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Okinawa’s bashofu textile endures into modern era

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                                A woman harvests an itobasho and peels off a leaf sheath from its trunk in a field in Ogimi, Japan.


    A woman harvests an itobasho and peels off a leaf sheath from its trunk in a field in Ogimi, Japan.

NAHA, Japan >> Bashofu, a light, cool fabric well suited for a summer kimono, is a traditional textile of Okinawa prefecture. The production of this unique fabric relies heavily on manual labor.

Kijoka hamlet in the village of Ogimi, population 390, is the main production site of bashofu.

Fields of itobasho, a type of banana plant, fill the Kijoka landscape. Fiber from the plant is used to make the thread for bashofu cloth. The 23-step process for producing bashofu, from growing itobasho to making, dyeing and weaving the thread, is carried out in the hamlet. Kijoka’s bashofu has been designated an intangible cultural asset.

In mid-July, eight men and women, decked out in work clothes and wearing hats and rubber gloves, set out to harvest itobasho. They used sickles to cut down stalks that had grown beyond 6-1/2 feet tall, then skillfully peeled layer after layer of cream-colored leaf sheaths from each trunk.

It is estimated that one tan, or roll, of cloth — the amount necessary to make an adult kimono — requires fiber from about 200 itobasho trunks.

At a nearby bashofu factory, women were busy plying and weaving. Each step in the process, from making fine threads with uniform thickness, then dyeing and weaving them into fabric, requires expert skill.

Mieko Taira, 73, chair of the Kijoka Bashofu Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai, a local business cooperative for bashofu production, deftly adjusted threads with quick movements of her hands.

“We work as a team. Each of us is like a tooth on a gear,” Taira said. “If any one of us gets careless, it’s certain to affect the quality of the cloth.”

Bashofu is so lightweight and thin, it’s compared to a dragonfly’s wing. The cloth was devised in ancient times to cope with the hot, humid weather of what is now Okinawa prefecture.

When the islands were governed by the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), a tribute, or payment, of bashofu was levied on the kingdom’s people. While the fabric was presented to China and the Edo shogunate as a luxury textile, it was also widely used to make clothing for commoners.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the tribute system was abolished, Kijoka recommitted itself to bashofu production. But during World War II, the U.S. military occupied the islands and burned down itobasho fields to prevent the spread of malaria, imperiling the bashofu tradition.

After the war, Taira’s mother-in-law, Toshiko Taira, worked to reestablish the tradition. She asked war widows to join her in her efforts, and to survive difficult times, they initially made items such as table mats for the occupying Americans. Taira also formed the bashofu cooperative and taught weaving. She sometimes even borrowed money to help pay wages of fellow workers.

Eventually, bashofu gained recognition throughout Japan, and it was designated an intangible cultural asset in 1974. Taira was designated a living national treasure.

But now, bashofu faces another crisis as the demand for kimono has declined over the past 50 years and the weaving community is aging. Annual production has dropped from 520 tan in 1980 to 100 tan in 2021, and the number of crafters is at 57, down from 130 in 1984.

Today, nine people are learning the bashofu craft.

Akiko Tobaru, 84, a member of a bashofu preservation society, shared one issue. “Young people tend to shy away from making bashofu as a profession, as we cannot make a living on making bashofu alone,” she said.

The crop itself is a challenge since it takes three years before itobasho can be harvested. Unlike other crops, itobasho has not yet been cross-bred for improvement.

But Mieko Taira, who followed in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, continues to promote bashofu. She is working on exhibitions at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is also restoring bashofu from the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

“I want to continue preserving the culture of bashofu, a textile that has come to clothe the very souls of Okinawans,” she said.

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