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Saving the traditional art of Kijoka Bashofu

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-07-10

Traditional weaving had long been a part of Okinawan culture until the introduction of western clothing into Japan. The cheaper alternative for everyday clothing just about completely eliminated the necessity for kimonos, and also for the weavers who made them. Centuries of tradition began to vanish, and by the time the war was over, there were very few people left, who could still recall the techniques used to make some of the beautiful fabrics that were once a big part of Okinawan life.

Today however, some of these traditional weaving methods are again being practiced, thanks to the dedication of people who realized the importance in trying to revive, and keep alive this ancient art form. One of these methods can be found being carried out in the same tedious fashion as it was many centuries ago. The art is known as Bashofu, and it is made from the fibers of a type of banana tree. It is thought to have been brought to Okinawa during the 13th century from South East Asia, where similar types of weaving have been discovered. The light weight fabric produced from this technique provided the perfect type of clothing for the warm and humid climate of Okinawa.

Once produced and worn almost everywhere in Okinawa, Bashofu also succumbed to western clothing and almost disappeared by the 1940's. The story of Bashofu begins again, not in Okinawa, but in mainland Japan, where many young Okinawan girls were sent to work in factories during the war. One of these young women was Toshiko Taira, who was from the famous Bashofu weaving village of Kijoka in northern Okinawa. The young Toshiko found herself in Kurashiki, a small city in Okayama Prefecture. There, she worked at "Kurashiki Boseki", a clothing factory which had been converted to make aircraft for the Japanese military. The owner, Soichiro Ohara, was both a collector and an expert in Japanese folk art. Ohara saw the importance in preserving the traditional crafts of Okinawa after the war, and he asked the many Okinawan girls in his factory, who were still not allowed to return to their war torn island, if there was anyone who knew the techniques of any kind of Okinawan folk art. Toshiko and three other girls stepped forward, saying they had some knowledge of Bashofu from watching their mothers and grandmothers.

Ohara then called upon his friend Kichinosuke Tonomura, who had been to Okinawa before the war together with Ohara for research on Okinawan weaving. A master weaver himself, Tonomura taught the girls Bashofu for one year. Amazingly, it was in mainland Japan, under the guidance of Tonomura, that Toshiko gained the knowledge that would soon be used to bring back the art of Bashofu to her native village of Kijoka.

Upon returning home, Toshiko began to explain the importance to the people of Kijoka on preserving Bashofu. The village elders and leaders also realized that making their own clothing again was necessary to help cloth the many poor and homeless people of northern Okinawa. Thus, the first post war Bashofu weaving factory was built in 1946. However, with very little money to be made as a weaver, Toshiko found it difficult in recruiting other women to learn the difficult technique of Bashofu. She began to turn her attention to making cushions, table cloths, and curtains, which they were able to sell to US Military soldiers, and made enough profits to survive. As the years went on, Bashofu became gradually recognized as a cultural treasure of Japan. The affluence of the Japanese people has also helped to create a market again for Bashofu kimonos, which are bought by collectors, and also traditional Okinawan entertainers.

Now at the age of seventy seven, Toshiko is the leader of the Association for the Preservation of Kijoka Bashofu. Still weaving and teaching in the small quiet village of Kijoka, she has been declared a "Living National Treasure" by the Japanese Government. She spends her hours in the Kijoka weaving factory, where everything is still done locally from start to finish. Local plants and trees are cultivated to produce the natural dyes used, and the fruitless strain of banana tree is grown carefully to produce about 270 kimonos a year, which are all pre-ordered. "Everything is difficult in this process," said Toshiko while busily selecting high quality thread. "Even the very beginning of raising the tree must be done carefully. If the trees aren't raised correctly, they will not produce quality thread." After 60 years of weaving Toshiko remarked that "I feel very relaxed when I do this work. It is very pleasant for me."

Outside amongst the Banana trees, Toshiko's daughter in law, Mieko, explained the long process of getting thread from the trees. "It takes about three years for a tree to mature and be ready. It then takes 200 trees to make just one kimono. Only the high quality of fibers in the center can be used for a Kimono," she said as she took off a butterfly cocoon from one of the huge leaves. "The inner fibers are shredded into sections and boiled in a wood ash solution to make them soft. They are then scraped again and dried. The fibers are then separated, tied together, and are ready for dyeing. Everything is done by hand," said Mieko.

Although the weaving factory now has many customers and people interested in learning about Bashofu, Toshiko still feels Bashofu is not yet safe from being forgotten once again. "I am happy, but I am worried if young people will still continue or not."

Anyone interested in Bashofu can visit the factory between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm. The factory is closed on Sundays and every second and fourth Saturday of the month. Entrance is for free. There is an English video available for viewing, and you can observe the weavers at work. To get there, head north on Highway 58. Just before reaching Okuma Resort, look for the Ogimi Town Hall. After passing the Town Hall and high school, there will be a turn off with a sign pointing the direction to the weaving factory.

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