When I first came to Japan, I had a habit of going to shrine flea markets to look at old pottery. That’s how I first came across kimono.
There were always hanging poles with bright and beautiful silk dresses. I didn’t even know they were kimonos but I was drawn to the colors and patterns and the luxurious textures of the fabrics.
However, what attracted me more than anything else was the incredibly intense red color – scarlet but with a little carmine in it – that was literally the deepest red I had ever seen. I was so attracted by the intensity of the color that I bought a kimono in that color.
Later a friend told me I had bought one Nagajuban, a kimono petticoat. So it’s lucky I didn’t wear it outside.
A look into history
If you look closely at ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1867), you can often see layers of red underwear peeking out at the sleeves and hems. This red cloth has long been popular for indoor clothing.
Red underwear is considered warm and strong in Japan as it is the color of blood, sun and fire. But it’s also a sacred color for the same reasons. The cloth colored in this red is called Momi. It was used for underwear and also for kimono linings until the mid 20’sth Century.
The color of Benibana
The color itself is called kurenai.
At the time, I had no idea that this amazingly intense Kurenai red was actually a plant pigment. It comes from the safflower plant, a member of the thistle family. It’s called in Japanese Benibana.
In Japan she was born around the age of 3approx Century along the Silk Road, probably from Egypt or the Middle East. In the Heian period (794-1185), it was reserved for high-ranking individuals, and with good reason.
The production of this red cloth is very labour-intensive. And the deeper the color, the more of this precious dye is used and the more expensive it becomes.
Back to basics: safflower by Yamagata
The center of Benibana industry in Japan is Yamagata Prefecture. It has been made in the Mogami River area of Yamagata since the Edo period.
My fascination with this color led me to the Kahoku Cho Thistle Museum while cycling through Yamagata many years ago.
Cloth dyed with Safflower is not very fast. The color runs when wet. Because it is also expensive to produce, it has been commercially replaced by chemical dyes. However, it is still produced and the safflower is the representative flower of Yamagata.
Safflower can also be used for lipstick, which is why lipstick is called kuchibeni in Japan.
When the dye is made into a paste, it is painted onto a small porcelain dish. As it dries, it turns a glossy green color. Touching it with a wet brush will turn the dye red again.
For those interested in the history of safflower and makeup, Isehanhonten in Aoyama has a small free museum and a shop where you can buy real Beni lipstick.
‘Benibana no Moribito’: A film about the history of safflower dyeing
I was recently asked to write a commentary for a filmmaker who is producing a film about safflower production in Yamagata.
Benibana no Moribitoproduced by UTN Entertainment and directed by Sato Koichi, is a documentary that explores the production, history and importance of safflower dyeing there.
The plant is an annual and the film traces the growing process from planting to harvesting the flowers when they bloom in summer.
They are picked early in the morning. Neighbors and even school children come to the fields to help harvest the precious petals for dyeing.
The Making of ‘Benimochi‘
Next, the petals are crushed and soaked and fermented for two or three days before being washed and formed into small round patties called benimochi. beni products are then made from these small patties.
99% of the flower color is yellow. Only 1% is red. Fabric or thread can be dyed a range of colors from pale yellow to orange and pink to the beautiful bright red.
Repeated dips in the dye bath are required to dye the fabric bright red. It can take up to 8 hours of dyeing in the dye bath to achieve the right red color.
Key to Yamagata’s economy
in the Edo period, benimochi was Yamagata’s most important product. And they were sold all over Japan. There was a thriving trade with Kyoto from Sakata Port, where the Mogami River meets the sea.
The farmers at Yamagata bore the expense and risk, and the journey was long and perilous. The peasants of Yamagata did not wear the luxurious fabrics dyed with safflower, and the arts of dyeing were developed in the cities of Kyoto and Edo.
Merchants wore them benimochi to the dyers. Clients included the imperial family, nobility, and high-ranking samurai.
In return, ships brought back beautiful items from Kyoto to Yamagata, including many Kyoto Hina dolls and beautiful red kimonos, as well as goods necessary for daily life in Yamagata.
Dye red today
I learned that the technique almost died out during World War II, but some dried seeds were discovered in a barn in the town of Tendo and they were able to revive the tradition.
Today, there are dyers and weavers in Kyoto and Yamagata who use natural dyes and are particularly enthusiastic Benibana.
Dyeing is just as tedious as farming. In addition, a stain made from roasted plums, made by only one manufacturer in Nara, is essential to achieve the best color.
Benibana no Moribito will be shown at Pole Pole Cinema in Higashi Nakano, Tokyo and other cinemas across Japan.
Author: Sheila Cliffe
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