matohu matohu



Life is sustained from life. Just how much do we fail to recollect this truth as we go about our lives? The food we eat and the clothes we dress ourselves in today have been given to us from a great many lives.

  Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms. Silkworms are said to have gotten their name after people started raising the wild silk moth (Bombyx mandarina), which eats mulberry leaves. Silkworms were first domesticated 5,000 years ago in China and were brought to Japan during the Yayoi Period (c. 300 bce–c. 250 ce). The technology to create silk thread from high-quality cocoons was established in Japan during the Edo Period (1603–1867).
  Many farming families used to live together with the silkworms that they raised in the attic loft of their home. They say that in the quiet of the night, the sound of larvae eating mulberry leaves could be heard through the ceiling, like the sound of soft rain falling.
  We’re going to take a trip following silk—this fiber that is at once familiar and yet unknown. This is a trip that touches on the origins of life. Here, a great many human endeavors connecting the past to the present are bound together by a single thread.

We're in the Shonai region of Yamagata Prefecture. Beautiful rice fields extend before us on a fertile plain as far as the eye can see. The Sakai clan, an important vassal family loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate, ruled this area in the Edo Period. The lives of the feudal lord, his retainers and the citizen folk of the domain were deeply intertwined. Even today, the head of the clan lives next to the former site of Tsurugaoka Castle and is referred to as “the lord" by many citizens, who hold him in high regard.
  The samurai of the Shonai Domain fought valiantly on the side of the shogunate during the Boshin War (the 1868–1869 civil war fought in Japan), but after the war they were branded rebels. They put down their swords and took up hoes as a way to dispel this dishonor. They cleared a vast pine forest to create mulberry orchards and built a number of buildings for raising silkworms. Silk exports were substantially responsible for the “enriching the country" part of the “Enrich the country, strengthen the army" (fukoku kyohei) slogan that defined the Meiji Period (1868–1912). At the vanguard of this endeavor were the samurai of Shonai.
  Flash forward 150 years. The Japanese silk industry, unable to compete against the invention of synthetic textiles and inexpensive mass-produced products from China and Brazil, has almost disappeared domestically. Raising silkworms and harvesting their fibers for thread, weaving the thread into cloth, softening it through refining, dyeing it gorgeous colors and then fabricating silk garments—Tsuruoka is now the only place left in Japan where all of these processes still take place. Why have people persevered in continuing this craft even today despite the extraordinary challenges they face?
  According to Kyosuke Yamato of Tsuruoka Silk, it comes from “a desire to carry on the aspirations of my predecessors." Silk production involves many processes that cannot be done by one enterprise alone. The spirit of “everyone helping each other" taught at Chidokan, the domain-based school that formerly operated in Tsuruoka, is still alive today.
  He showed us the process of silk reeling, where silk fibers are harvested from cocoons. When cocoons are placed in hot water and brushed with a straw brush, fibers on the outside of the cocoon loosen and come off. As the cocoons spin around, the fibers are wound around a spool to create silk thread with a lustrous milky white color.
  Looking in the water, we could see small pupae showing through inside the cocoons, which had become thinner and more transparent. One cocoon contains one life. This self-evident fact hit us with a sudden urgency. One bolt of silk kimono fabric is woven from some 3,200 silkworm lives.

The food we eat and the clothes we dress ourselves in today have been given to us from a great many lives. The same holds true for both plants and animals. Life is sustained from life. With this thought in mind, we should use things for as long as we can without waste. Like we put our hands together and say itadakimasu before we eat to express our gratitude, we should also offer thanks from our hearts when we put on our clohtes, with our feeling of gratitude blooming like flowers of remembrance for the predecessors who passed down their work and the craftspeople who are creating the products today, down to the chain of life contained in a single thread.