Monday, November 5, 2012

Boro: Pieces of the past

Japan's northern Aomori prefecture is cold and the nights there are long.  It's too cold for growing cotton and its people were once too poor to be able to import much of the stuff, even in the form of rags that merchants brought up on boats from Kyoto and Edo.  So the people of Aomori made the most of every last scrap of cotton.  They used cotton patches to embellish clothing made from the abundant local hemp.  And when those patches wore out, they put more patches on top of them.   These garments, towels, and futons were collected over the generations and became objects of semi-veneration for many of the families who owned them.  They were called boro, or rags, and they contained a wealth of family history.  But as people migrated from the remote villages the boro were left behind in attics and barns.  They became objects of shame over an impoverished past rather than veneration.

Then along game Chuzaburo Tanaka, an ethnographer whose boro -- a fraction of his total 30,000-piece collection of folk craft -- are on display at the Amuse Museum in Asakusa.  Over the years, he traveled the small villages of Aomori to track down and preserve the region's fading treasures.

I can picture Tanaka sharing lots of tea with little old ladies in lonely farmhouses during his quest.

The Amuse is a rare museum that allows visitors to handle the exhibits.  This is especially helpful in the case of the donja, the coat-shaped futon designed for a whole family to snuggle inside together, naked to share their body heat, on those long, cold northern nights.  One specimen was about 2 meters long and weighed 14 kilos, its patched outer layers stuffed with several centimeters of hemp.  Hefting it, I had a hard time imagining how a young baby could avoid being crushed by the weight of the thing, not to mention the weight of the three or four other family members stuffed in there with it.


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