The Origins of Banana-Fibre Cloth in the Ryukus, Japan

By Katrien Hendrickx. 2007. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press. 336 pages. ISBN: 978-90-5867-614-6 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Yvonne J. Milspaw, Harrisburg Area Community College

[Review length: 807 words • Review posted on September 1, 2010]

This very scholarly study incorporates a variety of disciplinary methods in considering the complex textile tradition of banana-fibre weaving in the Ryukyu Archipelago of Japan, a place most of us are likely to know as Okinawa, the name of the largest island in the group.

Divided into four parts, the book covers first the history of the Archipelago, from prehistory to post World War II occupation; in the second part, it focuses on indigenous weaving traditions, especially the labor-intensive and technically difficult production of bashofu, banana-fibre cloth. The third part considers related banana-fibre (Musa fibre) weaving traditions in China and Southeast Asia, and in the final section of the study, the author examines the revival of bashofu weaving in the Ryukyu Archipelago today. Hendrickx includes maps, facsimiles of early Japanese documents which mention the trade in bashofu cloth, nineteenth-century illustrations of the cloth process and garments made of it, photographs of museum pieces, and field documentation of the modern process by which it is still produced. Today, as an “important cultural property” of Japan, banana-fibre cloth is studied as an art form and revered as a marker of national identity.

This is an exemplary and detailed ethnography, each part a model of thoughtful, painstaking research and analysis. Hendrickx uses tax records and tribute lists from the Ryukyus to Japan (tribute was mostly in the form of textiles, including bashofu fabric). As part of her search for the origins of the cloth process, introduced to the Ryukyus only in the sixteenth century, she makes extensive use of linguistic analysis. Though much of the study is directly focused on historical change, she makes enough use of oral traditions to satisfy a folklorist, and her final section, based on fieldwork with weavers who continue to work in the tradition, is a model of good research. One of my favorite parts is her short discussion of Basha nagare ballads, narrative songs about making bashofu “orally transmitted by female shamans (yuta) in Amami” (127), one of the islands of the archipelago.

The process of making cloth from the difficult, touchy banana fibre is laborious and intense. Hendrickx quotes one (male) government official in a 1699 document saying that the tribute paid in cloth should be continued and not replaced with rice; otherwise “the women will have no work anymore and that will cause problems” (118). Indeed, there are so many easier, more comfortable and more durable textiles to work with, why anyone would fuss with banana fibre at all is a question she addresses early on. Ryukyus spinners and weavers were engaged in producing textiles of cotton, silk, mixed silk and cotton, ramie, and banana fibre on a large scale. They produced dyed cloth—either in a brown made from yams or deep blue from indigo. They knew how to produce ikat designs, float weave designs, and paste resist designs. However, cotton and silk and fancy weaves were not permitted to commoners. Those were for export to Japan or for the local upper classes. Commoners were permitted only striped or checked ramie or banana-fibre cloth. The finest pieces of it also went to Japan as tribute. Ordinary people were left with garments only of ramie or the lightweight bashofu for themselves.

Bashofu fabric is stiff, thin, and not particularly comfortable or durable, especially in garments. Nonetheless, it had important functions in Ryukyus everyday life. Garments of bashofu were worn by brides, by participants in some rituals and festivals, and by priestesses, who wore “divine clothes” of bashofu which were thought “to have made part of their spiritual power” (219). Bashofu garments are also worn by mourners in funerals, and “in order to keep evil spirits away, close relatives of the deceased carry a bolt of cloth like a hedge along the way to the tomb” (217).

The section of the book which looks at related banana-fibre weaving in the Philippines and in China is also fascinating. Hendrickx is looking for the origins of the complex in the Ryukyus (spoiler alert: she decides on China); however, I found her descriptions and comparisons of the differing techniques incredibly interesting.

Folklorists will wish Hendrickx had been able to concentrate more on the use of bashofu in the traditional practices of the Ryukyus. Textile scholars will be thrilled with the comparative and historical documentation she provides. I wish there had been more room in this book for color photos and illustrations. I wish there had been a little bit of actual fabric to touch and feel. I wished for this so much that I came close to extreme embarrassment at a museum exhibit. Here’s the setting: a small, exquisite exhibit called “Fashioning Domesticity, Weaving Desire: Visions of the Filipina” at the Pacific-Asia Museum in Pasadena. Beautiful dresses made of banana-fibre cloth. Filmy textures, rich colors, delicate work. No one else in the room. Reaching out, just to touch...uh-oh.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.