There are 230 officially recognized traditional crafts in Japan. The prefectures with the most are Tokyo and Kyoto, followed by Okinawa and Niigata. This is an introduction to the traditional crafts in Okinawa. There are 16 officially recognized traditional crafts in Okinawa, all of which embody the distinct culture and natural climate of Okinawa.
The Traditional Crafts of Okinawa Center around Textiles
The Shureimon gate of Shuri Castle
Okinawa has 16 traditional crafts that have been officially recognized by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry. Of the 16 crafts, 13 are textiles, and then one each of the pottery, lacquerware, and instrument-making crafts. It is clear that over Okinawa’s history, textiles have been the most prosperous crafts.
The traditional crafts of Okinawa have been greatly affected by the presence of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Rykukyu Kingdom had once prospered as a trading hub, and influences from the neighboring China and Korea remained strong. Craft techniques were learned from visitors, and at times further research of a craft was done by traveling to the country of origin.
Traditional Textiles of Okinawa
First let’s take a look at three textiles that have also been registered as Important Intangible Cultural Properties in addition to being officially recognized as traditional crafts by the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry.
Miyako Joufu – A top-class ramie textile
Miyako joufu, along with Kumejima tsumugi, was the first traditional craft of Okinawa to be officially recognized. Joufu is a high-quality, lustrous fabric made of thin, plain-weaved, hemp-like ramie threads. The Miyako Joufu originates in the Miyako Islands of Okinawa. The Miyako Islands have a long history of using the fibers of the perennial ramie plants of the nettle family to create textiles.
Miyako Joufu dyed in the Ryukyu indigo color（Photo by：OCVB）
■History of Miyako Joufu
The history of Miyako joufu begins approximately 400 years ago. A Ryukyu ship headed towards China in the Ming Dynasty was caught in a violent storm. The ship was about to sink when a man from the Miyako Islands jumped into the sea. He repaired the broken ship and saved the lives of those on board.
The king of Ryukyu heard this story and gave the man a high rank as a reward. The man’s wife was overjoyed, and in return made an offering of high-quality fabric to the king. That high-quality fabric or joufu is the origin of Miyako joufu.
In the following decades, the Miyako joufu continued to be offered to the Ryukyu kingdom. When the kingdom was defeated and annexed by the Satsuma domain, a head tax was placed on the people. Every person was required to pay the head tax regardless of their ability to pay.
As a result of this policy, women were obligated to make their payments with Miyako joufu. This led to Miyako joufu being called “Satsuma joufu,” and being widely known as a top-class fabric.
After the peak of Joufu production during the Taisho and Showa eras, there has been a continuous decline of production after the United States took control of Okinawa.
Today, there are few remaining craftsmen, but a concentrated effort is being made by the Miyako Islands as a whole to train successors.
■Characteristics of Miyako Joufu
Miyako joufu continues to be considered a top-class fabric as many products are made from it today including kimonos, obis, and various accessories.
Threads made from ramie fibers are dyed with the Ryukyu indigo color and then woven. The threads made by stripping the ramie plant are extremely thin and well suited to being woven in intricate designs. The woven fabric is lustrous and smooth to the touch. It’s beauty is among the top three joufu of Japan, which also includes the Echigo joufu of Niigata prefecture and the Ohmi joufu of Shiga prefecture.
Fine Miyako joufu fabric（Photo by：OCVB）
It is likely to be expensive, but the valuable thinness and distinct luster. It may take several years from the harvesting of the raw ramie material to the completion of one roll of the fabric, which explains the high prices.
This is a fabric that represents Japan not only as a traditional craft but also as an Important Intangible Cultural Property.
A roll of Kijoka Bashofu cloth（Photo by：OCVB）
Kijoka Bashofu is a textile that originated in Kijoka of the Ogimi village located in northern Okinawa.
■History of Bashofu
The 500 year-long history of Bashofu is also intertwined with the Ryukyu Kingdom. At the height of its popularity, it is said that the royalty created a “Basho Garden” for harvesting and hired craftsmen for the sole purpose of creating Bashofu.
