Traditional folk textile dyeing in Japan:

diversity, meanings, and continuity of the kōbō

Maria Jose Santamaria Hergueta, International Christian University of Tokyo [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 2 (Article 6 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2022.


The atelier or kōbō is pivotal to the traditional folk textile dyeing tradition in Japan. The kōbō is the physical space where the dyers work. It also constitutes the environment in which professional and amateur dyers interact socially. Last of all, the kōbō is a symbolic cultural construction, supported by the sense of belonging to a community.
Those kōbō whose continuity depends on their professional output of dyeing products confront mismatches between the cost and price of their production and between their production and consumers’ interests. In addition, new technologies produce redundancies in traditional craftsmanship. Having clear marketing and branding strategies, owning a retail outlet, or participating in public-private initiatives, favour the continuity of the kōbō. Having a successor is essential.
This article builds on the evidence gathered from the fieldwork carried out between December 2017 and January 2022. It included 46 semi-structured interviews with the participation of ten professional dyers, seven amateur dyers, two professional weavers, five crafts dealers, five people of institutions promoting traditional crafts, and three expert opinions. The fieldwork also included participatory observation, and survey to a group of 32 amateur dyers.

Keywords: kōbō, stencil-dyeing, katazome, Japanese, craftmanship, dyers


This paper discusses the meanings and the evolution of the spaces where craftspeople produce resist-paste stencil dyeing (katazome), a traditional folk textile dyeing in Japan. The paper refers to these spaces as ‘kōbō’ rather than ‘atelier’ because kōbō have social and symbolic dimensions anchored in Japanese traditional culture. The first part of the paper begins by profiling the kōbō by size, function, and dyeing technique used. It then describes the kōbō as the physical space where the various production processes of katazome happen. After that, the paper examines the kōbō as the social environment where its members interact and establish relations among themselves. Lastly, it explores how the kōbō embodies a symbolic realm through which the craftspeople become part of a cultural tradition. The second part of the paper investigates the factors that affect the continuity of the kōbō. The paper also attempts to clarify how the cultural identity of kōbō contributes to the enhancement of a national cultural identity, and how the continuity of the kōbō is pivotal to maintaining rooted traditions in a globalising world.
The evolution of lifestyle in Japan in the last century, with changes in dwellings and fashion, has resulted in an overall decrease of demand for traditional stencil-dyed products. At the same time, the availability of materials has evolved and new technologies, such as ink-jet printing, or the use of silk screens instead hand-carved stencils, have threatened the traditional practice of katazome. The globalisation process has resulted in the import of cheap products that compete with those locally produced in price and in utility (washable fabrics, stable colours). These changes have an ambivalent effect on the kōbō, the katazome craft community, and the society of the artisans. Faced with challenges, the kōbō adapt their way of working to the available materials and their dyeing products, accepting the situation as natural over time. However, once the limit of adaptation has been reached, many of such kōbō discontinue their activity. Consequently, the sector has started to shrink. This spiral of changes challenges the traditional values shared among the members of the craft community. These traditional values are often tinted with a sense of nostalgia for those times when katazome were more popularly the object of consumption. At the same time, a growing number of kōbō have adopted new technologies such as ink-jet printing, seeking to develop a renewed tradition of the craft.
There are numerous kōbō across Japan, although the overall number has decreased sharply in the last decades (Association of Friends of the Modern Art Museum of Ibaraki, 2017, p. 37; Kyoto Yuzen Cooperative Association Survey, 2019, p. 1-5; Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, 2019). A kōbō is not a static entity and evolves through time and social changes. It will thrive, survive, or disappear depending on its capacity to adapt to changes confronting its functioning. Some of the challenges it faces have a direct impact on the production of katazome, such as the availability of materials, the evolution of dyeing technologies, or finding of a suitable successor to the lead craftsperson of the kōbō (Shibuya et al., 2010). Other factors, such as changes in lifestyle or fashion impact the evolution of the kōbō through changes in the demand of katazome. As several interviewees mentioned, the societal changes of Japan in the last decades brought changes in housing, with people currently living in modern apartments which do not use traditional doorway curtains or noren anymore. Interviewees also explained how changes in fashion affect the demand for katazome, with people nowadays wearing western-style clothing instead of kimono and other traditional wear. Interviewees from the Industry and Tourism Department of the Sumida City Office in Tokyo, and from the Association for the Promotion of Craft Industries in Kyoto, provided insight on how, with globalisation, imports of cheaply mass-produced katazome are gaining ground at the expense of the traditionally made katazome in Japan.
Currently various institutions promote the consumption of Japanese crafts, which include katazome and indigo dyeing products as part of its folk textile cultural tradition. A series of public and private institutions, including the mass media, have been encouraging the consumption of traditional crafts under the nationwide umbrella initiative called Cool Japan (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry 2014, Garvizu 2019). The Cool Japan initiative, officially launched in 2014, grounds its discourse on the uniqueness and excellence of the Japanese craftsmanship and on its identification as a symbol of national identity. Parallel to this discourse, the initiative channels public resources through a push system to the administrative structures at prefectural and local levels, from which the craftspeople can access resources through a pull system. The support takes innumerable forms. These include joint ventures piggy-backing on the Japan-blue boom as in the case of Kyoto area, supporting traditional crafts apprenticeship at the prefectural level as in Tokushima prefecture, or training the crafts unions’ members on marketing, branding, and use of social media to fuel their sales while raising the profile of the kōbō as in the case of the Sumida ward initiative in the Tokyo area. Accessing such additional support requires a minimum level of organisation on the part of the various individual kōbō and a dynamic team at the prefectural level (Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, 2019).
For an individual kōbō facing a challenging situation in day-to-day practice, obtaining effective access to resources from the Cool Japan initiative is a long and tortuous path. The craftspeople interviewed who were not part of any ongoing support mechanism were aware of the Cool Japan initiative through the mass media, although they did not see it as a realistic option for sorting out their problems soon. They acknowledged that the mass media and other intermediary agents use the Cool Japan initiative as a branding umbrella, and that, they influence the choices of consumers and the goods they purchase. Ultimately then, they shape the demand for the crafts and the evolution of the kōbō.
This paper is part of a wider ethnographic study on traditional folk textile dyeing in Japan. The study uses qualitative methodologies to explore what the kōbō means from an insider perspective; the factors that shape and affect their continuity; and how the continuity of the kōbō affects the maintenance of the katazome tradition and cultural identity in Japan. It builds on the evidence gathered from fieldwork carried out between December 2017 and January 2022. The data generation strategies include a) a purposely selected sample of 46 semi-structured interviews with ten professional dyers, seven amateur dyers, two professional weavers, five crafts dealers, five people of institutions promoting traditional crafts, and three expert opinions; b) a survey of 37 amateur dyers; c) participatory observation; and d) documentary analysis. The analysis of data follows the main themes of the framework constructed for this study. This study provides data which demonstrate the importance of the kōbō as institutions and as practice in maintaining the traditional textile dyeing in Japan.

