Japanese Dyestuffs

In the Chinese court of Chang-an, five official clothing colours in addition to white were recognized. Each was produced with dyestuffs referenced in the Chinese Classics.  Yellow was made from gardenia hulls and bark of the Amur cork tree.  Purple was from gromwell roots.  Red was from madder root.  Blue-green was from indigo overdyed with yellow for green.  Black was the final of the five official colours.  The colours also had relationships with Chinese philosophy and superstition.  Blue-green represented wood, Spring, and the East.  Red stood for fire, Summer, and the South.  White was for Autumn, Metal, and the West.  The North aligns with Winter, Water, and Black.  And Yellow is the Center and Earth.  These rules remained largely unchanged in China until the Manchurian period (beginning in the 17th century).

In 603 C.E. in the Western calendar Shotoku Tashi (Prince Shotoku) established a system of government ranks mirroring those used in China.  With these ranks came the Chinese practice of distinction by colour.  The ranking colours had to be produced precisely using the correct materials.  These colours were purple, blue, red, yellow, white and black.

In 701 C.E., the Ministry of the Imperial Household organized a new office, the Palace Dyeing Office or Naisenshi.  Sources indicate that the Naisenshi may have been managed by a master dyer from China.  At the time, many governmental workshops were.  To the madder reds and indigo blues used in antiquity were added dyes from the Continent.  Gromwell root, sappanwood and safflower came to be used as dyes.

Gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon Sieb. & Zucc.) is native to Japan, but no evidence suggests its use as a dye before the Nara Period.  Called murasaki in Japanese, today we recognize it as the given name of the author of the Tale of Genji as well as one of her heroines.  During the Nara and Heian Periods, this beautiful but non-lightfast purple was restricted to Imperial ladies only.  In addition to its ephemerality, a careful process of premordanting had to be followed in order to produce the correct shade.   Often called simply iro (“colour” in Japanese), there is no doubt that it was THE colour of the Court.

Sappanwood (Japanese suo) was imported from Southeast Asia as dried wood chips from the Caesalpinia sappan L. tree.  This redwood is of the same species as the brasilwood and produces the same dyestuff.  Again, its lack of lightfastness made this colour desirable.  By manipulating the pH of the dyebath by the addition of wood ash water ot vinegar, the palace dyers could produce everything from deep eggplant to lavender and maroon to ox-blood red.  Coming soon — a project I did with sappanwood.

Benibana or safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) is probably the most “Heian” of all the dyes.  The love of fleeting beauty, as demonstrated by the short life of the cherry blossoms, typified the emotions of the Heian court.  As is obvious from the mid-Heian texts by Lady Murasaki and her contemporaries, the good people felt that they were living at the end of an age.  Indeed they were, for the military rule which would dominate Japanese culture for over seven centuries was only a couple hundred years away.  Like murasaki, benibana was also a restricted dye, though courtiers favoured by the Empress were often given special permission to wear it.  Dyeing with safflower requires careful manipulation of the pH factor.  Anyone can produce yellow from the petals.  Orange requires more skill.  But pink ( kurenai) was the restricted colour.  To read about my experiments with safflower, click here.

In 894, due to political turmoil at the end of the Tang Dynasty in China, Japan broke off all diplomatic relations with its mentor nation.  This can be thought of as Japan’s adolescence — a period in which Japan “grew up,” discovered itself, and became more than just a reflection of big brother China.  It was during this time, the mid-Heian Period, that the first native poems were written in non-Chinese script and the Japanese court came into its own.

Colours were strict indicators of rank in the Chinese court.  In Japan, courtiers took the native appreciation of colour and its subtlety to a higher level.  Although men’s court clothing was still regulated by rank, a man in casual dress showed his refinement and sensitivity by pairing colours according to the season, the occasion, or his mood.  And if Heian men excelled at this practice, Heian women were masters.  Less restricted by rank colours than men, a Heian lady could make or break her reputation with her choice of colours to wear in combination.  Indeed, the mistress of the household (that is, the principle wife) was responsible for all the dyeing that went on.  Even her servants’ clothing reflected upon her.  It is no surprize that the Imperial post of Mikushige-dono, Mistress of the Wardrobe, was often held by an Imperial concubine, someone not too many steps away from being Empress herself.

As the period progressed, the colour combinations (called kasane no irome in Japanese) became standardized and each combination assigned a name.  Late Heian period texts such as Masasuke’s “Notes on Costume” catalog these outfits.  Even though the Heian period could not last forever, its love of colour resurfaced again and again throughout Japanese costume history.

As indicated above, the Capital of Peace and Tranquility (Heian-kyo) did not remain so forever.  In the late 12th century, battles raged between provincial lords and the Heian courtiers.  The Gen-Pei War was devastating to the way of life that was cultivated in the capital up to that time.  No longer the center of beauty and refinement, the country was now under a military regime.  Japan was nominally still ruled by the Emperor in Heian-kyo, but in fact the government was controlled by a provincial lord, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in far off Kamakura (near present-day Tokyo, 600 miles from the ancient capital).  The Kamakura Period could not be more far-removed from the Heian Period if it had occurred on a different planet.

Austerity is the hallmark of the Kamakura Period.  Fashion reflected this rebellion against the decadence of the Heian court.  Instead of the many layered silk garments, Kamakura ladies wore “underwear.” White kosode and red hakama, which on the Heian noblewoman was rarely seen, became the utilitarian garb of the new order.  There is strong significance in the names of the main garment — ko-sode (small sleeve) as opposed to hiro-sode (wide sleeve) or o-sode (big sleeve) as the Heian layers were sometimes called.  There is even an anecdote that relates how the Shogun, Minamoto, chopped off his own brother’s big sleeves with a sword because he believed him to be reverting to courtly decadence.  The cult of beauty was truly gone.

Unfortunately, along with the people who supported it, the technology disappeared as well.  This loss can be best illustrated by the Kamakura-period repair of a 7th century embroidered Buddhist mandala.  Today one can clearly see the repairs because the Kamakura period dyes have faded so much more than the original dye which predates it by 600 years.

In the Muromachi period, Ichijo no Kaneyoshi is responsible for “A Costume Compendium for Court Ladies of Official Rank” indicating that, though the official rule was one of samurai austerity, the Court was still the Court.

Shinshu Nigu produced “The Dongeiden Costume Compendium” in the first half of the sixteeth century.

© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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