Issue 81 Japan Blue
March / April 2018
'Typhoon Lan obliterated the Naruto whirlpools during my visit to Tokushima last October. While so much of Japan suffered devastating loss as a result of the storm, in fact, it is due to the frequent typhoons and subsequent flooding of the Shinmachi River that prevent rice paddies from being sustainable in the region, allowing indigo, harvested before the typhoon season, to take hold. This lead to Tokushima becoming the centre of the indigo trade in the 19th century and home to wealthy indigo merchants. Today it is the undisputed indigo capital of the world.
‘Japan Blue’ was coined by an English scholar who, visiting Japan in the 18th century, was struck by blue’s overwhelming presence. The Japanese archipelago is surrounded by it; it is observed in every doorway and in everyone’s clothes. This blue, it seemed, belonged to the country, and still does. Japan has a complex and obscure culture, and it was due to the diligence of my gracious hosts Mr. Koji Ida and Mr. Shohei Sagawa of the Japanese Export Trade Organsation and Tokushima City Council that I was able to even scratch the surface.
My itinerary introduced me to the cult of the craftsman at the Awa Yuzen atelier. With great patience I was shown stencils in constant use for 200 years, and tried my hand at paste resist as a young assistant darted between the vats, only to reveal he had in fact fallen in twice during his apprenticeship. We then moved to Nagao Orifu, where the sounds and smells were familiar and I was struck by its similarity to the woollen mills of Yorkshire. Then to Okamoto Orifu Factory, where master craftsmen are working to satisfy the world’s hunger for Japanese selvedge denim, weaving on old Toyota looms, rope-dying his cotton and contrasting their indigo with persimmon. Finally, to conclude my visit, to Mr Sato; who together with the half dozen or so Water Masters maintains the sukumo tradition that makes Japanese indigo darker and more intense than anywhere in the world. In this issue, we celebrate Japan Blue and the country’s rich textile culture.'
Polly Leonard, Founder & Editor of Selvedge Magazine