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Art of Japanese kimono-making fades

Few weavers remaining as demand falls

Yasujiro Yamaguchi, 102, one of the last master weavers of the Nishijin kimono district, worked the loom in his workshop. Yasujiro Yamaguchi, 102, one of the last master weavers of the Nishijin kimono district, worked the loom in his workshop. (Seiji Tucuimura/Washington Post)

KYOTO, Japan -- His fingers muscled from almost a century of weaving, Yasujiro Yamaguchi worked the humming loom in his private workshop. Patiently lacing golden threads through a warp of auburn silk, he fashioned a bolt of kimono fabric blooming with an autumn garden in shades of tea green, ginger, and plum.

But Yamaguchi, like Japan's signature kimono, is slipping into winter. At 102, he is among the last master weavers of Nishijin, the country's most celebrated kimono district, and his pace has slowed. He rubbed the morning chill from his knuckles, fitted his hunched shoulders deeper inside his indigo jacket, and resolutely pushed on.

This kimono -- for the role of a willowy beauty in a classical Noh play, withering from the loss of her lover -- will take him a full year to make. If Yamaguchi doesn't finish it, there are few weavers left in Japan skilled enough to take over.

"This kimono must be beautiful, but there is also sorrow in the weave," Yamaguchi said, eyes trained on his stitch. "The audience will see this and immediately understand that the character is mourning for something precious, for something lost."

This requiem could apply to the Japanese kimono itself, and particularly Nishijin, the district that for 1,200 years has been the heart and soul of this nation's weaving tradition.

Since 794, when the imperial court arrived illustriously in the new capital of Kyoto, Nishijin has clothed emperors and shoguns, princesses and geisha, prime ministers and mistresses. It survived fires and floods, the post-World War II American occupation, and, for decades more, fickle tastes. Twenty-five years ago, production of Nishijin kimonos and obi -- elaborate kimono sashes -- was thriving, with high-flying Tokyo businessmen buying $25,000 kimonos for wives and lovers like so many boxes of roses.

But today, as a result of globalization and rapidly changing demographics, the kimono business has collapsed, its future in question. Sales are expected to sink to a record low this year, even as Japan has emerged from recession to experience its longest economic boom since World War II.

The prosperity has come with an altered set of cultural values. This is a country of manga comics and glittering animation. The rising moguls driving the new economy are more likely to buy muscled chrome from one of Tokyo's expanding list of Ferrari dealerships than drop their spoils on Kyoto silk.

As the kimono becomes more museum piece than couture item, what once made it quintessentially Japanese is gradually fading. Market realities have forced kimono makers to eschew expensive Japanese silk. As a result, more than 90 percent of new kimonos and obi made in Japan, including most of those from Nishijin's most venerable textile houses, are now woven from cheaper imported silk.

Like blue jeans in America, kimonos increasingly are not being made in Japan at all. In search of cut-rate labor, a growing number of ancient Japanese kimono houses have opened weaving factories in China. As the work drops off, younger Japanese craftsmen have deserted the industry in droves, leaving the last generation of masters with few heirs.

In Nishijin, the graying Yamaguchi is one of only three masters left who can create a kimono from scratch -- both conceptualizing and weaving with his own seasoned hands to infuse a garment with the intended wearer's personality. All three are older than 70. None has an apprentice.

"It is a sign of the times," Yamaguchi said. "I am not sure who will carry on this tradition for future generations. I no longer have the time or energy to teach someone now. Even if I did, where would they work?"

Few garments are as tied to a nation as the kimono is to Japan. In a society that values the unspoken, its colors and patterns have for centuries served as an alternative form of speech. Without uttering a word, a well-chosen kimono can speak volumes about a wearer's sorrow or joy, animosity or amorousness. Restricting the legs to doll-like steps, the kimono changes the way both sexes walk, making even the clumsiest appear elegant. It is essential to the classical arts of Kabuki and Noh theater, the tea ceremony and ikebana, or flower arranging. In Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century literary masterpiece, "The Tale of Genji," gifts of kimonos in scented silk are extensions of a romancing prince's spirit. The kimono is less a garment than a window into the Japanese soul.

Although a growing taste for Western clothing washed ashore more than a century ago, the kimono long remained the vanity garment of choice for major events in Japanese life. But now, the country's own demographics are working against it.

Fewer Japanese are marrying today than ever, and those who do largely shun traditional white wedding kimonos in favor of Western-style dresses. A declining birthrate, meanwhile, has meant fewer babies, which in turn has meant fewer sales of kimonos for children's coming-of-age rites. Nationwide, kimono sales have more than halved in the past decade.

Nowhere has the decline been felt more keenly than in Nishijin, home of Japan's finest -- and priciest -- kimonos and obi. Sales of Nishijin products fell from $2.7 billion in 1990 to a record low of $477 million last year, according to industry figures; during the same period, the district's production of kimonos dropped from 291,000 to just 87,382 garments.

At the same time, many ancient textile houses of Nishijin have fallen. In 1980, there were about 1,200 kimono and obi factories and related businesses lining these ancient stone streets. Today, there are 606.

Some see a light for the industry in the unlikeliest of places -- Tokyo's hyper-hip Harajuku district, where Goth geisha in punk makeup and secondhand black kimonos strut the streets flaunting attitude and skull-faced leather purses.

"Right now, they are wearing cheap, used kimonos they bought for a few dollars in a bargain bin," said Toshimitsu Ikariyama, president of the Nishijin Textile Industrial Association. "But when these teenagers grow up and become prosperous, we hope they will be the start of a new generation who will wear more expensive and new kimonos for grace and beauty, the way their mothers and grandmothers did."

Others, however, are not counting on an organic recovery. Rather, they say, the industry must reinvent itself to survive.

On a cloudy Kyoto afternoon, a graceful female attendant demurely opened the sliding wooden doors of the ancient kimono house of Kawamura. Across a floor of traditional straw tatami, beyond a wall-size window overlooking a Zen rock garden, past the portraits of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, she led a guest into the office of Yasuto Kawamura, a maverick of the Nishijin textile district.

The 57-year-old president of a company that goes back five generations, Kawamura seems more middle-age pop star than kimono maker.

Japan's kimono makers, he argues, must drop all this preciousness. Kawamura's sales, as those of so many other kimono houses in Nishijin, are down 80 percent compared with two decades ago, but he is making plans for survival, manufacturing kimonos at lower prices in China and selling them in Japan.

"Look, what is tradition?" he asked. "It's something that people involved in Japanese tea ceremony and flower arranging worry about. A tradition is only a tradition as long as people need it, as long as it's practical. We need to make kimono-making practical again."

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