Satoh Akihito was born in 1939 in Tokushima, Japan. He represents the nineteenth generation of indigo producers in his family, striving to protect the traditional heritage of indigo dye production.
Specializing in the production of Awa-ai, he was appointed the head of the Society for the Preservation of Awa-ai, a designated Intangible Cultural Treasure of Japan, and is also recognized as a highly accomplished craftsman in this field.
Indigo has been intimately associated with every-day life in Japan since ancient times, however with the influx of foreign indigo, Japanese indigo (tadeai) declined dramatically in production as we entered the Showa Era (1926-1989, Emperor Hirohito’s reign). There was even a period in which the Sato family was the only producer of traditional Japanese indigo, striving to preserve this heritage.
Below is my rough translation of an interview with Akihito Satoh conducted in the 1980s. The full, original interview is at the bottom of this page.
Preserving Japan Blue
The world of natural indigo production is fraught with difficulties. The Japanese life style has veered toward Western tastes. This has been compounded by the vagaries of economic trends and the high prices of traditional goods and has caused the Japanese people to abandon traditional clothing styles in favor of garments produced with cheap synthetic colors.
In times past, each clan had its own castle with a rather dense population surrounding it. During times of war it was often necessary to sleep outdoors. The aroma of indigo helped to keep snakes and other poisonous creatures at bay. Indigo helps to mask body odor and prevent skin diseases.
During fires, any embers landing on indigo-dyed clothing were quickly extinguished, which is why traditional clothing for firemen is always dyed with natural indigo. Only natural, herbal indigo has these properties – synthetic indigo contains less than 1% of these active ingredients.
Even after hundreds of years, natural indigo will not color shift. If left stored away in chests it won’t be attacked by insects. There are a great many textiles remaining from the Edo Period (1603-1868, also known as the Tokugawa Era) that have retained their rich quality of color. After the first wash, during which time excess dye is rinsed out, the color will never bleed.
If the first time you wash awa-ai-dyed* fabric you do so along with white textiles you’ll find that the water may turn a bit blueish, but the white item itself will not turn blue – if color does stain the white, then you can be sure that the blue item was dyed with synthetic dye.
On the mainland of Japan the plant is an annual. The seeds are planted, tended through the summer, and dried and composted over the fall and winter months – just about a year long endeavor. In other countries indigo production is more a matter of weeks.
In March the seeds are sown, in April the seedlings set and allowed to flourish from the end of June and well into August. When the temperatures begin to reach 30ºC (around 85ºF) harvest begins. Once the plant is cut, new leaves will develop allowing for a second harvest.
Composting the leaves is a time consuming and delicate operation. A temperature of around 60º~70ºC (roughly 150ºF) must be maintained for the first one hundred days. Every five days, water must be added and the entire batch turned, churned, and mixed to maintain the proper moisture level. The temperature doesn’t drop much until around the tenth of October, but around the twentieth the weather starts to change quickly and the temperature can drop suddenly. This is just about the time the leaves on the ginkgo tree start to change into autumn yellows (around October 20th) and so these ubiquitous trees are used as an indicator. **
Mats of woven grasses are prepared and used to cover the mounds of composting leaves. This is a crucial time in the production of the indigo – constant monitoring is required becoming quite a war of nerves – negligence spells disaster. Depending on how cold it gets, one, two, or three layers of mats may be employed to insulate the heat generating compost.
The composting leaves must be periodically churned. Starting work at 5:30 in the morning, the workers do this barefoot to help gauge the temperature (65ºC/150ºF) as the mixture is shoveled and raked, adjusting the moisture content as needed, while also monitoring the health of the indigo by its aroma. All senses are put to use by the experienced indigo master, working at this back-breaking job until around 3:00 in the afternoon.
As the autumn progresses, there are times when the temperatures drop without warning. The mounds must be sprayed with Japanese sake without delay, and the situation monitored, requiring every bit of experience and intuition at the disposal of the indigo master.
During WWII the national policy of Japan outlawed the production of indigo. Since synthetic indigo was commonly used by this time it was decided that the farmland required for the production of natural indigo could be put to better use raising food crops.