Size and function of the kōbō

Purposely, this research considers three groups of kōbō based on their size. Size is an important attribute because it shapes the functions and scope of the kōbō. In this context, size refers not exclusively to the physical space but rather to the number of functions performed in the kōbō at one point in time. Size does not imply that all functions are present through time. Instead, the size of the kōbō determines the maximum number of functions in situ at a time (Table 1).

Table 1. Profile of kōbō, by size and function

Large-size, full-fledged functions. These kōbō have a strong leadership with the mentorship and direction of a recognised master. Often, they enjoy the support of a public initiative at prefectural or local levels. This type of kōbō attracts various profiles of craftspeople. Firstly, young people coming out of secondary school wanting to learn the job by doing (apprentices) work and live in the kōbō facilities or dormitory (iemoto/uchi deshi system). Secondly, those people engaging with textile dyeing as a hobby (amateurs). Finally, the employees assisting with the production of works of the kōbō or its leader (professional). These are the kōbō where apprenticeship starts, craftsmanship develops, mastery blossoms, and amateurism evolves. The physical space of these kōbō is considerable, with areas dedicated to the various functions they harbour.
One such example is the former Serizawa Keisuke kenkyūjo in Kamata, Tokyo, which operated from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s. Interviewees who had worked in this facility confirmed that, in the busiest periods, it hosted 20-25 people with three different types of engagement. A first category of workers were those permanently employed, including one or two people involved in administrative work, two or three craftspeople assistants (shokunin, deshi), and one craftsperson only devoted to washing the dyed fabrics. A second category included apprentices, who spent a minimum of about 6 months to learn the job before moving elsewhere. In the 1960s and 1970s, the number of live-in apprentices reached more than 20. However, with the decline of the kenkyūjo over the years, work was outsourced to assistants known to the kenkyūjo. The last category included amateur groups. Serizawa established two groups (Konohanakai and Katsurakai) for people interested in textile dyeing. Serizawa himself coached these groups monthly, in addition to organising annual sales exhibitions in department stores and galleries. There were more than 100 members in these amateur groups throughout the years.
In terms of the organisation of work there were two categories of people. One category comprised those staff who had clear-cut roles such as those working in administration, the person exclusively dedicated to washing dyed fabrics, and the assistants/deshi. The other category included the rest of the staff, who undertook various tasks following the weekly planning of Serizawa and the administrative team. Typical tasks included applying the resist paste to Japanese paper and fabrics, applying colours to these media, carving stencil papers, or making prototypes.
The Skills Pavilion of Kamiita town in Tokushima prefecture constitutes another example of a large kōbō (Skills Pavilion- Kamiita Town's traditional craft experience facility, n.d.). The prefecture established this facility in the early 2000s to preserve the indigo dyeing culture—Awa-ai—specific to Tokushima and to promote it throughout Japan. Interviewees from this facility commented on how their program offers three salaried apprenticeship positions for three years in a program that carries out all phases of indigo production. They span from the cultivation of the plant Indigofera tinctoria, the harvest and elaboration of the indigo paste (sukumo), to the dyeing of thread or fabrics. Apprentices receive practical training as full-fledged dyers, classroom education on managerial skills to allow them to establish their own companies, and coaching as educators to transmit their know-how to others. In addition to the apprenticeship program, this structure offers education training sessions for schools in the prefecture and for individuals and groups for a fee. A team of three to five experienced professional dyers ensure these educational activities and the technical direction for the apprentices. In addition, an administrative unit of four people manages this structure.
This facility hosts the so-called Netchū-shogakkō (Enthusiastic Elementary School Network, n.d.), a Japan-wide community-building initiative that started in 2015 with a view to dynamise local culture and traditions. The Netchū-shogakkō team of Kamiita city stimulates a group of 30-50 members and promotes various locally-rooted activities and typical prefectural products, including the production of indigo paste (sukumo) and dyeing. This team has its own kōbō in a dedicated facility and offers a personalised artist-in-residence program for those interested in traditional indigo dyeing.
Medium size, limited number of functions. These kōbō have a close direction from a well-established craftsperson or are well known in the area from several generations. All these kōbō have two essential functions: the development of craftsmanship and the mastery of the dyeing production. In addition, the kōbō develop a different profile depending on other existing functions. For instance, some provide amateur training such as the Dote katazome kōbō in Ushiku, Ibaraki prefecture; the Higeta aizome kōbō in Mashiko, Tochigi prefecture; or the Aizome Zabo in Sapporo, Hokkaidō. Others concentrate on developing and innovating craftsmanship and on the reprofiling of their products, such as Buaisō in Tokushima prefecture, or the Kuronuma kōbō at the Sumida Ward, Tokyo.
The Dote katazome kōbō in Ushiku, Ibaraki prefecture, exemplifies a medium-sized kōbō with several functions. The two leaders of this structure, both professional dyers, commented on how they established this kōbō in the 1970s on the upper floor of the building where they lived. Both, husband and wife, had worked at the Serizawa kenkyūjo for a number of years. They both used the kōbō for their production. In the mid-1980s, they started training amateurs in dyeing, and established the Moe group. At its peak, there were around 15 amateur dyers attached to this kōbō. This kōbō illustrates a traditional structure following the lineage of Serizawa, where craftsmanship and amateur training are transmitted as was done at the Serizawa kenkyūjo. In the absence of any marketing or branding strategies through the Internet or other social media, this kōbō has depended on its amateur practitioners’ network, or networking through professional associations.
Buaisō in Tokushima prefecture constitutes an example of a middle-size kōbō, with a different profile. Its workforce consists of five dyers who formed a cooperative after their apprenticeship at the above-mentioned Skills Pavilion kōbō of Tokushima prefecture, and two staff responsible for the management, branding, and external promotion of the group. Interviewees mentioned that this kōbō has its own Indigofera plantation to produce the indigo paste (sukumo). They also focus on the control and innovation of the overall production process, including the branding and commercialisation of their products. This kōbō constitutes an example of a structure of traditional folk dyeing concentrating on its own lineage and innovation based on the (Awa-ai) dyeing tradition of Tokushima.  Buaisō does not sponsor apprenticeships or accept amateur members for the time being. This kōbō pursues modern promotion strategies actively, and its profile is growing as a locally-rooted global brand.
Small size kōbō, exclusive/single function. These kōbō are the working spaces of individual craftspeople. These craftspeople develop their original products and sell them to their regular customers or through their professional associations’ selling exhibitions. These kōbō remain relatively local in the absence of an effective marketing or branding support through the Internet or other social media.
One such example is the Odanaka kōbō in Iwate prefecture. During the interview, Mr. Odanaka described how this three-generation family-run kōbō traditionally dyed yarn and fabric (hemp) with indigo. When demand for these products decreased in the 1970s, they started stencil-dyeing and pour-dyeing and made flags for festivals and for temples, traditional curtains (noren), or hand-towels (tenugui). At its peak, the kōbō included a team of several craftspeople. However, over time this kōbō shrank to a one-person kōbō. Mr. Odanaka focuses on his original dyed products, such as calendars and postcards, which he sells in the retail outlet of his kōbō and through the association of craftspeople at the prefecture-level. He never considered training other people in his kōbō.  
Another example of a small size kōbō is the Murakami kōbō in Tokushima prefecture. During the interview, Ms. Murakami explained how she established a kōbō at her home after training at the above-mentioned Tokushima prefecture-led facility for three years. She employs an assistant temporarily to help with the preparation of the dyeing works and administration. Ms. Murakami has developed her own style of dyeing products and sells them through the annual selling exhibitions that the Tokushima prefecture organised, and to her regular customers.

