The beauty of "ultimate recycling" discovered by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka
Up until the early Showa era, and even up until the end of the war in some cases, cloth fabrics used to make garments by common people were extremely rare and valuable. In cold areas such as the Tohoku region, particularly in the northernmost region of Aomori Prefecture, cotton, a tropical plant, could not be cultivated, and during the Edo period only a select portion of the upper class were allowed to wear fabrics made from silk and cotton.
So, it was the job of the women in rural areas and fishing villages to grow and cultivate hemp, spin and twist the fiber to make yarn during the agricultural off-season in the winter, and produce limited amounts of fabric using handlooms. To create the finished garments, they also needed to dye the fabrics by hand. Farmers' work clothes, underwear, and bedding required an immense amount of time and effort to make, and were treated with great care and treated as "valuables" like money and food supplies as important daily necessities for surviving the cold seasons.
Because hemp fibers are coarse, Sashiko, a form of stitching made by layering linen, (a traditional Japanese embroidery technique that uses a simple running stitch sewn in repeating or interlocking patterns) provided protection against the cold and is extremely durable.
The Sashiko technique was further developed and traditional craft techniques such as "kogin-sashi" and "hishi-zashi" were developed in the Tsugaru region and the Nanbu region, respectively. During times when not even a roll of fabric could be obtained, parts of old cloth were cut into pieces and patched together to make a single larger piece of fabric.
When garments that were made using this method became frayed or ripped after many uses, they were repatched, resewn, redyed and used over again. It was standard for these types of garments to not only be used for one lifetime, but up to two, three, and even four generations.
Fabrics used to make formal clothing, such as garments worn by brides-to-be, were recycled as workwear, and then re-weaved as rags when they further deteriorated. Ultimately, the fabrics were stuffed into bedding to be used as tow. Every single piece of fabric and yarn was utilized to the utmost limit for many years in the ultimate recycling process.
This type of fabric was commonly referred to as "boro", and became a highly-regarded commodity during the "Mingei" (folk art) movement during the early Showa era.
However, unlike the preserved "kogin-sashi" and "hishi-zashi" techniques, boro became a symbol of "life during a poor era" and was quickly forgotten in the modern post-war era.
Folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka took an interest in these disappearing everyday appliances and spent many years collecting and preserving boro garments from various regions. Born in Aomori Prefecture in 1933, Tanaka developed an interest in archeology from a young age and became enamored with discovering the many Jomon ruins preserved in Aomori.
While digging up archaeological artifacts during his 20's while growing up in a poor household, he also developed an interest in the food, clothing, and shelter from the Jomon period, and began collecting ancient items while visiting rural areas and learning about traditional garments from elderly people in the region. Gathering garments and everyday tools used between the Edo and Showa era, Tanaka spent over 40 years conducting fieldwork and created a collection of over 20,000 items.
Right/Chuzaburo Tanaka "Mono niwa kokoro ga aru" (Amuse Museum)
At the time, the image of "poor", "dirty" and "embarrassing" became associated with the boro that were produced under severe living conditions among many people, and there was no motivation for common people, researchers, or people in textile industries to preserve them. However, Tanaka discovered a sense of "beauty" that was born from the spirit of taking great care of everyday necessities.
For a long period of time, he continued his journey alone and his efforts of appealing the significance and beauty of boro became recognized and resonated with cultural figures such as Terayama Shuji, and Akira Kurosawa. Today, 786 items from his collection have been designated as Important Tangible Cultural Properties.
Among Tanaka's collection that he dedicated his life collecting until his death in 2013, over 1,500 items, including various boro garments, are displayed as a permanent exhibition at the "Amuse Museum" which was founded in Asakusa, Tokyo in 2009.
"Items such as farmers' work clothes, bedding, and even diapers used by common people in their everyday lives didn't receive any attention and were difficult to save. Mr. Tanaka helped preserve that culture by diligently collecting items that no one even bothered to look at, and we want to keep his dying wish to convey their appeal to the next generation by exhibiting his collection," says museum director Kiyoshi Tatsumi.
After obtaining prior approval from Tanaka before his death, visitors are allowed to photograph and even touch almost all of the exhibited items. Many designers and creators from throughout the world visit the museum to see these valuable items that cannot be seen anywhere else.
"The model of boro continues on with modern quilts and patchwork, and is often mistaken for a "contrived design" manufactured as a necessity, but it actually reflects the sense of beauty that was developed from everyday life. For example, farm work conducted by groups of young men and women are where "encounters" are made, and it's only natural to want to make yourself look as cool or beautiful as possible.
If you closely observe each of the boro items displayed here, you can see that they pair various patterns and colors and that a lot of effort and joy was put into producing them with what was available."
Making yourself look good and appealing to someone who may become your soulmate is a means of survival for all living creatures, and making yourself stylish by wearing kimonos or with your belongings can bring a small sense of joy to your everyday routine work.
At the same time, these garments are also filled with a sense of "staying as warm as possible and keeping your family healthy" under cold severe living conditions. Boro garments, which have become forgotten in the same way that our sensation of people, things, and time from the past have been condensed, are art pieces filled with beauty and happiness that cannot possibly be overpowered with the image of "dark and poor".
"I want boro garments to not just be viewed as old artifacts, but as a valuable discovery that we can incorporate into our own lives.
I want people to remember the feeling of loving someone close to you, a feeling that you cannot purchase with money, and to continue passing down what Mr. Tanaka felt in his heart to future generations."
2-34-3 ASAKUSA, TAITO-KU, TOKYO 111-0032
03 5806 1181
Museum Hours: 10:00-18:00 (Last admission is up to 30 minutes before closing)
Closed: Every Monday (except for National Holidays on Monday, in which case the museum is closed on the following day)
Survey, defined as: to examine or inspect. In these features, we will be reporting on things, people, places, or cultures that inspire us in our daily work of making products.
edit & text: Kosuke Ide
photo: Keisuke Fukamizu