtedly, Okinawa is home to most sophisticated traditional handicrafts notably in the world of unique local fabrics of which Yaeyama Minsa is one.
I’m Nathan Shiga and much honored to have provided information and data on Yaeyama Minsa. I do wish you dear visitors to this site to further explore the cool world of Yeyama Minsa and its family products found in other parts of Okinawa. (Nathan Shiga)