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Inquiry | Japanese

Senshoku (Dyeing) - Keiko Kusanagi

Kyoto and Kaga are renowned producers of Yuzen-zome, which a traditional Japanese fabric dyeing technique. Each process in the production of Yuzen-zome has traditionally been separated and craftsmen specializing in their individual process contribute to their respective step of the dyeing process. In Tokyo, however, a single craftsman is in charge of most of the processes that includes designing the fabric and coating the fabric with protective adhesive. Rather than being a craftsman of an individual art, they are more like an artist who completes the entire story. Keiko Kusanagi is one such professional who utilizes her 35-year Yuzen painting experience and her feminine perspective to craft unique kimono and obi.

Why did you take up this craft?

"My parents were farmers and I was the youngest of 5 children. Before aspiring to dye fabric, I dreamt of enrolling in university and studying to become a teacher. When I failed the university entrance exam, I was distraught. My high school teacher, however, told me of a textile vocational college. At the time, I was not particularly interested in dyeing fabric, but became intrigued when I learned that the founder of the school was Sueko Otsuka, a famous kimono designer. I always enjoyed drawing so, I decided to enroll in the vocational college as a night-time student for three years."

Is that where you learned the hand-painted Yuzen dyeing technique?

"Just the basics. Retailers are not interested in people who cannot craft a sellable end product. I would say that painting is art, but Yuzen is a craft. Earning a living requires you to have a combination of techniques and talent. I was determined to become an apprentice to a Yuzen craftsman but it was difficult to find a master to teach me because most masters only accepted men to be their apprentice. After contacting an independent artist everyday for three months, he finally agreed to take me in as his apprentice."

What challenges did you face while in training?

"At first, I sat next to my teacher and watched. After a while, I was allowed to spread adhesive over the draft and add colors. It was challenging to keep up with my teacher's crafting speed. I realized that I couldn't spend too much time on each individual product. After seven years in training, I started working at home when I was 28."

What process are involved in Yuzen dyeing?

"The major processes are drawing the draft, threading the pattern, pressing the Yuzen, laying the material, and dyeing. In Kyoto and Kaga, each of these individual processes are handled by specialized professionals but in Tokyo one craftsman completes all these processes. The most important process is designing the product. Because I do all these processes on my own, I can make minor adjustments when threading the pattern if my draft was not perfect. It may not be the most efficient process, but being able to express yourself entirely through your own work has its benefits."

Is there a difference in design between Kyo Yuzen, Kaga Yuzen, and Edo Yuzen?

"Although there are no major difference, Kyoto tends to use vivid colors and is elegant. Kaga has its own unique sense of color, which is referred to as the five colors of Kaga. Yuzen dyeing artists, however, focus more on originality rather than following a pre-existing pattern."

How would you describe your style?

"I get my inspiration from the flowers and plants in my garden or add my own twist to traditional patterns. For instance, I try not to use overly colorful colors and eliminate unnecessary elements in my drawings. I always contrast my light colors with the opposite color to make the design stand out. This styling is probably what people are referring to when they complement my unique taste in color."

Where can we get your products?

"My kimono and obi are often sold at department stores. Because there is a limited demand for kimono, however, I also craft small accessories. For instance, I make flat caps with Yuzen dye and handkerchiefs with Suminagashi-zome, which is a dyeing technique that has existed since the Heian period. An art student suggested I wrap a cloth around a cane and coat it with a protective layer. The Yastugadake Club, a gallery owned by the actor Hiroshi Yagyu, decided to sell this design for us."

What is your future plan?

"My ultimate goal is to win the Japan Traditional Crafts Exhibition and focus on my art. To be selected to win the prize, you cannot simply use traditional patterns or imitate other people's design. Crafting a masterpiece for the exhibit can take a couple of years. I will create sellable products to earn a living while crafting my masterpiece"

In other words, you want to balance your artistic sense and craftsmanship.

"As much as I value originality, I feel that many works of artists are self-centered expressions. Kimono should be crafted to brighten the women's face and enhance her personality. This is why the print must be elegant yet modest. Although it is difficult to express the artist's uniqueness in a kimono that should enhance the person who is wearing it, I am challenging myself to do just that."

Photographer: Yasuko Okamura
Organizer: Taizen Sugamura


Keiko Kusanagi

1953: Born in Edogawa City
1976: Graduated from the Department of Yuzen Dyeing at Otsuka Sueko Kimono Gakuin
1985: Won a Prize at the Association of Nihon Dyeing Writer Exhibition
1993: Joined the Edogawa Traditional Crafts Preservation Society
1994: Won the Encouragement Prize at the Edogawa Traditional Crafts Exhibition
2000: Won the Ward Mayor Prize at the Edogawa Traditional Crafts Exhibition
2000: Exhibited Product at the Cultural Exchange Exhibition Between Edogawa City and Tsuruoka City
2006: First Time to Win the New Work of Art Exhibition at the Japan Kogei Association
2006: Won the Board of Education Prize at the Edogawa City Traditional Craft Exhibition
2011: Won the Eastern Japan Traditional Craft Exhibition at the Nihon Kogei Association
2014: Won the Board of Education Prize at the Edogawa City Traditional Craft Exhibition
2014: Won Eastern Japan Traditional Craft Exhibition at the Nihon Kogei Association
2016: Won Eastern Japan Traditional Craft Exhibition at the Nihon Kogei Association

Keiko Kusanagi's Masterpiece "Marble Stick"

Each individual cloth is hand-dyed and wrapped around this cane. Of course, the carrying case and strap on the cane were hand-dyed by Keiko Kusanagi.

This piece of art is designed specifically for those who need to use a cane and was created through collaboration between Keiko Kusanagi and Yuka Igusa, who is a student at Tokyo Zokei University.