Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa has a natural landscape awash with colorful exuberance. The azure sky and sea and lush tropical foliage has long captivated visitors’ hearts.
The archipelago’s vibrant hues are directly expressed in the “bingata” dyed textiles, which originated around 700 to 800 years ago. The traditional dyeing technique used in these textiles has been passed down through the generations, and is still practiced today by many artisans. This article explores the history and cultural background of bingata textiles. We visited three bingata studios in Okinawa for a closer look at the passion driving its artisans.
Bingata -- Okinawa’s traditional dyed textiles
The first bingata textiles were produced in Okinawa around the 13th century. They are easily recognizable by their bright and bold patterns, and distinct imagery depicting Okinawa’s natural beauty. Bingata is one of Japan’s most distinguished dye techniques, and these traditional craft are highly valued both in and out of Japan alongside Kyo-yuzen and Edo Komon kimonos.
What makes Bingata textiles special? Let’s find out.
Pigments create bright and bold colors
Bingata kimono patterns are a reflection of Okinawa’s Beauty（photo courtesy：Asato Bingata Kobo）
When written in Japanese, the word bingata consists of two kanji characters -- 紅(bin) and 型(gata). The first character is said to express “color” (Used on its own, the character usually specifically “red”)
The latter character means “pattern.”
Bingata’s vibrant and distinct colors are created by pigments and plant-based dyes.
Before we go into further details, let’s take a quick look at how fabrics and fibers are dyed. The most common way to color fabrics or fibers is to treat it with dyes. Dyes are soluble in water and solvents, making it easy to create new colors by mixing several hues together. Another key characteristic of dyes is their ability to soak the entire fabric and stick to it, thus becoming part of the material. One drawback of dyes is how they tend to fade and change color, and are prone to bleeding.
pigments mixed with soybean liquid (photo courtesy: Katachiki)
Bingata dyeing uses pigments instead of dyes. Pigments are insoluble in water and most solvents, and are painted onto the fabric. Unlike dyes, pigments are merely a layer that sit on top of the surface. This helps to hide the back fabric, and create a range of bold colors. Also, unlike dyes, most pigments are water resistant and lightfast -- meaning they won’t fade when exposed to sunlight.
Bingata with yuuna flower pattern（photo courtesy：Fujisaki Bingata Kobo）
Okinawa’s landscape is awash with bright and bold tropical hues -- from the azure sky and sea, tropical flowers, to the lush greenery. The vibrant colors applied to bingata textiles are a reflection of Okinawa’s rich natural surroundings, and the pigments allow them to achieve an increased, unique range of colors.
Two dyeing methods to make unique patterns
Bingata textiles are available in a variety of patterns -- some are simple yet bold, while others are intricate and delicate -- but they are all inspired by Okinawa’s nature and are quintessentially Okinawan.
■Katazome : hand-stenciled dyeing
Pattern depicting the ancient castle town of Shuri (photo courtesy: Katachiki)
Katazome stencil dyeing uses paper stencils and starch paste to set the pattern boundaries, which are later filled in with pigments. Katazome textiles are mostly used for clothing.
■Tsutsu-gaki: free-hand dyeing
Some bingata textiles patterns are drawn without stencils. Tsutsu-gaki, or nui-bichi dyeing, involves freehand drawing with a piping bag. This method is mostly applied to items such as furoshiki wrap cloths, stage curtains, and tapestries.
Piping bag is used to apply resistant starch and draw patterns（photo courtesy ：Asato Bingata Kobo）
Bingata textiles dyed with indigo and ink are called “iegata” and are mostly used for summer clothing.
Tsutsu-gaki piece featuring auspicious pattern of pine, bamboo, plum, crane and turtle（photo courtesy：Asato Bingata Kobo）
Japan’s famous dyed textiles are mostly the result of collaborative work in which labor is split between those who draw the patterns, and those who dye them. Many are also increasingly adopting efficient dyeing methods. However, bingata has been produced the same way for centuries. One artisan oversees the entire process, working only by hand. Bingata isn’t mass produced, making it a dyed textile of exceptional value.
The history of bingata
The first bingata textiles are said to date back to around the 13th to 14th century. That’s before the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled Okinawa from the early 15th to late 19th century.
Bingata kimonos were mostly worn by royalty and the warrior class, and was not something typically worn by the common people. It is said that the Ryukyu Kingdom protected dyers and settled them around Shuri Castle.
