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Chapter 7: The Craftsmen of Kyoto
by Pip Dickens
Extract (with kind permission of University of Huddersfield Press)
The art and craft of kimono making precedes the Western concept of haute couture (developed in mid-nineteenth century Paris by British designer Charles Worth), where many skilled people combine to produce specific elements of a bespoke garment. As outlined in Chapter 2, it takes many skilled artisans to make a katagami stencil and this, in turn, is but one element contributing to a kimono’s fabrication and design. There are a very significant number of different, highly skilled, procedures and techniques employed at each stage. Dyeing, painting, embroidery, and silk making are fast disappearing in Japan. No computer can completely replace these skills and there is real danger of exchanging original skill for simulacrum effect – for example, a computer-generated pattern that replicates a shibori technique. However, computers are able to capture, record and archive a vast library of techniques as reference material.
The kimono industry is suffering a Janus-faced conundrum of transition versus tradition. It shares parallels with Western Art’s recent history of reproduction in the mechanical age in that a computer-generated image of a painting is not an artwork – it is an image of an artwork. The painting becomes something different once it has been reproduced – colours change, spatial depth is lost, materiality is lost. Reproduction is only as a good as the camera that has photographed the original work. As we move further and further away from the original, we move further away from the point of art itself – the object, and how it is made and what it is made of.
The reason for this transition in the kimono industry is due in part to the decline of skilled artisans and a younger generation who cannot justify, economically, the time-investment in apprenticeships to learn these skills. The pressure on the industry to build a viable business practice has required it to explore and exploit other technologies. The alternative of hiring in traditional skill sets and expertise from a diverse yet ever-dwindling pool of resources is becoming less and less practicable. Writing in 2007, Anthony Faiola from the Washington Post described the last generation of skilled artisans in the Nishijin district of Kyoto:
Yasujiro Yamaguchi worked the humming loom in his private workshop. Patiently lacing golden threads through a warp of auburn silk, he fashioned a bolt of kimono fabric blooming with an autumn garden in shades of tea green, ginger and plum. But Yamaguchi, like Japan’s signature kimono, is slipping into winter. At 102, he is among the last master weavers of Nishijin, the country’s most celebrated kimono district, and his pace has slowed. He rubbed the morning chill from his knuckles, fitted his hunched shoulders deeper inside his indigo jacket and resolutely pushed on.
At the time of the interview with Faiola, Yamaguchi was one of only three masters left who could actually create a kimono from scratch. All were over 70 years old and none had apprentices. Yamaguchi stated: ‘It is a sign of the times … I am not sure who will carry on this tradition for future generations. I no longer have the time or energy to teach someone now. Even if I did, where would they work?’
Faiola reports that sales of Nishijin kimonos and related products fell from US$2.7 billion in 1990 to a record low of US$477 million in 2006; production of kimonos in this region (which is known for its quality) dropped from 291,000 to just 87,382 garments.
In 2011, through an introduction from Professor Yuzo Murayama, Director of Innovative Globalization of Kyoto’s Heritage Industries at Doshisha Business School in Kyoto, I met three designers who are bravely negotiating the chasm between tradition and transition, utilising kimonos (and kimono techniques) in different ways. For Murayama, these three designers exemplify new possibilities in Japan’s cultural business sector:
Although Japanese culture is enjoying a worldwide boom, particularly in ‘anime’ and ‘manga’, Kyoto’s heritage industries are mired in a slump. Some are even in danger of disappearing completely. One reason for
this lies in the fact that heritage industries have lost their horizons for lateral development, particularly their motivation for entering the global marketplace. The only means of overcoming these difficulties are those of novel innovations and of going global. The concept that holds they key to its success is that of ‘cultural businesses’. The Kakushin Juku [a class being offered by Doshisha Business School] is leading the way along the path from heritage industries to cultural businesses.
[End of Extract] the chapter includes reviews of three Kyoto craftsmen: Yuonsuke Kawabe, Taro Matsumara and Makoto Mori ]
Shibusa - Extracting Beauty
Edited by Monty Adkins and Pip Dickens
Size: 280 x 210mm
Number of images: 97
Images in colour: 89
published by University Huddersfield Press
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