Gaijin is the word used to describe foreigners in Japan. Literally translated, the word simply means “outsider”, but can be loaded with undertones depending on the attitude of the speaker. And just as in every other country, Japanese attitudes toward foreign immigrants run the political spectrum from conservative to liberal.
Often our unfamiliarity with Japanese customs sometimes leaves people annoyed or shocked and sometimes just amused. But there is also curiosity: Why did we foreigners come here? Why do we stay? What do we like about our lives in Japan? And to address those questions, local television shows sometimes like to interview “an interesting gaijin“.
So all of that gives a little background of how I wound up taping a segment for Japanese TV this week. The show will air in mid-October, but the taping took place at my house yesterday afternoon. Shown above are Hiroko Hayashi, who translated for me and the director, Takashi Matsushita as they prepared to begin taping. I admit to being quite nervous at the start but both Hiroko-san and Takashi-san were such wonderfully charming and delightful people that I soon relaxed. Sharing my love for Kyoto and talking about how much I have learned from Japanese design made conversation easy.
Computer embroidery is a highly developed commercial industry in Japan, but home embroidery machines don’t seem to be as popular here as they are in other countries. Perhaps that’s why the producers found my efforts to digitize so surprising. As he left, the director said he thought it was one of the better segments he had filmed and promised to send me a DVD of the finished segment. So I suppose in a few weeks, I’ll see how it turned out.
Cherry blossom time is such a special season in Japan, I’m glad to have gotten home in time to enjoy it. The trees in the park near my home, and indeed all over the city, seem to suddenly burst with blooms and everywhere there are picnics with happy people enjoying the advent of spring. It is good to be home after my travels.And where, you might ask, have I been? Where else but the American Embroidery Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, of course.
After a year of anticipation and months of preparation, I spent last week seeing old friends and making new ones at the annual AEC. And what a conference it was, with tons of opportunities to learn from each other and from the marvelous line up of teachers organized by Dianne Pomeroy, the AEC conference coordinator.I studied Embird Studio with Amy Webster, multi-hooping with Jeannie Miller, problem solving with Terri Hanson, embroidered a shawl under the guidance of Santi from Hatched in Africa, and was inspired to achieve greater heights of style by Bobbi Bullard and Sue Lord.
At left, is my own little fashion show entry — a denim kimono. Made with white denim trimmed with a printed polyester, it features multiple repeats of a snowy egret motif that I digitized myself and was gratified that my effort received lots of nice attention from my fellow conference partcipants. Since white on white embroidery can be a bit hard to see from the runway, a closer view of the motif is shown at right below.
And now that the conference is over, it’s already time to start anticipating next year! Since Dianne makes a habit of out-doing herself each year, who knows what amazing classes will be in store for us in 2009. And in the meantime, I’ll take everything I’ve learned and every bit of inspiration I’ve gained from the 2008 conference and see how far I can go during the year to come.
Although commercial machine embroidery is well established in Japan, the home version has never really taken off here the way it has in the US and finding supplies localy has sometimes proven to be a challenge. Thread is the stuff of life for an embroiderer and during the past year I’ve tried talking to my local fabric store (but they had no interest in machine embroidery) and ordering from the US (but the shipping nearly doubled the price). Surely Kyoto with its specialized trade stores for every other textile craft imaginable must also have a store for machine embroiderers. The problem was just in finding it.
So when my friend Judith Clancy commented that she was working with Mr. Fuji to develop contacts with kimono embroidering factories for the 2008 Kyoto Textile and Design Tour, I asked her to find out where the factories bought their thread. “Oh they buy from Mr. Fuji” she responded casually. To my slack-jawed surprise, I realized that the Mr. Fuji she had been referring to is the founder of Fujix Thread, the largest thread company in Japan. Without even the proverbial six degrees of separation, I found that one of my own closest friends in Kyoto turned out to have a long-standing friendship with the Fuji family. Not only that, the company’s international headquarters are only a few blocks from my house.
My trip to Fujix Thread was the highlight of life last week. Most companies have about 300 shades of polyester thread, but Fujix, which caters to the exacting demands of the kimono industry, offers an incredible 600. The subtle progression of shades within each hue is both inspiring and overwhelming. The little picture of the color chart shown below hardly does justice to the selection.
I can hardly wait to pick up my first thread order next week. And I’m also looking forward to seeing the itinerary Judith puts together for the Textile and Design Tour next year. It ought to be a fabulous adventure!
Last night I digitized my hanko.
Hanko is a Japanese word for an object more commonly known in the West by its Chinese name, “chop”. Basically its a stone stamp carved with characters, known as kanji, representing the person’s name. Although there are now machine-made hanko available, a first-class hanko is always hand carved and is a very personal thing. Like a master calligrapher, the hanko carver may exaggerate the thickness or thinness of a stroke, elaborately straighten or curve it, or even deliberately deform an ideogram to create an artistic effect. While calligraphers may work with a variety of scripts, a hanko is most often carved in tensho script, a squarish blocky type of character that lends itself to stone carving more easily than the fluid curving lines one sees in brush writing.
Foreigners usually write their names in simple phonetic symbols known as katakana. These are purely sound-based symbols with no “picture-meaning”. But for a birthday many years ago, my daughter-in-law gave me a kanji “spelling” for my name. Selecting kanji is a time-consuming process and my kanji is a gift that I constantly treasure. First a number of optional kanji choices with the desired phonetic are identified and then the picture meaning must be considered and when several kanji are combined the sounds and meanings often change, so that must be considered as well as the visual balance of the strokes in the final comination. There are even fortune-tellers who claim to predict your future based on the number of strokes in the kanji comprising your name and so, that can be another consideration. Reading my kanji from right to left, the sounds are PA-WA-SU for Powers, my family name, and the picture meanings are “green leaf”, “peace and friendship”, and “long life”. When my Japanese friends see my name written, they smile and say, “Oh, that so suits you!” I am afterall, still something of a flower child.
After receiving my kanji I had a first-class hanko made and I’ve used it to sign my art for some 14 or 15 years now. Last night I made my hanko digital. It took me a few hours, but I digitized a scan of my hanko so that I can now stitch it out as a computerized embroidery file. So now that I’m ready to embroider my name on my art, I really must get sewing so that I’ll have artwork to sign.
So with kimono fabric becoming ever more expensive and scarce, what kind of toys will I be left to play with?
Some of the flea market vendors now cut up the kimono to sell in scraps and pieces, sometimes for more money than I used to pay for a whole kimono. A truly choice scrap measuring just 6 or 10 inches square might be priced at $15 or $20, and sometimes even more.
But all is not lost, since there is another treasure trove of opportunity in the ever expanding range of lovely reproduction fabrics being generated to please quilters, though fabric off the bolt doesn’t quite have that one-of-a-kind thrill you get from finding just the right kimono…..
So my favorite new toy is learning to digitize in Embird Studio, with special thanks to Sadia Andrews for my start-up lessons at the American Embroidery Conference earlier this year.
My first little effort, shown here on my jeans, was based on a carved jade butterfly belonging to one of my friends. I’ve made progress since then and althouth my skills may not yet be sophisticated enough to do full justice to the wealth of inspiration that surrounds me, I keep plugging away at it. Now, the effort is beginning to move beyond just making lemon-ade, and becoming a bit of fun in its own right.