Dyeing techniques 

Each kōbō has a main dyeing technique, irrespective of its size or the number of functions it hosts. Most kōbō use indigo in their works, and some use different colours, either natural/mineral, or chemical. There are two groups of dye: thread dyeing, which is later woven; and fabric dyeing. The fabric can be uniformly dyed or with a pattern.  When the pattern is the result of gripping or tying the fabric prior to dipping it into a dye, it is called tie-dye or shiborizome. The tie-dye does not use fermented bean resist-paste or nori. Stencil dyeing or katazome is another type of fabric dyeing and includes two main methods. One is the direct dyeing or surikomizome by which the design is applied directly without the use of resist-paste. The other method is indirect and is called bōzenhō because resist-paste is applied to the fabric prior to dyeing. In addition to applying resist paste through stencils, the free-hand dyeing or tsutsugakizome / tegakizome also uses resist-paste. All these techniques are fully handmade. There is one technique, the pour-dyeing or tsugi honzome/chūsen zome where the colour is applied with the help of a compressed-air machine manually operated. Pour-dyeing requires a considerable infrastructure and is used to produce large quantities of dyed products, such as traditional hand towels or tenugui (Japan Kōgei Association 2013).
Table 2 describes the primary techniques of the kōbō mentioned in this research. The Kuronuma kōbō is the only one using pour-dye technique exclusively for patterns, in addition to fabric and yarn dyeing; the Odanaka kōbō uses pour-dye only for orders of hand towels or handkerchiefs, although its main business base is stencil dyeing and free-hand dyeing. Other kōbō use one technique exclusively, such as the Dote kōbō (stencil) or the Murakami kōbō (tie-dye). Buaisō combines traditional and modern techniques. For instance, the dyers dye the yarn which is sent for weaving elsewhere. This fabric is then dyed with stencils using bleach products for traditional finishing; or with silk screens for modern finishing when dyeing fabrics with high-definition motives such as photographs of people.

Table 2. Profile of the kōbō relevant to this research, by main production techniques. Source: Feedback from interviewees during the fieldwork, December 2017 to January 2022.

Meanings of the kōbō

This section builds on fieldwork findings, during which, interviewees replied to questions: ‘What did the kōbō mean to you?’ and ‘What can you tell me about the kōbō where you practiced textile dyeing?’ This paper considers three layers of meaning attached to the kōbō. The first layer of meaning is physical, where the kōbō is a tangible space that enables the production of dyeing products. The second level of meaning is social, and the kōbō becomes the environment where people interact and forge relations as companions/working colleagues; as teacher-pupil; or as master-assistant. The third level of meaning is symbolic, with the kōbō cradling tradition and culture, and thus contributing to the building of heritage and identity.

Kōbō as a physical space

There is not a single or uniform kōbō type across Japan. Rather, there are as many types of kōbō as there are kōbō, since each of them is unique. While there are many differences between the various types of kōbō, those producing traditional folk textile dyeing for kimono and the kimono bands must have a covered space of about six metres long, to host the four-and-a-half-metre table (ita) needed to apply the stencils to the fabric. Figure 1 illustrates such an example. Other spaces common in all ateliers include a section to wash fabrics and Japanese paper (washi); poles to extend the fabrics, and hooks with cords to hang papers to dry; and several tables to perform various tasks, such as carving stencils, or colouring Japanese paper. In addition, there is a terrace or garden where the fabrics can be extended to dry. Some of the kōbō have a retail outlet or gallery, which constitutes an advantage for exposing or commercialising their products. Figure 4 illustrates such a retail outlet.

Figure 1. Set up of the covered area of Odanaka katazome kōbō, Iwate prefecture. Mr. Odanaka examines a stencil in the indoor section of his atelier. The picture illustrates the various functional zones, such as those used for storage of tools and materials (against the wall, on the right); for preparation of dyes and stencils as well as application of these to the tissue or washi (on the board table, on the left); and for colouring and drying fabrics (for which the poles at the far end are used). November 2019. © Maria Santamaria
Large-sized kōbō differentiate the functional areas to a greater extent. For instance, the one at Kamiita city, in Tokushima prefecture, which specialises in indigo dyeing, has its physical space adapted for the professional training of apprentices and for educational activities addressed to interested groups or individuals. The space consists of a large area for several vats of indigo for dyeing thread and fabrics, which are managed by the apprentices and professional dyers, as Figure 2 illustrates.
Figure 2. Aizome kōbō. Kamiita city, Tokushima prefecture. The kōbō has differentiated functional areas for dyeing yarn and thread (left); dyeing fabrics (far left and center); and washing of dyed products (far center). October 2018. © Ms Ishikawa, Japan Blue Project Kamiita city.
The amateur practitioners interviewed referred to their kōbō as a place conveniently located, which enabled their practice of katazome. They mentioned that the kōbō was critical to their practice for several reasons. These included not having enough space at their home or being able to use the materials and tools of the kōbō against a monthly fee.

