“Innovation” is a word that most people are familiar with. This simple word has allowed societies to advance beyond our imagination. It has brought us to an era where it seems like anything is possible. Japan, in particular, is a well-known country when it comes to innovation. Similarly, the country is also known for its beautiful culture which they make an effort to maintain. However, it is inevitable that some part of Japan’s culture may be forgotten as innovation pushes through. One of these aspects of culture is clothing.
A kimono (着物) is a Japanese art in itself and while it is still being used today, the influence of western countries means people generally tend to wear western clothing. In present times, the kimono is still a big trade industry because Japanese women and foreign tourists alike are still using these garments. However, the kimono for men is a different issue. One example is the kuro montsukizome (黒紋付染), or the art of dyeing. Kuro montsuki (黒紋付) is a black kimono with five white crests, and are mainly worn by men. The female counterpart is called mofuku (喪服).
Kuro montsuki is a beautiful kimono. However, Japanese men now prefer to wear the western suit and tie over kuro montsuki, even when it comes to formal events held in Japan. Although a large number of women still wear kimonos, they usually prefer brightly colored kimonos or ones with intricate designs than the simple black and white of the mofuku. Sales have, of course, been affected and several shops selling kuro montsuki have closed down.
Kuro montsuki is derived from the words “kuro (黒)” which means black, “mon (紋)” which is derived from the word for family crest “kamon (家紋)” and “tsuki (付)” which means putting on.
The kimono is aptly named because it describes the garment perfectly. The fabric of the kuro montsuki is a plain and solid black. It is adorned with five circular family crests – one on each side of the chest, one on each sleeve and one at the back. Just like most kimonos, it is worn with haori (羽織; a kimono jacket) and hakama (袴; a long pleated skirt or pants).
Kuro montsuki is considered a formal kimono because it occupies the highest status among kimonos. Years ago, Japanese people wore kuro montsuki during formal events or important ceremonies like weddings. It is also worn during funerals.
Because of its status, kuro montsuki is also made with high-class materials. It is woven using thin, soft and durable Japanese silk which is called habutae (羽二重). The process of dyeing the silk to make the kuro montsuki is called kuro montsukizome. It uses black oxide dyeing and it has been present since the Edo period (江戸時代), which was 1603–1868. It is safe for the environment because black oxide dyeing utilizes materials that are natural and plant-based such as madder, indigo, and tea leaves to create a deep black color.
Unlike printed fabric, kuro montsuki has a darker and clearer black because the process ensures that each individual fiber is coated in black. This is done by dyeing each garment two or more times at an extremely high temperature. The reflection of light is actually reduced with this process, which achieves that intense black that only kuro montsuki has. The process may take longer than mass-produced printed fabric, but it is definitely worth it when you see the richness of the color of the garment. Quality, after all, is a thing that is difficult to fake.
Since people are not as keen to wear kuro montsuki as before, sales of this type of kimono has dwindled. In this time where part of a tradition is threatened, several Japanese shops have found a way to keep the art alive. Companies like Yamakatsu Senko Co. (山勝染工株式会社) have incorporated the Japanese tradition of kuro montsukizome into modern clothing like t-shirts and even pants.
Yamakatsu Senko Co. was established in 1919 in Nagoya (名古屋) and was since known to be one of the leading companies when it comes to kuro montsukizome. The decline of the orders for kuro montsuki meant they had to think of an alternative fast or they would eventually lose their business the way so many dye shops had in that area.
Recently, the fourth generation president of Yamakatsu Senko Co., Tomoaki Nakamura (中村 友亮), and his brother, Takehiro Nakamura (中村 剛大), began selling items dyed in their own workshop using kuro montsukizome. They were a hit both online (where it was first sold) and during spring and autumn in Mitsukoshi (三越) Department Store in Nagoya, wherein the items were sold for a limited time. Since then, the Nakamura brothers have partnered with a US brand in making t-shirts and other pieces of clothing. The joint project aims to break into the international market and to introduce the Japanese traditional dyeing.
Some people think that traditional and contemporary pieces are too different from each other. While it is true that they are different – or even opposing – genres, I don’t see the reason why we can’t incorporate the two of them together. At the same time, incorporating the traditional into the contemporary teaches us that although a certain tradition is not kept exactly as it was before, as long as we keep the core of what it is alive, it never really fades or dies.
What Yamakatsu Senko Co. is doing may be seen as a way to survive in a changing world. While that may be true, that is not all there is to it. It is also a way to introduce the art of kuro montsukizome to younger generations. In fact, the Nakamura brothers are planning to hold dyeing demonstrations in Nagoya to promote the traditional technique. One of their goals is for the younger generation to take notice of kuro montsuki.
With Yamakatsu Senko Co. and the Nakamura brothers leading the initiative, I am hoping that more and more people take an interest in kuro montsuki. I am optimistic that one day, the art of kuro montsuki dyeing will no longer be dying, but be permanently revived.
Yamakatsu Senko Co. website *Japanese only