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Twilight for the Kimono
A Venerable Japanese Weaver Toils and Watches As a Kyoto District's Humming Looms Fall Silent

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
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?"

A Wilting Industry

Few garments are as tied to a nation as the kimono is to Japan. In a society that values the unspoken, its colors and patterns have for centuries served as an alternative form of speech. Without uttering a word, a well-chosen kimono can speak volumes about a wearer's sorrow or joy, animosity or amorousness. Restricting the legs to doll-like steps, the kimono changes the way both sexes walk, making even the clumsiest appear elegant. It is essential to the classical arts of Kabuki and Noh theater, the tea ceremony and ikebana, or flower arranging. In Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century literary masterpiece, "The Tale of Genji," gifts of kimonos in scented silk are extensions of a romancing prince's spirit. The kimono is less a garment than a window into the Japanese soul.

Although a growing taste for Western clothing washed ashore more than a century ago, the kimono long remained the vanity garment of choice for major events in Japanese life. But now, the country's own demographics are working against it.

Fewer Japanese are marrying today than ever, and those who do largely shun traditional white wedding kimonos in favor of Western-style dresses. A declining birthrate, meanwhile, has meant fewer babies, which in turn has meant fewer sales of kimonos for children's coming-of-age rites. Nationwide, kimono sales have more than halved in the past decade.

Nowhere has the decline been felt more keenly than in Nishijin, home of Japan's finest -- and priciest -- kimonos and obi. Sales of Nishijin products fell from $2.7 billion in 1990 to a record low of $477 million last year, according to industry figures; during the same period, the district's production of kimonos dropped from 291,000 to just 87,382 garments.

At the same time, the ancient textile houses of Nishijin have fallen like cherry blossoms in late April. In 1980, there were about 1,200 kimono and obi factories and related businesses lining these ancient stone streets. Today, there are 606.

Once a lofty, ceremonious enterprise, even kimono-selling has been tainted by scandal in recent years, with desperate dealers pressuring retirees into taking out high-interest loans to buy exorbitantly priced kimonos. Faced with such accusations, the president of Azekura, a once-venerable dealer of Nishijin kimonos, committed suicide last March by jumping from the eighth floor of a Kyoto hotel. Other establishments have faded less dramatically, through bankruptcy filings and shuttered doors.

Some see a light for the industry in the unlikeliest of places -- Tokyo's hyper-hip Harajuku district, where Goth geisha in punk makeup and secondhand black kimonos strut the streets flaunting attitude and skull-faced leather purses.

"Right now, they are wearing cheap, used kimonos they bought for a few dollars in a bargain bin," said Toshimitsu Ikariyama, president of the Nishijin Textile Industrial Association. "But when these teenagers grow up and become prosperous, we hope they will be the start of a new generation who will wear more expensive and new kimonos for grace and beauty, the way their mothers and grandmothers did."

Others, however, are not counting on an organic recovery. Rather, they say, the industry must reinvent itself to survive.

Back to China

On a cloudy Kyoto afternoon, a graceful female attendant demurely opened the sliding wooden doors of the ancient kimono house of Kawamura. Across a floor of traditional straw tatami, beyond a wall-size window overlooking a Zen rock garden, past the portraits of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, she led a guest into the office of Yasuto Kawamura, a maverick of the Nishijin textile district.

The 57-year-old president of a company that goes back five generations, Kawamura seems more middle-age pop star than kimono maker. In a black leather blazer and designer shades, he punctuates his decidedly un-Japanese demeanor like an Italian, with emphatic hand gestures and breathless conversation.

Japan's kimono makers, he argues, must drop all this preciousness. Kawamura's sales, like those of so many other kimono houses in Nishijin, are down 80 percent compared with two decades ago, but he is making plans for survival, manufacturing kimonos at cheaper prices in China and selling them in Japan.

"Look, what is tradition?" he asked. "It's something that people involved in Japanese tea ceremony and flower arranging worry about. A tradition is only a tradition as long as people need it, as long as it's practical. We need to make kimono-making practical again."