Kōbō as a social environment

In addition to being a physical space that enables amateur and professional craftspeople to produce traditional folk textile dyeing, the kōbō constitutes a social environment where dyers interact, and groups emerge. This interaction varies according to the type of practice:
Professional practice. The kōbō becomes the environment where craftspeople relate to fellow workers horizontally, and vertically with their boss. In the current research the horizontal relation among craftspeople came out as one of companionship and camaraderie, often enduring longer than the period at the kōbō. The interviewees explained how they spent most of their time in the working place, with some of them living in common dormitories. The craftspeople belonging to the same kōbō highlighted how, after leaving the kōbō several decades earlier, they still maintain their relationship informally or through their professional groups. Their participation in exhibitions offers them the chance to talk about their lives, the dyeing environment, or the evolution of their work, maintaining their relationship as a group.
The vertical relation among the apprentices and craftspeople with their supervisors and employers manifests in different ways. At times, this relation reflects an imbalance of power between the parties, whereby the various aspects of the life of the employee depend on the employer. The span of control includes not only the time spent in the atelier, but also personal spheres of the employee. For instance, one interviewee described how the master suggested a suitable marriage candidate and facilitated the ceremony for its celebration. The employees are expected to prioritise the needs of the atelier rather than comply with the terms of their contract. For instance, another interviewee explained how the master had been upset and had bitterly asked an employee if she could imagine how her insistence to do katazome could affect him, because it would imply a delay in the administrative work of the atelier. The employee had reiterated that she had been engaged for katazome work but was doing administrative work as extra for years. Interviewees also commented on how the relationship between the master and the craftspeople at times reflected the pattern of patriarchal relationships of a bygone era, where boys were decchi (feudal apprentices) and girls were jochūchan (maids, servants).
Amateur practice. The kōbō becomes the social ground for relations among the members of the group, and among the group and the teacher. The interviewees referred to the kōbō as a social space where things happened around three themes:
The first theme relates to the establishment of groups. The kōbō constitutes the social space where an amateur dyeing group was established (Moe group). This amateur group included a total of 42 women over its 30 years of existence. The interviewees referred to this kōbō as a place to socialise with others while learning by doing. This interaction established camaraderie that continued years after the members left the group.
The second theme relates to the teacher-pupil interaction. The kōbō provides the environment for interaction between the teacher and the amateur group. Teacher and pupils engage in a long-term relationship with reciprocal effects on both parties. The feedback from interviewees indicates that belonging to an amateur group calls for a strong commitment. On the one hand, the teacher develops herself through the interaction with pupils from their selection and through the teaching process:

 I thought that Ms M. was great because she never wanted to take holidays. She made me work harder whenever she came to the atelier! Ms S. is another enthusiastic pupil who is working with blind and deaf people. I feel that I must teach her energetically (teacher- interview 5).

On the other hand, the pupils grow with the advice from the teacher, and through the contact with other members of the group. The feedback from interviewees illustrated how the teacher becomes the person who supports the pupil’s learning, challenging her ability to improve.

I showed the stencil pattern that I had produced for a kimono band. Looking at it, the teacher asked me with surprise if I had done it all alone. Of course, I had done it. I wanted to show her what I can do when I work enthusiastically! (amateur dyer-interview 32).

The third theme is the interaction among pupils. The kōbō constitutes the social space where women interact freely while practising textile dyeing. The diversity of the members provided ground for their growth and opening of ideas.

I felt I practised textile dyeing with women with more experience in life than me. I was able to speak to them freely, no need for keigo (formal Japanese language). I never had a bad feeling and enjoyed my time at the kōbō really (amateur dyer- interview 34).

Due to the fact that all members of this group were women, femininity pervaded the camaraderie established among them. Femaleness comes as a distinct aspect in amateur practice, as opposed to professional practice of katazome, where most of the members in the present study are professional masculine dyers.

Kōbō as a symbolic realm

Exploring the symbolic meaning of the kōbō proved complex because the interviewees did not talk about it explicitly. Instead, they used allusions to represent their sense of belonging to a community.
The kōbō acts as the vessel through which the craftspeople root themselves in their tradition. Traditional folk textile dyeing is considered a craft where the so-called live-in apprenticeship (iemoto system) was historically important. During the interviews, those who had started their professional practice as apprentices commented on how spending most of their time in the kōbō  allowed them not only to learn katazome, but also to bond with other apprentices and the master and become immersed into the history of the dyeing tradition. For instance, they would often refer to the Crafts Movement in Japan or Mingei and to the importance of maintaining the philosophy of its main founder, Yanagi Soetsu, in their works. In this sense, the kōbō authenticated the lineage and enforced a cultural community among those who belonged to it.
The symbolism of the kōbō reflects a cultural construction that depends on various factors. A dyer belongs to the kōbō through a sense of continuity of work from previous generations to the next ones. From this perspective, the craftsperson and the apprentice contribute to the construction of the lineage of such kōbō through their works and continuity through time. When the apprentice or craftsperson goes back to the family business or starts his/her own, the representation of the master becomes present in the kōbō, reinforcing the sense of lineage. For instance, the katazome kōbō of Mr. Odanaka and of Mr. and Ms Dote exhibit images of Serizawa Keisuke or his works; they explain that they display these images permanently because this is where they belong.
The periodic participation of the members of a kōbō in exhibitions in galleries or department stores enhances the sense of belonging to the kōbō and its lineage. For instance, the Konohanakai group that Serizawa established in 1952 participated in the annual exhibition that the Takashimaya Department Store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, organised from 1953 until 1981. The group also produced several publications documenting these experiences, as well as a recapitulative of its history in 1982 (Konohanakai 1982, p. 120-122). Belonging to the kōbō was further charged with symbolic meaning when participating at the exhibition organised in 1995, marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Serizawa, with works of members that had belonged to his kenkyūjo. The organisers, the Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, which host a Serizawa museum, act as the gatekeepers of the kōbō lineage through their selection of participants for the exhibition.
Maintaining a dyeing style that Serizawa would agree with constituted another sign of belonging to the kōbō. The interviewees commented on how their works should not be inconsonant with the dyeing tradition of the kōbō where one belonged. The following two examples illustrate their understanding. The first highlights consistency as a sign of lineage and identity. One interviewee mentioned the pride he felt when an old colleague from the Serizawa kenkyūjo commented on how the style of Serizawa could be sensed when looking at the works of a pupil to the interviewee. The interviewee commented on how transmitting the essence of Serizawa was the main objective in the kōbō. The second example shows what would be inconsonant with the dyeing tradition of the kōbō. One interviewee commented on how awkward the intervention of a colleague of the Serizawa kenkyūjo had sounded to participants at a meeting to promote katazome, when he proposed a Mickey Mouse motif to attract young people to the world of katazome. This proposal had caused uproar among the other dyers at the meeting because Serizawa would be devastated to hear this proposal from someone from the kenkyūjo.  
Understanding the role that the kōbō plays in building tradition and lineage is only possible if one shares that specific culture. This implies having a sense of belonging to a greater environment that transcends the moment and the physical place where the dyers work. The interviewees explained that the traditional craftsmanship in Japan is highly compartmentalised, and how the reduction in orders to a kōbō affects several subsidiary traditional craftspeople. They lamented that, when a kōbō disappears, it drags away a part of the traditional heritage of Japan. They mentioned the examples of the Serizawa-design calendars and Japanese fans (uchiwa). In their opinion, these two traditional goods were part of the Japanese cultural heritage, and continuing their production was critical for some craftspeople. These included, just to mention some, those craftspeople producing mulberry paper (washi), fermented persimmon paper (shibugami), silk mesh (sha), stencils (katagami), rice-resist paste (nori), brushes; the dyers; or those who mount the fans with bamboo.
The kōbō provides the framework for contextualising the link between the individual craftsperson and a conceptual construct of Japanese identity. In the research, this link comes out as a constructed identity among the craftspeople themselves. The interviewees stressed that their purpose was their work, while heritage or Japanessness were terms used by the media. However, when prompted with the question of disappearance of their ateliers, they regretted that when that happened something essentially Japanese was lost.  This figurative identity played as a reminiscence of a nostalgic past, where people and nature existed in a harmonious tandem in rural areas, producing items of inherent beauty for daily life; evoking a confrontation with the cosmopolitanism inherent to modern urban life. The kōbō perpetuates the Mingei philosophy in modern times. One interviewee was of the view that the Mingei philosophy is more relevant now than it was one hundred years ago, because the industrialisation that fuelled the Mingei movement was far gentler to traditional craftsmanship than the current globalisation.

