Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).


Throughout most of Japan's long prehistory (Jomon period: ca.8,000- 300 B.C.)/ the hunting and gathering Jomon people stripped the bark of a variety of native trees, shrubs, and grasses and processed it into cordage, baskets, nets, and various twined textiles. Impressions of cloth on the bottom of some of the distinctive cord-patterned pottery for which the period was named, suggests that weaving was not practiced until the very end of the period.

Dislocated by the expansion of central Chinese authority, groups of immigrants from the continent moved to Japan in the third and second centuries B.C. These peoples brought irrigated rice cultivation, metallurgy, and new textile technologies with them. They cultivated the long-stapled ramie plant and wove it into cloth which they pounded smooth and pliant with wooden mallets. A gift of silk worms was sent from the Chinese court ca. 200 A.D., and, in 243, the priestess ruler Himiko sent an envoy with well-woven bast fiber cloth and rough silk in return, according to records in the Wei Chih, the Chinese dynastic history of the period1. Archaeological evidence suggests that silk reeling and weaving remained comparatively crude until the seventh and eighth centuries when a new wave of continental influence brought the sophisticated culture of the Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907) to Japan. Cotton was introduced from Korea in the fifteenth century, but it did not become commonly available throughout the country until the mid-eighteenth century.

Although cultivated bast fibers (asa) could be made into much finer cloth than could be produced from processing the inner bark of wild trees and shrubs (juhi) and grasses (sohi) , wild materials continued to play a significant role in textile production for many centuries. In tax records included in the early tenth century Enqishiki (Documents of the Engi Era), for example, tribute cloth woven of wild materials (nuno as distinguished from asa) provided a significant percentage of the bast fiber cloth received by the court, particularly from the more primitive eastern provinces2.

Bast fiber materials, both cultivated and wild, supplied the raw materials for all of the textile needs of the vast majority of the Japanese people until cotton became widely available in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Associated with the common people, with everyday necessities, and with Japan's native heritage, they also played an important ritual and symbolic role in early poetry, in myth, and in the native Shinto religion. Early records of Shinto belief and practice such as those in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, official chronicles compiled in 712 and 720 respectively, reveal a rich complex of words and actions involving tree-bast and cultivated bast fiber textiles, often a pairing of mulberry with hemp3. The white mulberry paper prayer offerings tied to branches on the precincts of Shinto shrines and around various natural sacred objects, such as rocks and old trees, are direct descendants of ancient offerings of mulberry cloth.