and Ainu Textiles
If you ever come to the Kyoto National Museum,
look for textiles in Room 14, on the 2nd Floor of the New Exhibition
Japan is made up of a long string of islands extending
north and south along the eastern side of the Asian continent. The
northernmost island of Hokkaido and the southernmost islands of
Okinawa differ not only in climate but also in the cultures of the
people who live there. Consider clothing, for example. Differences
in location result in clothing of different shapes, made from different
materials, and with different patterns. Let's take a look at the
colorful woven and dyed textiles used for clothing by the Ryukyu
people, who live in the southern islands that we call Okinawa today,
and the Ainu, an aboriginal people who live in Hokkaido.
First let's talk about an Okinawan dyeing technique called bingata.
The islands of Okinawa were originally a separate kingdom called
Ryukyu. This kingdom traded with China, Korea, Japan and Southeast
Asia but had a unique culture all its own. Some of the most famous
textiles made in the Ryukyu Kingdom were bingata dyed textiles and
basho-fu (a woven abaca fiber textile).
Bingata "Donjin" Kimono
Bingata is a dyeing technique that is unique to the Ryukyu Islands
and continues to be made as a traditional art in Okinawa today.
The bold patterns and bright red, yellow, blue and green colors
of bingata are dyed with the aid of a starch called nori.
This nori can be applied to the cloth through a pattern stencil
or freehand, pressed through a bag like that of a cake decorator!
This latter process is called tsutsugaki. Both stencil
dyeing and tsutsugaki are examples of resist-dyeing. Dyes cannot
penetrate through the sections of cloth that have been covered with
the nori starch, so they retain their original color, even after
dyeing. The dyes are applied to the cloth one by one. Finally, when
the patterns are completed, the pattern sections are covered with
nori and the whole cloth is dyed the background color.
Bingata Kimono with Pine and Cherry Blossom
Originally, bingata could be worn only by aristocratic social classes,
such as kings and warrior families. Bingata textiles were also used
for the costumes of dancers who welcomed envoys from China or from
the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (today's Tokyo). Especially interesting
are the motifs (designs) on bingata textiles. Though bingata is
a process unique to the Ryukyu islands, bingata textiles are often
decorated with typical Japanese motifs, such as cherry blossoms,
pine trees and wisteria. In one textile, we can see the cross-cultural
influences of both Southeast Asian-style dyeing techniques and Japanese
Basho-fu (Banana Fiber Textiles)
Striped Basho-fu Kimono
You have probably never heard of basho, but it may sound more familiar
if I tell you that it is a kind of banana plant. Though similar
to the plants from which we get bananas for eating, basho (or more
specifically, ito basho, "thread banana") plants
are remarkable for their fibrous stems instead of for their fruit.
Basho plants grow into "trees" of about two meters in
height. Botanically speaking, however, they are not actually trees
but large herbaceous plants. Banana species include some of the
largest herbaceous plants in the world! The fibers in the "trunks"
of basho plants can be split into fine strands, tied together into
thread, and woven into cloth. This cloth is what we call basho-fu.
Basho-fu has long been favored for summer kimonos because of its
airiness and smooth, crisp surface. Like linen, hemp, ramie, and
other "bast fibers" (long vegetable fibers), basho-fu
does not stick to the skin in hot weather, making it perfectly suited
to the hot Okinawan climate. In the old days, bolts of plain-colored,
striped and kasuri (ikat) basho-fu were woven in numerous
locations across the Ryukyu islands and were used as tribute payments
to the Okinawan royalty. In those days, basho-fu was worn by everyone
from kings to commoners. Nowadays, however, basho-fu is a luxury
cloth that is made only in the village of Kijoka, on the island
The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan who live today in the
northernmost island of Hokkaido. Ainu culture is different from
Japanese culture, and the traditional clothing is different as well.
The most famous item of Ainu clothing is a coat-like garment called
Attus are made from the bast fibers of a Japanese elm tree that
is native to Hokkaido. First the tree is cut down and the bark is
removed. The fibers, taken from the inner layers of the bark, are
soaked in water to soften, bleached in the sun, and then split into
fine, fibrous strands. The strands are joined together into thread
and this thread is woven into cloth. The finished product is a thick,
stiff cloth of a brownish color, like the bark fibers This cloth
is then sewn into an attus.
Attus that were worn for everyday wear did not have much decoration,
but those made for ceremonial wear were decorated on the back and
around the sleeves with patterns in navy and black applique. Can
you see how this unique pattern,
like a parentheses, is repeatedly embroidered on the applique?
Attus Coat (Detail: Embroidery to ward off
This pattern is worn to keep away evil spirits. It is found not
only on attus but also on dark blue cotton garments with similar
patterns, and on garments with white applique on dark cotton, called
The applique and embroidery work was always done by women, From
mother to daughter, this unique tradition was handed down from generation
to generation. By making these traditional garments such as the
attus, Ainu women not only clothed their families but perhaps protected
them from evil as well!
Text by Shigeki Kawakami, Department of Applied Arts
Illustrations by Satoshi Ichida, Department of Public Relations
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives