Japanese clothing in historical context, including social and economic status and what they tell us about clothing
This is not meant to be a comprehensive bibliography but a sample of what I have on specific topics in my reference library. Click on the book covers or titles to preview and/or purchase the books online. I make a few pennies if you purchase a copy through the link, but I always encourage people to check your local library for resources.
Memories of Silk and Straw – A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan – by Dr. Junichi Saga, translated by Garry O. Evans
This is a window on village life, including different industries, social classes, and economic levels. It’s an enjoyable read, broken up into over 50 vignettes that tell the stories of merchants, laborers, and the various faces you see in almost every small town. An excellent resource for understanding how common people in Japan lived prior to the post-WWII economic recovery and boom.
You can comfortably read a little bit at a time if, like me, you are finding it difficult to focus for very long these days. I keep it on my bedside reading pile and read one or two short stories when I need to wind down and sleep.
The Stories Clothes Tell – Voices of Working Class Japan – by Tatsuichi Horikiri, translated and edited by Reiko Wagoner
This is a deeper dive into the hardships experienced in rural villages. The author writes of his own experiences as well as those of villagers he interviewed over many years. It’s an excellent resource for understanding the deprivation of rural life in a time before Japan’s current prosperity.
The cover photo tells you a lot about what to expect. No fancy kimono on those ladies, and the little boy is wearing a patched and worn apron over his patched and worn clothes. This is one of the books that helped me understand how precious cloth could be in a household. Boro was never meant to be fashionable, it was merely something made from remainders that would be patched infinitely in order to keep people warm.
I’ve lived in buildings without decent heating, including one year in the attic of a large 19th century farmhouse in the mountains where the only heat source was a small wood stove on the ground floor. Winter can be brutal. We forget that when we live with on-demand hot water and whole-house heating (which I still don’t have. 19th century houses can be COLD).
Factory Girls – Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan – by E. Patricia Tsurumi
This was one of the first non-cloth specific books I read on Japanese history. I was studying anthropology in college and it resonated with me in a way that I hadn’t expected. If you’re a student of Women’s Studies, Labor Studies, or just interested in the working conditions of the 19th century early industrial revolution in Japan, this is an excellent read.
Having toured a few working textile mills and museums in Japan (Tomioka Silk Mill is excellent) I can tell you the conditions today are far better than they were a century ago. Rural families with too little income and too many mouths to feed essentially sold their daughters to factory recruiters who promised economic prosperity to their parents. The reality was far different. Many girls took years to pay off the money their families had been paid by the recruiters, and some girls only came home when they were too ill to continue working. Some never came home at all.
I grew up in a house with all modern conveniences, two cars, a TV, etc. and I felt like the last kid in town to get a computer. Perspective is everything, and these three books helped reshape my perspective to understand the origins of working class garments and boro more clearly. When all you have to wear are the clothes on your back, you value them differently. Holes created by hard work in the fields in summer are mended and patched so you won’t freeze to death in winter.
Many of us in the West were introduced to Japanese textiles through kimono, with their symbolic, formal designs and elegance. And kimono are very pretty, let’s be honest. But for generations of working class men and women, kimono were an impossible dream until the early 20th century with the rise of industrialization. WWII shattered that dream, then it came back even stronger (and visually louder) in Japan’s economic rise of the 1960s.
Today the tattered rags of previous generations are coming to light again and showing us what perseverance and endurance look like, starting with the threadbare tatters of a family’s clothing.