In recent years, his company has opened factories in China and North Korea, while shaving the number of working looms at its quaint wooden Nishijin factory from 100 to 10. Only design prototypes are made here now. Shipped abroad, they are mass-produced by foreign weavers who are paid a fraction of what skilled Japanese craftsmen charge.

By moving production, Kawamura said, he has managed not only to honor the fact that kimono-like robes first came to Japan from China some 1,200 years ago but also to slash costs and stabilize the company's finances.

"Everyone in Nishijin lies about their kimono production," he said. "Almost all of them are making kimonos in China, or else using electric looms. Very, very few are using Japanese weavers anymore. I'm the only one who will admit it, so I'm criticized by my peers. But I am ashamed of nothing. They are the ones who should be ashamed for hiding the truth."

Kimonos or obi made in China, he said, are virtually indistinguishable from those made in Japan. To emphasize his point, he walked over to a display holding a duplicate of a Kawamura peach-toned medallion obi worn by Empress Michiko. Next to it was a cream obi made for her daughter-in-law, Princess Kiko. Both, Kawamura said, were made in China.

One hundred percent Japanese kimonos are almost impossible to find anymore. In the 1990s, Japan's troubled textile industry successfully lobbied the government to embrace globalization by opening the long-protected domestic silk industry to foreign competition. With its higher cost structure, Japanese silk thread, although considered extremely fine, is at least 20 times the average price of Chinese, Brazilian or Southeast Asian silk. As tariffs dropped and cheaper imports became widely available, the Japanese silk industry collapsed, leaving only two small factories to produce tiny quantities of inaccessibly priced thread.

"I am making kimonos more cheaply, but they are not cheap kimonos," Kawamura said. His best Chinese-made obi sell for an average of $8,000, about the same as obi made in Japan. "It was only the Japanese silk companies that said Chinese silk wasn't good."

"The kimono is not just about our country," he added. "It is about the Japanese race -- our daily rituals, our history, our religion, about who we are as a people. We have to do anything we can to protect the kimono, even if that means making them overseas."

Two Old Masters

On a brisk morning last month, 102-year-old Yasujiro Yamaguchi raided his closets.

A multicolored rain of silk -- pieces of the kimonos and obi he has woven over the decades -- poured onto the low-rise dining table. Samples of his work are on display at London's Victoria and Albert Museum; others are housed in museums in Stockholm and Paris. He wove 10 table centerpieces for Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a goodbye gift when the American left Japan in 1951.

"Here," he said, lifting up a salmon-toned fabric depicting the first daffodils of spring, a pattern he gave to Princess Diana. "She was visiting Kyoto, and I presented her with a more elaborate one, but she saw this one, a bit more subdued, and asked for it, too. How could I refuse?"

Yamaguchi's small wooden workshop sits on a quiet street in Nishijin. But there was a time not so long ago when the world outside was filled with the colors now lighting up his dining table.

"The women, and men too, would come to Nishijin in kimonos to order more kimonos," he said. "The color! They would fill the streets with their color, and leave so much cash that we used rulers to count the stacks of yen because it was faster that way. Those were the days when the sounds of working looms were everywhere"

He grew quiet, glancing out his window. "But now, Nishijin is gray."

Many kimono makers who were once regarded as legends have left the business. Yamaguchi's brother, Itaro, who turns 105 on Dec. 18, spent his younger days as one of the district's most formidable kimono entrepreneurs. But he handed off his business to his eldest son, who has also largely shifted production to China. Itaro now spends his days obsessively working with local weavers on a remarkable re-creation in silk of the four original "Tale of Genji" scrolls.

"I wanted to leave something for future generations to see," he said, one of the extraordinarily detailed scrolls unfurled at his home, a few minutes from Nishijin. "I just want to show them what we were capable of."

Only a few blocks from Yasujiro Yamaguchi's workshop in the heart of Nishijin, more and more stores selling Western-style wedding dresses have popped up in recent years. Yamaguchi himself came face to face with changing tastes two years ago when one of his own granddaughters wore a Western dress at her wedding reception instead of an uchikake, or traditional bridal kimono.

"It cannot be helped," he said. "All we can do now is keep trying to make kimonos so beautiful that they will no longer be able to resist it. What choice do we have?"

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