Museum Dictionary

Ryukyu and Ainu Textiles

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
    (Private Collection)

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 Designs
    (Private Collection)

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 patterns!

Basho-fu (Banana Fiber Textiles)

  • Striped Basho-fu Kimono
    (Private Collection)

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 of Okinawa.

Ainu Costume

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 the "attus."

  • Attus
    (Private Collection)

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 evil spirits)
    (Private Collection)

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 kapara amip.

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
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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