When my friend and fabric artist Sumi was a child growing up in Osaka, Japan, she often spent the night at her grandmother’s house. Her Obā-san would bring out scraps of old kimono fabric and young Sumi enjoyed touching the silky cloth fragments and admiring their exquisite patterns. She soon learned from her grandmother how to sew and developed a love for this art form.
In 1988, I was 21 years old and I had just completed my second year of Japanese Studies at Cambridge. As part of our language program, we were to spend a term studying Japanese at a university in Japan in the fall. I had spent helping some Japanese students from Osaka on a summer program in Cambridge the previous year, and had been invited to do a homestay with one of their families in Kyoto that summer. I flew out to Japan and made my way to Kyoto, where my homestay family lived and was thrilled to discover that I had been placed with a family who were involved in the kimono making industry. The Endos had a company that made kimonos, and at the time I was staying with them, the country was very prosperous and their business was thriving. (Months later, the Emperor died, and people took some time off buying fancy new kimono, which took a toll on his business.) Mr. Endo spent a lot of his time during that summer taking me to see the various stages of the kimono-making process, from the spinning of the threads to the weaving of the lengths of cloth, and he even enrolled me in a kumihimo class so I could learn to braid the silk cords that are tied around the obi, the sash that goes around the waist of the kimono and holds everything together. One day, he took me into one of his showrooms, which contained drawer after drawer of spectacular samples of brocade obi designs. Some of these samples were so intricately woven with an array of colors and gold-wrapped threads that they overshadowed the kimono fabrics he had already shown me. And some were so full of gold that they were actually heavy. I remember Mr. Endo telling me a full-length obi with designs like these typically cost thousands of dollars.
Then he reached into one of the drawers and pulled out a pile of samples. He laid them on the table in front of me and told me to choose one to keep. At first, I was excited but then I became overwhelmed. They were all so beautiful, I couldn’t decide. Mr. Endo had left me to attend to some business and I knew I had to make a decision quickly but it was impossible. I narrowed it down to one with an abstract pattern, one with flowers, and one with butterflies and flowers. I was still trying to choose a winner when he returned. I told him I was having trouble selecting just one. He hesitated for a moment and then grabbed all three of them, had his assistant wrap them in a cloth and present them to me. I bowed a lot and thanked him profusely feeling very greedy but also delighted to have scored three beautiful obi samples. This was just one of the many moments of kindness I experienced in Japan that summer, and from many, many more Japanese people in the 25 or so years since then. My experiences with the Endo family exploring the many arts and crafts of Kyoto no doubt contributed to my wanting to become a historian of Japanese art.
Over the years, I held onto these textile treasures. I gave one away years ago to friend who had been my assistant at Pacific Asia Museum and left to attend grad school to major in Japanese art. She is now an assistant professor. Today, I gave away one more to my dear friend Christine (see April 23) and her brand new and very lovely husband Ryan. It seemed like an appropriate wedding gift to give her a beautiful piece of Asian art that was closely linked to the start of my career in the field, since it is this shared love of Asian art that brought us together as friends. To Christine and Ryan, who have just tied the knot, a framed obi section – from a sash that wraps around the kimono and holds it all together – seems fitting, the ornate but strong sash symbolizing the strength and beauty of their love at the start of this great journey together.