At first, Matsue and Soichiro (Matsue’s son) were reluctant to let me meet them, visit their workshop and carry out an interview. Now that I know more about them and about their work, I do understand: this is the most stressful time of the year for Shouaihiyashizome (indigo dye). If this step does not work as planned, the color will not come out properly and will not stick onto the fabric. Therefore, all work and effort made during the whole year would be vain. Let’s jump in the blue, blue dye.
Unlike many other craftspeople I previously met, Matsue and Soichiro do not depend on Shouaihiyashizome to make a living. Resources they benefit from come from farming and other jobs. To put it in other words: they do not do Shouaihiyashizome for money, they do it for passion. Or, more accurately, to maintain the tradition and keep the craft tradition alive. “Because this technique is something that is disappearing, what I want more than anything else is making sure that it continues on”, Matsue states.
Handing knowledge over?
When I ask about who will take over the indigo dye work, Soichiro tells me “I have a niece who will continue”. They would prefer to keep the knowledge and practice within the family, rather than teaching to an apprentice who would not be part of the family. There is no actual indigo dye community: “There is another place, in which we taught how to do it, so they probably do the same way as here, but I haven’t have talked to them in a long time, so I don’t know exactly how they are doing it now, if they are doing it the same way or not, but originally we taught them”, Soichiro says.
A simple recipe for a difficult word
“We use the indigo plant and ash from charcoal, and water, that is the three things we need really”. Amazing. “You could do it pretty much anywhere!”. However, the most difficult part is not getting a piece of land or building facilities. It is about mastering the gestures and techniques of the craft. “People think it can be done very easily, and then we explain how to use the ash and how to do the fermentation and all kind of things, then usually people think “oh no, that sounds too difficult”, so, they don’t want to do it”, Soichiro notes .
The most stressful time of the year
As I wrote in introduction, indigo dye challenge is to reach the right texture, otherwise it will not stick to the fabric. As a result, “everything has to be really clean. And if it’s not, then something might stop the fermentation happening properly and so color doesn’t come out”. Handcream, dust or dirt are to be avoided at all costs.
“Two year ago, we had troubles with the color. So – because there was a lot of rain, that year, there was floods, and so the mud came into the fields, so the plant got dirty from that. The whole year’s work is like, gone, because of that. There was nothing that we could do that year”
On the top of this critical issue comes global warming, related to indigo growing and harvesting. “The thing that I worry about the most is climate change. Because what we’ve been taught all over the years is when to plant, harvest and everything, but now the climate is changing, I am worried that we’ll have to change that, so I need to study a bit more and see if we should change the schedule to fit the way the climate is changing. We might have to change what we have been doing for hundreds of years”, Soichiro highlights.
Difference between factory-made and handmade indigo dye
For someone who does not know so much about indigo dye, they could not tell the difference between (hand-made) Shouaihiyashizome and factory-made indigo dye. Moreover, “you can make any color if you use artificial dye, the artificial dye is like poisonous”, Soichiro specifies. The difference I found the most interesting though, was that Shouaihiyashizome as made by Chiba family is non-toxic! The liquid part of indigo waste can be thrown in the river. And it is perfectly legal.
The pleasant sides of being a craftsman
“When we make something nice, when it comes out really nice and pretty, it makes us feel happy”, Soichiro says. The most interesting things being that they do it the same way every year and the outcome is always a bit different. They cannot really control that. There is a part left to chance!
Hard to master or modesty?
At age 68, Soichiro is not sure if he could do Shouaihiyashizome alone. Since a couple of years, he really started doing indigo dye full-time. He retired from his job, so he has been doing it as his main occupation for the last two years. However, if was is told to do it by himself, he doesn’t think he could. “Even if I have been watching them doing since he was a little boy”. We cannot really be sure how long it would take to master the craft. My guess is: a lifetime.
Ayano Chiba was the grandmother of Matsude’s husband. She was recognized as a National Treasure in 1955. Matsue also received a distinction. “I felt happy that I was able to protect the tradition and then I felt the importance of maintaining. So, it was a reward for all the hard work and all. Everything that I had to do.”
“When you dye, it looks really good… then the color looks weaker and weaker, so we have to let it rest for a while, let it rest a day or two, and then the color comes back again, and we make it dye again”. The indigo is a living thing! When I came up with the idea of a painting on canvas and recording a timelapse video to capture colors changing, it seems that I went against the will of the indigo god. “If you do strange funny things [with the indigo dye], the indigo god would get angry”, Soichiro says.
How can The Dorayaki Project help Shouaihiyashizome?
“I would like you to say in the blog, to anybody, that this is probably the only place in the whole world they do this and so, they really want to protect it and keep it going”. Soichiro’s words.
Many thanks to Matsue Chiba and Soichiro Chiba!
You can visit their shop in Kurihara, Miyagi
112 Kajiya, Kurikomamonji, Kurihara-shi, Miyagi