Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thoughts on Okinawa

There was an Okinawa craft exhibition for two days starting on September 30th at the Ginza Phoenix Hall. A small venue crowded with ladies clad in traditional garments and visitors visibly feeling at home and probably with deep family links with the Ryukyu islands. That is where I met and had a very interesting talk with Mr. Akio Uehara representing Ryukyu Urushi Kogei in Naha.

I had with me the catalogs of the Urasoe museum also in Naha I used in a past post about those incredibly European pieces of lacquerwares set around WWII. Mr. Uehara spelled "Bembo" right away when I showed him the exhibit catalog cover and he further told me his father was involved with the Bembo corporation. Everybody around thought these definitely art nouveau wares to be exceptional if not weird. In other words, they did not belong to the tradition.


One spectacular characteristics of traditional Ryukyu lacquerwares is the shine, the gloss. Under the spotlights of the venue, you could hardly see the details until you closed up on each pieces. That is the way people in Okinawa like things, bright red and shiny. A small selection of wares were on the darker side of red, dried blood like but with the gloss. "Local people think they are too dark" laughed Mr. Uehara. Incidently the tradition using pig blood in the making was scrapped some 20 years ago.

Weight wise, all these are of course feather light, yet the gloss and thickness of most plates in view ooze a fatty look. I did have a small budget reserved for the occasion, but real usage of craft being my core concern, I could not envision any use of these besides glossy reddish and yellow Chinese cuisine, r maybe plates to adorn with tangerines or other yellowish fruits.

A deep look at this strand of craft is a strong reminder of the Chinese roots of the Ryukyu culture. The incongruous foray into Western kinds of lacquer was indeed led not by local craftsmen but by Tokyo raised or educated designers. As usual in a sense, local traditions were denied by the central part of Japan that defines even now and dictatorial soft manner what Okinawa should look like from afar - a mix of Côte d'Azur with tropics.

GIs would order small black lacquered torii gates featuring a plate in the middle with the family name, a touristic eyesore, but the market was vivid.



Nowadays, there are about 150 craftsmen of lacquer and 60% of the production is purchased by tourists. They probably get what they deserve as with every location in the world where tourism is massive.

Other corners of the show catered for glasswares and a large selection of clothes and fabrics. These are supremely expensive but when you understand the slow process to dye and weave those material mostly for kimono, you can only reckon that the figures are not exaggerated. I noticed a rectangular purse of Miyako Jofu cloth dyed indigo and spoke with the vendor. Kimono and the likes receding into past history, what with the price of a full piece no cheaper than a car, it is obvious that tradition has been looking into apparels to compensate and try and generate revenues out of smaller items still expensive but reaching the sky. There is room for improvement as I confirmed the leather lining the inside the long purse was actually synthetic. At a close to ¥25,000 a piece, no one should compromise with artificial materials. I left with my budget still untouched in the pocket.