Writing from Kyoto, March 25, 2019. It’s been four days since I landed in Tokyo and I’ve managed to learn four words: konnichiwa (hello), sayonara (goodbye), arigato gozai mas (thank you very much), and oishi (delicious). I knew ai (indigo) before I arrived.
Mexico and Japan share a common language through indigo.
Everything here is delicious. Economy meals at corner restaurants where you order and pay in advance from a menu machine are delicious. In my view, as delicious as the priciest sushi set. The people are delicious, the kindest and most generously helpful of any I have met. The fashion is delicious. It is pure deliciousness to be under a cherry tree as buds begin to blossom pink. To say I’m in love with Japan is an understatement.
My sister Barbara and I have filled our days with what my friend Liz Bell calls flaneuring. The discovery is in the meandering, the randomness of what you will find without a plan. Like the pure ai (indigo) coat I found in an off-beat shop hanging on a rack among nondescript clothes, made in the style of a workingman’s jacket crafted from old recycled cloth in pristine condition, redesigned, repurposed. I didn’t buy it but it was a delight to wear, even if for the moment.
Like Mari Ishibashi, a 2013 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who gave me her phone number and said if we need anything, to call her.
With intention, we made it a priority to visit the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo, where an incredible textile exhibition of boro was on display until the end of March. Here, we could see and touch an extraordinary exhibition of vintage cloth, saved by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka. The textile is now recognized as a national Tangible Cultural Property. Indigo plays a central role in this story.
Indigo is a reverential art form here, and nothing speaks more proudly of Japanese ingenuity, creativity and self-discipline than the utilitarian Boro patchwork from the coldest, northernmost region of Japan in Aomori Prefecture.
Boroboro means something tattered or repaired. In the layering of the cloth and the accompanying long stitches, called sashiko, used to hold the patches to the base fabric and hemp filling, the fabric takes on a quality of shimmering texture and beauty. It was not intended this way. Boro was born from poverty. It´s purpose was to make a quilted piece of clothing or bedcover from leftover material that would provide warmth in a frigid, inhospitable, harsh climate. Hemp was used because cotton could not be grown in cold areas. Threadbare areas of cloth were repeatedly patched over, reinforced, and reinforced again.
Hard scrabble peasant farming classes made boro, mending the same garments over and over again with spare scraps. Scraps were saved like treasure. Collected, scarce. Hemp dyed with indigo was common. Garments were passed down from generation to generation. Working class people made do with dignity.
Today, the story is different. Vintage pieces of boro are collectible, scarce and costly. Classes are taught around the world in boro patchwork and quilting techniques. Boro is adapted by fashion designers to embellish blue jeans. Boro has become romanticized, commodified as a fashion statement, taking on a life far from its humble roots.
We might compare the indigenous cultures of Mexico with the native peoples of remote Japan, who struggle to survive and thrive in the face of poverty, lack of education and with little or no access to health care. In the face of adversity, they create extraordinary cloth. I have written about cultural tourism and how we seek to get closer to those who are the creators. We admire their creative outputs. We may even yearn for a simpler life for ourselves — more basic, more grounded, more meaningful. In our yearnings, do we create a false romantic vision that obscures the harsh realities.
A core aesthetic of Japanese life and values is called wabi-sabi. It is a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Some say that boro is one of the best examples of wabi-sabi —the cloth and the stitches reflect the beauty of natural wear and use. The cloth and the stitches change, become asymmetrical, born of simplicity, roughness and economy. Beauty is in the simplicity of all.
Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.
Boro cloth is quirky, repaired, subtle, weathered, imperfect, rustic, spare, minimalist. The cloth is organic, changing, deconstructed and reconstructed. Like the people who made it, boro is resilient and enduring, a testimony to cultural continuity.
I am on a quest for ai. The imperfect piece of ai. I know I will find it.
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