Of its various traditional crafts, Ryûkyû is perhaps most well-known for its textiles. Though heavily influenced by China, Japan, and other cultures, Ryûkyû had its own distinctive forms and styles of garments, from the royalty and aristocracy down to that worn by the peasants, as well as its own distinctive techniques. Ryukyuan textiles were prized enough that they were a very common tribute good sent to China and Japan, as well as exported in great volumes as a trade good, i.e. commercially.
There are six types of fibers used traditionally in Ryukyuan textiles: bashôfu (banana fiber cloth), jôfu (ramie), cotton, hemp, silk, including tsumugi (silk pongee), and finally tunbian, or agave fiber, the use of which is limited chiefly to Miyakojima.
- Jôfu, or ramie, known as karamushi in Japanese, is said to be "prized for its strength, high luster, remarkable resistance to bacteria and mildew, [for being] absorben[t] yet quick-drying ..., and [for its] affinity to dyes." With its name meaning literally "high [quality] cloth," ramie was worn chiefly by members of the royalty and the aristocracy. It was also among the chief forms of tribute goods sent to China and Japan, and an accepted form of tax payment collected by Okinawa from Miyako, the Yaeyama Islands, and elsewhere.
- Cotton, known as mumin in Okinawan, is not native to the Ryukyus, and it is believed that it only first began to be cultivated there in the 17th century, though cotton textiles obtained through trade with Southeast Asia or elsewhere were given as tribute goods in earlier centuries. Cotton never became widely cultivated in the Ryukyus, outside of Kumejima, but once introduced, cotton garments began to be enjoyed by the royalty, aristocracy, and wealthy Naha/Shuri commoners.
- Silk was introduced from China, and came to be cultivated in the Ryukyus. Silk was produced and used in both more standard woven forms, as well as handspun into a soft, fine "pongee" called tsumugi in Japanese. Tsumugi cloth is said to have a cottony texture, but the shine of silk. Kumejima in particular is known for its tsumugi cloth, which the islanders there dye a reddish color by immersing it in the naturally iron-rich mud of the island's rice paddies.
- Bashôfu is made from the fibers of a plant closely related to, but different from, the edible fruiting banana. People of all ranks or classes in society wore bashôfu garments, though the peasants' bashôfu tended to be much coarser than that worn by the aristocracy. Bashôfu was divided into a number of types, including by whether the fibers had been twisted (neri), resulting in neri-bashôfu, or not. Another variety was known as usu-bashôfu, and was likely light in color, or thin in the material itself.
- Hemp was used in a variety of ways in Ryûkyû, as it was in Japan. One form of hemp textile used to make curtains or banners, and often presented as an emblematic Ryukyuan local product as a gift to foreign elites, was called Taiheifu, or Taihei cloth, after a place known as Taihei.
- A number of other types of textiles, such as felt or woolen cloth (J: rasha) and silk crepe (J: chirimen), were not produced in Ryûkyû but were imported from China and given as gifts (or "tribute" goods) to the Tokugawa shogunate, Shimazu clan, or other prominent figures.
Dyeing and Decoration
Textiles are traditionally dyed or decorated in a variety of ways as well. Bingata, a form of resist dyeing in which a paste-like material is used with a stencil to control which areas would be dyed, is perhaps the most famous, and involves boldly colorful patterns, often against a boldly yellow or pink ground; bingata is strongly associated with the aristocracy. Meanwhile, Ryûkyû is also known for its hana-ui brocades, ro gauze weaving, and kasuri or ikat, a form of resist-dyeing in which the threads are dyed first, before being woven into the garment, creating geometric and other patterns in a two-tone (e.g. indigo and undyed white) palette.
Another particular type of silk cloth associated with Ryûkyû is known as tabby (二彩 or タビー, tabii). Originally a famous product of China's Guangdong province, it was among the chief types of textiles transshipped through or exported by Ryûkyû.
Indigo-dyeing has been practiced in the islands since ancient times, and enjoyed protections from the royal government. The processes used in the Ryukyus are different from those used in mainland Japan, and are said to be more complex, and difficult. Though once produced in various places throughout the islands, indigo-dyeing is today largely restricted to the Motobu area of northern Okinawa Island.
Ryukyuan robes, or ryûsô (琉装), are quite similar to Japanese kimono, but are not cut identically. The open ends of the sleeves are left completely open, rather than being sewn up halfway and forming a sort of pocket at the end of the sleeve as in Japanese kimono. Meanwhile, where Japanese kimono often have an open, disconnected, section where the sleeve meets the body of the garment, in Ryukyuan garments this is not typically left open. Instead, sleeves are fully attached to the body of the garment, often with a triangular "gusset," an extra piece of fabric under the arm (where the sleeve meets the body) that adds greater range of motion at the shoulders. The collar generally extends all the way down the garment, and is often rolled out or rolled back, forming a visible band of color down the front.
