Kyoto's Luminous "Other People"

An Interview with Master Weaver
- Godfather of Nishijin

Yamaguchi Sensei

Nancho Advisory: Yamaguchi Itaro worked his way up from a weaver's apprentice to a prosperous business leader and the "godfather" of traditional Nishijin. He has served as a director of many Kyoto organizations, including banks, foundations and craft unions, and his firms now represent nearly half of the community's skilled handweavers. He is an accomplished performer of Edo songs, and his erect kimono'd figure remains a familiar sight in the elegant back lanes of Gion.

Nishijin itself has not fared so well. Once the premier handloom center of Asia, Nishijin's lush silks and astonishingly intricate brocades were coveted by aristocrats and connoisseurs around the world, (including several Popes). In the last 20 years, however, the district has been milked dry by greedy middlemen who typically take 90% of a kimono or obi's final retail price. Add Westernized fashion, mass market mechanization and the export of thousands of jobs to cheap labor markets in Korea and China, and the corporate rout of Nishijin artistry was complete.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: Well, sir, where do we start? Where did you start?

Yamaguchi-san: I started out a long time ago, Meiji 34 (1901) - getting well into my nineties now. I was what, barely four, when the Russo-Japanese war ended. My first really vivid memory is of an evening lantern parade, a celebration of our victory, perhaps. I just remember riding on my mother's back, watching the dancing, the bouncing lanterns, the joy in the street. It was a very wild and happy moment.

Another strong memory, about age twelve, is of going to a shrine, Miyake Hachiman up by Takaragaike, going to get cured of kodomo no mushi [children's temper]. You know, when a child gets nervous, can't sleep or cries out in the night, they would say we'd caught this "bug" and take us to special shrines to be cured. We'd go there and pray and they would give us special underwear to sleep in. After we got better, our mothers would make a new pair and donate them back to the shrine. I guess I was having problems or giving the family problems, so my uncle took me to the shrine. There were tiles in the shape of doves on the roof. Doves were sort of the symbols of the place, the shrine's familiars. They had dove-shaped candies and rice crackers and what-not. And I looked around and said, "I've been here. I know this place. " I had this memory but as far as I knew it was my first time. Then I went home and my parents told me they'd visited the shrine with me once before, when I was just an infant. Matter of fact, I still have a vague recollection of having my diaper changed on a shrine's front steps when I was a baby. I had a thing for shrines, I guess. Should have been a priest... [Laughs]

I was born into a Nishijin weaver family. My father had come to Kyoto as a child from the countryside beyond Yamashina. He entered a kind of apprenticeship in Nishijin. They called it hoko which means "enter service" not "take employment." Under that system, nobody was paid. You got pocket money, an allowance. It wasn't even like an apprenticeship where you committed yourself to learn a skill or trade. The times were just so hard that if you got a bed and food to do whatever, rural parents were happy to send you off. Farm families just couldn't feed more than a couple children, and when they had more, which they usually did, they had to find someone to feed and raise them. This was back in early Meiji (1870's) but it continued up until I was well into my twenties, by western count the 1920's.

Lots of children would just skip compulsory education, which was only six years then. Kids that came to work at my father's workshop usually had had to quit in the second or third year of school. So their employers were supposed to teach them to read and write, that was supposed to be part of the relationship. But my father and mother never learned. They could barely write their own names. In those days that's just how it was. Girls especially were never even taught the simplest subjects. Even among my schoolmates in Kyoto, over half dropped out before sixth grade.

In those days Nishijin was poor, just like the countryside. Further down in Nakagyo (central Kyoto) was where the trading families lived, the merchants. The downtown families, the traders, wouldn't take a child in if he hadn't already finished sixth grade, if he didn't bring his own futon and clothes with him. Down there hoko wasn't out of desperation, it was a career step. Kids were proud to be taken in down there. But Nishijin was a working neighborhood. living was hard and nobody could be too ipcky about who they took in. Six- or seven-year-olds were often the best most families could get. The traders, the wholesalers, were a higher class. If you didn't have money you couldn't become a wholesaler in the first place. Capital was a lot more important than skill. Virtually no one in Nishijin could ever afford to own their own home, Less than ten percent owned their own places. until he died, my father never slept in his own house. In fact, that's never really changed. Still today most craftspeople are just tenants. In those days the landlords could throw you out for whatever reason. Before I finished primary school my family had to move three times.

Was there ever a golden age for Nishijin Weavers?

