Dye house reinvents its business


Motobumi Kobayashi, who runs a nearly century-old dye house in Tokyo, is exploring new business possibilities by dyeing fabrics not just for traditional kimono dress but for a broader range of daily items.

Lampshades, accessories and other goods containing fabrics dyed at his workshop have been exported to nearly 20 countries.

“If dyed fabrics are used only for kimono, the market is limited to Japan. But if something else is covered, those products, with a historical background, could attract more people, even those overseas,” the 46-year-old president of Futaba Inc. said in a recent interview.

Kobayashi is the fourth president of the family business, founded in 1920 in the Ochiai area in Shinjuku Ward, a place that once flourished as a dyeing town.

More than 300 dye houses and related businesses were operating in the area during its heyday in the 1950s after many dyers moved there from the Kanda district in the early 1900s, drawn by the clean rivers and abundant water — vital components for dyeing.

But the industry declined as Japanese people shifted to a more Western lifestyle and wearing kimono fell out of favor. At present only about 10 dye houses, including Kobayashi’s, are operating in Ochiai and the neighboring areas against the backdrop of Shinjuku’s modern skyscrapers.

The dyeing techniques employed by Kobayashi are called Edo Komon and Edo Sarasa. It is said that the former was developed during the Edo Period (1603-1868) while the latter, originating in the Edo Period, wasn’t established until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), according to the Shinjuku Ward Dyeing Council.

Kobayashi was skeptical about the future of his business and began his career as a tour guide.

It was during one of his trips to India that his perception of the dyeing business changed significantly. In India he was impressed by the fact that dye patterns used in Edo Sarasa chintz had originated there.

“India is a country we can arrive at in less than one day by plane. But it took hundreds of years for Sarasa patterns born in the country to be imported into Japan, blended into kimono and become part of Japanese culture,” Kobayashi said. “I was stunned to see artisans at home still using the Indian-originated patterns for dyeing.”

Designs mainly based on birds and flowers are featured in Edo Sarasa, and the dark-colored fabrics often create an exotic feeling.

Sophisticated skills and techniques are required for Edo Sarasa artisans because colors need to be carefully overlaid with dye brushes using about 30 pattern papers. There are even cases in which 300 patterns are used. Dyeing a piece of textile measuring 13 meters by 36 cm, enough to make one kimono, takes two to three weeks.

Fabrics dyed using the Edo Komon method look pure gray or some other dark color from a great distance. But viewed at close range, a variety of small patterns can be recognized.

The fabrics became popular during the Edo Period among merchants who had been banned from wearing luxurious or brightly colored clothes under sumptuary regulations, Kobayashi said, adding that Edo Komon was the merchants’ way of enjoying fashion without violating any regulations.

When Kobayashi found the handmade dyeing method was in danger of being lost, he thought he had to act “before it disappears.”

He was 26 when he joined the family business. A key challenge was how to train junior apprentices, who had little experience of actual dyeing due to the shrinking demand for dyed products.

Starting out, many of the textiles they worked on were unusable, prompting Kobayashi to hit on the idea of using those parts for table mats and other small items. He actively began selling them in the late 1990s.

In 2003, his company staged a successful exhibit of fine-dyeing products at the Japanese Embassy in London. Kobayashi, seeing the international growth potential, decided to branch out and sell overseas.

Now products containing dyed fabrics made at his workshop — fabrics sandwiched between acrylic parts — include accessories, watches and mirrors, with 30 to 40 percent of them shipped overseas for museum shops and select stores mainly in European countries, including France, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium.

“I have realized that there are many people around the world who appreciate our products when it comes to goods other than kimono,” he said.

To keep the traditional dyeing method from disappearing, the company has started classes in which dyeing is taught, a business area that has been growing rapidly in recent years.

Now revenue from teaching represents 20 percent of the company’s total, against 50 percent from dyeing for kimono and 30 percent from dyeing for commodity goods.

Kobayashi is part of a project to rejuvenate the Ochiai area as a dyeing town. An annual event under the project, scheduled this year for Feb. 17 to 19, will see long kimono fabrics hanging over the Myoshoji River and “noren” dyed curtains decorating the entrances of many stores in the area.

“We want to make the entire town look like a gallery of dyeing,” Kobayashi said.