Like the Japanese kimono, Ryukyuan robes tend to be made from a single straight bolt of cloth, and not from pieces cut out according to a pattern. One of the key differences, however, outside of the colors and patterns on the garment, is that Ryukyuan robes tend not to be tucked up under an obi (belt) the way Japanese ones are, and so the robe needs to be the appropriate length for the wearer. Ryukyuan robes also tend to be cut wider. Various types of ties or belts are sometimes used, however; sometimes, a himo, or tie, is even tied on the inside of the garment, in a manner particularly distinctive of the Ryukyuan style, and not used for Japanese garments.
Basic forms of Ryukyuan garments include the unlined, single-layer tanashi worn in the summer, and the watajin, with lining for the winter, though the climate remains quite mild in Okinawa in the winter. The watajin had longer, wider sleeves, and the lining often featured bingata or kasuri patterns. Such robes were often worn with the collar turned down, revealing the color and pattern of the inner lining.
The colors and types of materials worn by aristocrats indicated their rank. This was seen especially in the colors of the hachimaki (court cap or turban) and court robes, and in the material (gold or silver) used to make hairpins. A summary of the significance of colors in the court costume of male officials is included in the description of Ryukyuan court ranks.
While the royal and aristocratic classes are today strongly associated with the colorful bingata, traditionally they would have worn bingata robes only when going out of the palace; in the private areas of the castle, members of the royal family were more likely to wear a simpler outfit of a red dujin wrap-shirt and white kakan skirt, throwing a bingata robe over this when going out. Bingata was not generally worn for major court ceremonies, and further it was typically only worn by adult women and by young people (both male and female); adult men typically only wore bingata as a costume for dance or theater.
By contrast, the typical men's garment worn during official duties was a simple black robe, cinched at the waist. Known as kuruchô (黒朝, lit. "black court [robes]"), it was often made of extremely fine bashôfu fibers, woven so finely as to have a texture similar to silk.
The colors of women's garments were also significant, indicating the rank of their husband or family. The queen and royal princesses wore goldish yellow silk or satin damask, a color long considered an Imperial color in China, while wives of anji or ueekata wore kasuri (ikat) fabrics, especially tsumugi, in green or pale blue (or yellow, for higher-ranking anji families). Pink kasuri garments indicated wives of those of peechin or satunushi status, while the wives of the chikudun, the lowest-ranking nobles, wore blue kasuri. The highest ranking noblewomen wore gold hairpins, while other noblewomen wore silver; commoners wore hairpins made of copper, brass, bronze, wood, or other materials. Deep blue garments dyed with indigo were standard among the commoner/peasant class; these were made of various materials, including bashôfu and cotton, but excluding ramie (jôfu), which was off-limits for commoners. Kasuri garments were worn by members of all classes, from the royalty down to the peasantry, but particularly large kasuri patterns were limited to the aristocracy.
The production and consumption of Okinawan textiles saw a major shift after the Japanese government's kyûkan onzon (preserving old customs) policy was ended in 1903, along with the traditional poll tax, and assimilation policies began to be put into place. Whereas the poll tax had previously been paid in handmade textiles, commercial production and sale now began to dominate. Assimilationist rhetoric promoted the wearing of Japanese-style kimono as part of "modern" "Japanese" ideas of how to be a proper modern woman, and a good wife and mother. Even as synthetic dyes, machine-spun yarn, and new types of looms came to dominate, Okinawan textiles nevertheless became a luxury export good, purchased by Japanese on the mainland as an exotic and special good while Okinawans found it cheaper to buy Japanese material for their clothing; by the 1920s or '30s, some 80-90% of textiles produced in Okinawa prefecture were exported.
While kasuri and other materials began to be produced commercially, however, bashôfu continues to be made only by hand. Banana fiber thread and cloth cannot be effectively produced by machine; even the use of a basic tabletop sewing machine tears through the material, ruining it.
- "Overview of the Ryûkyûs." Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 6: East Asia. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp418-428.
- Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. p419.
- Bingata! Only in Okinawa, George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum (2016), 74.
- Shirarezaru Ryûkyû shisetsu 知られざる琉球使節, Fukuyama-shi Tomonoura rekishi minzoku shiryôkan (2006), 150.
- Kamiya Nobuyuki, Ryûkyû to Nihon, Chûgoku 琉球と日本・中国, Yamakawa Shuppansha (2008), 60.
- Plaques on-site at Ryukyumura architecture and culture park, Onna-son, Okinawa.
- Bingata! Only in Okinawa, 115.
- Okinawan traditional clothing demonstration, East-West Center International Conference in Okinawa, Sept 2014.
- Bingata! Only in Okinawa, 91, 112.
- Bingata! Only in Okinawa, 112.
- Gallery labels, Naha City Museum of History, August 2013.
- Bingata! Only in Okinawa, 108.
- Nitta Setsuko, "Oppression of and Admiration for Okinawan Textiles: Commercial Items and Art Objects," Okinawan Art in its Regional Context symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.
- Francesco Montuori, "Okinawa Bashofu and Repackaging After Japanese Annexation," talk given at Okinawan Art in its Regional Context: Historical Overview and Contemporary Practice symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.