Okinawan Kimono and Textiles

Sigh.  Golden Week was a couple of months ago, and it’s only now that I found the time to write this post.  What’s Golden Week?  It’s a string of national holidays all in a row and it seems like the whole country goes traveling during that time.  We were no exception.  My husband and I finally made it down to Okinawa after six years of living in Japan.  It was a great and surprising trip.  I had always heard that people from Okinawa identified themselves more as Okinawan than Japanese, and until this trip I couldn’t really understand why.  Okinawa really is like a different world.  It was its own independent kingdom for a long time (the Ryukyu Kingdom) and was a tributary state of both the Chinese and Japanese Empires until Japan fully annexed it as Okinawa Prefecture during the Meiji Era.  They had their own king, their own culture, their own language, and their own food.  This division is still very palpable today.

And this division even holds true to the kimono of Okinawa.  Before I went, I already knew about bingata kimono, but I didn’t know much else, and there wasn’t a lot of information that I could find online.  I arrived in Okinawa intending to add a bingata kimono to my collection, but I quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be that easy.  And in fact, I never did get a bingata kimono, mainly because they were so expensive, and they were so different that I would have to build up an entirely new outfit from scratch.  I couldn’t just pair a traditional bingata kimono with a Nagoya obi and be done with it.

I’d like to outline everything I discovered about Okinawan kimono and textiles in a logical fashion, but first, I have to include a disclaimer.  I am not an expert on Okinawan kimono.  The information that I am presenting to you is based on my observations and my interactions with the local people of Okinawa during my four day trip.  This information is not a complete or exhaustive list.  There isn’t a lot of information in English on Okinawan textile history.  I did pick up some books while I was there, but they are in Japanese and will take some time to translate.  They will probably add some more insight as I work my way through them.

And with that, let’s look at some of the differences!

 

#1: The Kimono Market

If, like me, you go to Okinawa with the intention of adding a bingata kimono to your collection, you may be disappointed.  Unlike mainland Japan, there is almost no second-hand market for kimono in Okinawa.  There’s a couple of reasons for this.  First, the most famous textile, bingata, was reserved for the upper classes, which already limits the amount of stock available.  Second, the Battle of Okinawa destroyed almost everything in its path.  I lost count of the number of times I read a plaque saying “This is a recreation of something that was destroyed in the war.” And of course this applies to kimono and textiles as well.

You really only have two options in Okinawa.  The first is to buy new products, which can be very, very expensive.  The cheapest I saw was a bingata dyed yukata for ¥120,000.  A kimono could easily cost you ¥650,000 as could an obi.  That is so beyond my price range that I can’t even imagine spending that much on one garment.  And they were stunning garments.

Your second option is to buy a polyester recreation.  These are worn by people working in the tourist industry.  These kimono will set you back around ¥15,000.  I considered getting one of these, until I realized how different the construction and the kitsuke is (more on that below).

If that’s still too much for your budget, you can get a sample of bingata.  In every tourist area, there are bingata bags, furoshiki, scrunches, aprons, and even boxer shorts.  It’s all synthetic materials and dyes, but if you want to bring a bit of it home with you and can’t afford a full kimono, it’s another option.

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The bingata furoshiki that I bought in compensation for not buying a kimono.

 

#2: The Textiles

Again, disclaimer time.  This isn’t an exhaustive list of Okinawan textiles.  It’s just a list of the ones I found most interesting during my travels.

Bingata (紅型)

I’ve mentioned bingata above, but I haven’t explained exactly what it is.  There are dozens of different methods for bingata dyeing and for a complete explanation, you can check out the Kimono Dictionary website here.  Generally though, bingata has a few outstanding characteristics.

  • Bright colors: Vibrant colors are a trademark of bingata, with the most famous color being a bright yellow.  Red, purple, green, and blue are also popular colors to use.
  • Tropical designs: Okinawa really is the Hawaii of Japan.  You will find the occasional plum or cherry blossom, but you will more commonly find tropical birds, flowers, and natural phenomenon depicted on bingata.
  • Natural dyes: Today, the dyes used are mostly synthetic, but traditionally, they would use plant dyes such as hibiscus and indigo.  Artisans who are trying to revive and preserve the bingata tradition also use natural plant dyes today.

 

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Examples of bingata fabrics that show the bright colors and tropical designs.

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Some of the natural materials used to create the traditional dyes, along with the brushes used to apply the dye over large areas.

Shuri-ori (首里織)

When I resigned myself to the fact that I could never afford a true bingata kimono, I turned my attention to shuri-ori, the local weaving technique.  There are five different types of weaving and they can be roughly broken down into those created for the upper classes (using many different colors) and those created for the lower classes (using only two colors).

The interesting thing about shuri-ori is that, unlike many other types of weaving such as nishijin, there is no right or wrong side.  The obi that I bought came off the loom completely reversible.

It was also a lot more affordable.  I spent ¥15,000 on my obi.  It’s a cotton hanhaba, complete with certifications from the shuri-ori quality control associations.

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My own shuri-ori obi.  Perfect to wear in the summer heat!

For more information (in Japanese) you can look at www.shuri-ori.com

Bashofu (芭蕉)

Just before I left, my kitsuke and wasai teachers told me to look out for bashofu.  I’m glad I did.  Bashofu is fabric made from the fibre of the banana plant.  I managed to get a sample and I can see it being really effective for a tropical climate.  The only examples that I saw during my trip were in a museum unfortunately. The process to create bashofu has in excess of 30 steps and is way, way, way beyond by budget.

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examples of bashofu.  At the bottom is the raw material.  The top left is an example of the fibres that are half-way through the process, and the upper right shows the completed threads.

bashofu

Here’s an example of the final garment.

#3: The Kimono Construction

There seem to be two different types of kimono found in Okinawa; Those based on the standard Japanese construction, and those unique to Okinawa.  Bingata kimono can be made in either fashion.  I noticed three main differences in the construction of the kimono.

  • The sleeves are attached to the body of the kimono, even on women’s kimono.  In addition, there is a bit of webbing under the sleeve.
  • The sleeves are open at the front.
  • There is no kurokoshi (the seam going across the back) in Okinawan kimono.

okinawa kimono

#4 The Kitsuke

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Traditional Okinawan kitsuke.

  • For men, the obi is tied in the front instead of the back.
  • For women, the collar is not pulled down low at the back of the neck.
  • Women do not have an obi.  The kimono is tied at the waist with a colourful koshihimo, and the end of the koshihimo dangle in front.

I only had access to tourist kimono, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but even in the museums, there were clear differences in the kitsuke I saw in the displays.

I hope you enjoyed this cursory look at Okinawan kimono.  If you have a chance to visit Okinawa, I highly recommend it!

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