Okinawa’s bashofu textile endures into modern era

NAHA — Bashofu, a light, cool fabric well suited for a summer kimono, is a traditional textile of Okinawa Prefecture. The production of this unique fabric relies heavily on manual labor.

I recently visited the Kijoka hamlet, the main production site of bashofu, in the village of Ogimi in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island. About 390 people live in the community.

On entering the hamlet, I saw fields of itobasho, a type of banana tree. The fiber from its trunk is used to make threads for weaving bashofu cloth.

The entire 23-step process for making bashofu, including growing itobasho, making thread, dyeing the thread and weaving the fabric on a loom, is carried out in the hamlet, and Kijoka’s bashofu has been designated an important intangible cultural asset.

During my visit in mid-July, I joined a group about to harvest itobasho.

The eight men and women, decked out in work clothes and wearing hats and rubber gloves, entered the field. They used sickles to cut down itobasho that had grown to more than 2 meters tall and then skillfully peeled layer after layer of cream-colored leaf sheaths from each itobasho on the spot.

It is said that weaving one tan, or one roll of cloth — the amount necessary to make an adult’s kimono — requires fiber from about 200 itobasho trunks.

At a nearby bashofu factory, women were busy plying and weaving. Each step in this part of the process, from making fine, uniformly thick threads to dyeing the thread and weaving the fabric, requires a high level of skill.

Mieko Taira, 73, chair of the Kijoka Bashofu Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai, a local business cooperative for bashofu production, was deftly adjusting threads with her quickly moving hands.

“We work as a team. Each of us is like a tooth on a gear,” Taira said. “If any one of us gets careless, it’s certain to affect the quality of the cloth.”

Endangered by U.S. occupation

Bashofu is so lightweight and thin that it is compared to the wings of a dragonfly. The cloth was born out of the wisdom of the islands’ ancestral people, who wanted to be able to feel cool even in the hot and humid environment of what is now Okinawa Prefecture.

When the islands were under the control of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), the Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) levied a tribute of bashofu on the kingdom’s people. While the fabric was presented to China and the Edo shogunate as a luxury textile, it was also widely used to make the daily clothing of the common people.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the tribute system was abolished, but in Kijoka, where there is not much arable land, the entire hamlet began bashofu production in earnest.

Muneyoshi Yanagi, an advocate of the mingei folk craft movement, mentioned Kijoka as the main production base of bashofu in his book “Bashofu Monogatari” (A story of bashofu) published in 1943 during World War II.

When the U.S. military occupied the islands, it burned down itobasho fields to prevent the spread of malaria, endangering the bashofu tradition.

After the war, the tradition was restored by Taira’s mother-in-law, Toshiko Taira, who is now 101 and a designated living national treasure.

Toshiko Taira returned to her hometown of Kijoka from Okayama Prefecture after the war. She asked local women whose husbands had died in the war to join her in restoring bashofu production. To survive the difficult times, they initially made products such as table mats for the occupying Americans.

Toshiko also worked hard to form the bashofu cooperative and taught training sessions on how to weave. She sometimes borrowed money to help pay wages to fellow workers.

Bashofu gradually gained recognition not only in Okinawa Prefecture but throughout Japan, leading to its designation as an important intangible cultural asset in 1974, after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan.

Aging weavers

Bashofu is facing yet another crisis as the demand for kimono has declined alongside a change in Japanese people’s lifestyle over the past 50 years. The situation has been further complicated by the aging of the weavers.

Annual production has declined from 520 tan in 1980 to 100 tan in 2021, and the number of people making bashofu has halved to 57 from 130 in 1984.

The average age of the 14 members of a society for the preservation of bashofu is 80. Akiko Tobaru, 84, a member of the preservation society, said, “Young people tend to shy away from making bashofu as a profession as we cannot make a living on making bashofu alone.”

There are nine students learning the bashofu tradition and production techniques to carry the torch passed from the older generations. However, they face a strict requirement of 30 years minimum work experience to become a member of the bashofu preservation society.

Another obstacle facing the craft is the three years of growth required before itobasho can be harvested. Itobasho have not yet been cross-bred for improvement, unlike other crops.

Mieko Taira, who followed in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, has been active in promoting bashofu, such as by working on bashofu exhibitions at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and restoring bashofu produced during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

“I want to continue producing special, high-quality cloth and have its value known both in Japan and abroad,” Mieko said. “I want to continue preserving the culture of bashofu, a textile that has come to clothe the very souls of Okinawans.”