Kimono made from Kijoka Bashofu fabric（Photo by：OCVB）
Until then, bashofu had been considered a luxury fabric, but it gradually passed into the hands of commoners because the Basho (Japanese banana) trees grew all over Okinawa and the fabric could be made in any household.
Production stopped during WW2, but restarted after the end of the war. In 1972, it was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property along with Miyako joufu.
■Characteristics of Bashofu
Bashofu is made from the leaf fibers from the Basho plant. The Basho is also known as the Japanese banana that is grown and harvested all over Okinawa.
The basho plant that provides raw material
Originally, bashofu was a plain fabric with no designs and was used mostly to make kimonos. As the general population began wearing kimonos, people started to use the “kasuri” pattern.
In contrast to the indigo dye used in Miyako joufu described above, the bashofu are mostly light browns or cream-colored.
The thin and airy bashofu fabric has been passed down in Okinawa for 500 years. This characteristic was valued because of the hot, humid climate of Okinawa and Amami Oshima, and has remained beloved there through the centuries.
Every step of the production, from planting and harvesting to dyeing and weaving, takes place in Kijoka. The combination of the many steps and sheer volume of basho needed to make Bashofu have led it to be called the “mythical fabric.”
Kumejima Tsumugi (Silk Cloth)
Even amongst the other textiles of Okinawa, Kumejima silk has a very long history.
Rolls of various Kumejima silk fabrics（Photo by：OCVB）
■History of Kumejima Tsumugi
Kumejima silk got its start when sericulture (silkworm production) techniques were brought over from the Ming Dynasty China (1368-1644 AD) by Dōnohiya, a man from the Kumenakagusu castle. Tsumugi production is said to have begun in the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD).
Kumejima Silk fabric being
Similarly to Miyako joufu, Kumejima silk cloth was taken as payment of the poll tax. The quality underwent some scrutiny after the Satsuma domain invaded, and experts on sericulture and silk floss were brought in to strengthen production. It was at this time that the foundation of the Kumejima silk known today was completed.
The peak of Kumejima silk production was during the Taisho era, but production gradually declined as WW1 and then WW2 continued. However, production was revived when sericulture restarted in the Gushikawa village (now Kumejima town). Then, in 1975, it was officially recognized as a traditional craft and an Important Intangible Cultural Property in 2004.
■Characteristics of Kumejima Tsumugi
In contrast to the vivid indigo and colors of Miyako joufu, Kumejima tsumugi textiles feature chic, earthy tones.
Chic tones of Kumejima silk（Photo by：OCVB）
Thread taken from silkworm cocoons are used to make Kumejima tsumugi. Another characteristic is that it is dyed with the “dorozome (mud dye)” and “kusakizome (dye using plants native to Okinawa)” techniques. The dorozome technique does not use actual mud,instead uses dyes made from plants like Kuru or Tekachi. This technique, which is only used in Okinawa, gives the silk a refined, deep, lustrous black color.
The distinctive kasuri patterns are another characteristic of Kumejima silk. Today, kasuri patterns are often made with machines, but for the Kumejima, every step of the textile production is done by hand using time-honored techniques.
Colorful Tsuboya pottery
The Tsuboya-yaki pottery ware, representative of Okinawa, originates in the Tsuboya area of Naha city.
History of Tsuboya Pottery
Although the textile culture is dominant in Okinawa, Tsuboya-yaki has been officially recognized as the only traditional pottery craft of Okinawa.
The root of pottery in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and later Okinawa,are the Kōrai roof tiles that came over from mainland Asia between the 14th and 16th centuries. Trade flourished between the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Southeast Asian countries and China. The skills and techniques needed for making the crafts were also learned from them.
Production of Tsuboya pottery began after Ryukyu was annexed by the Satsuma domain. Trade with other countries was restricted and the import of skills and goods was greatly diminished.At this time, the Ryukyu king, King Shō Nei, had potters brought over from Korea, where pottery was widely produced. The “jōyachi” made by these potters would later become Tsuboya-yaki. The Chibana kiln of Misato, the Takaraguchi kiln of Shuri, and the Wakuta kiln of Naha were made to unify by the royal government, and therefore Tsuboya pottery production began in earnest.
