Skip to content

Yaeyama Jōfu


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

If the Yūki-tsumugi is the acme of silk textile, then Miyako-jōfu must be the match for linen. Miyako-jōfu is indigo of a very dark color, rather close to black, and the Yaeyama-jōfu produced in the Ishigaki Island1 was known to be a kasuri (splashed pattern) on a white. Hence, it was commonly understood that while they are both made of false nettle, their end products were the obverse and its reverse, just like the negative and the positive of a photograph. Nonetheless, there is a reconsideration going on here recently.

This trend owes to the fact that the existence of many Miyako-jōfu-resembling Yaeyama-jōfu was verified, while others say that some antique Miyako-jōfu—still in existence—are very similar to Yaeyama-jōfu.

Both of these textiles are closely related to the control of Satsuma over Ryukyu, and the poll tax following it. It is said that according to the poll tax stone2, which still can be seen today on the beach of Nishi-Nakasone, Hirara on Miyako Island, any man reaching over a meter and a bit were each levied a tax, required to pay by crop and textile. In the case of Miyako Island, payment by textile was allowed given that its farmlands were scarce; another factor leading to the higher development of its weaving techniques.

The overwhelming popularity of Miyako-jōfu became a perfect inspiration to improve the quality of Yaeyama-jōfu as well. Design directions were sent along with specifications on the fineness of yarns, the width, and length of the textile, and even on the colors. Its inspections were said to be extremely rigorous. As a matter of course, the inspection or the payment could give severe punishments.

Regarding such circumstances, there is no wonder why these two goods are so identical. Flatly said, the differences between them were the depth of indigo-dyeing at first. Over time, Yaeyama-jōfu can become a shiro-gasuri—splashed patterns on white base—indeed, it is lighter in color. Its difference comes from the number of times in dyeing. Although rather lightly dyed, Yaeyama-jōfu’s colors will not fade even under the sun of the intensity the same as mainland Japan. 

These textiles were a product symbolic of the poll tax. We can observe this fact from their names: the names entitling their original production site were only given from the end of the Meiji era, around 1912. Until then, they were all called Satsuma-jōfu. Certainly, we can say this is a historical and symbolic evidence of such exploitation.

Apparently, Yaeyama-jōfu was made with a white base only in relatively recent years. From the Taisho era to the early Showa era, 1912 to 1930s, an unheard-of prosperity came to Yaeyama-jōfu too, which led to the introduction of the technique surikomi3 in the making of Yaeyama-jōfu. Meanwhile, Miyako-jōfu clung on to the kukuri-zome4, for a further artificial fineness; by this contrasting event, a distinctive difference was born between the market price of the two.

Originally, Yaeyama-jōfu was dyed with a kukuri-zome style and not on a white base—Aragaki Sachiko, who has proven this evidence, is working on the revival of the traditional Yaeyama-jōfu. Although this aim was considered heretical at first, it is widely supported today. Compared to Miyako-jōfu, Yaeyama-jōfu has fewer spinners, uses ramie yarn for the warp, and the weft is thicker; therefore, the gap in the price stays large. Nevertheless, Yaeyama-jōfu without a white base has a serene impression resembling the climate of Ishigaki Island, and its various colored grounds of vegetable dyes with its dynamic designs are starting to get in the spotlight.

Editor’s Note:

  1. An island belonging to the Yaeyama Islands
  2. A stone in Miyako Island with a height of about 143cm
  3. A technique in which the dye is rubbed in the yarn or textile
  4. To bind the textile and only dye some part of it to design the pattern