Physical spaces and cultural identity

Relph is one of the most cited authors defining what a place is from the perspective of its distinctiveness as opposed to its samelessness (placelessness) (Relph, 2014). For him, ‘the static physical setting, the activities, and the meanings—constitute the three basic elements of the identity of places’ (1976, p. 47) that ‘are sensed in a chiaroscuro of setting, landscape, ritual, routine, other people, personal experience, care and concern for home and the context of other places’ (1976, p. 29). Turner and Turner (2006) in their review of the sense of place add the social interactions associated with the place as a fourth component (2006, p. 207). Scannell and Gifford (2010) analyse the meaning of a physical space and note that at group level the attachment to a place relates to the symbolism shared among its members, transcending the limits imposed from a mere territoriality perspective (Yagi 1988, p.140-144). By belonging to a place where they practice and thus, preserve their culture, ‘this culture links members to place through shared historical experiences, values and symbols’ (Scannell and Gifford 2010, p. 2). John Donohue (1990) notes that the social identity linked to a physical space (dōjō) depends on the adherence of its members to the rules of the group, and on the way in which the members practice and live by the martial art’s spirit. The social identity developed by belonging to the dōjō allows its members ultimately to impersonate the martial arts and the Japanese spirit of a tradition (1990, p. 56-62).
The sense of belonging to a group or community relates to representations of what occurred in the past in that place, and shared recollection of the events and experiences by the people (Osborne 2001, p. 8; Stedman 2003; Jenks 2008, p. 242; Niżnik 2017). The members of the group familiar with the place develop a social identity by seeking a balance of similarity to the members and distinctiveness to those outside (Bourdieu et al., 1991, p. 631-643; Scannell and Gifford, 2010, p. 3; Seamon and Sowers, 2008, p. 45). Changes in values or new technologies becoming available to the group result in a social disorder and lack of cohesion until the assimilation process leads to a new (identity) equilibrium among its members (Niżnik 2017). The social space with its distinctiveness acquires a symbolic power when official institutions legitimise its worth (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 21-22).
The symbolism shared by the members belonging to a place and the cultural identity attached to the practice of crafts mentioned by other authors above are most relevant to the present study, where the interviewees associate the traditional folk textile dyeing and their belonging to a kōbō as part of their cultural identity. All the guilds participating in the process of katazome constitute an example of both a community of interest, where the dyers’ membership does not imply a location but a lineage; and a community of place with the ensemble of members’ experiences and memories attached to the kōbō. The members to the kōbō internalise the history and roots of the craft (stencil dyeing from Okinawa or bingata, and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Japan or Mingei), as well as the know-how of previous generations of craftspeople, while achieving their mastery in stencil dyeing. They are conscious of how they contribute to the Serizawa Keisuke lineage by belonging to the kōbō as assistants, apprentices, or pupils to the master. At the same time, because Mingei, bingata, or the technique of stencil dyeing which Serizawa developed (kata-e-zome or stencil painting) are all branded as uniquely and typically Japanese, there is a quasi-automatic assimilation of the kōbō with the notion of identity and something unique as Japanese cultural heritage.
The symbolic power of these communities of interest or place is further enhanced by the public recognition of their values. This recognition can include the nomination of traditional katazome as cultural heritage by an official authority; the utilisation of images of craftspeople at work in media campaigns; or the branding of traditional crafts tinting them with a notion of Japaneseness in national campaigns. These forms of recognition require public exposure of the craftspeople, including performing their crafts for demonstration and documenting purposes. Being recognised by a craft creates the expectations among consumers that the craftspeople will continue producing the same type of craft. Some of the interviewees in the present study commented on how losing their privacy and their freedom to produce crafts constituted a drawback which counteracted the support that had been received through public exposure.

Cultural nationalism and katazome tradition

National movements to protect and promote the traditional heritage emerge in times of perceived crisis. The crafts convictions against the industrialisation in the 1920s, which stood behind the Arts and Crafts movements in various countries and the Mingei movement in Japan, re-emerged in Europe in the 1960s-1970s as a reaction to the ethics and sustainability of modern industrialisation and in 2008 after the global financial crisis against globalisation (Bell et al. 2021, p.3-4). Other situations affecting Japan have prompted its government to establish laws and initiatives on the grounds of cultural nationalism. These include the law for the Protection of Cultural Assets, including Intangible Assets, and the system of designation of Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties (referred to as Living National Treasures) of 1950 under concerns to lose its cultural heritage in Occupied Japan (Bambling 2021, p.148-149), or the Cool Japan initiative after the earthquake of 2011.
Public and private initiatives, intermediary agents and the mass media promoting the consumption of traditional crafts focus on their value in terms of authenticity, craftsmanship, and local production (Appendix 1). This focus could be interpreted as a form of cultural nationalism (Yoshino 2005). The Cool Japan, a predominantly industrial policy to boost the national economy through products and industries related to Japanese culture, constitutes such an example. Established as the Creative Industries Promotion Office in 2010, the Cool Japan Advisory Council reshaped its message after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of March 2011. It now stressed the need for the revitalisation of Japan, taking steps to restore shine to the ‘Japan brand’ and called for the essential spirit that the Japanese people traditionally possessed to overcome the situation (Mandujano 2014). The public discourse that followed assimilated the production of traditional crafts to the uniqueness and exquisiteness of the Japanese knowhow and identified the cultural heritage as a sign of national identity and Japaneseness. It is worth noting that the symbolism attached to the kōbō that the feedback from interviewees in the present study highlighted did not relate to a sense of national identity, but rather highlighted their desire to follow a craftsmanship tradition. This cultural nationalism, therefore, points to the strategic role that intermediary parties and public discourse play in such construction, rather than the cultural identity experienced by insiders.
This example of identification of the traditional crafts as a symbol of Japaneseness through ingeniously crafted campaigns using public discourses of national identity is not unique. Just like kōbō and katazome, idol groups and popular culture (Mandujano 2014), or Japanese tea practice (Surak 2011) serve the needs of the same genre of cultural nationalism. The mass media endorse the symbolism of the kōbō when promoting traditional crafts as a sign of Japanese identity. In the case of indigo dyeing, the image of the hands of the dyer tinted by the continued use of indigo makes a strong statement of continuity, tradition, know-how and authenticity (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Buaisō kōbō, Tokushima. The team working in their atelier. The drying area at the left back, and pools for dyeing threads at the right. Pool of indigo at the forefront. The dyers’ hands tinted with indigo serve as proof of their professional activity. GAP magazine Vol 6(3) accessed 12 January 2022.

