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The Birth Place of “藍”, Indigo

Do you know “藍”, or Indigo?
It was called “Japan Blue” by foreign visitors to Japan in Meiji era (19th century). Today, a river side town in Tokushima prefecture is the biggest production area of Indigo. And it is designated Japan Heritage as “The birth place of “藍” , Indigo.

The History of Japanese Indigo Dye

Although it’s considered to have its origins in India, the artisanal culture of indigo dyeing is deeply entrenched in Japanese craft, design and fashion. Today there are still local industries, like Kojima in Okayama, that exist primarily due to the culture of aizome and the production of indigo dye.

Japanese people have used the dye for many centuries, although the widespread popularity of indigo dyeing can be traced back to the Edo era (1603-1868). During this time the country’s military leadership enacted various laws dictating the styles of clothing that Japanese people were allowed to wear. Elaborate colors were discouraged and luxurious fabrics were restricted to the upper classes.

While elegant materials like silk were limited to the elite, simple indigo dyed items, in hemp or cotton, were some of the few bold colors that the common people were permitted. As a result, the deep blue of indigo clothing became the dominant uniform across Japan.

In addition, the natural plant dye holds a number of almost magical yet widely acknowledged antibacterial, and dirt repelling qualities, which made it an indispensable tool both for the everyday Japanese worker, and for the warrior class of samurai.

Over the decades the color indigo became synonymous with samurai culture. Under their armor samurai would wear indigo dyed garments as a way to protect their bodies from infection and help protect wounds. Firefighters would also wear indigo dyed clothes to take advantage of their flame-retardant properties.

How to Make Indigo Dye?

The production of indigo dyed garments and other items can be separated in two stages; the creation of the dye, and the dyeing of the fabrics. To cover the process comprehensively we’ll start from the beginning; the extraction of the dye.

The characteristic blue of the dye come from the leaves of the Japanese Indigo plant, Persicaria tinctoria. The plant’s leaves at first grow green and it generally takes about a year to get to the stage where they are able to produce the ink. Once the leaves are ready to harvest, they are laid out to dry in the sun. During the drying period the true-blue color of the leaves starts to show, but this is just the beginning. Once dried it’s time for the leaves to be fermented.

The process may differ depending on the techniques used, but essentially the fermented leaves must be tended to and moistened every three days to make what’s known as sukumo, the product which contains the dye solution. This sukumo is mixed with other substances like lime and lye before being fermented again and made into a dye that’s ready to use. Today a large percentage of sukumo is produced in Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku.

 

The actual process of dyeing a product varies greatly depending on a number of factors including; the product that’s being dyed, the depth of color needed and the techniques passed down by individual dyers. On first glance the solution of the indigo dye looks more black than blue, but once the fabric has absorbed the dye and is exposed to air it takes on the beautiful rich blue hue. The more times an item is dipped in dyed the deeper that blue becomes.

Sight-seeing spot

 Wakimachi: Udatsu Historical District

Yoshino river often makes a flood in summer. When a flood occurs, the river brings fertile soils to the city along the river.
People started to cultivate “Ai” because it can be harvested before summer.

In the winter of 1585, Iemasa Hachisuka became a lord of Awa after Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s Shikoku conquest. And Tanemoto Inada, the head of chief retainers, entered Waki Castle. He dedicated himself to the restoration of the castle town. A market was held 6 times a month. Anyone could deal at the market with no land-rent or various role exemption, and their birthplace did not matter. So various kinds of merchants came over from far away and began to prosper. Each of their shops along the streets had a frontage of 8 yards and a depth of 60 yards.

 

What is “Udatsu”?

Udatsu is a short pillar set on a beam to support a ridgepole. Originally, it was set on a tile roof of traditional Japanese house to prevent the spread of fires.
It cost much to build up Udatsu, there is a saying that “Udatsu ga agaranai” which means “cannot get on in the world” today.A lot of indigo merchants prospered on the Udatsu Street, because this area used to be a trading center for indigo from Mid-Edo period to early Showa period. You can see the historical background with these historic buildings along the street.

By Masa Tamura

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