YI: Well, there were a few good years during the first world war. Often afterwards, too, the pay in Nishijin was relatively good. Many times it was a better choice to work there than attend school and find there were no jobs when you got out anyway. But the youth who grew up working the looms, working in the crafts, weren't educated, weren't cultured. They were fast to squander whatever they made. They gambled, drank, spent a lot of wanton time. There were serious craftspeople, of course, but many were like that. They had skills, could always find some work, so when they had money, got paid, they just enjoyed themselves. They had a saying about money, a boast really, "Make it today, spend it today." There was no planning to their lives. They often lived in tenements with their families in small single rooms, sharing a common toilet and kitchen with the neighbors. They had almost nothing, but even so they gambled incessantly. And when they lost they would take the family rice pot, their wives' kimono, even their sandals to the pawn shops. My father gave a house rent-free to one of his better craftsmen and paid him good money, but his family never had anything. In the winter they only had one quilt. One. Nothing on the floor under them. They'd put charcoal in their kotatsu and the whole family, five people, would huddle under it to sleep at night. They went on like that year after year. Everything they had ended up in the pawn shop. And they weren't all that exceptional. even the more responsible families had a difficult time sending their kids beyond elementary school. Less than half finished primary school, less than ten percent went on to middle school, although half or more of the downtown families' kids were going on.

What was the attitude of the weaving community toward the cloth merchants and their wealth?

YI: Well, there wasn't any really bad feeling. The wholesalers were their customers after all. The weavers had to go down to them pretty humbly and say please buy this or that. The merchants had the money. It was just a fact of life. The merchants also told the weavers what to weave, what was salable. They gave market guidance, if you will. Nobody wove anything purely on speculation. On the other hand, the merchants always ran the game in their own favor. For example, you'd weave a piece and take it down to your wholesaler. You had woven it according to his wishes and you were sure it was worth, say, twelve yen. But he would find some fault or problem with it and try to beat down the price to maybe eleven or even ten yen. And even if you finally resigned yourself to that price and gave it to him that didn't mean when payment time came around you were going to get ten yen. See, the wholesalers would only settle accounts twice a year, in June and December, or maybe just once, in December. So when you went to get your ten yen, the wholesaler might start haggling again, trying to drive down the price to nine or even eight yen. He'd most often already sold the piece so you couldn't get it back and even if you did it was woven according to his taste and no other dealers would touch it or they'd only offer you a pittance. So although they might always get around to paying you something, the price was never really decided - at every turn they would try to beat it down further and the balance of power was always in their favor. And sometimes you waited all the way to December for your money and they'd make some excuse and put you off for another six months or a year. That's how Nakagyo [the Muromachi/Shinmachi wholesale district] got fat. They never had to deal with losses. All the risks and liabilities were shifted to Nishijin and the weavers.

Finally, some Nishijin families got fed up and tried to fight back and take more control of the industry. And that's when the first world war hit. Nishijin was almost entirely dependent on German dyes. With the war they became difficult, finally almost impossible to get. Dye prices soared, sometimes a thousandfold. So the families that had stocked up became rich overnight. They called them the "parvenu dye barons." Also shipping from China became more difficult and silk became dearer, and that had a ripple effect - if you had dyed thread or finished pieces, their value also jumped. Things you were selling before for ten yen, suddenly commanded thirty yen. Wages went up, too. The weavers could make a comfortable profit and you began to have a seller's market. Lots of people were making fortunes from the war, directly or indirectly, so expensive things were setting. But then with peace and the resumption of shipping the bottom fell out again. The whole economy contracted, including the demand for kimono and obi. It affected everybody and caused a good deal of hardship. but you never had labor unrest or labor movements in Nishijin. People remembered the good times and just settled in to wait through this bad period. Many still had some savings or inventory. And then in the beginning of Showa, in the '30s, the economy started to rebuild. It was all handwork in those days, so your overhead was reasonable. You could adjust your production pretty flexibly.

At that time, skilled people were your Chief resource. But alter the second war, there was all this new technology and you finally got good power looms. From the time of the economic boom after the Korean War, mechanization set in fast all over Nishijin. Even if you had no skilled weavers, you could buy some machines, set up a building out in the countryside, hire some semiskilled labor and be a producer. Nishijin began to change completely. Prices fell, competition became fierce, and the handworkers Were the first to SUffeT. Up into the early fifties there were perhaps around ten thousand good weavers working. Now there are, what, maybe 800? And in those days a weaver's children still wanted to follow in the trade. Now no young people want to work with their hands or in traditional industries. The average age of Nishijin craft people, even counting the most mediocre, is edging up into the late fifties. And there is no one to follow.

So what do you see happening in Nishijin over the next twenty years?

YI: As a weaving community, it will just die out. Disappear. Then perhaps there will be some sense of loss. New appreciation or just nostalgia could drive up demand, prices, wages. Then maybe it will look more attractive to young people and a few might try their hand and revive it on a small scale. I mean, if you graduate from even a good university today you won't find companies willing to pay you more than V180,000 a month. But take up weaving and you can be making nearly twice that in your first year. Becoming really skilled takes time, but getting started isn't that difficult. It's not like the old days. Now even with handlooms you've got a lot of machinery to help you. More and more kids are getting fed up with school. It hasn't started yet but I don't think the day is too far off.

