Voices from a Minority Culture of the Amami Island in Japan
A fisherman going home with a heavy Spanish
mackerel. (Photo by Makoto Koshima)
In this exhibition, the first of its kind in the U.S., the rich culture of
the Amami Islands is revealed through the art of the kimono.
It has been said that art is a window through which to view the world. Since
the 1980s, Art Education in the U.S. has been seeing the value of art as a way
to experience points of view of the non-western world. This exhibition is dedicated
to the further understanding and enjoyment of one of the special areas of Japan.
Although Japan is often seen as a mono-cultural country, it is actually composed
of rich and colorful cultures, spread over more than two thousand miles on the
backs of a chain of volcanic mountains rising out of the ocean. The culture
of the Amami Islands is one great example.
Culture and History of the Amami Islands:
The Amami islands are rich in culture, located between the East China Sea and
the Pacific Ocean, about 250 miles south of mainland Japan. The Amami Islands
are composed of 8 islands from North to South - Amami Ohshima, Kikaijima, Kakeromajima,
Ukejima, Yorojima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima, and Yoron. The center of the
islands is Amami-Ohshima with the capital city of Naze (approximately 50,000
population). The climate of the Amami islands is Sub-tropical with an average
temperature of 70 F. (21 C.) and an annual precipitation of 120 inches (3,000
millimeters), giving life to lush rainforests and wildlife.
Although the Amami Islands are currently well known as beautiful tourist islands
with fascinating wildlife, gorgeous beaches and impressive coral reefs, they
have had an outstanding history. The Islands have historically been a very poor
agricultural region whose only product for export was sugar cane, since the
coral islands are not well suited to agriculture. In addition, due to their
geographical location between mainland Japan and eastern Asia, the island has
had a tragic destiny, being invaded by different countries throughout its history.
One of the most popular folk dances in the Amami
islands, this dance is done in gratitude for a good
harvest. (Photo by Makoto Koshima)
The name of the Amami Islands first appeared in literature in the Japanese
classic Nihonshoki in 616 C.E. The history of the Amami Islands is mysterious,
since many historical records have been lost, especially during the Satsuma
colonial period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. According to Nobori (1949),
the history of the Amami Islands is divided mainly into two periods: the period
of Amami semi-independence until the 13th century and the colonial periods under
the Ryukyu (Okinawa Islands) Kingdom from the 13th to 17th centuries and the
feudal clan of Satsuma in the Tokugawa period from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The Amami Islands became officially a part of Japan after the Meiji Restoration
in 1871. The most recent occupation following World War II is also unforgettable
history for people of the islands, where from 1945 to 1954 the USA occupied
Due to the location of the Amami Islands, it can be said that the culture of
the islands is more influenced by other Asian countries than mainland Japan.
In fact, the Amami Islands were especially well known as a transit base of trading
from China to mainland Japan since the 7th century. As a result, foreign cultures
of Asia were imported and flourished in the islands. The culture of Amami Islands
has interwoven mainland Japanese and other Asian cultures throughout its entire
One of the foreign imported cultural artifacts was the style of kimono called
Tsumugi. It became a main product of Amami-Ohshima and exists even in the 21st
century as an aesthetic symbol of identity for people of the island.
Black Diamonds: Ohshima Tsumugi
Islanders often say that there are two black diamonds here: brown sugar from
the locally grown sugar canes and the brown-black Ohshima tsumugi. During the
19th century, commoners were forbidden on pain of death both to wear the formal
tsumugi and taste the rich processed brown sugar. Those pleasures were reserved
for the ruling classes, who took the sugar as a yearly tribute and wore the
elaborate Ohshima tsumugi exclusively.
Amami-Ohshima’s prestigious 1,300-year-old tradition of silk fabrics continues
into the 21st century as Ohshima Tsumugi (pongee). The roots of Tsumugi may
reach back to the patterned Indian fabric (Ikat) which spread all over Asia
in ancient times. The Japanese kimono with small repeating patterns is called
Kasuri, which appears in a number of places in Japan besides the Amami Islands.
This special fabric was popular in Sumatra and Java and finally reached Amami-Ohshima
through the trading sea route from the South China Sea to the East China Sea
during the 8th century.
Unlike the typical Japanese kasuri, Ohshima-tsumugi is distinctive in its shiny
black-brown color, symbolic design, and the complexity of the process of creating.
Ohshima Tsumugi represents all the qualities of Japanese high-grade silk fabric
with symbolic patterns and textures. It is dyed with a special mud and wood
from a native tree (Teichigi/Sharinbai) which exists only in Amami-Ohshima.
It is made through a complicated process, through which it takes up to one year
to complete a single cloth.