The fabric of Okinawa design


Special To The Japan Times

With the typical “white box” museum, everything depends on the contents of the exhibition, but with the Mingeikan (The Japan Folk Crafts Museum), the museum itself is very much part of the experience. This is clear from the moment you slide open the entrance door and take off your shoes to shuffle around in slippers provided by the museum. (Yes, they have different sizes, so don’t be afraid to ask.)

The simple, homely details that emerge at every turn are in keeping with the philosophy of Soetsu Yanagi, the father of mingei, the Japanese Folk Arts movement. He had the museum built by craftsmen in 1936 to serve as the center of the movement, living at the West Hall building across the road. The museum mixes miscellaneous items from its permanent collection with special exhibitions, such as “Okinawa Bingata,” a show that currently occupies part of the museum.

Bingata, which literally means “red style,” refers to a kind of brightly-colored cloth — either silk or cotton — that is particularly associated with Okinawa. One of the agendas of the folk arts movement in Japan, and elsewhere, is to provide an organic, grassroots basis for national unity. By emphasizing Okinawa’s links to Japan and being timed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the return of the island to Japan, this exhibition partly fulfils that role.

But the reason bingata has been such a prized part of Japanese folk arts was because of Okinawa’s unique place as a cultural crossroads in touch with the wider world outside Japan. The former Ryukyu Kingdom’s links with China and Southeast Asia gave it access to a rich variety of dyeing materials, such as cochineal and vermillion, which allowed the bingata tradition to develop.

The patterns also seem to bear out this foreign influence, with Chinese motifs happily juxtaposed with Japanese ones. One of the kimonos on display includes motifs of birds and flowers that one visitor assured me can’t be found in mainland Japan. Bingata patterns are applied using a stencil technique and employing dye-resistant pastes. Traditionally the pastes are made from sweet rice and rice bran.

Some of the fabric of the exhibits on display has been damaged, and all of the items have presumably faded to some degree, as most of them date from the 19th century. Despite this, the vividness of the colors is still remarkable and the designs enchanting. These range from elaborate patterns of mingling birds and flowers to simpler designs.

The exhibition information is all in Japanese, but a sheet explaining the basics in English is available on request. As with the slippers, the slight element of awkwardness this introduces only helps to make the experience of visiting the museum more quaint and memorable.

“Okinawa Bingata: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Reversion of Okinawa to Japan” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum runs till Nov. 24; open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon.