KYOTO — Fukumi Shimura has been weaving kimono from naturally dyed thread for 47 years, but she is continually surprised by the mysteries of nature.
The hues provided by plants, nuts and tree bark vary tremendously depending on the different conditions in which they have grown — and, she says, their relationships with the people who draw the colors from them.
“I am constantly surprised by the individuality of each plant as it provides so many different colors,” the 78-year-old Shimura said. “The colors that appear also differ depending on their relations with the dyers.”
The weaver describes it as a meeting of two lives.
“It would not be correct to say that we ‘extract’ colors from plants, as that would indicate that plants are something humans make use of,” she said.
“It is more like we receive whatever nature gives us. We are completely passive” in this exchange, Shimura said, in her home and workplace in the Sagano district of Kyoto’s Ukyo Ward.
Shimura, who entered the world of dyeing and weaving at the age of 31, has won many awards, including designation by the government in 1990 as a “living national treasure.”
The artist is deeply concerned that the relationship between humans and nature is changing for the worse. The younger generation, for instance, tends to keep a distance from nature, perceiving it as something to admire for its beauty.
“They may admire nature, but they’ve lost a feeling of awe and respect toward it,” she said, explaining that she feels a profound gap between her and her young apprentices when she sees them avoiding insects and dirt while collecting plants and other vegetation for dyeing.
But the Japanese have traditionally had a close bond with nature, a fact that can be seen in the myriad names they have given to colors.
This is exemplified in the phrase “shiju haccha hyaku nezumi,” which was used in the Edo Period and literally translates to “there are 48 hues of brown and 100 of gray.”
In the Manyoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, many poems have color words in their construction, and in the 11th-century novel, “Tale of Genji,” colors indicate different meanings and nuances, according to Shimura, who has conducted extensive research into the history and use of color in various cultures.
“Using colors was a means of expression” in Japan, she said, adding that she knows of no other culture that has given so many different names to natural colors.
But Shimura fears that rapid industrialization and the introduction of artificial dyeing have not only changed the world of dyeing and weaving but also Japanese lifestyles.
But despite her concerns, Shimura still has hope. Many young women have asked to become her apprentices, although she only takes four apprentices for spans of three to four years and the work is very hard and with no immediate financial reward.
The people she does take under her wing, however, enjoy the work very much, Shimura said, adding that working at her studio draws out a person’s inner feelings, which connect directly with nature.
“My apprentices work very hard with all of their hearts because their state of mind directly appears in the quality of their work. Out of some hundreds of threads used when weaving, not a single mistake is allowed. You must work attentively and sincerely.”
Exchanges with schoolchildren through her work have also made her realize the importance of education, Shimura said, noting that she is often impressed by the sensitivity of children.
“We are all born with something inside that connects us with nature, and children still have it,” Shimura said. “It is adults who make children abandon it in the name of education.”
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