Exploring what makes the fabric of a nation

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

Held in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa from U.S. to Japanese control, “Bingata: Colors and Shapes of the Ryukyu Dynasty” presents 245 examples of vibrantly colored textiles and stencils produced in the Ryukyu Kingdom, which between the 14th and 19th centuries ruled over the area now known as Okinawa Prefecture. Possibly the most comprehensive public exhibition of bingata (Ryukyuan traditional resist-dyed textiles) to date, the mesh of cultures visible in these objects on display at the Suntory Museum of Art make a strong case for Japan’s largely underestimated cultural diversity.

As with the katazome technique used for making mainstream kimono, bingata involves a paste-resist technique that begins with mulberry-paper stencils, themselves beautiful objects. Several of these stencils, which were often sold with the garments, are on display alongside the kimono they were used to decorate.

The exhibition opens with a line-up of national treasures — robes from the second Sho Dynasty (which ruled the Kingdom from 1470). Bingata with a luminous yellow background were reserved for royalty, while the nobility wore robes of white, blue, pink, or red on special occasions. This display is followed by three sections, comprising mostly garments, which will be rotated over the course of the exhibition period.

The first of these sections elaborates on the formal wear of royalty and nobility, demonstrating an impressive breadth of design and the ingenuity of the artisans that produced such garments. Motifs of snow-laden bamboo grass, cherry blossoms, and phoenixes reflect the cultural influences of China and Japan, to which the semi-autonomous Ryukyu Kingdom paid tribute from 1372 and 1609 respectively. The expression of these elements, however, is evidence of hundreds of years as a prosperous center for trade, not only with Japan and China, but also with Taiwan, India, and South East Asia.

The next section introduces tsutsugaki, another bingata technique, in which designs are drawn in paste applied with a tube. This process is similar to that of yuzen, a method of paste-resist dyeing used in Japan from around 1700. The bold, fluid effect of tsutsugaki was favored for large items such as banners and uchikui (wrapping cloths) for everyday use, and perhaps because of wear and tear, they represent a minority of bingata objects in collections today.

The final section presents bingata belonging to the Matsuzakaya collection (a private collection used as a design resource by the Matsuzakaya department store), which is being shown to the public for the first time since World War II. The collection was originally assembled in the early 20th century by the painter Saburosuke Okada (1869-1939) who was one of many citizens concerned that Japan was squandering its diverse cultural heritage in the pursuit of modernization. Okada, along with others, such as the designer Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984), began collecting, studying and promoting regionally produced ceramics, textiles and other everyday items as part of what became known as the mingei or “folk-craft” movement. Bingata featured prominently in this movement, although it cannot be regarded a ‘folk craft’ as it was produced by elite craftsman for the ruling class.

While the quality of the exhibits are nothing short of superb and much effort is taken to explain the aesthetic and technical aspects of bingata, the voices of the Ryukyuan people are conspicuously absent in this show.

In the catalogue’s opening essay, Professor Iwao Nagasaki of Kyoritsu Women’s University rejects the prevailing belief that bingata is a result of a cross-fertilization between the various cultures of nations that the Ryukyu Kingdom traded with between the 14th and 19th centuries.

“The characteristic features of bingata were modeled on brocade and embroidered cloth used in Japanese Noh theater costumes,” he writes, explaining that they used “a fusion of Japanese katazome and yuzen techniques.” One might note here, however, that Noh textiles were themselves inspired by Chinese fabrics.

Textile artist and scholar Yoshiko Wada, who taught at the Okinawa Prefecture University of Fine Arts for 20 years, disagrees. “Some of the motifs may be derivative of Japanese designs,” she notes. “However, the treatment of the motifs is definitely not purely ‘Japanese.’ “

Despite the Chinese heritage of many members of the Ryukyuan aristocracy and the close intertwining of Sino-Ryukyuan history, Nagasaki downplays the appearance of Chinese motifs in bingata as reflections of the political aspirations of the Kingdom. There are certainly mainland sources for Ryukyuan culture; however, the notion that bingata are entirely derived from models within Tokugawa Japan’s urban centers ignores Ryukyu’s significant inter-regional ties, the agency of its people in interpreting imported customs and their ability to generate their own traditions.

This way of thinking recalls assimilationist government policy after the Ryukyu islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1879. In an effort to build a cohesive nation state out of a vast and divergent populace, differences in religion were strictly suppressed and local economic systems dismantled. The islands’ languages were declared to be dialects of Japanese, and their use outlawed.

Today, the ability of Okinawan people to reconcile a distinct ethnic identity with being Japanese demonstrates that national cohesion need not imply homogeneity. The fascinating array of objects that comprise this exhibition should be an exploration of one of the many diverse components of this place we call “Japan.”

“Bingata: Colors and Shapes of the Ryukyu Dynasty” at Suntory Museum of Art runs till July 22; 10 a.m. — 6 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Tue. www.suntory.com/sma/exhibit/2012_03. It then moves to the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts from Sept. 11-Oct. 21 and to the Matsuzakaya Art Museum in Nagoya from Nov. 3-25.