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Ōgimi Village: The Home of Bashō-Fu Textiles

From a town of carpenters to the home of bashō-fu weaving

Bashō-fu (“banana fiber”) weaves are broadly categorized into two types: those made with skeins that have been softened and degummed (a technique called “nīgashī”) and those where the fabric itself is degummed after weaving, as is done in Kijōka.The former was used during Japan’s dynastic period as a garment for those of samurai ancestry, while the latter became widespread throughout Okinawa as summer wear for common folk up through the pre-war period.

In Kijōka, production of bashō-fu appears to date far back, but there are no written records of it before Nantō Tanken (Exploration of the Southern Islands) by Gisuke Sasamori, an official from Hirosaki Domain who visited Okinawa in 1893. An entry on bashō-fu appears alongside kasuri textiles as a product native to Ōgimi district: 561 tan (approx. 6.06m) of dark blue cloth and 249 tan of white cloth are noted. However, most production of bashō-fu was limited to personal use, so it appears to have been seldom exported outside the village.

In 1895, a woman named Nabe Nakahara deployed a splash pattern in a bashō-fu weave, which had traditionally been limited to solids and stripes.

In 1905, advances in technology and expanded production put bashō-fu on a new course:

treadle looms appeared in the village, and Masayoshi Taira, Yoshiko Taira’s grandfather, had his daughter take courses in hana-ui (float weaving) and rō-ui (gauze weaving).

The Struggles of Toshiko Taira, a Japanese Living National Treasure

During the war, Shinji Taira’s daughter, Yoshiko, worked in Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture as part of the women’s volunteer corps. After the war ended, she remained in Kurashiki and got a job at Kurashiki Bōseki’s Northern Plant (now Kurabo Industries). At the urging of Sōichiro Ōhara, president of the company, she and three others from Kijōka apprenticed under Kichinosuke Tonomura, then director of the Kurashiki Museum of Folk Crafts. In addition to learning the fundamentals of weaving and dyeing, Taira was greatly influenced by Sōetsu Yanagi’s Folk Art Movement, and returned to her hometown at the end of 1946.

Back in Kijōka, Taira was determined to revitalize bashō-fu weaving. She appealed to the widows of war to take up this craft, but the industry had given way to production for military needs, with no demand for traditional textiles like bashō-fu. This made turning the craft into a viable industry impossible, so she struggled for several years.

In 1951, amidst this adversity, one of Taira’s pieces took first prize at a craft competition organized by the Okinawan administration to promote local industry. In 1954, for the “Beloved Island Products Week,” she again took the grand prize. In the same year, the “Okiten” exhibit expanded to include a craft arts category, and Taira began exhibiting her pieces there. This brought the Kijōkan tradition increased attention, and Kijoka’s bashō-fu soon came to be recognized as an outstanding specimen of folk art.

Meanwhile, Taira procured large amounts of material from neighboring Noha and hired local women from Kijōka as weavers, centralizing and streamlining production. At the same time, she actively pursued development of new products, aiming to steadily make bashō-fu production a viable craft industry. Hit products at the time included placemats, table runners, and cushions for American shoppers, along with Japanese seating cushions (zabuton) and obi kimono belts for the mainland. The placemats in particular were a unique product, featuring soft rush straw, another Kijōka specialty, interwoven with the banana fiber threads. This product was a regular attraction at souvenir galleries around Okinawa – at the height of its popularity, close to 100 tan were woven a year.

Towards a prideworthy Okinawan craft tradition

In 1972, Okinawa returned to Japanese administration. This year also marked bashō-fu’s designation as an intangible folk cultural property, with Yoshiko Taira being recognized as the custodian of that tradition. Two years later, the Kijōka Bashō-fu Preservation Society, with Taira at the helm, was designated as an important intangible folk cultural property, an even more rare accolade.

Once bashō-fu came to be recognized as one of Okinawa’s flagship craft traditions, more orders started to come in from the mainland, and the price gradually went up. In 1978, standards were introduced to eliminate discrepancies in quality from item to item, and a certificate of authenticity started to be affixed to each piece.

