The artisan making warrior prints for modern Japan

Updated 21st May 2019
The artisan making warrior prints for modern Japan
Written by Hilary Whiteman, CNN
Contributors Junko Ogura, CNN, Dan Tham, CNN
A long white strip of fabric is stretched across a table at Yuichi Hirose's workshop in Tokyo, ready to absorb the paste he's specially mixed to create a classic style of Japanese print.
Hirose is one of a small number of craftsman trained in Edo Komon, a centuries-old technique of dying material using a stencilled pattern so delicate that from a distance the fabric appears to be a single color.
Modern techniques can create the same effect, but Hirose says there's something special about printing material using traditional methods that can't be replicated by machines.
"Any developed civilization or any new techniques cannot beat the beauty made by craftworkers' hands," Hirose says at his large, low-beamed studio in the Shinjuku ward, west of central Tokyo.
"There is a fluctuation when people dye, while machines can dye uniformly... I want to value traditional techniques. I think they are important and necessary to make something really beautiful."
Fine print was first used in Japan's Muromachi Period, from 1333 to 1573, to decorate Kamishimo, the angular, formal clothing worn by samurai warriors and courtiers to reflect their higher status.
Edo Komon takes its name from the Edo Period, which started soon after in the early 1600s, when feudal lords adopted different patterns to represent their clans. "Komon" refers to a type of kimono with small, repeating patterns.
The delicate patterns later became popular among ordinary people, not only as a way to co-opt the prestige of the upper class, but to circumvent strict controls over society, which extended to what was deemed acceptable to wear. From a distance, the patterns were so fine they blurred into a single color, allowing the wearers' subtle nod to luxury to remain undetected.
Yuichi's family started their business Hirose Dyeworks in 1918 in Meguro-ku, Tokyo. At first, he was a reluctant recruit.
"When I was a student, I was heavy into windsurfing. So, I wanted to make it my career," Hirose says.
He grew up with his grandparents and the long-held expectation that he'd take over the family studio.
The decision was made for him when his grandfather told him to pack away his board and focus on learning the family trade.
"Komon" refers to a type of kimono with small, repeating patterns.
"Komon" refers to a type of kimono with small, repeating patterns. Credit: Dan Tham/CNN
It wasn't until he started training that Hirose began to appreciate the tradition and skill required to produce a high quality piece of fabric art.
"I think Japanese people's characteristics are to dot the i's and cross the t's, and very detailed," he said. "Also, we make patterns with our passion. I think it is our root, so I want to value it."
Hirose smooths the fabric with an exacting eye and glues the stencil to it.
The next step requires fast teamwork to quickly line up 13 meters of stencil so the print can be repeated multiple times over a long stretch of fabric. There's no room for error.
Hirose dyes fabrics with meticulously hand-cut stencils for a kimono, working at a century-old workshop in Tokyo.
Hirose dyes fabrics with meticulously hand-cut stencils for a kimono, working at a century-old workshop in Tokyo. Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
"The process needs the power of focus of craftworkers, arduousness, speed and strictness," Hirose says.
Then comes color matching, or Iroawase, when the color is added to the glue, which is then spread evenly over the stencil. Then fabric is then placed in a steaming box or Mushibako to lock in the color. Next comes Mizumoto, when the fabric is washed before being hung to dry in the sun.
Such a labor intensive process means the fabrics remain a luxury product, inevitably limiting the size of the market and creating a challenge for Hirose's workshop to keep the business going.
Traditional Japanese clothing, namely kimonos, have fallen out of a fashion in recent decades with a swing to Western clothing.
In 2017, Japan's kimono market softened to 270 billion yen ($2.4 billion), according to the Yano Research Institute's most recent survey. Researchers noted that the market was becoming "polarized" -- demand was strong for second-hand and cheaper online sales, while a discerning section of the market still appreciated bespoke designs and products.
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Hirose says there many more occasions now when women can wear what used to be considered formal dress. "We used to wear kimono only for special occasions, but now women wear kimono when they go to a small meet-up with girlfriends," he says.
The modernization of traditional dress extends to the prints Hirose designs for his fabrics. Patterns now include skulls and sharks to put a new spin on a centuries-old craft he hopes will appear on kimonos well into the future.
"I want spread Edo Komon and want people to know about Edo Komon. My dream is letting people wear kimono of Edo Komon."
Futa Nagao, Dan Campisi and Stella Ko contributed to this report.