Today’s post is provided by Dr. Laura Miller, the Eiichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies and Professor of History at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Laura explores the interdisciplinarity of Japanese Studies and linguistic anthropology and has written on a multitude of fascinating topics including youth fashion, the beauty industry, girls’ speech, and more recently divination. I had the pleasure of working with her on the anthology Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History where she explored the ancient shaman queen Himiko. More recently Laura is interested in the way religious talismans and symbols have transitioned into the 21st century. I’m delighted she agreed to share a glimmer of her research on the Japanese good-luck amulet and the way it intersects the kimono industry.

Brocade Obi to Amulet Pouches: Adaptations in Kyoto’s Textile Industry

In her book The Kimono Tattoo Rebecca Copeland sets the tale in Kyoto, which has been a weaving center for centuries. The Nishijin district in particular has a long history as the location for gorgeous textile and kimono production. There are several types of Nishijin brocade produced, and the art form was designated as a national traditional craft in 1976. The luxurious, dense, and sophisticated obi kimono sash made by Nishijin weavers is one of Japan’s most renowned products.

Fragment of No Robe
Detail of Nishijin fabric from the Edo period (1615-1868), Freer gallery, no date, Public domain

A recent book by Jenny Hall provides historical and ethnographic accounts of the business. In Japan Beyond the Kimono she tracks how the Kyoto dyeing and weaving industries have been able to stay afloat after a period of economic distress. Not only have companies, craft guilds, and individual artisans been willing to transition to new types of production, they have also invested in innovative ways to use traditional fabrics and designs. I found an example of this in my research on omamori.

Omamori are cloth protection and good luck amulets available at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There is a spectacular variety of types that target specific worries, from childbirth to travel. The brocade pouch is usually folded at the top and fastened with a fancy white knot drawn through holes. Before the 1950s omamori merely took the form of a sacred text or a visual image that was not swathed in material. People carried them home and made their own protective pouches from strips of old kimono and obi. Today the various aspects of making omamori, from design, textile creation, sewing, and assembly, is generally outsourced and not done within the shrine or temple grounds. Some of the celebrated Nishijin weavers in Kyoto turned their skills to omamori making.

One such company is named Kyoto Hosei, which opened in 1974 and has around 5,300 shrine and temple customers who order omamori on consignment. They make 20 million amulets per year! These are no longer hand woven but are made by machine-operated looms and a digital weaving process by a staff of around three hundred. Hikita Satoshi, current president of the company, says that they use “the traditional Nishijin weaving technique of Kyoto.” 

Today there are textile schools, a Nishijin museum, and a Nishijin educational tourist center in Kyoto. These join the many small, family run weaving workshops in the area that are managing to survive with creativity and resourcefulness.

Laura Miller, Ph.D.