The dyeing art of Japan’s traditional everyday kimono


Special To The Japan Times

Weaver and dyer Fukumi Shimura’s (b.1924) inherited an interest in craft from her mother, Toyo Ono, who made inroads through the early 20th-century mingei (folk crafts) movement led by philosopher Muneyoshi Yanagi. Introduced to the lacquer artistan Tatsuaki Kuroda in 1956, Shimura began to hone her craft sensibilities, leading her to show her work in the 1957 Japan Kogei Association exhibition. Her skills and aesthetic proclivities were further refined under the tutelage of famed ceramicist Kenkichi Tomimoto and textile dyer Toshijiro Inagaki.

In the later years of her career she has received all of the most prestigious craft-related awards, and in 1990 she was designated as a National Living Treasure. This was soon followed by her being named a Person of Cultural Merit in 1993. The distinguished international Kyoto Prize for the arts came her way in 2014 and last year she received the government’s Order of Culture.

Shimura represents the tsumugi (pongee weaving and dyeing) tradition, particularly that of kimono textiles, in which fibers and fabrics are dyed using natural vegetable pigments. An element of chance imposes itself on the process as the dyes never come out exactly the same. The tradition is said to have been introduced from China a millennium ago, though it took its own course in Japan over centuries of indigenization. Such dyed kimono had its origins among the common folk and developed along with folk wisdom — all grounded in the everyday.

The tsumugi dyeing culture is ostensibly harmonious with nature and participates in a long historical reverence for and dialogue with it. This is, however, always an elegant and aestheticized nature, and simply scanning a few of the titles given to the kimono on display yields compartmentalized seasonal references: “Fireflies,” “Strong Wind of Early Autumn,” “Winter Lake,” and “Land of Willows.”

Unadulterated nature is apathetic. It must be filtered, cleansed and perfected through human artifice and sentiment. History shows that long ago white fabric was dyed using powdered shells and bone, and subsequently ozone bleached to arrive at the desired white, reminiscent of snow and egrets.

Nature’s mediation by human sentiment gave rise to the close association of the arts and crafts with a poetic sensibility, frequently employed by Shimura. Her kimono “Dawn” (2008), for example, alludes to a verse in the “One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets”: “At wintry dawn, when the mists over the Uji River slowly lift and clear, stakes of the fishing nets appear in the shallows.”

Others are based on the “Man’yoshu” (“Compilation of Ten Thousand Leaves”) and the “Kokinshu” (“A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern”), in addition to themes from noh theater.

Poetic references are usually to light and color as the bases of her art. These are impressionistic and symbolic, relating to the literary cues found in the world’s first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” in which color is also indicative of human character.

Shimura’s “Lake of Indigo” (2002) refers to Japan’s largest body of water, Lake Biwa, specifically its freezing northern cool-blue edge. For the artist, the natural visual effect proffers an archetypal landscape in which her ancestors lived their last days and so the site is an origin of the self — and the kimono reflects this. For Shimura, Lake Biwa is a “jar of indigo,” the color representative of the Japanese people. The indigo plant, bestowed on mankind, is observed as an act of grace.

Seemingly inscrutable poetics, however, occasionally come in for lighter touches. Rabbit-ear irises in a garden in front of a bus stop in northern Kyoto, were one inspiration; another were the madder-red and light-gray brick walls of a bakery she frequents, resulting in “The Wall of Francois” (2009). “Francois” is the name of the bread shop.

Shimura’s references are also often Western. She arrived at much of her color theory through the study of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. A fondness for Austrian Lucie Rie’s ceramics resulted in the kimono “Buttons” (2008), inspired by the ceramicist’s childhood creations. “Rings” (2009) was conceived from jewelry designer Charles Jacqueau’s Art Deco accessories, including cigarette cases and hat pins.

Though Shimura has established the Ars Shimura School with her daughter, Yoko — an esteemed weaver and dyer herself — and her grandson, an inevitable conundrum is reached when it comes to passing down the tsumugi tradition. While the craft had its origins in the everyday, Shimura’s current status as a National Living Treasure is steeped in preservation and rarefied appreciation. Seldom worn — except for special occasions, such as weddings, Hatsumode New Year’s celebrations and Coming of Age Day — kimono are no longer quotidian attire.

In the museum setting, the garments lose their utilitarian role. Enclosed in glass cabinets, they are no longer something to be seen in but become something to be looked at. Physically, and for most also financially, they are untouchable. Today’s astronomic kimono prices are hinted at by the price tags attached to minor museum-shop goods.

Elevated to the status and monetary value of art, such is the fate of the living treasure of dyeing.

“Shimura Fukumi” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until March 21; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon., except March 21.