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The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan

The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan

Katrien Hendrickx
Volume: 12
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by:
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan
    Book Description:

    The Japanese word bashôfu literally means 'banana-fibre cloth'. Both the cloth and the clothing made from it are now considered important constituents of Okinawan identity. This special trait of Okinawan material culture was brought to attention by the Japanese Folk Craft Movement in the 1930s. After years of decline following World War II, the weaving and use of bashôfu saw a revival that accelerated after the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and still continues. Although today bashôfu receives considerable attention because of its status since 1974 as one of Japan's important intangible cultural properties, its origins and history had remained hidden. In this book Katrien Hendrickx searches for the origins of bashôfu in the Ryukyus, including the origins of ito bashô, the plant that provides the raw material, and studies the yarn-making methods and weaving techniques. She also focuses on why and how the Ryukyuan people adopted those techniques and introduced them into their own society. By careful analysis of all available sources, considered from viewpoints that sprang from fields as various as pure history, phytohistory, philology, ethnography, and folklore, Hendrickx convincingly proves that bashôfu was introduced in the Ryukyus from Southern China, and not from Southeast Asia as is commonly argued. Her overview of present-day bashôfu-weaving and its use also provides valuable insights into the situation of folk-craft within Okinawan society during the second half of the 20th century and up to the present-day.

    eISBN: 978-94-6166-049-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Foreword
    (pp. 5-6)

    Bashôfu, lit. clothes made from fibres of the Banana speciesMusa balbisiana, are today considered as one of the constituents of a special identity of Ryukyuan or Okinawan culture within the broader realm of Japanese culture. This special trait of material culture was brought to attention by the Japanese Folk Craft Movement (mingei-undô) of the 1930ies and its spiritual leader Yanagi Muneyoshi (Sôetsu). After a decline during and after World War II, weaving and use ofbashôfusaw a sudden revival in the last decades, especially after the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

    Bashôfuhas received some considerations...

  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. Table of Contents
    (pp. 9-14)
  5. List of illustrations
    (pp. 15-18)
  6. Explanatory note
    (pp. 19-22)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 23-32)

    Textiles and clothing have been an important part of the material culture in the history of almost every society, having been long revered items of beauty, power, and status (Bray 1997, 192; Nagano and Hiroi 1999, 346; Okamura 1989, 67, 93; Weiner and Schneider 1989, 25-26; Tanaka 1994, 1). In Japan as in many countries of East and Southeast Asia, until the introduction of Western clothing and lifestyle, textile weaving was part of everyday life. In the latter half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century in particular, Western alternatives eliminated the need for kimonos for daily...

  8. Part I: Historical background

    • 1 The Ryukyu Archipelago
      (pp. 35-36)

      The Ryukyu Archipelago amounts to about 1% of the entire territory of Japan. It consists of more than 160 large and small islands, more than 40 of them inhabited, stretching for about 1,300 km in the Pacific Ocean. Geographically, the Ryukyu Archipelago faces China across the East China Sea in the west, Taiwan and the Philippines in the south, Korea in the northwest and Kyushu in the north. [See map 1, page 316] The islands of the Ryukyu Archipelago are part of the Nansei Islands (Nansei-shotô 南西諸島, literally: southwest islands), indicating their geographical position in relation to mainland Japan. The...

    • 2 Outline of the history of Ryukyu/Okinawa and presentation of sources
      (pp. 37-64)

      The ancestors of modern Okinawans are believed to have appeared in Toguchi Agaribaru 渡具知東原 (Yomitan-son, Okinawa Island) some eight thousand years ago. They were preceded by the Minatogawa people (Minatogawa-jin港 川人)⁸ who lived on Okinawa Island about ten thousand years earlier. This era is called the Kaizuka period 貝塚時代 (literally: Shell-mound period), which lasted until the early Heian period (794-1185) in mainland Japan, i.e. the end of the 8thcentury. Pottery with fingernail patterns on the surface (tsumegatamon doki爪形文土器), such as the Agaribaru pottery, made about six thousand six hundred years ago, is considered to be the oldest...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 65-66)

      Little is known about the direct ancestors of the present Okinawan people. The culture of the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Archipelago in pre-historic times shows similarities with the Jômon culture in mainland Japan, but not particularly with the Yayoi culture. From the Yayoi period onwards, the people of the Ryukyu Archipelago gradually developed their own cultural features.

      During the Gusuku period that began around the 12thcentury, competition among powerful local chiefs resulted in the formation of three main principalities on Okinawa Island and finally in political unification of the island in 1429. From around the end of the 14th...