Characteristics of Tsuboya Pottery
The biggest feature of Tsuboya pottery is that it uses a ceramic glaze unique to Okinawa. The glaze is made with glass and is used to color, decorate, and strengthen pottery.
Tsuboya pottery’s appeal is in its warm colors and thick, weighty appearance.
There are two different firing methods used. In the “jōyachi” method, ceramic glaze is applied and the pottery is fired at a temperature over 1,200℃. The glaze gives the Tsuboya-yaki its signature weightiness. There are also many items with decorative designs.
With the “arayachi” method, there are few designs,which creates a simple Tsuboya-yaki. This method is mainly used to make water, flower vases and saké bottles.
Ryukyuan lacquerware tundabun (dish set used in serving Ryukyu cuisine) （Photo by：OCVB）
The Ryukyuan lacquerware traditional craft also has its roots in the Ryukyu Kingdom.
History of Ryukyuan Lacquerware
The Ryukyu Kingdom was heavily influenced by neighboring China. The techniques of lacquerware are said to have been transferred sometime during the 14th and 15th centuries. The research and production of the lacquerware took place at the Kaizuri magistrate’s office.
The lacquerware was used as souvenirs or gifts within the Ryukyu Kingdom and overseas. After the Satsuma domain invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom, it became known throughout Japan. The artistry and technical skills have been passed down, and the lacquerware is still made today in private studios in Okinawa.
Characteristics of Ryukyuan Lacquerware
Ryukyuan lacquerware used in Shuri Castle ceremonies
Ryukyuan lacquerware had many extravagant accessories and decorations because they were originally treasured in festivals and ceremonies.
there are many different decoration methods. A distinct method is the “tsuikin” method that is only used in Ryukyuan lacquerware. A “tsuikin mochi” or lump of specialized lacquer is mixed with pigments and applied. When it is baked, the applied designs rise and pop up.
The sanshin is certainly a classic example of Okinawa crafts. Its beautiful tones have been beloved for many years.
History of Sanshin
The sanshin is a stringed-instrument made in Okinawa. Its distinct sound is one that many have heard at least once. The sanshin is said to have evolved from the Sanxian, a Chinese instrument that made its way to Okinawa. Furthermore, when the sanshin made its way to Honshu, Japan’s main island, the famous shamisen was born. The sanshin and shamisen are similar instruments, but the sanshin is slightly smaller and rounder.
There are seven sanshin types, and each is produced differently. The chiiga, or body of the instrument, is covered with snakeskin from pythons, and the sao, or neck, is lacquered. The smooth, round form is often described as “churakagi” which means “beauty (beautiful woman)” in Okinawan.
Shamisen close-up（Photo by：OCVB）
When it first came over from China, the sanshin was developed as a royal court instrument. They were frequently used in the kingdom’s royal events and became an indispensable instrument for the traditional kumi odori dance. The kumi odori dance is registered as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. the sanshin was much loved in the Ryukyu kingdom and now as well in Okinawa.
Characteristics of Sanshin
The sanshin plays beautiful tones
The sanshin was originally used as a royal court instrument and was a luxury item that the common people could not even hope to have. In spite of this, people began creating their own similar instruments, and the sanshin was used by all throughout the Ryukyu kingdom. When people were not able to obtain the expensive snakeskin, they used plants, such as basho plants, as replacements.
In line with this history, there are two types of music played with the sanshin: the royal court music, and the popular folk songs of the masses.
Okinawa’s Traditional Crafts Make Perfect Souvenirs
Besides the six traditional crafts introduced above, there are several other traditional crafts including textiles like the Shuri-ori and the Yonaguni-ori to make 16 in total. Each craft is specific to Okinawa and could not have been created in any other prefecture. These crafts formed from a mix of the rich natural climate, Ryukyuan culture, and skills from overseas make amazing souvenirs.
There are crafts other than those introduced here, like the lovely Ryukyu glass craft. Take your time and enjoy finding the perfect Okinawa souvenir for you.