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#058 Hajime Shoji Co., Ltd.:Amami Cloth (Kagoshima)2017/04/20

奄美の伝統文化、大島紬の技術を再編集してメイドイン奄美を総合プロデュース〈奄美布〉


As kimono becomes less a part of Japanese daily life, the “Oshima Tsumugi Homecoming Project” seeks to give new life to treasures lying dormant in closets.

The island of Amami-Oshima lies almost exactly halfway between Kyushu and Okinawa. Among Japan’s remote islands, it is second only to Sadogashima in its wide open spaces and abundant forests. About an hour’s drive from the airport in the island’s north is the small hamlet of Nazeariya, right in the center of Amami-Oshima. Hajime Shoji, the subject of this story, has been creating and selling Honba Amami-Oshima Tsumugi textiles in this hamlet for seven generations.

Storerooms like this one, built up high on stilts, are an ancient tradition of Amami-Oshima, a land with its own unique culture. They were used to store food and other goods.

One aspect of Amami’s unique culture that has been passed down for 1,300 years is Oshima Tsumugi textiles. 100% silk thread is first dyed before being woven by hand into elaborate, intricate patterns. This traditional craft is celebrated as the pinnacle of Japan’s kimono culture. It is the dream of every person who wears kimono to own a kimono made with this luxurious silk fabric.

And yet, as the kimono has rapidly become less a part of daily Japanese life, there were concerns about the future of Oshima Tsumugi. In the 1980s, Hajime Shoji started marketing its products directly, without going through wholesalers. As they traveled the country, selling their wavers, they gained a sense of what consumers really wanted, and they started to explore new possibilities. ‘They say that, at this moment, some 800 million to a billion kimono are lying dormant in closets all around the country. This prompted us to start the “Oshima Tsumugi Homecoming Project,” in which we would bring some of those old Oshima Tsumugi kimonos back to Amami and give them new life.’ The company’s representative director, Masaaki Hajime, told us about the origins of the project.

Masaaki Hajime, Representative Director of Hajime Shoji, says, ‘Our challenge for the future is to find ways to extend and express Oshima Tsumugi in areas other than traditional Japanese costume, and to communicate that from Amami.’

The fabric from old kimono can be re-fashioned into items of Western clothing, but because Oshima Tsumugi is such a highly delicate woven silk textile, there is a very high risk that the fabric will deteriorate. For this reason, Hajime considered, through repeated trial and error, ways in which the fabric could be re-used in a way that would allow it to last for a long time. The solution they arrived at was to cut the old kimono fabric into thin strips to use as the weft for weaving it into a new type of fabric by use of the Oshima Tsumugi looms. This new fabric, which they have named “Amami Cloth,” is now being sent out into the world in the form of clothing and other fabric items.

Many different types of old kimono, not just Oshima Tsumugi ones, collected from all over Japan, await their renaissance.

‘Of course, one of our main aims is to give new life to Oshima Tsumugi textiles that have outlived their usefulness and turn them into things that can be used in contemporary lifestyles. More importantly, however, as fewer and fewer people wear kimono, there is now less work for our skilled workers and they are growing older, so we wanted to create work for our current workers and re-establish the foundations for passing on these traditional techniques to future generations.’ As Masaaki describes, the circumstances surrounding Tsumugi artisans is very serious.

The kimono fabric is cut into thin, 5-mm strips with scissors. This is all done completely by hand, but it is apparently no chore compared to the intricate processes involved in weaving Oshima Tsumugi.

The finely cut strips of kimono fabric are wound onto shuttles to use as weft thread, and woven onto silk warp threads with the Oshima Tsumugi looms to create new woven fabric.

One length of Oshima Tsumugi takes a staggeringly long time of about a year to produce. First, the silk threads that are used as the raw material are bound according to the design sketch for the kasuri, or splash pongee, pattern, using the shimebata, a loom that is unique to Oshima Tsumugi. The bound threads then undergo the dorozome, or mud-dying, process, before they are woven into Oshima Tsumugi textiles. Each of these processes is undertaken by highly skilled specialists, and more than 100 complex steps must be taken to arrive at the finished product. At its peak, production was up to 280,000 tan (a measure of fabric for kimono, etc. Usually around 12 meters) a year, but that has since plummeted to just 5,000 tan. The loss of work for these artisans, which require such specialized skills, signifies a crisis for the very survival of Oshima Tsumugi itself.

Items tailored by off-island designers using the Amami Cloth woven from the strips of old kimono fabric.

In 2012, Hajime entered a vest made with Amami Cloth, the new fabric made with Oshima Tsumugi fabric and techniques, in a New Local Products Contest in Kagoshima Prefecture. The entry was awarded the Governor’s Prize in the Industrial Crafts division. This drew attention from many different industries to the Oshima Tsumugi Homecoming Project that Hajime had launched at the same time, and it has provided a major foothold for future growth of this new business.

 

Hajime Shoji has joined forces with off-island manufacturers and artisans to use Oshima Cloth in the production of a variety of commercial products, such as hats and bags.


Exploring the Creation of Fabrics with New Materials to Pass on the Sophisticated Techniques of Oshima Tsumugi

‘The process of producing Oshima Tsumugi is very complex and involves many different tasks. The shimebata, weaving looms, and other tools that support those techniques are also extremely precious, and there are very few artisans left who can make them. If we are to preserve Oshima Tsumugi and pass it on to future generations, it is important that we keep using the tools that we have now.’ These passionate words came from Masaaki’s eldest son and the company’s Senior Managing Director, Tadaaki Hajime.

Hajime had this large weaving loom custom-made to weave 140-cm wide fabric lengths. This has made it possible to create products for a variety of areas, not just kimono.

