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Home > Passions of Artisans #041 FUTABA INC.

#041 FUTABA INC.2015/12/04

Efforts to showcase the production area and artisans continue to generate new enthusiasts for the craft (Shown: Edo Sarasa  pattern)

A traditional dyeing center lives on in the heart of urban Tokyo

Tucked away in the middle of this bustling city, dyed fabrics flutter in the breeze along the stream like traditional Japanese carp streamers. Brightly dyed shop curtains festively adorn the shopping street, delighting passersby as they stroll past.

The Some-no-Komichi (Dye-works Backstreet) event, which began in 2009, has grown into a hallmark of the community, drawing in more than 12,000 people over three days. Photo: Some-no-Komichi steering committee

Here you have a dyeing production center. Looking at the surroundings, where do you think it is? Actually, if you were to look up you’d see row after row of skyscrapers. This is Ochiai, Shinjuku in the heart of Tokyo. Unknown to the general public yet famous among those familiar with the craft, this production area has been the site of the annual Some-no-Komichi dyeing festival for seven years now.

The festival is the brainchild of Motobumi Kobayasi—chairman of the event steering committee, successor to the Edo Sarasa and Tokyo Some Komon dyeing traditions, and fourth-generation head of the Some-no-Sato Futaba-en workshop.

The business began in 1920. One of its founders, Motobumi’s grandfather Shigeo Kobayashi , was born in Nagano and learned dyeing techniques deep in this mountain prefecture before making up his mind to move to the capital. Shigeo became an apprentice under Kosuke Komiya, then renowned as the leading Edo Komon dye master in Tokyo, and eventually inherited the Edo dyeing traditions from his teacher.

It was during the Edo period that dyeing techniques really took off in Japan. The spread of stenciling techniques, particularly Ise-katagami, made it possible to mass-produce very fine stencil-dyed patterns—finally putting the joy of wearing fashionable fabrics within reach of the everyday townspeople.

“The Edo shogunate was not happy with the way things were going,” Director Kobayashi explained, “so they passed a law banning luxurious indulgences and strictly limiting the colors fabrics could have. The Edo craftsmen refused to let it stop them, however, and started turning out fashionable patterns using the browns and dark grays permitted under the law—exploring hues like kara-cha (tea brown) yanagi-susu-take (dusty olive), and ai-nezu (pale slate blue). This was the birth of the Edo Komon style, which looks plain from farther away but upon closer inspection is covered in delicate patterning. Edo Sarasa, on the other hand, features a brown background filled with exotic designs. It has its roots in the Middle East. I feel that these two styles really evoke the spirit of Japan’s dye artisans.”

Futaba-en’s representative director Motobumi Kobayasi is spurring the local shopping district and other tradesmen into action with his Renovation Project for Edo Dyeing Ateliers.

The term konyacho (dyer town) has traditionally been used to refer to areas with many indigo dye craftsmen and dyed fabric merchants. The Edo-period konyacho in the Kanda area of Tokyo was even depicted by the great ukiyo-e masters Hiroshige and Hokusai. Once Japan entered the Meiji and Taisho eras, however, the Kanda dyers began moving into the Ochiai and Nakai areas of Shinjuku.

“Rinsing the dyed fabric in water is a critical part of the dyeing process,” Motobumi told us. “Because the river water gradually became contaminated by living drainage, the dyers ended up moving upriver in search of a cleaner water source. Ochiai literally means ‘river junction’, and was named because it marks the intersection of the Kanda and Myoshoji rivers. The banks of the river hadn’t yet been built up back then, and the high flood risk kept most people from settling there. This combination of factors made it the perfect environment for the craftsmen.”

Other artisan groups, such as the Yunoshi workshops that used steam to straighten fabric, joined the dyeing craftsmen in Ochiai, turning the area into a production center for Edo dyeing traditions. At its height, the bustling community was home to more than 300 dyeing workshops, and the sight of the dye artisans rinsing fabric in the river remained a hallmark of the season up through 1960 or so.

Dyers used to rinse fabrics in the Myoshoji River that ran in front of the workshop

Linking tourism and Japanese monozukuri craftsmanship to preserve valued traditions

Eventually, however, the kimono quickly faded as an everyday garment in Japan as people shifted to Western dress. As a child, Motobumi wondered how his family could make it as a business.

My grandmother went around nearly every day of his life in a kimono, but it’s not like you saw anyone else out on the streets dressed that way. There were other kids in my class from dyeing families, so people didn’t really consider the work to be anything special. By the time I got to junior high school, though, there were serious doubts about how long we’d be able to keep the family business alive.

The situation made Motobumi long to get out of Japan and experience the wider world. When he sprung it on his father that he wanted to go to the UK for high school, the third-generation head of the family silently acquiesced. Bunjiro Kobayashi wanted to preserve tradition while infusing it with a modern aesthetic, and was a highly decorated dye artisan. As a businessman, however, he was at the mercy of the changing times, and life never seemed to be without struggle. He may have been hopeful that his son might discover the key to the future of the dyeing industry in his travels around the globe.

After graduation, Motobumi put his exceptional language skills to use and began working as a travel agent, taking charge of overseas tours bound for Turkey and India.

“I grew up with Japanese Sarasa, so naturally I was interested in the parts of the world where it was originally developed. I ended up including chintz factories on the tours, eagerly describing them to the participants. For some reason, the travelers seemed delighted to have a tour guide that was so passionately well-informed about dyeing.”

Motobumi jokes that he was probably assigned me to India because his face doesn’t look quite Japanese, but it’s a story that oozes of providence. There’s something uncanny about the fact that he found the same patterns he grew up with in Tokyo in the streets of far-flung India. Add to that the fact that the production areas where the now–company director was giving tours were places that had effectively combined tourism with traditional craftsmanship, and the story becomes even more impressive.