The evolution of the kōbō

This research considers that the continuity of the kōbō depends on the ability of the craftspeople to produce dyeing works and sell them at a price covering the costs of production and allowing for a margin used in the running the kōbō and paying for the costs of living of the staff. Most of the kōbō faced three different types of challenges related to the balance between cost and price of their production, obsolesce of production, or redundancy of their craftsmanship by new technologies. Table 3 and the following paragraphs illustrate these challenges.

Consumers unwilling to buy crafts at their production costs

To confront this challenge, the dyers adopt various coping strategies. More than half of the dyers belonging to small and medium-sized kōbō interviewed admitted having had part-time jobs to make their ends meet. Some interviewees commented on a second strategy to cope with the situation. In order to reduce the cost of the final product and maintain their margins, they have stopped outsourcing several tasks in the production of their goods, and instead carry them out themselves. For instance, instead of sending the doorway curtains to other craftspeople for traditional hand-finishing they sew the borders themselves by machine. The third strategy which some dyers pursue is to adapt the production of their kōbō to the market. Two dyers stated that, in order to sustain their jobs, they had stopped making things in the sense of creations (sakuhin) and only produced items for selling (urimono), which hinted at the importance of the material consumption in shaping the evolution of the kōbō. While these strategies alleviate the situation in the short term, in the long run they reduce the crafts-people’s creativity potential, and diminish the traditional value of the end product.

 Table 3. Continuity of traditional folk textile dyeing kōbō. Main challenges and coping strategies. Feedback from the dyers interviewed.

Mismatch between dyers’ production and consumers’ interests

Some of these products included textile dyeing for kimonos, kimono bands (obi), doorway curtains (noren), or wrapping cloths (furoshiki). Without any exception, all interviewees from the various associations for the promotion of traditional textiles and guilds, kimono retailer, galleries, and museums confirmed how difficult the situation for the kōbō has become. They commented on how this was due to changes in Japanese wear in modern life. Women do not wear kimono as in previous times, modern apartments do not display doorway curtains, or plastic bags have substituted the traditional wrapping cloths. They also mentioned that the interruption of gatherings since early 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis had resulted in consumers not buying kimono and kimono bands used in tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or traditional theaters attendance anymore. A kimono retailer stated that she feared her clients might stop organising social gatherings, since most of them were senior citizens. As a result of the changes in lifestyle and fashion, or of sudden crisis, the kōbō confronts a challenge of its main production line becoming obsolescent, which calls for an adaptation of their production. Some interviewees explained how they maintained their traditional know-how and applied it to other items, such as bags and other smaller objects, which, as they mentioned, sold relatively well.
One former professional dyer stated that he was unable to adapt to such changes. He transformed most of the surface of his third-generation kōbō into a space to experience and sell katazome for tourists or schools. Figure 4 and Figure 5 illustrate the space reconverted to experience traditional textile dyeing for visitors with a retail outlet, and the adaptation of this space to comply with the preventive measures linked to the coronavirus crisis. He further mentioned that he rented some space out for other craftspeople, and that he retained a minimal part of the space for the former professional dyers in case the nowadays rare orders of kimono are received, and another space for processing dyeing products for tourists. This interviewee commented on how the coronavirus crisis of 2019 had catastrophic effects on his business. Not only had he been forced to invest in infrastructure to make it safe for visitors, but also with the collapse of the tourism sector, his business was at the brink of bankruptcy.

Figure 4. Entrance to the Marumasu Nishimuraya kōbō, Kyoto. The ancient katazome kōbō has been transformed into a facility to experience traditional Kyoto textile dyeing for tourists. This space serves as an exposition hall and retail outlet for the products of the atelier. In addition, a space has been rented out to a professional potter and to a leather artisan (not in picture). December 2021. © Maria Santamaria

Figure 5. Marumasu Nishimuraya kōbō, Kyoto. The space devoted to experience traditional textile dyeing of visitors has been adapted to implement the protection measures against the coronavirus crisis of 2019 and ensure their safety. These adaptations include covering of the walls and the floor surface with plastic (at the left side and at the center right), as well as building protections for individual occupancy of the space (at the centre left). December 2021. © Maria Santamaria

New technologies and redundancies of traditional craftsmanship

Most of the craftspeople and staff from the intermediary institutions who were interviewed noted that modern technologies compete with traditional know-how. For example, carving stencils (katagami) by hand had become obsolete, and an increasing number of kōbō used silkscreens instead. Modern printing technologies, such as ink-jet printing, produce kimono quasi-identical to those traditionally dyed, and at one tenth of its price. These changes in technology result in a growing number of customers unwilling to pay the price of the traditionally produced dyeing; instead, they tend to try to purchase other more cheaply produced items. Therefore, the traditional kōbō is faced with the need to transform its production technology to ensure its continuity. Among the kōbō visited, three of them had accepted using silkscreens instead of hand-carved katagami; they found them easier to produce, maintain, and use. However, most of the dyers interviewed considered that adopting ink-jet printing for kimono did not fit with their idea of traditional crafts. They saw this change gaining terrain but thought it was something for the young generations, not for the traditional kōbō. Interviewees from the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Crafts in Kyoto agreed that the concept of tradition was evolving, and that the sector needed to accompany such changes, while informing the customers on the methods used to produce the items purchased. The interviewees also pointed out that the delocalisation of the production of these dyed products to other countries resulting from globalisation has affected their kōbō profoundly.

Factors influencing the continuity of the kōbō

Several factors are relevant for the continuity of the kōbō, although none of them is individually sufficient to determine its fate in the short run. Nevertheless, those kōbō where one or several factors in Table 4 are present seem to be better off than the rest.
Table 4. Factors favouring the continuity of the kōbō.