Bingata was worn by the royal family and samurai class under the Ryukyu Kingdom （photo courtesy:（Okinawa Churashima Foundation）
The Ryukyu Kingdom was a peaceful island that flourished on trade with China, other parts of Asia, and mainland Japan. During the kingdom’s more than 400 year rule, bingata drew influences from various cultures. Incorporating over time the influences of Chinese vibrance and Japanese delicateness, bingata has evolved to possess many of the best features of Asian dye crafts.
Show reenacting a mid-autumn feast to welcome Chinese imperial envoys（photo courtesy: Okinawa Churaumi Foundation）
After the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished in 1879 by the Meiji administration, the bingata industry gradually declined without the protection and patronage of the Ryukyu Royalty.
During World War II, when Okinawa became the only ground battle site inside Japan, a great amount of bingata were lost. However, several bingata stencils were preserved in mainland Japan by Yoshitaro Kamakura, who was a dyer and Okinawa researcher. Okinawa’s dyers used these stencils to restore the bingata method. Bingata eventually drew praise as one of Japan’s leading dye crafts.
Passionate artists and countless others helped Okinawa’s ancient dyeing method withstand the test of time.
Keeping the tradition alive -- a visit to three Okinawa bingata studios
We visited three bingata studios in Okinawa to learn more from its artisans. These studios welcome visitors and offer tours and workshops. They also sell merchandise that make wonderful gifts to bring back home. Make time to visit them during your Okinawa trip.
Fujisaki Bingata Kobo（Nago City）
Fujisaki Bingata Kobo welcomes visitors and offers tours
Fujisaki Bingata Kobo stands on the east coast of Nago City. It is run by bingata artist, Makoto Fujisaki.
Mr. Fujisaki first visited Okinawa as part of his university research and met Aikou Nadoyama, an Okinawa painter who led post-war efforts to restore bingata. Mr. Fujisaki returned to Okinawa upon his graduation in 1971, and took up an apprenticeship under Mr. Nadoyama who trained him in bingata dyeing techniques.
Bingata artist Makoto Fujisaki was kind and friendly.
After World War II, the US military occupied Okinawa. During this period, artists created a commune called “Nishimui art village”, which is said to have played a key role in reviving Okinawa’s postwar art and culture scene. Mr Fujisaki previously lived and worked in Nishimui village and remembers how it was full of passion and energy -- something that made him truly feel that Okinawa was amazing.
In post-war Okinawa, local pottery and bingata artists were actively involved in rebuilding efforts. Mr Fujisaki says he experienced a lot during this time while training under Mr Nadoyama.
Mr. Nadoyama who played a large role in the revival of bingata often scolded Mr. Fujisaki about colors. Mr. Fujisaki recalled his mentor’s comments: “Your pink doesn’t work. Take a good look at Okinawa’s sakura blossoms. They have a much darker pink hue than the sakura flowers on the mainland.” Mr Fujisaki said Mr Nadoyama constantly reminded him to “feel local” and experience Okinawa first hand. This prompted Mr Fujisaki to even help sugar cane harvests.
In 1973, Mr Fujisaki left Okinawa for a year to travel to India and Nepal. There, he discovered the essence of craftsmanship.
Sash with Indian arabesque pattern
Mr. Fujisaki said being in India and thinking about handcrafting made him more attached to Okinawa.
Mr. Fujisaki had initially planned to return to his hometown of Yokosuka -- southwest of Tokyo -- after travelling. Instead, he ended up going straight back to Okinawa for more serious training under his mentor.
Bold yet elegant colors
Mr Fujisaki offered us tips on how to better appreciate bingata textiles. He voiced his hopes that everybody will view the colors of bingata with their own senses and interpretations. The vibrant colors that gleam under the Okinawan sun, and also resist its overwhelming shine, will all speak to people in a way that captivates them, he says. Fujisaki Bingata Kobo studio stands on the eastern coast of Nago city, atop a lush green hilltop overlooking the sea. It’s easy to see where Mr Fujisaki gets his inspiration from.
The studio sells merchandise and offers hands-on experiences. Book a day ahead if you wish to join the bingata dye workshop.
Make a crossbody bag or sling bag
Asato Bingata Kobo (Ginowan City）
Asato Bingata Kobo, in Ginowan City, is run by its founder Kazuo Asato and his son Masatoshi. The elder Asato began his career as a bingata apprentice dyer almost four decades ago, and later opened his own studio.
