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What a splendid time to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan. But where to begin? Next year Tokyo hosts the Olympics and with the Rugby World Cup just finished, there's plenty of interest in the sporting side of this fascinating country. In a recent episode of BBC series Japan with Sue Perkins, the show’s presenter eschewed cherry blossom festivals and bars and began her journey through Japan with sumo wrestling, arguing that with its ancient rituals sumo was a prism through which Japanese culture could be viewed.

The world of the commoners, farmers and fishermen and marginalised ethnic groups of ancient origin

The publishing equivalent of sumo has also just appeared in the form of Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection. Weighing in at over four kilos, those new to Japanese textiles may find the book reshapes their view of this art form as well as their biceps. Within its pages, we discover the craft textiles of the 'other' Japan a world away from the lavish silks and brocades of the Edo court and Noh theatre, yet also fundamental to its culture. This is the world of the commoners, farmers and fishermen, and marginalised ethnic groups of ancient origin.

Ainu man going out hunting (credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Ainu man going out hunting (credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

How the collection, acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in March as a part gift, part purchase (for an undisclosed sum) came into being starts with Murray's seafaring Irish uncle Fenton Kilkenny, whose tales of cannibals, headhunters, tigers and fair maidens guarded by boa snakes inspired his life in the tropical islands off the Asian Mainland, specializing in the art and textiles of Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Then, famously, he came into contact with Japanese taste in 1982 when he was invited to contribute pieces to an exhibition on shamanism.

"I didn’t sell a single item. I recall the stinging rebuke: 'This is European taste, but we are Japanese, and therefore, we have Japanese taste!'” he says.

"Thomas Murray has been striving to find answers to questions concerning the essence of Japan and the nature of Japanese aesthetics," says Etsuko Iwanaga, chief curator of the Fukuoka Art Museum, in her book preface. "I think the answers are in this book."

"I have discovered that through the narrow aperture of textiles and costume one can develop a very broad view on the society as a whole," says Murray, adding: "I wrote from both hemispheres of my brain... one side rigorously academic, the other intuitive, with a textile lover's heart. All I could guarantee was that the book could be used to help build upper-body strength."

Okinawa bingata (credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Okinawa bingata (credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Preserving the arts and crafts of ordinary people

Two of the main areas in which Murray collected are works by the Ainu natives of Hokkaido and colourful bingata textiles of Okinawa, which was a separate kingdom until annexed by Japan in 1879. Fascinated by the uncorrupted art of indigenous people and guided by his attraction to native communities and natural materials, he followed principles of the Mingei Movement and also collected Mingei works. Much like the Arts and Crafts movement, Mingei is about preserving ancient folk arts and crafts of ordinary people; In 1936, Yanagi Soetsu established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, which today houses some 17,000 items. "Although folk art can convey an image of being rough and primitive, many areas of Japanese folk craft became increasingly appreciated for a distinct level of sophistication," says US-based collector and dealer Kumi Masumoto.

Dating from the 18th to mid 20th century, Ainu robes and other garments were fashioned from bast fibre plants, such as nettles and hemp, as well as elm bark and salmon skin. In the primitive homes of these marginalised tribal hunters and gatherers, these base materials were transformed by a sort of textile alchemy into gold, and today Ainu cloaks are worth a small fortune. Cotton, a wondrous and luxury item (and much softer than nettles) was also used by the Ainu to create striking appliqué robes. As many items were only worn on ceremonial occasions - for example, ritual bear sacrifices - a number of great examples have survived in remarkable condition.

kaparamip with red cotton fabric border  (Credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Kaparamip with red cotton fabric border (Credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

The colourful cotton textiles of Okinawa present a more familiar Japanese aesthetic. Using techniques from Indonesia, China and India, these resist-dyed and stencilled cloths - bingata - date back as far as the 14th century and employ patterns inspired by nature: flowers, plants, fish, trees and water. Designs were strictly controlled so that class distinctions could be easily recognised. Bright designs were reserved for high-ranking classes, the public wore simple and dark patterns of indigo or black. Resist-dyed copies of ikat, which was reserved for the aristocracy, also feature here.

"Collecting of Ainu [robes] has pushed prices sky high and great examples of bingata from Okinawa very rarely come to market,” says Daniel Shaffer, executive editor of Hali Publications, which produced the Murray book. Even so Shaffer was surprised by the reception: "It is the most successful book we have ever done, and already in second edition."

The Ainu have a cultural and aesthetic affinity with Nanai and Nivkh tribal minorities (Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art )

While far removed from the decorative robes of the royal court and upper classes, these native costumes and textiles share some ground in their widespread use of auspicious motives to attract luck, prosperity, happiness and to ward off evil. In the Ainu robes, animal-style motifs probably of Scythian and Siberian descent were believed to have magical properties of protection. "Spiritual beliefs are an inherent attribute of some of these textiles," says Anna Jackson, Keeper of Asian Art at London's Victoria & Albert Museum in her introduction to the book.

Spiritual beliefs are an inherent attribute of some of these textiles

Vintage ethnographic postcard of ainu robe (Copyright: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

"The change of seasons, love and cultural events are all popular themes, and these are mixed with more mystical ideas about the transience of nature and life," says Ben Evans, editor of Hali Magazine. "In a society which was very closed and very controlled with strong associations with honour and class, textiles were a means of expression that transcended these boundaries."

Ubiquitous indigo

We have not spoken yet of dyes, which are so much part of the secret of great textile art. They included orpiment, cinnabar, cochineal and India ink but one plant dye in particular predominated to a disproportionate extent - indigo - one of the effects of sakoku or closure of Japan to foreign trade from the 1630s to 1853. To this day, indigo-dyed fabrics are ubiquitous in Japanese culture and for historical references we have no end of material in Japanese woodblock prints. Referring to works by Utagawa Hiroshige and others with which she introduces the book, Jackson notes the very special interest that print artists paid to garments and textiles.

Traditional Japanese clothing has been under threat for many years

"There is still a huge and vibrant textile tradition in Japan, for example the wonderful kimonos still being made by Chiso, a Kyoto company founded in 1555," says Evans. However, ever since the late 1800s when Western dress became more popular, the kimono has fallen from favour except on special occasions. "The western, globalised mode of modern clothing has strongly taken hold so that traditional Japanese clothing has been under threat for many years," says Masumoto.

This is particularly true of the Ainu, who were oppressed and marginalised in much the same way as Native Americans. Not until 2008 were the Ainu formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group by the Japanese government. Following on from this a new Ainu museum will open in Hokkaido next year. "This is all part of an Ainu Pride movement which includes the revival of handcrafted costumes and textiles with traditional patterns worn on special occasions," says Murray.

(credit: Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Kaimaki with origami cranes (credit:Textiles of Japan: The Thomas Murray Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Ancient techniques of dyeing are also enjoying a revival. Earlier this year, Japan House in London explored the notion of kasane, or the art of colour combinations. Focused on the Yoshioka workshop in Kyoto, where traditional plant-based dyeing techniques have been revived with the help of historical documents and textile samples, it considered the subtle ways in which colour was used by the aristocracy to reflect one's rank, taste and good breeding.

Another exhibition opening in 2020 at the Victoria & Albert Museum will use kimono art to explore how clothing - 'the social skin' - is often a window to a deeper understanding of class, power, economics and, of course, art.

Will the kimono one day be largely confined to museums? "The various forms of clothing that constitute the ‘great textile tradition of Japan’ have fallen dramatically out of favour, yet even so a remarkable degree of ingenuity and creativity in Japanese textile design continues to inspire innovative new textile-related industries," says Masumoto.

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