Have you noticed the colour of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 logo? Perhaps you’ve registered the inky blue and thought that it rings a bell: traditional yet sophisticated, understated and timeless. This would not be a surprise given the amount of attention we give to indigo at Selvedge.
The logo, designed by Tokolo Asao and called Harmonised chequered emblem, was chosen to represent the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics after allegations of plagiarism plagued the original selection. The emblem is made up of two types of rectangle and a square in a chequered pattern called ichimatsu moyo that first became popular in the Edo period of Japan. The three different rectangles that connect at every corner can fill a circle perfectly — at first glance the simplicity is deceptive, and further inspection reveals the complexity that can only have been made possible as a result of mathematical logic. The design is said to represent the harmony of different countries, cultures and an inclusive world.
The colour of the logo, ai – Japanese indigo – has been used across much of the Olympic campaign. It is strong, timeless, durable which makes it the obvious choice for the plethora of applications. It is also intrinsically linked to the fabric and history of Japan. The archipelago of islands is surrounded by it; it is observed in every corner of the land and in the fibres of centuries-old textiles and modern-day fashions. This blue has long belonged to the country — and still does.
Founder of Selvedge Magazine Polly Leonard travelled to Japan in 2017 to research the country and its textile history for Issue 81 Japan Blue, as well as to see the indigo farms at Tokushima that inspired the Olympic logo. Tokushima, was the centre of the indigo trade in the 19th century and remains, to this day, the undisputed indigo capital of the world. Read on for an excerpt of the article Grass Roots: The Making of Indigo Dye to find out more about how indigo came to represent Japan on a world stage. Read the full article here.
The Japanese character for ‘Sukumo’, written by combining ‘grass’ and ‘dye’, describes the traditional indigo dye made by composting the dried leaves of Persicaria tinctoria plants. The start of the 100 day composting process, as still practised in the Tokushima Prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku island, is called nese-komi; literally the ‘putting to sleep’ of the indigo leaves.
This term was already used in the 14th century, when the records of Tō-ji Temple in Kyoto documented the existence of a Ne-Ai-Za, or ‘Indigo Sleeping Guild’, and possibly the beginning of the Japanese fermenting process; sukumo. By the 15th century indigo was being farmed on a large scale throughout the country, including Tokushima, and shipped as dried leaves to Kyoto’s Ne-Ai-Za for composting. Soon, the Kingdom of Awa, as Tokushima was historically known, would establish itself as Japan’s largest producer of sukumo. This designation continues today through the work of the 50 families who still grow indigo in Tokushima and in the hands of the five families who continue to ferment that indigo every autumn, transforming it into some 85% of all sukumo produced annually in Japan.
The Yoshino River is at the heart of Tokushima and is central to indigo history there. The river’s annual flooding created the fertile plain which has supported indigo cultivation for well over 500 years. It also repeatedly destroyed the local rice harvest, devastating the region at a time when rice was both a staple crop and the only form of tax payment to the head of Japan’s feudal government. So when the Hachisuka family was awarded the Kingdom of Awa Indigo in 1585 for their loyalty to Japan’s rulers, they quickly decided to replace rice with indigo which could be harvested before the flooding.
At the time, demand for sukumo was growing nationally, thanks to the rapid expansion of cotton production throughout Japan, so Awa’s rulers recognised the opportunity to trade the indigo dyestuff for the rice they desperately needed. Fortunately, they didn’t stop there, but went on to pursue a national monopoly on sukumo production. They established schools in Tokushima that bred plants with high dye content, and refined the composting process to yield the highest quality dyestuff possible. Graduates of these schools were sworn to secrecy, and anyone caught carrying these secrets from Tokushima to other regions of the country faced the death penalty.
Excerpt from Issue 81 Japan Blue written by Rowland Ricketts with special thanks to Mr. Sato.
Read the rest of the article here: Grass Roots, The Making of Indigo Dye