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Bashofu

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An example of baasaa cloth, on display at the British Museum
  • Japanese/Okinawan: 芭蕉布 (bashoufu / baasaa jin)

Bashôfu, or baasaa in Okinawan, is cloth made from the fibers of a particular type of banana plant. The ito bashô, or "thread banana," as it is called, is different from the type which produces edible fruit, and while the plant is not originally indigenous to the Ryukyus, and even today grows only in areas of human habitation, bashôfu cloth is nevertheless unique to Ryukyuan culture; it is not produced or used in other cultures, e.g. in Southeast Asia. Today, the chief center of baasaa cloth production in Okinawa is the neighborhood of Kijoka in the northern Okinawa (Yanbaru) village of Ôgimi.

The cloth is made from fibers taken from the center of the main stalk of the plant; fibers closer to the core of the stalk are softer and finer, and are used for the finest baasaa cloth, while the rougher outer fibers are used for weaving mats and the like. Because of the nature of the material, banana fibers cannot be easily woven or sewn by machine; all bashôfu production is therefore still done today by hand.[1]

A somewhat coarse fabric, bashôfu is nevertheless used in the Ryukyus for a wide variety of purposes, from robes to underwear, and was worn by people of all social classes, including even royalty.

The earliest extant mention of bashôfu is in a 1546 account written by Koreans shipwrecked in the Ryukyus, who also describe how it is made - a process that has remained largely unchanged, at least in certain parts of the Ryukyus, among certain lineages of weavers, down to the present day. The banana fabric is not mentioned as a tribute good, however, until over forty years later, in 1587.

The material is central enough to Okinawan culture that a song called "Bashôfu" is among the most well-known and popular folk songs today. Taira Toshiko, a weaver who collaborated with Yanagi Sôetsu in the 1930s and was named a Living National Treasure in 2000, is the most prominent producer of bashôfu today, at her workshop in Kijoka. Ishigaki Akiko is another notable bashôfu weaver active today, though she has not received the same national and international attention as Taira.[1]

Though bashôfu was traditionally something available to all classes of people, since it cannot be woven or sewn by machine, it is an exceptionally expensive material today. A roll of bashôfu material can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.[2]

References

  • Stinchecum, Amanda Mayer. "Textiles of Okinawa." in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles. Seattle Art Museum, 1993. pp78-79.
  • Gallery labels, "Churashima Textiles" exhibition, Shôtô Museum of Art, Sept 2019.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Francesco Montuori, "Okinawa Bashofu and Repackaging After Japanese Annexation," talk given at Okinawan Art in its Regional Context: Historical Overview and Contemporary Practice symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.
  2. Nitta Setsuko, "Oppression of and Admiration for Okinawan Textiles: Commercial Items and Art Objects," Okinawan Art in its Regional Context symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.
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