People | 20 QUESTIONS

Dyeing to keep Japanese textile crafts alive

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Masanobu Ota
Age: 55
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Yūzen artist
Likes: Motorcycling, nihonshu (sake)
Dislikes: Liars, thunder and lightning


1. When and why did you first start dyeing and painting kimono? When I was 22, my friend introduced me to a yūzen (resist-dyeing) artist, Kozo Shirasaka, and I became his apprentice.

2. You’re a Kaga-yūzen artist, how is that different from other methods of dyeing? Kaga-yūzen is yūzen that was originally made in Kaga Province, what is now southern and western Ishikawa Prefecture. Yūzen designs are based on accurate portrayals of nature and use a starch paste to prevent the dye from soaking into the cloth. It’s a technique unique to Japan.

3. You live and work in Ishikawa Prefecture. What does Ishikawa have to offer that other places don’t? Festivals and traditional crafts in the Noto area, where I was born, give you a sense of the simple human kindnesses that lead to strong connections between people. That “climate” lends itself to a substance or beauty that I think is unique to Ishikawa and the city of Kanazawa.

4. Where do you get inspirations for designs? I like designs that draw from deeply moving experiences. When you take into account the feelings that changing seasons and flowers evoke, there’s a lot of material. Sometimes, when I’m looking for a change of pace, I go mountain climbing or for a drive.

5. What is the most important part of designing a kimono? Kimono have two facets to them: they’re both ornamental and practical. You have to take both these aspects into account. It’s also important to think of designs that will suit the generation of the wearer.

6. Do you have a favorite word or phrase in Kanazawa dialect? Anyato gozaimisu,” which is a way of saying thank you. There’s also “masshi,” a welcoming phrase we use at the end of sentences. For example, “ki-masshi,” “mi-masshi” and “tabe-masshi” which mean something like “please come,” “please take a look” and “please taste it.”

7. What’s the prized possession in your studio? My sketchbook. I draw in it every day, so it’s a progress tracker of my daily designs. More than a “sketchbook,” it’s a record of what goes on in my head.

8. What is the biggest faux-pas a person can make when wearing a kimono? There are predetermined “ranks” of kimono that I think should be protected.For example, there are formal, casual and seasonal kimono. Formal includes hōmongi (a less-ostentatious “visiting” kimono for married women) and tomesode (a black kimono with designs below the waist for special occasions). Fabrics also change with the seasons.

9. You have applied Kaga-yūzen to other items. What’s the most unusual one? Probably sneakers. Young or old, Japanese or non-Japanese, everyone seems interested in them and I have fun making them. Even though we don’t always speak the same language, it makes me happy if I can meet people halfway with the sneakers I design.

10. Is there anyone you would love to see wearing your designs? Of course I want anyone who likes my kimono to wear them. But, it would also be great if Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga wore them.

11. You’re on a deserted island, what three things must you abolutely have with you? Water, food and a knife.

12. Do you have a wild side? When I was around 30 I was in a band. During the day I was at home; every night I was at practice. It looked pretty suspect. My neighbors thought my wife was the yūzen artist instead of me.

13. What do you think about when you’re on the bus? Sometimes I daydream, but typically I think of new designs or have flashes of insight for dyeing techniques.

14. What is your secret superpower? Something along the lines of never giving up, tenacity, or the ability to quickly forget the things I hate.

15. White miso or red miso? Red miso, because that’s what my family used.

16. If you could only paint in one color, what would it be? Black, absolutely. Black is an infinite color and the foundation of sumi-e (ink painting).

17. Name a Japanese custom that should be exported and why? I would say ojigi (bowing and greeting). It’s a way to express your respect and gratitude. There’s a Japanese phrase: “We start with a bow and end with a bow.” I always did that when I was training.

18. If you were on the UNESCO World Heritage selection committee, what you would nominate? More traditional crafts, their techniques and thought processes. Japan can be proud of its high level of craftsmanship. The sense of bi (beauty) that’s born from such crafts is being lost from our lifestyles. The number of artisans and even the materials are decreasing.

19. What do you have too much of? Desire (yoku) and lingering regret (miren).

20. What advice would you give to an aspiring kimono designer? If you try, you can do it; if you don’t, you will achieve nothing. It’s a challenge.