One of the great paradoxes of world travel (especially that which is slow and makes intimate contact with the peoples of other lands) is that the traveler returns with a greater appreciation of what is valuable and troubled in her own native land. Talking with fabric artist and mother Keiko Haraguchi, one feels immediately the wisdom gained from her years among the tribal peoples of Africa, India and Central America.
Though her voice is whisper soft, the assured and resolute way she puts her words together speaks of convictions forged by long, deep meditation about the spiritual impact of industrial civilization.
She and her family are just back from Guatemala and Mexico, where she has been studying Mayan weaving. She wears a huipil (Guatemalan Indian-woven blouse) of intense reds, pinks and aquamarine blues, and a long, ruby-colored skirt from India with clusters of tiny mirrors embroidered into the fabric.
Although much of Haraguchi’s work uses heirloom kimono cloth from old Japan, she does not just replicate forms handed down from the past. Rather, she finds inspiration in the dream world, and, using the fabrics of five continents, fashions collages, pins, brooches and accessories in the shape of birds, butterflies and mythical creatures of the sky.
There are oval pins of wine-red satin, and shimmery pink earrings made from festive Japanese silk. Chocolate-brown burlaps from East Africa are placed next to delicate Indonesian batiks. In one stunning collage, a tranquil crescent moon smiles down in benediction with half-closed eyelids from an apple-green sky. Below, a turquoise sea dances with coral, flaming silk-thread blossoms, butterflies and beads.
“I became interested in intense colors,” Haraguchi says, “when I first traveled overseas to Europe during college. I was surprised to see grandmothers there wearing bright purple clothing. It was totally different from Japan. They were determined to enjoy their lives, no matter what. In Guatemala as well, the women all wear brilliant huipils as everyday clothing, as they sell flowers in the market or make corn tortillas by hand.”
Haraguchi decided, 13 years ago, to give up her job as an elementary school teacher and leave Japan to go and live with Guatemalan highland rain-forest peoples. Journeying overland through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and India, and then again through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Central America, Haraguchi was struck by how much Japan had lost in its rush to industrialize.
“I had thought that complex work could only be accomplished with expensive mechanical tools,” she says. “But in Guatemala, I saw weavers make intricate and delicate fabric designs with a loom that consisted only of strings looped around a post of the house and a strap around their lower back.”
Even as she learns from the world’s cultures, Haraguchi maintains firm connections with what she treasures about Japan and its past. She makes pickled plums by hand, sings old songs and tells the old tales to her daughter, passing on the values she learned from her mother and grandmother before her.
She is inspired by American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks, who comes to Japan occasionally to speak on the and meaning and importance of cultural preservation. “‘Go ahead and learn other languages and other cultures,”‘ she quotes him approvingly, “‘but you must not forget your own words, your own mother tongue. Although Japan has been Westernized to an unbelievable extent, do not think that you are Americans. You are your own nation, with precious traditions that must be handed on.”‘
Returning from overseas, Haraguchi and her partner and their daughter moved to a tiny hamlet in the Japan Alps.
“I wanted my daughter to grow up surrounded by nature, to meet and know the smallest of insects and flowers, and to know their universe. Dennis Banks says that it’s impossible for us to cut our connection to the Earth without dying ourselves.”
Still, living in the mountains is not always easy.
“We are treated as heretics and outcasts by the people in the village,” Haraguchi says. “They look at us as freaks, there to entertain them. We felt more welcomed by the Guatemalan Indians than we do by the Japanese people in our own village.”
Speaking from her experience as a public school teacher, Haraguchi says that Japan’s educational system, by simply dumping information on students without helping them develop their own particular interests, is destroying Japanese people’s ability to deeply engage the world.
“Just last week, we were changing planes in Los Angeles on our way back home,” says Haraguchi, “and there was a group tour of Japanese young people in the airport with their tour guide. All these college students were walking around with blank expressions on their faces, bad posture, their mouths hanging open, and the tour operator was taking care of them as if they were a bunch of kindergarteners.
“They think that safety and ease will lead them to happiness and satisfaction. They don’t see that their desire to travel without risk is a type of greediness, and ruins their chance for authenticity or real freedom. They’ve lost the will to do things on their own.”
How was she able to start such a journey of changes? How could she surmount the pressures to conform?
“Everyone opposed my quitting my job and leaving for such a long time,” she says, “especially my parents. I didn’t hate my job, but I needed new possibilities.
“It wasn’t courage. It was simply that my passion to travel was so strong. I understood that to become intimate with other peoples of the Earth, I had to live alongside them and know their world.”