“Since before the Christian era, Turkish carpets and Indian chintz textiles have been known throughout the world as gifts that travelers brought back from holy pilgrimages and other journeys,” Motobumi explained. “They were recognized for their traditional techniques and beauty, and the areas where they were produced became quite prosperous. I realized that if we could effectively link Edo Sarasa to tourism as well, we may be able to find a way out of our crisis.”

Motobumi was 24 years old when he made this decision to carry on his family’s business. Since then, he has been taking on all kinds of new challenges in an all-out effort to keep Japan’s dye traditions alive.

Opening a monozukuri workshop to the public to showcase traditional excellence

Motobumi’s first hurdle was breaking out of the business model typically associated with Tokyo production sites.

“Urban centers are naturally a hub for fashion buyers and sellers. Companies typically put up retail outlets to protect their profits and retail channels, meanwhile keeping their actual production sites hidden to put consumers at a distance and avoid discount outlet sales.”

As a producer, Motobumi wants to preserve the good relationships he has with kimono dealers and department stores. He knows that making customers happy ultimately comes down to the careful follow-up and consultation work that is the hallmark of meticulous customer service.

“That said,” he went on, “these days people are promoting the quality of their goods by showing people their craft workshops. It eventually gets more people excited about Edo Sarasa or Edo Komon designs, which in turn translates to healthier retail profits.”

Futaba-en is actively making use of government support initiatives, and has begun promoting the production region while opening its craft workshops to the public. Seven years ago, Motobumi took advantage of subsidies from a (since-discontinued) program to encourage self-reliance among Japan’s small and medium-sized textile manufacturers to rebuild his workshop, creating a glass-paneled gallery and shop space adjacent to the atelier.

Motobumi’s wife Keiko takes charge of planning exciting events like the Edo Sarasa Hand-printing Experience and the Fun Futaba-en Kimono Tour, designed to give kimono fans open access to the production site.


Futaba-en’s attached gallery and shop features Japanese cloth trinkets and other assorted goods richly colored with vibrant dyes. Customers can also purchase decorative obi sash ornaments, fabric scraps, and more.

There are currently six dye artisans working at Futaba-en. The open workshop has attracted younger dyers as well, who are now working to carry on the Edo dyeing traditions.

“The work itself is absorbing and laborious, and opening up the atelier was unsettling to the artisans at first,” Motobumi told us, laughing as he remembered them firing back, “We’re not a bunch of pandas!” “But,” he went on, “after a while even our most senior craftsman told me that he was happy with the way things had turned out. Anyone can see inside our workshop now, and we even have delighted customers coming in to tell us that they’re wearing a kimono made out of our fabrics. People who have been doing this work for decades have been really moved by this, saying it’s the first time they’ve ever seen anyone actually wearing something they had dyed. It goes to show you just how removed our craft had become from everyday consumers—and how low demand had gotten…”

A smile crept across Motobumi’s face as he remembered his artisans’ expressions. He continued.

“If you have no idea who you’re making something for, it sucks the meaning out of your work, and you never bother refining your technique. Japan began experiencing a resurgence in traditional style a few years back, and for a short time there was even a boom in the kimono industry. Unfortunately, the market got flooded with cheap, fast-selling “Japanese-style goods” made overseas, backing our labor-intensive traditional crafts into a corner once again. What I’m hoping is that by showing the public our production site and letting people see our artisans in action, more of them will begin feeling a connection to us and start choosing traditionally-made Japanese goods.”

Bringing traditional Japanese patterns into the home through cross-industry collaboration

More than twenty years ago, Futaba-en started developing modern everyday goods like placemats, neckties, and lampshades in order to survive as a kimono fabric manufacturer—and the company currently displays these goods at gift shows and other exhibitions. This was another move that proved to be a hard sell among the artisans at first.

“From their perspective, cutting up a long piece of dyed fabric that they spent so much time and energy producing is a terrible thing,” Motobumi explained. “There wasn’t anything like these new products in the market, and buyers wouldn’t give us the time of day. But we kept at it, eventually meeting up with exhibitors in other fields who liked where we were coming from and wanted to get involved in joint projects. Pretty soon we had more items to offer, and more people began seeing the value in them.”


Cushions made using fabric dyed with Tokyo Some Komon and Edo Sarasa techniques. Color schemes can also be customized to match market demand.


Metal clasp coin purses perfect for everyday use or as a home for tiny treasures. Tokyo Some Komon and Edo Sarasa patterns add a delightful splash of color to any handbag.

Rin crossing currently carries cushions made with Edo Komon and Edo Sarasa fabrics. Their size is inspired by the flat taiko-musubi (drum bow) kimono sash style, giving them the charming and sophisticated look of a woman in traditional Japanese dress. Futaba-en’s modern goods are even attracting attention at Paris trade shows and other overseas exhibitions.

“We’ve produced countless patterns and designs over the years, and our potential color combinations are limitless,” Motobumi noted. “Our design work used to take place in the workshop, but we’re now working with a Tokyo designer on a tie-up project to produce bowls and other containers. We’re also excited about the connections we’re making through Rin crossing, as we expect they’ll lead us in some fresh new directions as well.”

The Edo Shinjuku Dyer Tour event held this fall featured twenty ateliers in ten different dyeing industries located throughout the Ochiai, Takada-no-baba, and Waseda areas. People were invited into the workshops to try their hand at dyeing and experience the traditional techniques for themselves. Photo courtesy of FUTABA INC.


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