Also, you can move a lot of old Nishijin jobs to the countryside, even export them to Korea, China or India. But there is a certain fraction that will still have to be done in Nishijin - high quality monks' and priests' robes, for example. These are usually very personalized orders with a lot of specific requests from the customer. So a few houses can survive just off that sort of business. And now you see some craftspeople becoming more self-managed. They start off at the loom but learn something of design and how to run their own business. They have a chance of surviving, but the pure traditional Nishijin artisans who live only from their weaving skills - well, except for rare cases, their time is over.

But in all of Kyoto's Chamber of Commerce and municipal meetings these days on Kyoto's future and 2]st-century Kyoto, etc. they talk about regenerating Nishijin as a major goal...

YI: That's all candy and drivel for the public. Besides, real Kyoto people never go to those stupid meetings - it's all outside experts, invited scholars, even foreigners. In reality nobody's doing anything. Not even the Nishijin Trade Association. They all know it's over. And it's not just Nishijin's problem. It affects all traditional industries in Kyoto. All the craftspeopte are wondering where the next generation is going to come from. No one knows what to do about it. Nobody in power even talks about it. It's handled as an insignificant minority problem. Since it's not a problem you can solve by just throwing money at, it doesn't affect enough voters to be politically significant, they just look the other way.

It's a real tragedy. Something has to be salvaged. For my part I've asked some of the best weavers I know to weave a brocade depicting the entire Tale of Genji. We're dying out as a community now, but we've come so far and our best people represent such an incredible level of skill and technique that I thought if the very, very finest of our work were demonstrated in a piece like this, someday people might look at it and recognize the quality and get interested again. I don't know if that day will ever come, but, damn, you've got to try something. raft consciousness is just dying out everywhere. Take our carpenters, for example. In the old days, to build a shrine or a temple, for instance, you first bought a mountain. The carpenters would walk into those woods and mark the trees that got the southeast sun and those that got the northwest sun, etc. And when they built the temple, they'd put the southeast trees on the southeast side and so on around the building. That was basic and just one of their methods to enhance the structure's longevity. They were thinking in terms of hundreds and thousands of years. Today architecture is almost a disposable consumer item. Most carpenters have been washed clean of their past and traditions. They don't even remember that their ancestors used to think like that. And it's the same in Nishijin. The average weaver is now a machine operator who doesn't have a clue what handweaving is or means. It's ultimately a question of whether a society values or requires superior workmanship.

And you have to remember this is a community craft, a collective craft. There are of course a few people who make kimono by themselves, doing all the dyeing, weaving and sewing. Whatever they focus on they can do, but there are scores of other techniques that they ignore in the process. A Nishijin silk dyer or painter or pattern maker or silver/gold worker is a specialist, but within their specialty they know an amazing number of techniques, and you need them all to express the true range of Nishijin textiles. No one person can ever embody all these skills. Even when there were thousands of weavers, there were often only a few houses plying these other trades. Now in some cases there are only one or two left. The families are generally quite old with no apprentices. When they disappear, in a very real sense, Nishijin's textite tradition will die with them. There's only one man still making shuttles here and he's sixty-some with no successor. We can import shuttles now, but aesthetically there will be more and more things we can't do, designs we can't consider, effects we can't create.

More generally, looking back over your life, what have been the biggest positive and negative changes you've seen in Japanese culture and society?

YI: Well, the culture has been overtaken by mass society and mass civilization. And the level of culture in people's daily lives has really fallen. Socially the lower class has been raised up and the upper class has been brought down somewhat so we now have this so-called middle class and usually mediocre culture. Even when there were disparities each level had values or styles that were important to its members and these were cultivated and developed. Life was quite diverse and rich up and down the spectrum. Now you essentially have only two levels - a small supply of really fine expensive things for wealthy connoiscurs and a parade of replaceable mediocre things for the mass market. There are a lot more things to look at but far fewer worth studying or savoring.

On the whole, though, you could say the biggest factor in the destruction of Nishijin is the national education system. It has totally alienated people from the life of craftsmanship. From the time of Meiji the whole country stood facing the West thinking we've got to be like them to trade with them and we'll have to stop thinking about our Japanese ways of doing things which are just going to slow us down. So people started importing all these stupid machines, feeling like they were textile pioneers. They totally ignored Nishijin's traditional skills and technologies in the rush to mechanize and be western. The national slogan of "Rich Country, Strong Army" was the only path considered, and it defined everything that has happened since, especially in the schools. They didn't care about teaching students productive trades or skills they could practice on their own. They trained people to become useful to organizations bureaucrats, soldiers, company people - to serve the nation. And somehow the best way to serve the nation became to deny most of the nation's culture and what made us who we are.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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