We might assume that 21st-century technology enables us to produce fabric in all imaginable colors, most of them totally unknown to our ancestors. Yet none of it has ever quite replicated the striking hues achieved by dyers of centuries and centuries ago. That premise underlies the slow and painstaking work of Sachio Yoshioka, whose family's fabric-dyeing heritage goes back to Japan's Edo period of the 17th to the mid-19th century. Having taken over his father's workshop Textiles Yoshioka in 1988, he has spent the past thirty years working only with traditional plant dyes, the kind that once, in a time long before his family even got into the dyeing business, made his homeland so colorful.
The Japanese dyeing tradition, in this reading of its history, reached its long apex of brilliance in the Nara and Heian periods, which together lasted from the years 710 to 1185. Most of the world admires Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, but often with reference to internationally well-known concepts like wabi-sabi that idealize the rustic, the imperfect, and the subdued. Unlike in the Edo period, when the strict Tokyugawa Shogunate mandated that common people stick to grays and browns, Nara and Heian cities would have been rich with vivid reds, blues, yellows, oranges, and even purples, all in varieties one seldom sees even today, in Japan or anywhere else.
Hence Yoshioka's mission to practice and even refine the same labor-intensive dyeing methods used back then. Formerly a student of philosophy as well as a publisher of books on the history of color and fabric arts, he now seems devoted to what goes on in his Kyoto workshop. You can watch what he and his assistants do there in the video from the Victoria and Albert Museum above. Composed of four short films, it includes a segment on Yoshioka's production of paper flowers for the Omizutori festival at the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara, the historical capital outside Kyoto, that culminates in an evening fire ceremony.
That fire ceremony, called Otaimatsu, remains as compelling a spectacle today as it must have been more than a millennium ago, just as surely as the colors Yoshioka has rediscovered have lost none of their allure since then. His dedication to the work of traditional dyeing — work his daughter Sarasa will take into its sixth generation — comes not out of a desire to pay tribute to Japanese history, nor even out of filial piety, but something much simpler: "The colors you can obtain from plants are so beautiful," he says. "This is the one and only reason I do what I do."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.