• Michael Cucek

IWD Essay by Michael Cucek

Kimura Kazue lives what she would characterize as an ordinary quiet life. Unmarried, without tertiary education, she lived with elderly mother until she herself suffered a stroke, making the combined burdens too much. Not much travel, not much economic success, she makes a living now teaching flower arrangement and design

However, several decades ago, she began to spend her small amounts out of her pocket money on old clothes, specifically old kimono people were either going to throw away, turn into pillow covers or tear up into rags. Not an expensive hobby but one steeped in meaning. Her hometown of Chichibu had been in the 19th and early 20th centuries a center of world silk production. Production of fine silk for the international market, however, left hundreds of kilograms of silk thread deemed to be of too low quality to be sold for export. What to do with this unexportable mass of second and third grade material? The answer for Chichibu and many of the silk cities like it (Hachioji; Kiryu; Ashikaga) was production of clothing for the domestic market. With the help of young Beaux Arts professionals trained in France and the rest of Europe, this otherwise waste thread was transformed into everyday kimonos – meisen.

Each major silk center in the Kanto had a basic style of meisen. The most varied and least inhibited form was Chichibu meisen – and it was these commoners kimonos that rural households were throwing away or selling for a pittance.

Over the years, and little by little the collection grew. She took time to research the origins of each kimono – the craftmen who had designed, spun, woven, dyed and sewn them all. To gain context she learned the names of all the places, the streams, the rivers, the major houses, the temples and shrines – and the stories of the families behind them, collecting in her mind the entire history of the Chichibu plateau. She visited all the places she could, establish friendships everywhere, learning of each spots charms and pasts. But most of all she roved the streets of her own town, even as it went bust from collapse of world demand for silk (thanks to the DuPont company’s nylon), boomed with the construction state’s demand for Mt. Muko’s limesthone, then went bust as Japanese companies procured limestone from elsewhere.

As time still flowed on, and Chichibu slipped into slumber, the directions of the questions reversed. Acquaintances and strangers began asking her what had been where, what had happened when, who made this fabric, where did this design come from, what was the meaning of this festival (Chichibu has hundreds of festival days, including the Yo Matsuri, one of Japan’s Three Great Matsuri and a UNESCO treasure of world culture). She rented a little space near Chichibu Shrine, a battered old office of one of the old silk wholesalers and registered her and her growing circle of friends and acolytes as a non-profit dedicated to preserving the history of the town, fostering the transmission of the knowledge of the last of the now very old Chichibu craftsmen, leading tours of what was left of the old town (too much lost to progress, alas!) and drawing attention and they hoped more visitors to their isolated and economically depressed city.

The collection grew, filling plastic box after plastic box in her house, her little office. She would dress visitors and friends in her beloved meisen on holidays; arranged for exhibitions of them in spaces in the town, in the Kanto and in Europe. She became “Sensei” with a big “s” – everybody wanted be seen with her and everyone wanted to be with her. On holidays, the tiny non-profit saw a procession of dignitaries – the mayor, the local assembly members, the executives of the railways, the prefectural development bureaucrats – all wishing for the blessing of the person who had in many ways become her hometown – the storehouse of its traditions, its hopes and dreams of a brighter future.

Lucky am I to know her. Luckier still is my spending every Golden Week and every New Years in Chichibu with her and the seemingly endless constellation of friends rotating about her.

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