At the same time, because craftspeople started to become older and successors of the tradition dwindled, the volume of bashō-fu produced each year slowly decreased. However, the quality of the textile and its recognition only went up: in 1981, Taira and the Bashō-fu Preservation Society were awarded the First Traditional Culture Pola Award from the Pola Foundation for the Promotion of Traditional Japanese Culture. A documentary film entitled “The Women Weavers of Bashō-fu” was made to showcase their traditions. This footage can be seen at the Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Hall today.

In 1984, in order to make bashō-fu eligible for designation as a traditional craft good by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now METI), the women founded the Cooperative Association for Banana-Fiber Cloth of Kijōka. Two years later, the completion of the Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Hall enabled them to begin training future successors of the craft. The hall serves as both a production site for the textile and a place to promote its existence, with over 20,000 people visiting the location each year.

Banana fiber is not limited to use in bashō-fu textiles. The surface fiber has long been used in the production of banana paper, which has recently enjoyed a surge of use for bouquets, bookmarks, papercraft, and more. The outer husk of the fiber, which is unsuitable for yarn, is called shīsāū and is an essential part of the lion masks used in the traditional lion dance performed throughout Okinawa. The fiber is used to create strands of hair to adorn the lion heads, so it is ordered in large quantities each year. The plant is also burned to create a charcoal that is used as a glaze for earthenware, among other uses. In this way, the humble banana fiber has caused a ripple effect, coming to be used in numerous applications.

Today, 250 tan of bashō-fu is produced a year in Kijōka. Because training inheritors of the craft takes time, and because its current practitioners are gaining in years, there are many unsolved issues for bashō-fu’s continued longevity. Through visitors’ understanding, support, and encouragement, we aim to make Kijōka bashō-fu a treasured legacy not just of Ōgimi village, but a traditional folk art that Okinawa can show with pride to the world.

Related Links

Look up at the sky of Bashofu

The blog about Bashofu of Kijoka. The report on the day-to-day activities and exhibitions.

Basho-fu Hall

Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Hall (built in 1986)

The Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Hall was built in 1986 with help from Okinawa as a means of revitalizing the local craft industry. Today, management of the hall is entrusted to the Cooperative Association for Banana-Fiber Cloth of Kijōka. With help from the local, prefectural, and national administrations, the site showcases Ōgimi’s efforts to train a generation of future stewards of Kijōka bashō-fu textiles, designated a recognized craft art by the Minister of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and an important intangible folk cultural property by the Minister of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology (MEXT). The first floor houses an exhibit hall with a permanent installation of bashō-fu items, video footage of the materials being woven, and items for sale. The second floor is where successors of the craft undergo training.
Out of courtesy to the students practicing on the second floor, we humbly ask that you contact us before visiting and refrain from photography and noisemaking during your stay.

大宜味村立芭蕉布会館
Contact:
454 Kijōka, Ōgimi-son, Okinawa-ken, JAPAN 905-1303
Tel. 0980-44-3033
Days of Operation:
Year-round, excluding Mondays, the Bon Festival of the lunar calendar, and year-end (12/29 – 1/3)
Visiting hours:
Summer: (April – October) 10:00AM – 5:30PM
Winter: (November – March) 10:00AM – 5PM

*For inquiries regarding visits or future stewardship of the craft, please contact the Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Hall directly.

This monument, installed in 1998, features the poem “Bashō-fu” by Baku Yamanokuchi, an Okinawan native and poet.
Bashō-fu, by Baku Yamanokuchi

It was a summer day, ten whole years
Since I’d moved to the capital
My mother, all the way back home,
Sent me a banana-fiber cloth.
She’d woven the bashō-fu by hand,
And I remembered her seated form at the loom,
Recalled the way she said hot weather
called for bashō-fu and nothing else,
and thought back to the sweet scent of Okinawa.
The fabric soon became a new kimono for me.
Twenty years soon passed, and I’ve yet to wear it once
Since I haven’t lost it, though,
I wouldn’t call this regret.
 I just haven’t the time to –
I take it out of storage, only to
put it back away again.

「芭蕉布」の碑建立

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