Naoko Matsuyama
Research Fellow, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, Japan

Traditional handicrafts are described as objects that are made manually and are influenced by an area’s geographical condition, history and climate, which have supported people’s lives throughout history.

Among various traditional handicrafts, textiles have long been one of the most fundamental and requisite elements in people’s lives everywhere in the world. Textiles fashioned into clothing have been used to cover one’s body to provide protection from the elements, as well as to express personal character and social status. Textiles have also been used to cover various items, to protect and contain them. To make such traditional textiles, diverse plant and animal fibers have been used as materials, and varied techniques, such as weaving, dyeing, and stitching, have been discovered in different areas. From one place to another, the techniques spread across borders, and many people began to share similar traditional textile techniques suited to their life styles.

Among the most fundamental traditional handicraft techniques used to make textiles are hand-weaving and natural dyeing. Indigo is one of the most time-honored and widely-used natural dyes in the world. In Japan, this indigo dyeing technique and products made using it are called aizome, and its existence in Japan precedes the sixth century. The indigo pigment is called indican and produces a distinctive indigo blue color we call ai, it can also be taken from plants of various families, such as polygonaceae, fabaceae, and asteraceae. The color ai was called Japan Blue by a foreign chemist in the Meiji period, who praised the Japanese taste for wearing beautiful clear deep blue aizome kimonos. Aizome was preferred by nobility, as well as by ordinary people, for the toughness and durability that it would add to the fabric through the dyeing process. It is also said that wearing aizome clothing has a medicative/curative/restorative effects.

Looking at the industrial aspect of aizome, there used to be vendors called kouyaor konya, literally meaning ‘dark blue shop’ in Japanese, who were specially engaged in aizome during the Middle Ages. Also, during the Edo period, several clans used ai dye to financially support the clan according to the monopoly act of that time.

As a form of intangible cultural heritage, aizome became one of the traditional techniques that is indispensable for the preservation of cultural properties in Japan. For example, one of the conditions for designating Kurumekasuri in 1957 as an Important Intangible Cultural Property was that it had to be dyed using pure natural ai indigo. Also, Ryukyu indigo dye production (dyeing with true indigo) and awa indigo production were designated as Selected Conservation Techniques under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in Japan. Aizome has been applied to many different textile materials and has been popular for a long time because of its beautiful appearance and practical function, which makes it desirable to pass down from generation to generation.