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New ties for the obi: Kyoto's Nishijin district still heart of ever-evolving tradition

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Were the fashion industry to keep a list of endangered species of clothing, the obi would appear there along with the Austrian dirndl and the Scottish kilt. Yet it is unthinkable that the long sash worn over the kimono would disappear altogether. As an essential item of the kimono ensemble, the obi's niche is secure at least as a ritual garment worn for weddings, flower arrangement exhibitions, tea or incense ceremonies, Noh and Kabuki performances--in short, any activity that requires the performance of Japaneseness.
Where the obi in partnership with the kimono has lost its ground is in the domain of daily wear. While the switch to modern Western dress began for Japanese men much earlier--in the Meiji era--Japanese women did not give up the obi-cinched kimono until the post war period. The reason for this gender discrepancy is partially explainable in aesthetic terms--women had much more to lose than men by giving up the traditional dress. Men's obi had hardly evolved since the end of the 15th century when the kimono's prototype--the kosode--became the standard dress for both men and women. Men's obi, lacking in diversity and ornament, remained rudimentary. Fashioned from white, grey or black-hued silk, never more than 9 centimeters wide, men tied this sash in a simple half bow at the back or tucked it in at the waist.
(Masters of tapestry weaving, brothers Kikuo and Kizo Hirano employ a sawed-fingernail technique.)

In contrast, the female-oriented obi industry promoted the sash to cult status among Japanese women. Fasteners of coral or porcelain came to embellish the outer cord that held the obi in place. Tiny cushions filled out bows, and elaborate motifs of birds, flowers or trees stood out against a brilliant background of metallic thread. The manufacturers, designers, dyers and weavers responsible for obi production steadily refined the techniques originally imported from Korea and China in the eighth century. For hundreds of years the obi was fussed over so that both its size and position vacillated--tied in front, on the side or in the back. During the 18th century, there were more than 20 ways to tie the obi so it could convey age, status and availability much in the same way Spaniards once used the silent language of the fan.
(All that glitters is gold here: Master Yasushi Noguchi crafts gold thread for the finest obi.)

By the mid-Edo period (1603-1867), the obi's length and width had finally become standardized, as did its position. The rear style had proven itself the most stable, perhaps because of the increasing weight and bulk typical of the most ornate silk brocades. The obi had definitely become the centerpiece of the outfit, not only in the physical sense as the point that drew the eye's attention and divided the woman's body into two nearly equal parts, but because a single kimono could be worn with several different obi to convey various seasons or social messages. In this way, a collection of obi could vastly extend a limited kimono wardrobe.

Today, three main types of obi can be found in specialty shops, department stores and flea markets in Kyoto. All three styles were popular in the "roaring twenties" of the Taisho era (1912-1926) and some of the most captivating kimono and obi combinations anywhere can be seen in Seijun Suzuki's surrealistic film series, "The Taisho Trilogy." As obi go, the most formal--the maru obi--made of the finest silk brocade, has a single seam sewn along its length that gives it a double thickness, and measures 420 centimeters in length and up to 68 centimeters in width when folded. However, its uncomfortable weight, stiffness and astronomical cost are the main reasons for its present scarcity. The fukuro obi shares the same dimensions as the maru obi but is lined with a mildly contrastive material. In this way, it is often reversible with plain silk or satin on the opposite side. Shorter than the other two, the Nagoya obi is folded over and stitched to make it easy to wear. Its convenience and brighter color palette appeal to young women and it is among the most popular obi on the market today.

For five centuries the neighborhood of Nishijin, west of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, has been the production center of Japan's obi, silk brocades, twills and gauzes. Its narrow streets are lined with two-story wooden townhouses called machiya, the traditional habitations of the textile artisans and the merchants who organize production and sell the finished products to wholesalers. The characteristic latticed doors and house-fronts are often painted with a red-ocher pigment that repels moths from these silk-weaving workshops. "Nishijin" refers not only to this district in Kyoto, but to a weaving process and to a textile product that carries its label.