The studio collaborates with dancer I-VAN, who is Masatoshi’s former classmate. Their collaboration focuses on Okinawa's colourful summer wear called kariyushi, which they hope will appeal to younger people.
Second generation studio owner Masatoshi Asato
When Masatoshi was younger, he pursued a career in kickboxing. He was skilled but was forced to retire when he was 24 due to an injury. He turned his setback into an opportunity and joined his father's studio.
Yuuna flower pattern created by Masatoshi
Masatoshi told us about that time. "I was fond of my father. I felt that I could help him by joining the studio." Masatoshi had helped his father earlier but only became a full-fledged artisan around 13 years ago. Despite honing his skills for more than a decade, he tells us how he still can’t bring himself to call himself a full-fledged artisan.
Wedding gift to Masatoshi’s bride, created by the his father, Kazuo
Masatoshi explained how bingata artists oversee the entire production process, which begins by making all the tools. He said drawing and coloring is an almost endless process that requires deep thought, and that he still has a lot to learn. He added that being involved in the whole process is challenging, but allows him to explore his creativity and feel truly attached to his craft.
Drying the glue. The elder Asato likened bingata dyeing to carpentry work
By overseeing the entire production, bingata artists are able to pour their passion into their work. Every bingata piece is the result of meticulous and time consuming effort, and that's why they can not be produced in bulk. Each bingata piece has its own unique story and is born from great passion and attention.
Katachiki （Naha City）
Katachiki is near Shuri Castle
Katachiki is nestled away in the streets near Shuri Castle. The studio is run by two sisters who were born and raised in the neighborhood.
The older Yumiko Kieda is in charge of fabric dying while the younger sister, Yuko Higa, takes over the sewing. Their studio near Shuri Castle park doubles as a work and retail space.
Keeping traditional skills alive
Yumiko used to work at another bingata studio. When her mentor died, Yumiko needed a place of her own to continue her projects. Around the same time, her stylist sister Yuko -- who lived outside Okinawa -- returned home. They launched their own line of products, and gradually build up a client base. After a while, they opened their own studio. Yumiko is basically responsible for all the dye work.
Yumiko applies pigments entirely by hand
We asked Yumiko why the bingata tradition managed to survive for centuries.
-- "That's simply because there were many people who kept the tradition alive. Under Ryukyu rule, bingata was something that belonged to the royal family. I doubt that commoners ever had a chance to actually see a bingata piece. When the Ryukyu kingdom was abolished and became Okinawa prefecture during the Meiji era, bingata artists created kimonos and furoshiki wrap cloths for mainland Japan. But after World War Two, everything was gone. Yet, there were people who managed to restore the bingata tradition.
Under Japan's post-war economic boom, bingata artisans kept abreast with popular trends and created kimonos, sashes and other related accessories. We did what we could to get bingata crafts recognized.
The bottom line is that countless individuals played a part in keeping bingata alive. These people acted like chain links to keep bingata’s tradition intact to the present.
Pigment are mixed with a binding agent called gojiru (soybean milk)
This is Yumiko's take on modern day bingata; "Bingata probably would have disappeared by now if artisans had been unwilling to compromise and stuck to traditional patterns. Everyone involved in reviving bingata were open-minded and flexible. At a time when Okinawa was unable to control its fate, bingata artists were aware that the most important thing was to carry on the tradition. It was a spontaneous and collective movement, that continues to this day.”
Bingata foldable fans are popular gifts. The fans are assembled by a Kyoto artisan
Katachiki creates everyday wear and accessories, such as shawls, fans and clutch bags that are easily approachable as fashion items. Yumiko says she wouldn't have been able to come this far without her sister. Visit the Katachiki studio to discover the sisters' heartwarming collaboration in their creations.
Discover Okinawa's time-honored bingata textiles
For centuries, bingata pieces have captivated hearts and minds with their bold and bright, nature-inspired designs. Bingata survived the archipelago's turbulent history thanks to countless artisans and admirers who strenuously worked behind the scenes. Although they can be somewhat expensive, a bingata kimono is the quintessential Okinawa memento. Many studios in Okinawa let visitors observe, buy, or experience bingata dyeing firsthand, allowing you to easily come into contact with the tradition.
Drop by a bingata studio during your Okinawa trip to discover bingata’s mesmerizing charm.