  9. Part II: Review of sources

    • 1 Sources regarding weaving and dyeing in the Ryukyu Archipelago
      (pp. 69-94)

      Written sources on clothing dating from before the unification of the three main principalities into the kingdom of Ryukyu in the beginning of the 15thcentury are scarce. The earliest records are found in Volume 81 of the ChineseSui shu隋書 (Jp.Zuisho, History of the Sui Dynasty, 581-618)54, in an entry entitled “Liu qiu guo 流求国” (Jp. Ryûkyû-koku, Country of Ryukyu). Historians and other scholars agree that the characters 流求 are an early transcription for Ryûkyû 琉球. They do not agree as to whether Ryukyu, at that time, designated the present-day Ryukyu Archipelago, present-day Taiwan, or an area...

    • 2 Sources regarding bashôfu in the Ryukyu Archipelago
      (pp. 95-152)

      In theYuraiki(1713), an entry entitled “Shôfu 蕉布” (Banana-fibre cloth), inserted in a section on techniques (Gijutsu mon技術門) in Volume Four, says the following regardingbashôfu:149


      当国、 蕉布、 從二上古一有レ之哉、 不レ可レ考。 是、 我国女功之貨物 也。 洪武五年壬子、 中山王察度 • 山北王怕尼芝 • 山南王承察度、 大明皇帝ニ貢二方物一。 件ノ中、 生熱夏布ト有リ。 疑クハ是蕉布也 歟 見二中山世鑑一。

      It is not clear if in this country,[ba]shôfuexisted since early times. The women of our country are charged with its production. During the fifth year of theHong-wuera [1372], Satto, king of Chûzan, Haniji, king of Hokuzan, and Shôsatto, king of Nanzan, offered gifts to the great Ming emperor....

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 153-154)

      There is no written evidence ofbashôfuweaving in the Ryukyu Archipelago in the beginning of the kingdom of Ryukyu, i.e. at the end of the 14th century. Korean sailors shipwrecked on Yonaguni Island in 1477 stayed for a total of two years on various Yaeyama Islands. They recorded that there was no use of hemp, cotton or silk. Only ramie fibre was woven into cloth, while indigo was used as a dye. According to various reports, even in the centre of Ryukyu (present-day Okinawa Island), mainly ramie cloth and imported silk cloth were worn. These statements suggest that at...

  10. Part III: Musa-fibre weaving in East and Southeast Asia

    • 1 Existing theories on the origins of ito bashô and banana-fibre weaving in Ryukyu
      (pp. 157-160)

      Today, it is generally thought by scholars that the fibre banana plant found in the Ryukyu Archipelago was introduced from Southeast Asian countries, in particular of the Philippines. Iha Fuyû, in the early 20thcentury, had a major influence on the development of this idea. In a discussion on the origins ofbashôfu, Iha refers to the ChineseZhongshan chuanxin lu(1721), in which the Ryukyuan pronunciation ofba jiao芭蕉 (Jp.bashô) is rendered by the characters 芭拉, to whichbarais added inkatakana, in a list entitled “The Ryukyuan language” (Liuqiu yu琉球語) inserted at the end...

    • 2 Sources on Musa-fibre weaving in East and Southeast Asia
      (pp. 161-194)

      To examine the question of from where both the fibre banana plant (ito bashô) andbashôfuweaving may have been introduced into the Ryukyu Archipelago, it was necessary to investigate sources related toMusa-fibre weaving traditions in other regions of East and Southeast Asia321and study their possible relation with Ryukyuanbashôfuweaving. In this part, the following questions are examined: Which banana species were reported as having been used for textile production in those countries or regions? What were their local and their possible scientific names? Which procedures were applied for the yarn-making, weaving, and finishing of the weave?...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 195-196)

      Although cotton and silk are the main textile materials used for cloth-making in East and Southeast Asia before the industrialisation of fibre material in the 19thcentury, even in China, silk was for long a time a luxury good, which was allowed to be produced and worn only by the upper classes. Both in Southeast Asia and Southern China, the commoners predominantly used bast and leaf fibres, among whichMusafibre. The various sources discussed in Part Three show that different kinds ofMusafibre were used in some regions of Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia,...

  11. Part IV: Bashôfu in the Ryukyu Archipelago today

    • 1 Early fieldwork
      (pp. 199-200)

      It was the Japanese mainlanders who, in the Shôwa period, first drew national attention to Okinawan textiles and tobashôfuin particular (Ôshiro and Uezu 1989, 217, 239; Cort 1989, 403). Yanagi Sôetsu visited Okinawa for the first time in 1938. In 1939 and 1940, he returned to the islands in a study group with members of the Japan Folk Craft Association, of which he was the spiritual leader, as discussed in Part One. Among the members of that study group were specialists in the field of weaving and dyeing, such as Tanaka Toshio, Yanagi Sôetsu’s nephew Yanagi Yoshitaka, and...

