Indigo farming and dyeing has been around in Japan as far back as the 10th century, but it was at the beginning of the 19th century when it was most popular. In the Tokushima prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku island, over 600km away from Tokyo, there were 2,000 indigo farmers; today, just five exist.
The youngest of them is Buaisou, a collective of farmer-artisans who founded their company in 2012 following the launch of a project by Japan’s Ministry of Education. The country’s most important supporter of the arts considers indigo dyeing ‘intangible cultural property’, and called on two individuals to relocate to Tokushima to learn the craft to ensure it didn’t completely die out.
Kenta Watanabe and Kakuo Kaji returned the call and began studying indigo farming under a sixth-generation sukumo farmer named Osamu Nii. Soon the team included Yuya Miura, a tailor, and Ken Yuki, a ‘salaryman’ and member of Japan’s corporate working class. Watanabe has since left but more have joined, including Tadashi Kozono and Kazuma Osuka.
Together they grow indigo plants, and through fermentation they make natural dye that is a rich violet-blue colour known as ‘Japan Blue’. Kyoko Nishimoto manages operations. They are reviving two heritage traditions – farming and dyeing – which have traditionally been separate crafts in Japan. They plough and fertilise the land; plant, water and harvest the crop; and carry out a 120-day process of watering and stirring. Then they start making their line of clothes and design the packaging.
Little wonder the company’s tagline is ‘From farm to closet’.
Buaisou make totes, bandanas, aprons, menswear items – anything, really, so long as it’s ‘Japan blue’ – and largely sell via its website direct to consumer and in selected stores around the world. Customers get the chance to have a go at the dyeing process themselves at pop-ups and workshops around the world – including, recently, at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, London.
The collective grows indigo leaves at its two-acre farm, which is near the Yoshino River and surrounded by mountains. Buaisou spend long hours out in the fields during harvest periods, the first of which takes place June and July, the second in August and September.
The leaves are harvested in the summer and separated from their stems and left to compost throughout the winter. ‘You need physical strength and determination when on the farm,’ says Kaji. ‘But I like being able to move my body as hard as possible.’
Wheat bran, ash lye and calcium hydroxide is mixed with the compost to make the dye. ‘It’s a historical recipe,’ says Kaji. Then it’s left to ferment with water in a clay vat for several months. ‘I understand the science behind how the green leaves make the deep indigo colour,’ says Kaji. ‘But it’s still mysterious how the dye always comes out in different shades.’
Buaisou carry out all of their work in a rustic barn which doubles as a studio. Equipment for indigo farming is getting harder and harder to buy. ‘It’s easier to make money from farming vegetables than it is from indigo,’ says Kaji. ‘Today, there’s no special equipment for indigo farming. We have to get agricultural machines and remodel them.’
‘We do everything ourselves; everything with our hands,’ explains Nishimoto. ‘We treat the dye like a pet. If we expanded the business too much, too fast, we won’t be able to continue to touch every stage of the farming and making process with
our hands. And none of us want that.’
‘We sell our products in the UK, across China and Japan, Australia, but not in the US,’ explains Nishimoto. ‘We can only produce so much. And we are happy with the size of the business. We are calm and peaceful. And stability is very important to us. We want to be around for a long time.’