Twilight for the Kimono
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
KYOTO, Japan His fingers muscled from almost a century of weaving, Yasujiro Yamaguchi worked the humming loom in his private workshop. Patiently lacing golden threads through a warp of auburn silk, he fashioned a bolt of kimono fabric blooming with an autumn garden in shades of tea green, ginger and plum.
But Yamaguchi, like Japan's signature kimono, is slipping into winter. At 102, he is among the last master weavers of Nishijin, the country's most celebrated kimono district, and his pace has slowed. He rubbed the morning chill from his knuckles, fitted his hunched shoulders deeper inside his indigo jacket and resolutely pushed on.
This kimono -- for the role of a willowy beauty in a classical Noh play, withering from the loss of her lover -- will take him a full year to make. If Yamaguchi doesn't finish it, there are few weavers left in Japan skilled enough to take over.
"This kimono must be beautiful, but there is also sorrow in the weave," Yamaguchi said, eyes trained on his stitch. "The audience will see this and immediately understand that the character is mourning for something precious, for something lost."
This requiem could apply to the Japanese kimono itself, and particularly Nishijin, the district that for 1,200 years has been the heart and soul of this nation's weaving tradition.
Since 794, when the imperial court arrived illustriously in the new capital of Kyoto, Nishijin has clothed emperors and shoguns, princesses and geisha, prime ministers and mistresses. It survived fires and floods, the post-World War II American occupation and, for decades more, fickle tastes. Twenty-five years ago, production of Nishijin kimonos and obi -- elaborate kimono sashes -- was thriving, with highflying Tokyo businessmen purchasing $25,000 kimonos for wives and lovers like so many boxes of roses.
But today, as a result of globalization and rapidly changing demographics, the kimono business has collapsed, its future in question. Sales are expected to sink to an all-time low this year, even as Japan has emerged from recession to experience its longest economic boom since World War II.
The prosperity has come with an altered set of cultural values. This is a country of manga comics and glittering animation. The rising moguls driving the new economy are more likely to buy muscled chrome from one of Tokyo's expanding list of Ferrari dealerships than drop their spoils on Kyoto silk.
As the kimono becomes more museum piece than couture item, what once made it quintessentially Japanese is gradually fading. Market realities have forced kimono makers to eschew expensive Japanese silk. As a result, more than 90 percent of new kimonos and obi made in Japan, including most of those from Nishijin's most venerable textile houses, are now woven from cheaper imported silk.
Like blue jeans in America, kimonos increasingly are not being made in Japan at all. In search of cut-rate labor, a growing number of ancient Japanese kimono houses have opened weaving factories in China. As the work drops off, younger Japanese craftsmen have deserted the industry in droves, leaving the last generation of masters with few heirs.
In Nishijin, the graying Yamaguchi is one of only three masters left who can create a kimono from scratch -- both conceptualizing and weaving with his own seasoned hands to infuse a garment with the intended wearer's personality. All three are over 70. None has an apprentice.
"It is a sign of the times," Yamaguchi said. "I am not sure who will carry on this tradition for future generations. I no longer have the time or energy to teach someone now. Even if I did, where would they work?"