More than a century ago, the skills of paper stencil textile-dyeing artisans made it possible to mass-produce kimono with vivid and intricate designs that previously could only be achieved by hand painting.

Today, with fewer people wearing kimono on a daily basis, it has become one of the kimono industry’s businesses that is looking to diversify. Now, many stencil producers are applying their skills to more widely used consumer products and tapping into new markets.

The Kyoto firm Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho, for example, has found that producing pop art T-shirts has opened the door to new customers, particularly foreign tourists.

The company, which first opened its doors in 1925, is now recognized as a pioneer of the city’s souvenir T-shirts. Its designs have shaken up a conservative tourist T-shirt market in Kyoto, where little more than plain white shirts sporting the name of the city in black were being offered, primarily to domestic travelers.

Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho decided to venture into the new business when the Japanese government embarked on initiatives aimed to attract foreign tourists, boost the economy and enhance the country’s cultural presence abroad.

Michio Fujiki holds up an old textile dyeing paper stencil. | KYODO
Michio Fujiki holds up an old textile dyeing paper stencil. | KYODO

Kyoto attracted a record 4.59 million foreign visitors in 2018, up from 3.61 million the previous year, according to the Kyoto prefectural government. Overall, visitors to the city spent ¥1.31 trillion in 2018, growing 16.1 percent from the previous year.

Michio Fujiki, the 60-year-old third-generation president of Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho, describes the company’s T-shirts’ color and design as “wa-pop.” “Wa” means “harmony” but is also used as a prefix to indicate “Japanese” or “Japanese-style.” The aim is to combine Japanese traditional patterns and Western pop culture. It started selling the T-shirts in May 2018 and now sells around 38,000 of them a year.

One of the designs has “Kyoto” printed diagonally against three Japanese traditional patterns — a seigaiha wave motif, an egasumi design of haze and clouds and ichimatsu, a checkered pattern that is also used for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic logo. These patterns are typically seen on kimono.

It is believed that an Edo Period painter named Miyazaki Yuzensai established the paper stenciling technique, called yūzen dyeing. Fujiki’s ancestors began using such paper stencils after the introduction of synthetic dyes in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) made it possible to create more complex designs and also sped up the dyeing process.

“We have found stencils that date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868),” says Fujiki, whose company now uses modern printing technologies to make pattern templates.

When Fujiki first started making the pop T-shirts, he went to a souvenir shop near Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kiyomizu temple, a popular tourist destination, and asked for shelf space for some of his T-shirts.The shop owner told him such T-shirts would be “no good in Kyoto,” but Fujiki convinced him to give them a try. The next day, the store owner called him and ordered more.

One of Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho's 'wa-pop' T shirts uses three Japanese traditional patterns. | KYODO
One of Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho’s ‘wa-pop’ T shirts uses three Japanese traditional patterns. | KYODO

Fujiki Yuzenkata Seisakusho’s T-shirts sell for ¥2,400 each, more than double the price of typical souvenir T-shirts.

“Now we see a lot of colorful T-shirts sold in Kyoto,” Fujiki says, commenting on how many other local suppliers have since followed suit.

His firm’s profit from the T-shirt business nearly tripled to ¥34 million in the year up to September 2019. The company, which also makes other kinds of T-shirts for domestic consumers, generates half of its T-shirt business profit in its from the souvenir versions.

Fujiki, who now sells Osaka and Tokyo T-shirts in those cities, expects profit from T-shirts to further increase to ¥55 million in the current business year.

Young designers are also being brought into the company, working in a studio Fujiki established two years ago for them to develop their ideas for T-shirts and other clothing. He is now hoping to work with the Agency of Cultural Affairs to make shirts using motifs from well-known paintings such as the works of ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai.

“I hope to sell my T-shirts in museums and art galleries in Kyoto,” Fujiki says.

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