Kanji Hama, 69, has quietly dedicated his life to maintaining the traditional Japanese craft of katazome: stencil-printed indigo-dyed kimonos made according to the manner and style of the Edo period. He works alone seven days a week from his home in Matsumoto, Nagano, keeping indigo fermentation vats brewing in his backyard and cutting highly detailed patterns into handmade paper hardened with persimmon tannins to create designs for a craft for which there is virtually no market. Nearly identical-looking garments can be had for a pittance at any souvenir store.
Indigo is one of a handful of blue dyes found in nature, and it’s surprising that it was ever discovered at all, as the plants that yield it reveal no hint of the secret they hold. Unlike other botanical dyestuff, which can be boiled or crushed to release its colour, the creation of indigo requires a complex molecular process involving fermentation of the plant’s leaves. (The most common source is the tropical indigo plant, or Indigofera tinctoria, but Japanese dyes are generally made from Persicaria tinctoria, a species of buckwheat.) Everyone who has worked with indigo — from the Tuareg and Yoruba in Africa to the Indians and Japanese across Asia to the prehistoric tribes in the Americas — figured out their own methods for coaxing out the dye, and distinct ways of using it to embellish their clothing, costumes, domestic textiles or ritual objects that were particularly expressive of their own culture and beliefs.
No one knows exactly when indigo arrived in Japan, but beginning around the eighth century, the Japanese began creating a large repertoire of refined traditions for designing with it. Many indigo techniques are intended to hold back, or resist, the dye in certain areas to create designs. Nearly all of these, which include various ways of manipulating the fabric before it is dyed, such as tying it, knotting it, folding it, stitching it, rolling it or applying a gluey substance to it, are used in the great variety of Japanese traditions. But for Hama’s katazome practice, a paste of fermented rice is applied through a stencil laid on top of the fabric. After the fabric has been dipped in an indigo vat, the paste gets washed off and the stenciled design remains. (Resist pastes in other countries often employ local ingredients: Indonesian batik is made with wax, Indian dabu block prints with mud and Nigerian adire with cassava flour.) Katazome, however, unlike the other resist techniques, can yield very intricate and delicate designs because the stencil-making itself, called katagami, is a precise and elaborate craft, unique to Japan.
A hand-dyed kimono from the private collection of the indigo artisan Hiroyuki Shindo hangs in the Little Indigo Museum in Miyama, north of Kyoto.
Matsumoto, which is roughly halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto, was once a centre for the Japanese folk craft movement of the 1930s through the 1950s, which recognised and celebrated the beauty of regional, handcrafted everyday objects, or mingei. Hama’s grandfather was part of that movement and a pioneer in reviving natural dyeing after its obsolescence. Hama learned his trade as his father’s apprentice, starting when he was 18, working without salary or holidays, seven days a week for 15 years. (Every evening, from 8 p.m. until about 3 a.m., Hama returned to the studio to practice what he had learned that day.)
Wearing blue work clothes, his hair covered with an indigo scarf and his hands and fingernails stained blue, Hama ushers me to his studio, which occupies the second floor of his house and is outfitted with long, narrow tables built to accommodate lengths of kimono fabric (a standard kimono is about 40 feet long and 16 inches wide). From a back door off the studio, stairs lead to a shed that houses his fermentation vats and a small yard, given over in its entirety to sheaths of dyed kimono fabric, stretched from one end to the other — like long, slender hammocks — to dry.
Of the dozens of steps involved in his process, some are highly complicated and some are simply tedious, such as the repeated washing and starching and rinsing of the fabric, but all are time-consuming. “Craft is doing things with your hands. Once you manufacture things, it is no longer craft,” Hama tells me. As a holdout devoted to maintaining the tradition against all odds, almost to the point of tragic absurdity, Hama is not interested in the easy way. He does not buy prewashed fabric, and instead of premade starch, he makes his own. He sets down one of the stencils he has carved into persimmon-hardened paper called washi — a slight modification of an 18th-century pattern, which he has backed in silk to keep the intricate design intact — onto a length of fabric fastened to one of the tables. (He doesn’t make his own paper or persimmon extract, but only because he doesn’t think the variety of persimmon used today yields the same quality tannins as those from his grandfather’s day. As a result, he has planted a tree from which he hopes one day to make his own.) With a hera, a spatula-like tool, he evenly slathers a glutinous rice paste over the stencil to resist the dye. Because Hama wants a precise consistency to his paste, which varies based on the intricacy of the design and the weather conditions, he mixes his own, a process that takes half a day. He squeegees the excess off the stencil and, by eye, proceeds down the table, lining it up where the previous one left off. The fabric is then hung in the studio to dry before he can do the same work on the other side: Once sewn into a kimono, it won’t even be visible. Next, the fabric is moved outside, where it gets covered in soy milk (also homemade) to help keep the glue in place as it dries in the sun; this is repeated three times on each side before the dyeing can start. We head down to the fermentation dye vats, which are steaming cauldrons cut into the floor of a lean-to shed. Each indigo dyer has his own recipe for adding lime, ash, lye from wood and wheat husks to the sukumo (or composted indigo plant), which must be kept warm and stirred for a couple weeks in order to ferment and become dye in a process called aitate. Hama works according to the seasons. In the summer and monsoon seasons, it is too hot for indigo, as the paste will melt, while in winter, he must rise each morning at 3 a.m. to descend into the cold, adding new coals for a consistent temperature.
Hama is cognisant that what he knows will likely die along with him. Like many masters of traditional crafts in Japan, Hama does not believe in writing down the process, because the craft is understood to be so much more than its individual steps and thus impossible to transmit through written instruction. Indigo dyeing like this is a way of life, and to the extent to which Hama is a master, he possesses not just his own knowledge but, in a very real way, his father’s and his father’s father’s knowledge. This kind of embodied, tacit expertise doesn’t translate easily into English as it involves the very un-Western idea of the body and the intellect working in unison, masterfully and efficiently, as if in a dance. There is a chance his son will take on the business, but Hama thinks this generation is incapable of putting in the time it takes to gain the mastery of a craft like this.
But who would? It takes 10 years of apprenticing just to become proficient. And to what end? It is nearly impossible to earn a living. Synthetic indigo costs a tiny fraction of sukumo and takes about an hour to mix, rather than the few weeks of constant tending Hama requires. In order to support the kimono work he is passionate about, he and his wife peddle indigo trinkets online. More recently, they partnered with a local initiative called the Matsumoto Folk Craft that pairs older mingei artisans with young designers to create objects relevant to modern lifestyles. They produced some very nice chair cushions that make use of the old designs in a simpler and more graphic way. But still, this doesn’t interest Hama. I ask him: What does he think when he looks back on his career? “I should have put in more effort,” he replies.
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