One factor favouring the continuity of kōbō consists in having a diversity in functions in the kōbō. Those ateliers which maintain several types of production lines, such as traditional and modern dyeing goods, or those ateliers integrating amateur training into production lines, are better off than those kōbō which have a single production line and a single function.
Efforts to influence the consumers’ appreciation through marketing, branding, and promotion of these products at the kōbō level stood out as a worthwhile investment in the structures visited. Those kōbō with a professionally designed strategy of marketing and branding, with an aggressive promotion of products, including recourse to Internet sales, are much better off than those which do not share such an approach. The importance of managing social media even in the absence of such a professional approach to marketing came out clearly from the interviews. Those kōbō which did not use any social media or the Internet remained local and faced difficulties in commercialising their products.
Owning a retail outlet came out as an important factor in the evolution of the kōbō. Those interviewees from kōbō without their own retail outlets have difficulty in selling their products. They are obliged to try to gain direct access to clients when participating in exhibitions, which is time consuming. They mentioned that the commission that galleries, wholesalers, or department stores retained varied between 35%-50% of the final price. Therefore, kōbō with a direct access to consumers have a great advantage when comparing to those without it.
The role of intermediary institutions or agents guiding the kōbō and mediating the establishment of public-private initiatives or promoting and branding of regional products came out as important. Those kōbō which were part of such initiatives seem to be much better off than those without access to any of these structures.
Maintaining the membership in professional associations and guilds came out as important to the kōbō and the craftspeople. This membership enhances the sense of belonging to the community and offers its members with opportunities to discuss matters relevant to them and exhibit their works. These professional associations are self-financed mostly by their members.
Receiving a recognised form of patronage, such as being designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property, as is the Higeta aizome in Tochigi, proved important for the evolution of the kōbō. Staff members of this kōbō pointed out how the number of visitors and volunteers had soared since the Higeta facility had received the designation, and how the selling of their products had increased. They also mentioned that they had received a lump-sum of money to restore the site, and that without this support, the place would have become derelict.
Having a successor to the kōbō came out as one of the most critical factors for its continuity. Those craftspeople interviewed in their late 70s and 80s expressed their regret to have nobody to take over the kōbō as they were arriving at what they qualified as the end of their careers. Those interviewees with children are confronted by the reality that their children are not interested in crafts as a full-time professional occupation. Other interviewees mentioned that they cannot find any apprentice to transmit their know-how to, or someone to take over their kōbō. It is apparent that, after the retirement of most of the senior professional dyers and other craftspeople interviewed, the kōbō concerned will disappear unless some drastic change happens in the next 3-5 years. The situation is different in those kōbō of recent creation or those joining support initiatives.

Impact of kōbō disappearance

Interviewees commented on the critical effect that the disappearance of a kōbō had on the work of other ateliers. In the traditional crafts universe the work is compartmentalised, and each task is the responsibility of a specific craftsperson or guild. For instance, the different artisans that intervene in the various phases of the production of katazome include: the producer of traditional Japanese paper (washi) used to make the stencil; the manufacturer of persimmon-fermented paper (shibugami); the manufacturer of the cutting tools for the katagami carving (specialised depending on the pattern sought); the katagami carver (katahori); the producer of silk mesh (sha) to fix the patterns in the stencil; the manufacturer of resist-paste from glutinous rice (mochi nori); the manufacturers of the tensors of fabrics in their width (shinshi) as well as in their length (harite); the manufacturers of brushes for applying mordant (gojire) and background colours (jizome and hikizome), as well as small-surfaces’ colours (fude); the dyer; the washer of dyed products; the person applying specific bamboo tensors to the dyed fabric to dry (agari); the traditional seamstress finalising the products; the manufacturer of cardboard or wood boxes depending on the importance of the dyeing, and kimono packing bags; and finally the person responsible for packaging the dyeing work and shipping it. Traditionally, these professions were differentiated and specialised. However, over time, these small traditional kōbō have been disappearing and have been giving way to more industrialised options. For instance, the five professions that intervened in the production of a traditional stencil (katagami) have become redundant when using machine-produced silk screens for katazome.
In this respect, Serizawa constituted the exception to the traditional dyeing customs of outsourcing most tasks to the various guilds, by assuming all phases of the production of katazome in the same kōbō.

Estimating the trend of traditional textile dyeing kōbō

It is difficult to estimate the evolution of the number of kōbō in an accurate manner. This is mainly because there are no comprehensive statistics that can reliably show the trend. Although an official designation of what constituted a traditional craft in Japan was adopted by the METI in 2014, there is no discriminating definition in practice of what should be included in the statistics under the ‘traditional crafts kōbō.’ The main sources of information include the official statistics of the METI and the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries (2019), and those from the unions/guilds or kumiai. The numbers they provide are specific in the sense that all those registered are part of the official numbers. However, not all kōbō are part of the guild or the professional associations on a continuous manner. It requires a considerable amount of resources continuously to belong to these networks, and some kōbō decide to opt out when this effort becomes unmanageable to them.

Some of the sources consulted do not provide the number of existing kōbō per year, but only an estimation of the number of bolts of fabric dyed as an estimation of the activity. One bolt or tan is about 11 metres long and 30 centimetres wide, and is the fabric needed to make a kimono. For instance, the Kyoto Yuzen Cooperative Association Survey of 2019 notes that in 1980 the number of bolts of fabric dyed with stencil was over three million and one and a half million by freehand, while in 2019 these two figures have become sixty thousand and fifty thousand rolls respectively. Figures from the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries (2019) indirectly inform the trend in the number of kōbō in the traditional textile sector by estimating the trend of sales of about three hundred billion yen in 2010 at roughly 17% of what they were in 1990 (Kakiuchi and Takeuchi, 2014, p. 14). They further indicate that this declining trend in sales is comparable to that of the overall traditional craft industries which was 20% in the same period.  Of about two hundred ninety thousand people working in the traditional craft sectors in 1979, only one third remained in 2016.

Interviewees from the Industry and Tourism Department of the Sumida City Office, Tokyo stated that in the last 30 years the number of kōbō decreased from 70 to 6. The head of the union of free-hand dyers in Kyoto (tegaki yūzen kumiai) explained that the number of craftspeople belonging to the union of free-hand dyers decreased dramatically over the last 30 years, and it consisted of 120 members including all corps de métier in December 2021. Other interviewees including dyers, weavers, and responsible staff of galleries and specialised kimono retailers confirmed what they considered to be an alarming trend at which traditional crafts kōbō are disappearing.
Triangulating information from written sources (Association of Friends of the Modern Art Museum of Ibaraki, 2017, p. 37; Kyoto Yuzen Cooperative Association, 2020,  p. 1-5; and the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, 2019) with feedback from interviews with staff from the Industry and Tourism Department of the Sumida City Office in Tokyo and from the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Crafts Industries in Kyoto, and with most craftspeople and retailers, as well as with mass media sources (NHK, 2022) and the personal observation of the researcher in the last three decades, confirms a considerable downwards trend in the number of kōbō in Japan. While many traditional folk textile dyeing kōbō disappear, others open their doors incorporating new techniques that are officially considered traditional. An example is the use of silkscreens instead of traditionally made katagami, accepted as a natural evolution facilitating the work of the dyers. Other techniques, such as the use of ink-jet for katazome dyeing are more contested from the perspective of what is a traditional craft.
This trend is also notable in kōbō related to other traditional crafts (Pontsioen 2012, Urushihara 2013, p. 142) and in the overall sector of the traditional craft industries (Kakiuchi and Takeuchi 2014, p. 14; Shibuya et al., 2010, p. 2-4). The factors behind this situation are similar to those of the traditional folk textile dyeing and include the ageing of the craftspeople, the difficulty in obtaining raw materials, the changing tastes of customers, and most importantly, finding a successor to take over the workshop upon retirement of the craftspeople. The latter is due to the economic difficulties of the craftspeople in the absence of proper initiatives to protect their jobs, and to the change in the apprenticeship system. In the past, young adults joined the live-in apprenticeship system (iemoto, uchi deshi) for a number of years, and in the process learnt all the tasks towards craftmanship by carrying them out while at the same time contributing to the work of the atelier. However, these days those interested attend training courses or study at art and crafts schools or universities. In a few cases, there are new ateliers established after apprentices graduate from regional training kōbō such as the one in Tokushima, or from regional initiatives such as the one by the Association for the Promotion of Craft Industries in Kyoto.


