Ryukyu is home to yet another gorgeous fabric called Yuntanza Hanaori (locally pronounced Yuntanza Hanaui). Colorful flower designs suggest it came from the south but when it reached Okinawa is uncertain.
In 1372, Taiki of Uza, Yuntanza, a royal brother of King Satto of Chuzan, brought Ryukyu’s first tribute to China, the start of Ryukyu’s tributary relationship with China. Further down in 1420, Gosamaru built a castle in Zakimi and Ryukyu’s maritime trade with China and nearby countries in Southeast Asia boomed as depicted in the Bridge of Nations Bell.
In came with varieties of trade goods some alien fabrics with skills to weave. The weaving skills found local craftsmen in Yuntanza and culminated in what is today known as Yuntanza Hanaori.
History records the fabric was a favorite gift article for Chosen (Korea) and found among the items for tributes from Java to the Kingdom of Ryukyu. It was then, in or about 15th century that the manufacture of Yuntanza Hanaori began in the village of Yuntanza – hence the brand name.
The 600-hundred-year tradition of Yuntanza Hanaori, however, stood on the verge of near extinction in the middle of the 20th century. In 1964, a group of volunteers in Yuntanza met and discussed how best to revive the art of Hanaori. The group evolved into the Yuntanza Hanaori Business Cooperative, which in turn helped bring the tradition back to life for the first time in 90 years. Today, Yuntanza Hanaori is designated an Okinawa Prefectural Intangible Cultural Asset and a traditional handicraft handpicked by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. Near the village hall is a central traditional handicrafts center displaying Hanaori works for sale.
Yuntanza Hanaori cleared the following prerequisites to be designated a traditional handicraft by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry:
A craft product for daily use,
Major processes of manufacture done by high level of handwork,
Technical knowhow and skills traditionally inherited over a hundred years to the present,
Of raw materials traditionally used over the years, and
A definite site of production established.
Yuntanza Hanaori is of silk or cotton featuring cute flower designs woven up with colored yarns against a wavy dark blue background. Designs vary from one product to another. Figures are laid out in beautiful systematic patterns. There are some 30 different figures known today and all are geometric. Dyeing agents are obtained from nature – Ai (Persicaria tinctoria or Indigo plant) Fukugi (Garcinia subelliptica or Common Garcinia) and Yeddo hawthorn.
Flowery geometric patterns are woven out with colored yarns in such a way that the patterns carry a plastic impression. There are three typical flowery patterns Jinbana, Ojibana and Kajimayabana.
Jinbana has eight small squares in yellow laid out in octagon with a red square right in the center, a popular fortune-inviting pattern. Ojibana is done in the shape of a fan with ten small squares laid in the order of 4 navy-blue on top, 3 cobalt-blue next, 2 ivory-blue with a red at the bottom. It signified an open fan – a sign of prosperity of descendants.
Kajimayabana is shaped in a four-winged windmill, each wing with 2 small squares, nile-green and yellow, stretching out in four directions with a black square in the center – a sign of longevity. All elders in Ryukyu receive windmills at age 97 – hence Kajimayabana.
So every piece of Yuntanza Hanaor is charming enough but how charming price-wise? A passing glance at the price list tells how charming that way as well.
A used Kimono of Yuntanza Hanaor claims 150 thousand yen; a roll of top-class Yuntanza Hanaor 998 thousand. Obis are priced at 250-350 thousand yens. Obi, by the way, is a sash or belt, if you will, rolled over Kimono to shape up the figure and to add to the charms of the kimono itself. The prices of Kimono and Obi of Yuntanza Hanaor vary from one end to another depending on the level of artistry, that is whom it’s woven by, the amount of time spent, etc.
One of the reasons for rather high prices of Yuntanza Hanaor and similar hand-woven fabrics is that the Kimono culture no longer survives far and wide enough into the grassroots, and wearing Kimono is today an extraordinary event for common women in Japan. It’s the principle of demand and supply at work.
Back to the prices, apart from such gorgeous products, the art of Yuntanza Hanaor is well manifested in less expensive lines of commodity. Yuntanza Hanaor designs – Jinbana, Ojibana and Kajimayabana – are found modified in various smaller items such as table centers, Kariyushi shirts, neckties, purses and wallets, handbags of all sorts and even name-card cases.
Now, to enrich your tour of Yuntanza Hanaor, let me introduce you to a local personality Takashi Niigaki in Okinawa who is well-versed in the art of Yuntanza Hanaor and takes upon himself to dye every bundle of yarn of Yuntanza Hanaor handled through the cooperative.
Niigaki was handpicked by the village authorities in 1974 to help activate the local industries of Yuntanza. A chemistry major, Niigaki was counted on for his knowledge in chemistry. He tested his samples for three months at the prefecture’s industrial experimental station and came up with a dying formula. “I had elderly weavers to try it but they weren’t satisfatory”, recalls Niigaki. Back to his laboratory, he resumed his experiments and finally nailed down on what he believed the ultimate.
Today, Niigaki not only singlehandedly dyes every bundle channeled through the cooperative but starts doing quite a bit of weaving with his wife ever since 1981. He is contemplating dyeing cotton yarns for Yuntanza Hanaor as the ancestors used to do.
Takashi Niigata is currently Director of the Yuntanza Hanaori Business Cooperative.
Yuntanza Hanaori is a pivot of Japan’s traditional handicrafts and as such deserves closer attention and more effort for its survival and promotion. (Nathan Shiga)