In pre-modern Japan, weaving was traditionally a man's occupation although women often prepared the looms and sat above them in order to batch the pre-dyed yarns in accordance with the design. Finally, in the 19th century, when Japan energetically embarked on its course of modernization, the government sent three textile experts from Kyoto to Lyon, France, to acquire new weaving technology. They returned with the jacquard mechanism, a system that uses hundreds of punched cards to code designs and batch the threads of the handlooms. This mechanism and the subsequent introduction of powerlooms freed women from their previous role as human jacquards and allowed them to become de facto weavers. Later innovation would replace the old punch-card system with a computerized jacquard using floppy disks.

These technological innovations radically transformed the weaving industry of Nishijin from single-weaver households to a household production system in which whole families worked at home on looms either owned by the weaver or rented from the manufacturer. In both cases, although the weavers worked at home, manufacturers provided them with the raw materials and paid them by the piece. Small factories or workshops away from the home eventually developed in Nishijin in the postwar years with 10 to 20 weavers employed from nine to five and paid at an hourly rate.

In spite of the increasing workforce, the industry fell into decline in the 1980s with dozens of manufacturers forced to close each year and those lucky enough to survive pressed into a drastically curtailed production mode. The main reason for the decline was the accelerating shift in fashion from the ethnically defined kimono to ready-to-wear clothing and the dawning awareness of global designer labels. Manufacturers initially responded to the disappearing market by outsourcing. First they hired weavers in the Tango Peninsula, about 100 kilometers from Kyoto. Once known for its silk crepe, that industry had become depressed and weavers were eager for new work. Manufacturers went further still and contracted weavers in China, Korea and Taiwan.

Now, just when it seemed the obi had gone to join the miyako kingfisher (no longer seen in Japan's skies), recycled obi have started to turn up in various guises in the West. Sometimes they have been transformed beyond recognition and called into new service as decorative accents in homes. They lie stretched across slabs of mahogany as table runners. They are resewn into bedspreads, or refashioned into men's evening vests for a night at the opera. They adorn couches as cushion covers, and women are enjoying them as summer corset-tops. For dramatic effect, they are draped over bamboo rods and used as window treatments. They hang vertically from doors, are suspended from walls and wind around banisters of once-barren staircases. The fukuro obi twisted in a loose spiral and placed in a glass tube becomes a stunning centerpiece. In Honolulu, Anne Namba Designs specializes in "kimono couture," or garments made from vintage kimono and obi. The designer's clients have included Mikhail Baryshnikov and the late Elizabeth Taylor.

What some see as an honorable rescue mission that involves deconstruction and innovation others view less benignly. Organizations such as the Kyoto Kofu Hozonkai (Society for the Preservation of Traditional Dress), founded with the aim to both preserve the kimono and obi as they are and to promote them as daily wear, opposes such "reformations" as thoughtless destruction of cultural property. Between these two poles of innovation and preservation, still others have found a middle way. Tatsumura Textile Co. in Nishijin, one of Kyoto's most distinguished weaving manufacturers, has long derived many of its designs from ancient patterns found in works of Nara's Shosoin and Horyuji temples. They employ handloom weavers who make traditional textiles but they also have not shied away from diversifying. Besides neckties, upholstery and tapestries for Gion Festival floats, they have provided textiles for seats on airlines ANA and JAL and for Shinkansen trains.

Survival always demands adaptation. Perhaps the obi renaissance abroad will stimulate a reappraisal at home and the obi will be rediscovered in Japan. Once again it may adorn the body or at least the home.


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Whelan is a cultural anthropologist and author who resides in Kyoto.

Practical information:

Nishijin Textile Center
Horikawa-Imadegawa sagaru
Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel. (075) 432-6131

From Kyoto Station Bus #9,
Bus stop: Horikawa-Imadegawa
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Tenjinsan Flea Market--monthly on the 25th
From Kyoto Station Bus #50, #101
Bus stop: Kitano Tenmangu-mae

By TS on Jul 1, 2011
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tag : Cool Japan



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Author:T. SATOH