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The heavy glass door to the Maito shop in Tokyo’s Kuramae district slides open on a dreamscape of fabrics in soft earthen shades. A subtle rainbow gradation of dyed clothing hangs from a rack on one side of the store, and on the other, accessories—socks, scarves, and bags in tertiary hues—cover wooden tables.

Toward the rear, owner and artisan Komuro Maito, 32, maintains a dye workshop. Dodging plastic buckets and massive metal pots, he emerges, stripping off his stained rubber gloves to greet me warmly.

Arti

Komuro Maito with a basket of akaso stems, used as a red-hued dye

Pointing to baskets and jars filled with what resemble one-note potpourris, Maito gestures to explain the raw ingredients he uses to create kusaki-zome, or chemical-free dyes.

Chestnuts, plant roots, indigo leaves, and even cochineal bugs are processed to create the vast variety of colors seen in items from his shop.

“There are 1,052 distinct colors registered as kusaki-zome,” Maito says, “but in reality there are probably far more than that.”

Though Maito represents only the second generation in his family to work with natural dyes, his grandfather and ancestors as far as nine generations back were all master weavers. The family, borne from centuries of fabric artisans, has undoubtedly given Maito and his father a singular foothold in the business.

“When you get down to it, both weaving and our work is really all about the thread,” Maito says, picking up an antique spool. “All the Japanese kanji characters for fabric production—amu (braid), oru (weave), nuu (sew), etc.—incorporate the kanji for ito (thread). That word ito is in my surname, and also the name of my shop. It is this thread that unites my work with the industry of others,” he says.

Following his comment, I realize the great degree to which Maito’s craft is integrated with the fate of others.

“These days, the global economy means that we can source and buy the cheapest products easily, and those goods flood the market,” Maito explains. “This tends to decimate local artisans, and they go out of business. I’ve watched that happen again and again, and I understand the danger of it. If you make dyed thread, and the artisans who use your product all disappear, that’s not good.”

Maito has personally taken action to combat this. “I can’t support every artisan financially,” he laughs, “but I can offer ways to market what they make, or collaborate on products, and I strive to help customers comprehend why money shouldn’t be the only consideration when you purchase something.”

For Maito, variety is key to cultural richness. “Take a piece of woven fabric,” he says. “You might have a set image of what that is, but in Kurashiki, weavings tend to be thick, in Kyoto they are gossamer, in Gunma they are made of silk—really, the variety is astounding. But if there’s no livelihood attached to the product, no one will carry on the work, and we’ll lose the know-how and the style.”

Visiting workshops across the country on a regular basis, Maito sits down with artisans and helps them tweak products that might otherwise appear unfashionable or stylistically dated. “Artisans are rarely good designers,” he says. Though an artisan himself, Maito attributes his awareness of current styles and trends to establishing a retail base in Tokyo, separate from his production center in Kyushu.

“Here, I learn what attracts customers,” he says, “and I try to pass that knowledge along.”

While Maito’s store offers goods that deserve the appellation dento kogei (traditional handicrafts), the designation doesn’t suit Maito’s strategy. “Just the words dento kogei make young people want to run away,” he claims. “People associate traditional handicrafts with something expensive or musty, so I instead emphasize that my products are natural and sustainable. Yes, they are expensive, but absolutely worth the investment once you understand them.”

To facilitate understanding, Maito holds monthly workshops in dyeing skills at his Kuramae store. The classes fill up as fast as they are announced, indicating a strong interest in Maito’s natural and sustainable vision.

A stirring powerhouse of positive energy, Maito seems always on the move. Aside from traveling the country, teaching workshops, and running two storefronts—one in a commercial location for tourist trade and the one in Kuramae geared toward a younger local crowd—he has also just developed a secret technique for imparting natural dyes to leather goods.

On a whim, I ask Maito what dye color is the trickiest to master. “Sakura,” he quickly replies, his voice hushed with respect. “We use trimmed or damaged branches, just budding. We need to brew all the bitterness out of the boughs, or the dye will produce yellow, brown or grey shades. When we achieve a sweet sakura fragrance, that’s what will yield a soft pink color. We actually taste the dye bath, to judge it.”

Maito then confides in me his dream of one day creating fabric tinted with the sakura trees in Washington D.C. That, I think, is a concept to dye for.

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Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.

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Maito attributes his awareness of current styles and trends to establishing a retail base in Tokyo.