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Hakata-ori are textiles coming from the region around Fukuoka City in Japan. They are most famous for their obi, although they are also known for their innovative kimono dyeing techniques. The textiles have a long history, beginning in the mid-14th century. Around 1340, a Hakata merchant named Yazaemon Mitsuda travelled to Sung Dynasty China with a Buddhist monk to study weaving techniques. When he returned he began to make obi, passing the tradition down through his family. In 1591, an descendant of his named Hikosaburo travelled to Ming Dynasty China to study further. Upon his return, he developed an obi of thick material like taffeta, but with a raised stripe design. This is considered the beginning of the true Hakata obi.

During the Edo era (17th century), the lord of the Fukuoka prefecture was very fond of Hakata-ori. Each year, he chose 5 Hakata obi to present to the Shogunate, each a different color and pattern. He was very protective of these gifts, in fact banning all but 12 manufacturers from making Hakata-ori. This ban was kept in place until 1871, when the Meiji Restoration declared a free market for textiles. Crafters of Hakata-ori were worried that the skill of their weaving might decline in this situation, so they formed the Hakata Textile Company in 1880. Textiles are still woven in Fukuoka City, now with government support and funding.

The most desired Hakata obi is called Go-shiki Kenjo. Go-shiki means "5 colors" and Kenjo means a dedication or present to a superior. This name was given to the obi by the Fukuoka lord who once gave them as presents. In Chinese philosopy each of the colors related to each of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In Japan they correspond to the 5 principal elements of Confucianism: virtue, propriety, sincerity, benevolence, and wisdom.
  • Violet = Virtue This is considered to be a color of grace and mystique. It has been the color of nobility since ancient times. It is dyed using gromwell root. The background is violet, with light green and dark pink patterned stripes.
  • Red = Propriety This represents true honesty, and also wealth and happiness. It is died using madder root. The background is light red, with dark red and violet patterned stripes.
  • Yellow = Sincerity The color corresponds to the center of the four lines in the compass in the doctrine of the five elements. It represented the power of the emperor and its use by anyone else was prohibited until the Meiji era. It is dyed using the bark of myrica trees. The background is yellow, with dark green and beige patterned stripes.
  • Green = Benevolence This color represents peace and calmness. It is dyed using the Japanese indigo plant and dyeing silver grass (Quing Mao in Chinese). The background is a mint green with dark green and white patterned stripes.
  • Blue = Wisdom This color represents confidence and intelligence. Although it is almost an indigo color, there is a dark red hint in the dye. It is also dyed with the Japanese indigo plant. The background is blue with yellow and white patterned stripes.

Only these colors are allowed to make a kenjo obi. The basic kenjo design was inspired by the many grand Buddhist altars for the home made in Hakata. The geometric patterns of the kenjo represent an ancient Indian weapon and a flower vase with striped lines in between. Both these items can be found on Hakata altar, though my translation lacks a better explanation of them.

The Hakata Textile Association has a wonderful website which I used in compiling this, and lots more info.

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