Okinawa has a rich and unique island culture that makes it stand apart from other prefectures in Japan. Once its own kingdom, it brought many of its cultures and crafts into the Japanese consciousness, including its own styles of dyeing cloths known as Bingata.
History of Bingata and Eshigata
The history of the craft is surprisingly well-preserved! Documents from the early 1800s note that the craft dates back to the 15th century, or the 1400s. It is thought that the craft was learned by blending techniques from both China and Korea, infused with a bit of Okinawan (or Ryukyugan) artistry and know-how.
The names Bingata and Eshigata refer to the color of the dyes that were traditionally used. Bingata used red and Eshigata used indigo. It seems, nowadays, the term Bingata is used more as a catch-all instead of referring to specific colors used in the craft, whereas Eshigata still refers to goods with deep indigo or blue colors.
The craft went on strong, even after the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom by Japan. But it was really World War II that reshaped Okinawa completely. The war had a devastating effect on the island: thousands of lives were lost in the violence, and the islands’ infrastructure was severely damaged. This is where Bingata’s story almost ended: In the ashes of war.
Fortunately, many skilled craftsmen fought to preserve the tradition in light of the hardships they faced. One such family of craftsmen, the Shiromas, preserved the lineage of a 16-generation-long Bingata tradition and continued to expand it all the way to Shiroma Eiichi, who now heads the family’s shop near Shuri Castle.
Coral Bingata in Naha
We had heard about a unique type of Bingata we could experience and practice ourselves. Instead of using stencils to mark out where we were dying, much like how we did the kimono painting in Kanazawa, we would instead use petrified coral as our base and use their unique patterns to produce our own colorful cloths. We went with Shuri Ryusen, which is pretty close to Shuri Castle in Naha. In fact, the building used to be part of the castle grounds where ceremonies and rituals were held by the priestesses on the compound. Nifty!
We went with the standard handkerchief as our canvas and dove in. First, we had little balls of cloth we would use to absorb the dyes. We had a choice of colors: blue, red, yellow, and purple, each able to blend with the others to create a nice rainbow of possibilities. You would dab your ball of cloth and then begin to push it down on your own cloth, wrapped around and secured to the coral beneath it, and pull and push to extract the die and pull out the pattern of the coral.
They also had some nice stamps you could use as a base instead of the coral. We decided to hide some hidden Shiisa dogs in our fabrics among the coral.
The shop also sold tons of Bingata goods that you didn’t make yourself on the first floor, as well as having a small museum on the top floor you could check out! There were tons of patterns, tools, and cloth available to see. There was even a bit of history to indulge in up there as well.
Like shibori, this lovely dyeing technique really won me over. If you’re ever in Okinawa, be on the lookout for any Bingata experiences or clothing so you can make it your own!