Tadeai (Polygonum tinctorum), the plant used in producing the exquisite colors of Awa-ai, is an annual. Freezing seeds for the future was not an option at that time. To stop cultivating it for even one year would have spelled the end of a six-hundred year history of production in Shikoku.
With the burden of this knowledge, Satou Heisuke *** left his home and village to take to the mountains and raise clandestine crops of tade-ai. Crop after crop he saved the seeds for the following year and posterity. He represented the seventeenth generation of indigo producers in his region and could not allow the plant to die out. It has been twenty-one years since we lost the war and indigo is experiencing a revival in interest. But around 1950 all interest in natural indigo disappeared. It must have seemed foolish to have gone to all that effort to save the seeds. In the end, Heisuke wound up working at a dairy farm just to make ends meet. Even so, he just couldn’t let the tade-ai go extinct and kept at it on the side.
Thanks to his long suffering efforts and devotion we have inherited this rare treasure, the beauty of Japan blue.
The Japanese citizen of today has all but forgotten the beauty of natural indigo – but this is only because they are rarely exposed to the real thing. It was through the perseverance of Heisuke that it exists today. He would often say, “Isn’t it enough if even only one person keeps the real tradition alive?” (Of course there is the Japanese saying, “You really have to tolerate the one fool among a hundred thousand …”
Today there are a few indigo experts producing the real thing. Traditional tade-ai dyeing was designated an Intangible Cultural Treasure in 1978, when I was thirty seven.
I have done research throughout Southeast Asia and there is no indigo as wonderful as Japanese indigo. We have samples of textiles dyed over three hundred years ago that look as fresh as they day they were dipped, with no preservatives other than the dye itself, while textiles dyed from other sources have fallen into fragments. I strongly believe that we must protect the traditions of this unique natural process.
Natural indigo has become quite expensive even though it used to be the dye of the masses. There are so few farmers left that it has become quite an ordeal to produce the indigo. Even if the young people of today want to learn the process they are geared toward learning with their brains and not their bodies. This type of process must be learned with every muscle in your body, at a cellular level of gut feeling. It requires living the life of an indigo farmer day in and day out.
There are so many imposters and imitations out in the world today, it’s getting harder and harder to know how to differentiate the real from the fake. With all the research into synthetic dyes, it is important not to lose track of the experiences of our ancestors and all they went through to preserve this treasure for posterity. Our indigo is perfect for hot weather, perfect for cold weather and the quality of our indigo is on par with that of the past.
*Awa-ai is tadeai produced in the Awa region of Shikoku
**There are many natural indicators that the farmer will watch for to help him know just when the seeds of the new crop should be sewn. When the swallows begin to take flight, when the aoi (Alcea rosea) begins to bloom, when the migratory ducks arrive, when the ginkgo starts to bud – to name just a few.
***A seventeenth-generation indigo producer and grandfather of Akihito.
自然の草が原料でないと薬効が無い 殆どが化学染料 1％位しかない
現在は20ヘクタール位 1/1000位になってしまった 先進国で残っているのは珍しい
草の葉は本土のみ たで科の１年草 春に種をまく 草を作って乾燥させて 12月に仕上げる １年工程 で作る
外国は数週間で出来る （藍の製造は） 手間がかかって大変 すくも 1年掛る
３月に種をまく 4月に定植する ６月の末 ７月、８月 摂氏30度の頃に収穫する
藁で編んだ筵を掛ける （10月20日前後） イチョウの葉の色が紅葉が始まる
そうするとむしろを掛ける 藍の原料を作るのには大切な時期 神経戦 油断ができない
ツバメが飛んできたら、次の代半?」に種をまけとか 立ち葵の一番下が咲いたら、つる？に入るとか 鴨が来たら、いちょうが黄色くなったら、何をするとか 叩き込まれた
昭和40年ごろから売るものが無くなって 、酪農で生活を支えて 藍の技術を絶やしたらいけないと続けた
今は数人は藍師がいる 国の無形文化財になる 昭和５３年 （私が37歳の時）
葵の紋の着物 300年経っているが染めたばかりの様な綺麗な色 防虫剤も要らない
化学染料は洗うほど醒めてくる（ジーパン等） それがおしゃれだと思う 今は難しい