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Japanese textiles

that gave birth to “Japonisme”

Interview with Nobuyuki Ota
CEO of the Cool Japan Fund

With the backdrop of Japan’s traditional kimono culture, a rich textile industry developed around the country. What is behind the appeal of Japanese textiles, and where does that attraction come from? We sat down with Nobuyuki Ota, the CEO of the Cool Japan Fund and an expert on fashions both domestic and overseas, having been the president of Issey Miyake and managing director at Tokyo-based department store Matsuya, to find out.

How are Japanese textiles viewed globally?

Japanese textiles are highly regarded in European and American high-end fashion business circles. Luxury fashion houses all use Japanese cloths, and they say they couldn’t make their pieces without them. Moreover, with regard to the high-function, quality synthetic fibers created using high technology, Japan’s expertise in this field is first-class globally, receiving exceptional critical acclaim.

At the core of this image of reputable, high-quality Japanese textiles is a unique culture of artisanship. Japan’s textile industry, craftspeople and engineers are custodians of a rich variety of cloths with roots in Japan’s distinctive climate, which is characterized by extremely hot, humid summers and winters that get relatively cold. To cope with these conditions and provide comfort, they created a diverse range of materials ranging from traditional textiles to synthetic fabrics, and continue to produce revolutionary technologies. Orders from the fashion industry—which is always on the cutting edge—can sometimes be tricky, and craftspeople in Western countries often refuse these orders because they call for expertise that deviates from their skillsets. However, Japanese craftspeople have the tenacity to deliver creative and original results in response to even the toughest requirements. They are at ease with experimentation and have an awareness of subtleties, along with first-rate technical knowledge. This is what fashion houses prize and come seeking.

What role did the textile industry play in the development of Japan’s economy?

The Japanese textile industry took off following the Meiji Period reforms to promote industry and persisted through until the mid-1960s, forming the basis of Japan’s export industries and contributing to the economy’s growth. And the technologies developed in textiles drove the heavy industries that later took root.

From the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate to the early Meiji Period, large quantities of silk were exported from Yokohama. Gunma Prefecture, where Tomioka Silk is located, as well as Nagano Prefecture and other regions, produced silk that was transported to Yokohama. This route came to be known as “Japan’s Silk Road.” Fine Japanese silk made its way to France, where Japanese kimono were shown at the Paris Expo twice. The kimono—which spectacularly expresses natural motifs with large, elegant patterns, and the gorgeous forms that are characterized by freely flowing sleeves, hemlines that drag along the floor, and splendid sashes—was received with great surprise. An ardent “Japonisme” was born, influencing everything from the world of haute couture to Western painting and ceramics.
Japanese craftspeople’s commitment and skills in creating these fine pieces are the products of that creative kimono culture that spawned so many different cloths and ways to dress. History is coming full circle, and this craft is now enjoying the limelight again as a part of “Cool Japan.”

Where do you see Japanese textiles and fashion going?

Japanese textiles fuse tradition with innovation and are world-renowned. Japan can produce textiles with clear added value not found in textiles before, such as cloths with a certain gloss or hue, texture or special function. However, we still lack the methodologies for turning these values into a source of revenue. By broadcasting what makes Japanese textiles beautiful and great, our textile industry will be able to gain better recognition of its superiority and value in the industry globally and boldly position these cloths and clothes as luxury products.

The idea is to confidently promote Japan’s technical prowess and aesthetic sensibilities to overseas markets. What Japan’s fashion and textile industries still need is practical knowledge of marketing and merchandising. It is also important to improve educational facilities so that we can train talent in this direction. Japanese textiles wowed the world and ushered in Japonisme—I think we should create the second wave and wow the world again.

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