Okinawa is a treasure-house of exquisite fabrics. Visit almost every inhabited island in Okinawa, and you will find a local hand-woven fabric in every locality. The common denominator of Okinawa fabrics is naiveté – a quality that consistently characterizes them regardless of locality.
At the westernmost of Japan floats the border island of Yonagunijima, one of the Yaeyama Islands, 128 kilometers west of Ishigakijima – 20 kilometers closer to Taiwan. It is 11 square miles in area and inhabited by 1700 and visited in winter by divers attracted by hammerhead sharks in the surrounding waters.
So much on supplementary data on Yogaguni. I’m Nathan Shiga, your pilot for a brief of tour of this island specifically on its characteristic fabric “Yonaguni Ori”. As mentioned in the outset, Okinawa abounds in exquisite traditional fabrics of which this is one.
The history of Yonaguni Ori dates back half a century. The True Record of the Lee Dynasty, in the era of King Shōshin, refers to a Korean castaway reporting back home of the island’s fabric cottage industry already then. In the early 6th century, fabrics were among items used for tributes to the Ryukyu Kingdom, so it is highly likely that fabric production was already organized to the level of cottage industry.
Yonaguni Ori comes in four variations: Shidati, Hanaori, Doutati, and Kagannubu.
Shidati is a towel unique in Yonagunijima. Cotton and hemp yarns are vegetable-dyed and interwoven with mud-dyed color yarns. Shidati is often used for auspicious occasions but also for funerals of those who have lived over 88 years.
Hanaori is mot most colorful of the four based on flower patterns – datin for 8 flowers, ichitin for 5, dotin for 4, etc. The patterns are geometrically laid out to depict flowers in full bloom.
Doutati or “Four-Set” is so called as four pieces of cloths are set into one. Ramie and cotton are woven into compact wear with shorter sleeves, lengthwise as well 2 inches below the knees. Doutati is a popular wear worn locally at festive occasions. White, blue and black are cross-striped.
Kagan-nubu is a narrow Minsa or sash with patterns symbolizing the affection of men and women with a man-and wife design in the middle. This is used primarily together with doutati.
In Yonaguni Ori, cotton and silk are used for the warp and cotton, help and basho for the weft. Yarns are dyed with fukugi (Garcinia subelliptica) for yellowish shades, gajumaru (Indian Laurel) for brownish, sharinbai (Yeddo hawthorne) for reddish and hibiscus for green or yellow.
Let me take a moment to give you an overview of Okinawa’s fabrics in general. Anxious as you might be to purchase a kimono or two, you ought to know a little about dyeing and weaving in Okinawa. The so-called Hana Ori is woven not only in Yonagunijima but also in Shuri, Yomitanson, Chibana, Haebaru and other areas and each has its own characteristics.
Hana Ori from Yonagumijima is rather costly, 500 thousand yen or could be priced at over 1 million yen depending on the store you chance to visit. If you are particular about your choice, you ought to visit Yonagunijima or elsewhere in Okinawa, as specialties stores in Tokyo carry too few for you to choose from, much less colors of your choice.
Further, if you visit local weavers in Okinawa, you could meet the craftsmen, rather mostly craftswomen, and have one made to your order for less burden on your purse. You might perhaps bring your favorite wears for them to study your tastes from. Yonagunijima is far out in the sea nearer to Taiwan but Shuri is close enough to mainland Japan.
As earlier mentioned, Yonagun Ori is dyed with plants growing wild in the island and looks tender in neutral tints with the yarn not running on the backside. It’s light and fluffier as against Yuntanza Hanaori, the yarns running on either wide, is somewhat thicker and heavier.
So, in so far as Okinawan fabrics are concerned, it pays to visit locally. You do well by calling on local craftswomen and, your budget permitting, get hold of ones of your choice – designs, patterns, etc. If a full-sized kimono should be a bit beyond your reach, settle for a Minsa or sash for keeps.
I mentioned in the outset that the island of Yonaguni is the westernmost point of Japan. Apart from exotic fabrics, the island features three other rarities: a 120-proof, flammable, rice-based distilled beverage called Hanazake (awamori) made only on the island; a distinctive breed of horse called Yonaguni horse, a rare small breed of pony height native to Japan with fewer than 200 known to survive in Japan; and what is locally called Yonaguni Monument.
The Yonaguni Monument perhaps interests you. It’s an underwater “rock formation” on which arguments are ongoing over whether or not it is natural or artificial. The “monument” has in fact staircase-like terraces with flat sides and sharp edges. A professor of seismology of Ryukyu University identifies it an artificial structure “done” 2000-3000 years ago, while a professor of Oceanic Geoscience of University of the South Pacific finds no reason to suppose it is artificial.
That is to say, Yonogunijima is not an island of exotic fabrics alone now but a unique island full of rich assets as well.
Now, back to Yonaguni Ori.
I’ve done plenty of reading and net-surfing to write on Okinawa’s traditional handicrafts. Of the 14 items some do stand out, and I would say Yonaguni Ori is one of them – the fabric itself no doubt but, more than that, the island, its people and the way they live abreast with nature.
The moment you enter the Yonaguni Traditional Fabrics Center (Yonaguni Dento Kogeikan) you will feel a sense of delicacy and warmth of Yonaguni in the exhibits – vegetable-dyed, hand-woven and artfully designed. Even a piece of coaster impresses you how much time and effort must have taken to make it.
The center has 6 looms for trainees, who spend half a year studying fabrics in general and one full year for practical training. They will return home well trained, buy their looms at home and set out to weave on their own; the center will supply raw materials, inspect and buy up their end products. It’s a beautiful system of lifetime employment. Yonaguni craftswomen are assured of stable job; the island’s textile culture well secured.
Yonagunijima is a masculine island in appearance; deep inside it has a delicate reservoir of feminine qualities – a fine showcase of good old Japan. (Nathan Shiga)