Although he has now taken over the family business, when Tadaaki went to university, uncertainty about the future had led to a sense that he would not have to succeed his father. In the homes of artisans throughout Amami, as well, there was a trend for young people to leave the island and seek out different paths from their parents. Tadaaki went to university with the goal of becoming a CG designer, but he never truly felt comfortable with his chosen path. In the summer of his third year of university, he came home to Amami-Oshima, where his eyes were re-opened to the appeal of Oshima Tsumugi. He deferred his university studies for a year, and, enrolling as a trainee at the Kagoshima Prefecture Oshima Tsumugi Skills Training Center, chose a new path of learning the traditional skills of Oshima Tsumugi.

The shimebata, a special apparatus used to bind the kasuri-mushiro, for dying the kasuri-ito threads that will produce the unique patterns of Oshima Tsumugi.

He then returned to university, where he wrote his graduation thesis on Oshima Tsumugi. After graduation, he spent three years gaining experience at a wholesaler in Kyoto, before returning to the island. In tandem with his wife, who also learned loom-weaving as a trainee at the Skills Training Center, he now spends his days exploring new possibilities that will allow him to pass on the skills of Oshima Tsumugi to future generations.

Senior Managing Director, Tadaaki Hajime who, as a trained artisan himself, is involved in all processes of Oshima Tsumugi production.

Since the launch of Amami Cloth attracted so much attention in 2012, the climate surrounding the company has undergone major changes. At the urging of SME Support, Japan, the company’s business of production and sales of fabric and recycled merchandise from strips of old kimono fabric through its Oshima Tsumugi Homecoming Project obtained a Local Resource Accreditation in 2014. Masaaki and Tadaaki have also been giving presentations at trade fairs and Rin crossing events throughout Japan, which has allowed them to forge connections with buyers, manufacturers and designers in a range of other industries, not just the kimono industry. Proposals for collaborative projects using many different materials have come flooding in, and the company has ventured into the production of other kinds of fabrics using Oshima Tsumugi’s traditional tools such as the shimebata and weaving looms.

The prototype fabric made from woven strips of fabric used not only Oshima Tsumugi but a variety of materials for the weft.

 

They are exploring all kinds of possibilities, such as prototypes for the effective use of the sofa leather offcuts, and dying cashmere to use for the weft.

After obtaining the Local Resource Accreditation, the new product also passed the assessment for the Monozukuri Subsidy. With the future development of new products in mind, the company plans to order a custom weaving loom, the only one of its kind in the world, that will be able to weave fabric in very wide widths. The company also built a new workshop on its premises to house the wide loom and an old shimebata for use in creating new fabrics. Aspiring to pass on its existing Oshima Tsumugi tools and the many and various skills to future generations, the company has created an environment in which the entire process, from the shime thread binding to the dorozome mud-dying and weaving, can be performed. Tadaaki himself is personally involved in the trial-and-error process of new product development as he hones his own skills as an artisan of this traditional craft.


Sending out into the world Amami collaborative products in many different genres, including interiors, building materials, and fashion accessories

At the entrance of the new workshop, which was completed only the year before last, some plates are on display. Panels of Oshima Tsumugi in the traditional “Tatsugo” pattern have been coated and encased in resin and glass. As it gets darker and the lights behind these panels are turned on, a beautiful pattern, almost like stained glass, appears. This plate is a new product that explores that possibility of using Oshima Tsumugi as a building material. It takes advantage of the unique beauty of Oshima Tsumugi patterns, which are the same on front and back. The logo, which is in the design of a tree, is imbued with the company’s wish to send out into the world a variety of Made in Amami products.

The new workshop has been given the name “AMAMIMAMA,” and a logo designed in the image of the forests that stretch out across the land of Amami Oshima.

 

“Crystal Oshima Tsumugi” is a new product made by encasing Tatsugo, a representative Oshima Tsumugi pattern, in a special resin and glass coating, and forming it into a range of items, including building materials and interior décor goods.

This endeavor has opened up new possibilities in many different fields that they had been unable to break into with the fabric by itself. Possibilities include tiles and other industrial products, as well as lifestyle items such as coasters, photo frames, and lampshades.

The company is flexible in its use of materials, using not only Oshima Tsumugi, but other old kimono fabrics such as Komon and Yuzen, making strips for weaving into new fabric, or taking advantage of their patterns to create other products.

The company is not limiting itself to Oshima Tsumugi in these new endeavors. Other textiles with patterns such as Komon and Yuzen are encased in photo frames, with the remnants cut into strips, woven into Amami Cloth and re-born as new items. The creative possibilities are endless, such as turning kimono that hold special memories for families into products that tell the story of those memories.

Hajime Shoji is also involved in a joint industry-government-academia project to express Oshima Tsumugi visually as “infographics.”

Masaaki is very excited about the possibilities. ‘We are also involved in activities that aim to revitalize traditional Japanese crafts in industry-government-academia collaboration. In addition to my sales work, I personally attend forums hosted by the Cultural Affairs Agency and universities, and am involved in a project to convey Oshima Tsumugi to other third parties. Our challenge going forward will be to work out how best to communicate our made-in-Amami products and the culture itself to new markets.’

‘We have the backing of the massive brand of “Amami-Oshima.” Using the techniques of Oshima Tsumugi to come up with new products will create new jobs and give birth to new culture. Also, by suggesting the possibilities of the Amami brand, our young people can have pride in our island. I think that that is probably our ultimate goal. However, to bring that goal to fruition, we need the help of experts from off the island. I hope you can help us.’

How to pass on to future generations the traditions of Oshima Tsumugi that our ancestors have built up over the long period of 1,300 years. Hajime Shoji’s initiatives have transcended the framework of a single company, and have even gone beyond the framework of the traditional Japanese craft of Oshima Tsumugi, and have started weaving the future of Amami.

Hajime Shoji Co.,

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