Kimonos and culture
Masami Toku’s three-gallery exhibit at Chico State demonstrates Japan’s cultural diversity
Masami Toku has waited almost 10 years for this. The Chico State University art history and art education instructor is curator for a show about to be displayed in three different galleries on campus. The main focus of the show will be the kimono. Even so, the exhibits will deal with more than mere fashion. Photography detailing the daily lives of Japanese islanders and examples of contemporary prints will also be displayed.
Toku hopes that the viewing public will take away not only a better understanding of the cultural significance of the ceremonial dress, but also a special view of the Amami Islands, which lie south of Japan’s main island.
Toku is particularly keen that the public learn about these islands; as it happens, she is from one of them.
Masami Toku explains the impetus behind her show in her office on campus. It’s a high-ceilinged space in Ayres Hall, filled with an inviting clutter that is not nearly as messy as she apologizes for. To the left are shelves, one of which is dedicated to magna (pronounced mahn-yah), basically Japanese “comic books.” She claims she is doing research for a future project on this art form, which appeals to all age groups in Japan and covers subjects as diverse as history, literature, fantasy and much more. She seems surprised that an American knows anything about them, and we have a nice warm-up conversation regarding her theory about the possible influence of the magna on Japanese school children’s seemingly quick understanding of how to represent three-dimensional space in their drawings.
Eventually, we turn to the matter at hand, the kimono show.
“I came to the United States in 1989, almost 14 years ago,” she explains. “I was surprised. Most Americans have sort of stereotyped images of Japan. It’s either Tokyo or Kyoto. Tokyo is like a techno area, and Kyoto is traditional. Also, it’s called a monocultural country, with just one culture.”
Toku reaches for a program with a map of Japan on the back.
She points out the main island of Japan and its capitol, Tokyo. Then she indicates a string of islands to the south, the Amami Islands. She says this is her home.
“I am an islander,” she explains. “When I went to Tokyo for college, I realized how much the cultures were different. My home island culture was strongly influenced by other Asian [cultures], geographically. Also, my home town has a very beautiful, very special product, which is called Amami-Ohshima Tsumugi. This is very significant.”
The Amami-Ohshima Tsumugi is a 1,000-year-old tradition of silk production on the island of Ohshima. A single cloth can take up to a year’s time to produce, such are the complexities involved. Naturally, the kimonos created from this cloth are unique.
“People don’t realize that different types of kimonos exist,” Toku states. “These are very special, [they are made] only in the Amami Islands.
“I’ve been thinking about this idea for the last 10 years,” she continues, “to have a show. To introduce to the American people how Japanese culture is very diverse. Instead of just showing the kimonos, which are beautiful, I also decided to have a photography show related to Ohshima and a Japanese print show that focuses on Japanese kimonos to compare with these from Amami-Ohshima.”
The photography, by Makoto Koshima, depicts the daily life of the island’s inhabitants. “They have a very different history from mainland Japan. I divided [the show] into four categories: Nature, Faith, Life and Festival.”
Even if one has no previous knowledge of this island’s culture, Masami Toku assures, "You will learn everything."