This paper pursues two different objectives. On the one hand, it seeks to clarify the pivotal role of the kōbō to the katazome dyeing tradition in Japan. It does so by exploring three layers of meaning attached to the kōbō. Firstly, the kōbō is treated as the space where the dyers work, using the perspectives of size, function, and settings of these ateliers. Secondly, the paper presents the social meaning of the kōbō as the environment in which the dyers interact, the pattern of interaction depending on whether their practice is professional or amateur. In both cases there are vertical relations of the craftspeople or amateur practitioners with the master or the teacher respectively; and horizontal relations among themselves as colleagues or as students. In the case of amateur practice, the kōbō provides a suitable environment for womens’ relations. Lastly, the paper outlines the symbolism of the kōbō as a cultural realm, supported by the sense of belonging to a community of place and to a community of practice. It then uses various examples illustrating the sense of belonging, such as image displays at the kōbō, participation in group activities, or keeping concordance with the master’s style of dyeing. These findings add to the evidence from previous studies on the definition of the physical space in terms of the sense of the attachment that the members of the group familiar to a place develop. The distinctiveness that this attachment confers to the members of the group provides a social identity. This social identity is not absolute and is the result of internal social disorder of the changes confronting the group. In the present study this social disorder is represented by the way in which the kōbō confronts new technologies, globalisation process, or new ways of apprenticeships. The degree of adaptations by the group shapes the evolution of the tradition. The paper notes the role of media and other institutions in relation to the symbolism of the kōbō and the crafts’ tradition. The sense of national identity and Japaneseness comes as an external construct on the kōbō as opposed to the cultural identity manifested by the dyers.
On the other hand, this paper aims at understanding the structural factors affecting the evolution of the kōbō. It focuses on those kōbō whose continuity depends on the professional output of dyeing products. There are three different situations affecting the viability of the kōbō. In the first situation, the dyers sell their products below the production costs. As a result, they need to find part-time jobs, to assume tasks of other corps-de-metier, or to concentrate on sellable—rather than creative—products to balance their economies. In the second situation, the kōbō produce traditional items which are no longer popular in the current market horizon, such as the kimono. To cope with the situation, the dyers orient their work towards the production of items that sell better, such as tapestries, tablecloths, or bags. Some dyers unable to adapt to the changing situation transform their kōbō into other structures. In the last situation addressed, the kōbō is obliged to deal with technological changes and to compete with cheap products resulting from outsourcing. Although most dyers try, those who cannot compete with major changes, such as ink-jet printing, envisage the discontinuation of their kōbō after they retire.
This paper also identifies various factors favouring the viability of the kōbō and its continuity. These factors are outside the tangible craft. For instance, having a suitable strategy of public relations and branding/marketing; owning one’s own retail outlet; participating in support initiatives at national/ regional/ prefectural/ or local levels; being members of professional associations or guilds; or benefiting from a patronage or official designation of prestige. These honours and affiliations are not only good for the promotion of the crafts, but also provide meaning and motivation to their rank-and-file constituents. Adding value to the crafts through these external factors seems to be an increasingly important trend for the future of the katazome tradition.
This study has not found a single factor determining the fate of the kōbō, except for the obvious one of having a successor to its retiring crafts people. In the shrinking market of traditional crafts, the fate of the kōbō is the result of adaptation to incremental changes in the provision of materials and tools, or in changing consumption patterns. New technologies become available, and the ink-jet impressions which some kōbō use compete fiercely with those maintaining the traditional way of dyeing, opening the discussion for the meaning of authenticity and innovation in the katazome tradition.
It is evident that traditional folk textile dyeing is trending downwards, and that this trend is similar to what is occurring among other traditional crafts, although it is difficult to estimate the situation precisely. This is partly due to differences in the definition or its application by connected institutions. While many kōbō disappear, there is a plethora of initiatives and projects at regional, prefectural, and local levels to support traditional crafts. Most of these initiatives draw resources from broader umbrellas of public funding at national level, such as the Cool Japan program. Initiated by the METI in 2010 to promote products and industries related to Japanese culture (Garvizu 2019), this initiative was later packed as Cool Japan in 2014 to promote Japan as a nation through arguments based on the uniqueness and exquisiteness of—among other things—its traditional crafts. The denomination of crafts as cultural properties and designation of craftspeople as Holders of Intangible Cultural Heritage is another system for safeguarding and promoting the traditional crafts. Although the focus of the Cool Japan Initiative is the material consumption of the traditional crafts and expansion of markets, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage seeks the cultural consumption of traditions to safeguard them, both rely on and use the symbolism attached to the kōbō in their discourses to construct a national identity through the crafts. There is some parallelism between the Cool Japan Initiative or the Protection of Cultural Heritage system and the Mingei movement of the 1920s in the sense that all pursue the relocation of the crafts in their roots to avoid the placelessness resulting from the industrial production of crafts either internally or globally. The Mingei movement provided a cultural identity by attaching the crafts of unknown artisans to the kōbō and area of production and focused on internal markets, while the Cool Japan Initiative is conceived to boost consumption of Japanese culture-related products internationally.
Katazome, like other traditional crafts, evokes alternative methods of production opposed to industrialisation and is often associated with a nostalgic image of authenticity. Authenticity relies on provenance and the link to a physical space, transference of the connections to people and places, and (imagined) symbolism of the attributes and connections around the crafts and the production process.  Against this perspective of craft-in-the-past, the future-oriented craft admits that disruption of situations is necessary as an opening for creativity and invention in the tradition of the crafts (Bambling 2021, p.158; Bell et al. 2021, p. 5). Without kōbō there is no craft; thus emerges the importance of their continuity and adaptation to modernity for the maintenance of traditions that remain relevant even when society changes.

Appendix 1: Promotion of locally-produced traditional crafts, Cool Japan Initiative

Source: METI, accessed May 2022


The author is indebted to the stimulating comments and guidance from Richard L. Wilson, (former) Professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. She also appreciates the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on the manuscript.


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About the Author

Maria Jose Santamaria Hergueta, a Spanish medical doctor, has a PhD in medical sciences (Japan) and a DrPH in organisational management (UK), with a career in global infectious diseases and evaluation policy. Maria is also a textile practitioner and a PhD candidate in art and cultural heritage in Japan. Please visit her home page here.

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