A Meditative Look at a Japanese Artisan’s Quest to Save the Brilliant, Forgotten Colors of Japan’s Past

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.” 

via Kot­tke/Metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Japan­ese Things Are Made in 309 Videos: Bam­boo Tea Whisks, Hina Dolls, Steel Balls & More

The Art of the Japan­ese Teapot: Watch a Mas­ter Crafts­man at Work, from the Begin­ning Until the Star­tling End

The Mak­ing of Japan­ese Hand­made Paper: A Short Film Doc­u­ments an 800-Year-Old Tra­di­tion

Watch a Japan­ese Crafts­man Lov­ing­ly Bring a Tat­tered Old Book Back to Near Mint Con­di­tion

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Japan­ese Crafts­man Spends His Life Try­ing to Recre­ate a Thou­sand-Year-Old Sword

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.

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