Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
When I began this project in 1999, I set out to explore a large theme: the relation between ikat textiles and ritual in Yaeyama, the southernmost island-group of Okinawa prefecture. I hoped to trace direct links to Southeast Asia, imagined by many Japanese and Okinawan scholars as the source of Ryukyuan ikat.. I set out to pursue the histories of two ikat textiles—a sash and a headscarf—used on Taketomi, linked, in legend, to ceremonial or ritual contexts, and intended to include ikat garments worn by women on ceremonial occasions. As my study unfolded, the persistence of the legend associated with the sash in spite of any evidence of ritual use manifestations of that legend today, and the complex history that underlies it drew me more and more to concentrate on that one simple object. The following introduction to one aspect of my research, focusing on the invented traditions of the sash and its increasing role as a marker of regional identity, is based on 14 months of fieldwork in Yaeyama.
Yaeyama lies on the farthest periphery of Ryukyuan cultural influence, closer to Taiwan and the Philippines than to Kyoto or Tokyo. It has remained distinct from the political center of the Ryukyu archipelago on Okinawa Island, some 300 miles to the north. Geographic, linguistic, religious, social, economic, political, and possibly ethnic factors have insured Yaeyama's separateness.
According to local legend, for 300 years the women of Yaeyama have woven minsa- sashes to give to their prospective husbands, incorporating a combination of ikat motifs read as a rebus, meaning "Yours forever more." Today, in ritual and secular performances of dance and drama, as well as in congregant participation in religious ceremonial, the sash has become a marker of the "simple, island people of Yaeyama" Local textile cooperatives, district governments, and island officials promote this legend. Islanders also use the legend to clarify and enrich their own identities as "simple island people." Primary documents and object-derived data raise doubts about the historical basis for the legend and for production predating the introduction of machine-spun cotton yarn in the later 19th century. These sources also establish the intimate association of the sash with the gentry at that time. Recent interviews and observations indicate its use by women of the gentry to secure their undergarments.
Transformations of use, class, and meaning have marked the changing context of this simple object. In tracing the shifting circumstances of this sash, I address the questions posed by Stephen Vlastos in defending Hobsbawnr s concept of the invention of traditon. In examining this subject, Vlastos says, "the significant findings will be historical and contextual. How, by whom, under what circumstances, and to what social and political effect are certain practices and ideas formulated, institutionalized, and propagated as tradition.