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Report on the talk “The evolution of craftspersonship on Amami Ōshima island, southern Japan”

On 16th September, the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) welcomed Dr. Charlotte Linton after an eighteen month long break because of COVID-19 restrictions, to give an in-person lecture on the craftspersonship in Amami (South Japan). The talk was based on her year-long ethnographic fieldwork in Amami. Her background in textile design and training in anthropology has resulted in a fascinating scholarly work that explores the evolution of craftspersonship of textile workers engaged in weaving Oshima Tsumugi — a well-known textile from this region.

Oshima Tsumugi is a luxurious Kimono cloth with a long history dating back 1,300 years. One factor that makes it so expensive is the heavy labour intensive manufacturing process it entails. It goes through twenty eight distinct steps, mostly by hand, and needs to be woven twice to attain the peculiar weave. This makes it one of the most expensive Kimono cloths in the market, which costs around £4,000-£5,000 for a roll of cloth for one kimono (known as tanmono). Market forces are another crucial factor that influences its sale. For instance, in 1972 the industry employed 20,000 people and produced 290,000 rolls of cloth (tanmono), but since then the industry has gone through a gradual decline and today it employs around 500 people only. Dr Linton’s research is based on two crucial questions: can local craft processes and ecologies of production sustain a community socially, economically and environmentally? And, if so, what can we learn from such communities?

Oshima Tsumugi Kimono cloth. Photo: Charlotte Linton

To seek her answers, Linton went to Kanai Kougei, which is one of the more successful workshops engaged in making Oshima Tsumugi in the region. She did her research and also worked part-time in the workshop from 2017 to 2018. This workshop uses natural dyes and specialises in mud dying techniques (Dorozome). Mud dying is an extremely laborious technique, where sometimes the cloth has to be dyed up to seventy times and it can take up to a week just to dye a few yarns for a kimono. Today, when the dying industry causes twenty percent of the global water pollution, their efforts to endure the challenges and to continue with the traditional craft need more appreciation.

Apparel dying work at Kanai Kougei. Photo: Charlotte Linton

Linton, through Kanai Kougei’s example, illustrated how artisans in Amami are taking various initiatives to protect the craft and their profession. She suggested that today a successful craftsperson needs to be an entrepreneur. Though the Japanese government has made interventions such as the Intangible Cultural Properties Scheme (ICPS) to protect the interests of the craftsperson, they cannot make profits under it. To adapt to the changing economic conditions, Kazuhito Kanai, the head of Kanai Kougei, started public workshops for a nominal fee. His son, Yukihito Kanai, is involved in building a naturally dyed apparel business, which generates income and employment. Yukihito is also actively engaged in social entrepreneurship to improve the living conditions of the artisan community. While people like them are finding avenues to make the profession more financially feasible, they also grapple with challenges and dilemmas that come with their choices. For example, a small workshop like Kanai Kougei finds it difficult to meet the demands of big corporate or fashion brands and has to compromise by choosing petrochemical dying agents, which gives quicker results, better color but is not as environment friendly as the natural dyes.

Charlotte Linton’s in-depth knowledge in the subject shows the varied challenges and ingenious ways through which local craftsperson on Amami Ōshima island are striving for their craftsperson-ship today.

Maumita Banerjee
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, SISJAC

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