    • 2 Taira Toshiko and the revival of banana-fibre weaving in Kijoka
      (pp. 201-204)

      Written sources discussed in Part Two show that in the 19thcentury,bashôfuwas produced and worn throughout all the islands of the Ryukyu Archipelago. The availability of machine-spun yarn and machine-made cloth, as well as the increasing popularity of Western-style garments, however, resulted in a rapid decline of the production ofbashôfuin the early 20thcentury. Secondary sources suggest that its production even came to a stop during World War II (Cort 1989, 403; Taira 1999, 125; Sawachi 2001, 143-144).387After World War II, fewer and fewer weavers mastered the necessary skills to make banana-fibre yarn (in particular...

    • 3 Banana-fibre weaving as ‘important cultural property’ of Japan
      (pp. 205-210)

      On 28 December 1972, the year of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan, Okinawa prefecture’s Cultural Affairs Section of the Board of Education (kyôiku iinkai bunka-ka教育委員会 文化課) designated Taira Toshiko as ‘holder of the intangible390cultural property “banana-fibre cloth”’ (Okinawa-kenshitei mukei bunkazai ‘bashôfu’ no hojisha沖縄県指定無形文化財 「芭蕉布」 の保持者) (Dentôteki Kôgeihin 2002, 2; Kôki 2005, 6). Since then, Taira has regularly exhibited her work in the annual Japanese Traditional Craft exhibitions (Nihon dentô kôgeiten日本伝統工芸展) sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Ministry of Education.

      A newspaper article ofOkinawa Times, dated Friday 9 November 1973,...

    • 4 Material examples of bashôfu
      (pp. 211-224)

      Today, the Okinawan people’s general perception ofbashôfuis that of coarse, stiff garments, worn in the past by their parents and grandparents, represented by ‘Yambarubashôfu’. Elderly people, who have wornbashôfuin their childhood, claim that in particular newly wovenbashôfuwas generally so stiff that it almost chafed the skin at the heels and in the neck. The appearance of a standard Okinawan kimono for commoners is quite different from the Yamato-style kimono used in mainland Japan. A garment tailored ofbashôfuwas made with just two loom-widths of cloth joined by a central seam in the...

    • 5 The production process of bashôfu today
      (pp. 225-252)

      Today the whole production process ofbashôfu, from the cultivation of fibre banana plants to the weaving and finishing ofbashôfu, is still done by hand. In this section this process, based on experience handed over from generation to generation, is described as it is practiced nowadays. In doing this, I principally relate the methods used in Kijoka, based on my training in the banana-fibre weaving workshop (at present calledBanananesia) in Zakimi, as well as my observations during a one-day technical seminar lead by Taira Toshiko in the Shuri Prefectural University of the Arts and in Taira’s workshops in...

    • 6 Usefulness of the fibre banana plant
      (pp. 253-256)

      During the fieldwork for this study, the question often arose as to why the fibre banana plant had gained such popularity in the Ryukyu Archipelago. One of the reasons probably is that the use of this plant is not confined to that of textile weaving. The raw, fibrous leaf sheaths in the pseudo-stem, for example, are white and fresh to the touch, and have a medicinal use. When Itoman Tomi 糸滿トミ, a veteran weaver of Kabira 川平 (Ishigaki Island, Yaeyama), was a child, there was no doctor in her village. To see a doctor, one had to walk about four...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 257-258)

      Today, the image ofbashôfuis usually that of coarse cloth, associated with the common people in the past. Such coarsebashôfuin Ryukyuan style is no longer used for daily wear. It is worn only during performances and festivals to represent commoners at labour in the field or fishers on the sea in the past. On islands such as Iriomote and Kohama in Yaeyama, banana-fibre cloth is even newly woven for that purpose today. The historical existence of superiorbashôfu, which was worn by the upper classes during the period of the kingdom of Ryukyu, is not commonly known,...

  12. Part V: Conclusions
    (pp. 259-270)

    This section mainly tries to answer the research questions posed in the introduction. Although from many viewpoints these findings are inextricably interlinked, each question will be dealt with separately as far as possible.

    The first question had two parts: the origin of the fibre banana plant found in the Ryukyu Archipelago,ito bashô, and the origin of the techniques necessary for the production process ofbashôfu. According to recent scientific studies in the field of plant distribution, Japan (including the Ryukyu Archipelago) does not lie within the accepted boundaries of the indigenous regions ofMusaspecies in East Asia. This...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-294)
  14. Appendix 1
    (pp. 295-300)
  15. Appendix 2
    (pp. 301-308)
  16. Appendix 3
    (pp. 309-318)
  17. Appendix 4
    (pp. 319-336)