Doing Things the Difficult Way

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

Doing Things the Difficult Way

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

Doing Things the Difficult Way
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 28 2009 11:17 AM

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

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There are two ways to transform bland white cotton into the rich, deep blue that you see everywhere in Japan: with chemicals or through the occult art of aizome, natural indigo dyeing. According to Hiroshi Murata, president of Kosoen dye works, once chemical dyeing was invented 100 years ago, U.S. producers abandoned the Polygonum tinctorium plant. Americans are practical people, and chemical dyeing made sense: Naturally dyed indigo fabric is more expensive and much more trouble to produce. Still, Japanese people were attached to the superior quality of aizome, so a few manufacturers persevered. A determination to do things the difficult way seems to be what drives Hiroshi and his younger brother Noriyuki. "Normal people would give up," he told me. "But we continue."

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon when we arrived at the Kosoen workshop in Ome, a green-hilled city about 80 minutes and 20 years from downtown Tokyo. Noriyuki was bounding around the workshop mixing up a giant vat of dye. Wearing Wellington boots as he sloshed overflowing buckets of water to rinse the floor, Noriyuki, who is 48, looked like a joyful toddler playing in the rain.

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Many steps are taken on the journey from flower to fabric, and the good folks at Kosoen took pains to explain them all on the company Web site. Like a great chef, a superior dyer must understand the science he sets in motion when he combines alkaline and acidic ingredients, and he must be sensitive enough to know when to stop stirring the pot. Similarly, just as proximity to heat and blade takes its toll on a cook's fingers, Noriyuki's blue hands are testimony to his vocation. The navy tint extends to his wrists, as if he's wearing gloves; his long fingernails shine a rich indigo more intense than any polish could produce. As the man at the helm of the color wheel, he literally has a finger in every pot.

There was something very familiar about the Kosoen demonstration. I'd seen another, almost-identical presentation about indigo dyeing when I visited the Kano Dye Pits in Nigeria. In West Africa, where the electricity supply is unreliable and capital is unavailable, going organic seemed practical, but why—apart from bloody-mindedness—would citizens of the most technologically advanced nation on earth choose a method fraught with so many difficulties?

Let's review the challenges. The raw materials are scarce—only a handful of Japanese farmers still grow the Polygonum tinctorium plant, each year producing just 1,000 bags of sukumo, the fermented dried leaves that are to indigo dyeing what grapes are to winemaking. Only well water can be used in the natural dyeing process—the chlorine in town water would kill the delicate bacteria—and to keep the bacteria happy, dyers must eschew air conditioning in summer and heating in winter. And for all that discomfort, the financial risks are high: The raw materials Noriyuki tosses into the vat for each batch of dye—sukumo, sake, wheat bran, ash, and lime—cost at least $3,000, but if the chemistry doesn't take, and the microorganisms don't thrive, the whole thing is a write-off.

Why take the risk? Hiroshi's answer is that this work is okufukai—it presents a profound, almost existential challenge. A third Murata brother operates a chemical dyeing shop, but Hiroshi and Noriyuki prefer to maintain the connection with old Japan, to struggle stubbornly to bring beauty from bacteria. And, of course, they are proud of the quality of color that only natural indigo dyeing can produce. Amy Katoh says that Kosoen "produces a youthful blue that whistles with fresh air and sunshine." My azure palette isn't refined enough to offer a review, but I'll always remember Noriyuki-san's grin as he dipped his big blue hands into the dye vat to test the mixture. "You have to taste it to see when it's right," he laughed, sticking a finger in his mouth.

In Kyoto, Kenichi Utsuki, the owner and artist in residence at Aizen Kobo, is more of a proselytizer than a businessman. Utsuki subjects anyone who wanders into his workshop and store in the Nishijin District to a lecture on the natural indigo-dyeing process (complete with laminated handouts), a sit-down show-and-tell of his collection of indigo fabrics from around the world, and a tour of his operation. I would have found it obnoxious if he weren't such a true believer. He evangelizes for natural indigo, touting its ability to repel mosquitoes and snakes, its resistance to fading, and its durability. In a way, though, that durability is a liability: The costly ingredients and the painstaking dyeing process, with its repeated cycles of soaking and air-drying, make the products relatively pricey (around $70 for a scarf; $35 for a napkin-sized piece of blue cotton). Still, as at Kosoen, the subtle variations of shade made everything seem desirable—I wanted to take things home just so I could point to them and say, "See, that's blue."

Kenichi's wife, Hisako, designs tasteful garments for the family business, but they weren't my kind of thing. I was tempted by the samu-e suits, loose-fitting garments favored by farm workers and craftspeople, but they failed the Q-train test: Whenever I'm tempted by a "foreign" garment, I try to imagine myself wearing it on the New York subway. No way. Eventually, though, I did purchase my own bit of indigo. Days later, when we made our pilgrimage to the Blue & White store in Tokyo, I couldn't resist buying a bag made from fabric dyed in Hiroshima. It smells a little gamey (no wonder mosquitoes give natural indigo a wide berth), and it lacks the zips and security features that life in an American city seems to demand, but I was sold when the sweet shop assistant told me I looked "suteki"—stylin'—when I slung it over my shoulder.