In her gentle, unassuming way, Amy Katoh has become a bit of a national treasure in Japan. As an American author and businesswoman living in Tokyo, she’s spent the last 40 years collecting the simple things of old Japan.
Born in Boston, Katoh first went to Japan on a student exchange visit when she was 20. She fell in love and married a Japanese businessman, and after beginning a family together in the U.S., they moved back to Japan where they have lived ever since.
A disappearing act
As she got to know her adopted country better she was alarmed to see how fast the old crafts and lifestyles were disappearing in modern Japan. She started collecting and preserving the bits and pieces of what she calls “Found Japan” – old textiles, pots and tools — making new things out of the old and nurturing traditional crafts. She finds beauty in things that most Japanese people are too busy to see, or have simply thrown away.
“I feel that so much of Japan has been discarded,” says Katoh. “For 40 years I have been trying to find the parts that have been ignored and haven’t been given the recognition they should have, and I have been trying to show Japanese and, of course, foreigners, how very beautiful Japan is.”
Her aim is to encourage the Japanese to rescue and re-evaluate the old, to recycle and restore things and make them relevant to modern times. Her small shop Blue & White in Tokyo’s Azabu Juban district is crammed with textiles and treasures. Her writings and exhibitions have helped Japan’s lost treasures to survive, and inspired a domestic revival of interest in traditional Japanese crafts. She’s published several books about Japanese arts (including “Otafuku: Joy of Japan,” “Blue and White Japan” and “Japan Country Living”). She recently held an exhibition of rural textiles called “Mottainai – Honouring the Soul of Things.”
One of the things that most intrigues Katoh about Japan’s rural textiles is that, apart from being a beautiful design, they communicate a message and have implicit meaning to anyone who sees them. “There’s belief, there’s philosophy, there’s religion and there’s prayer in the textiles,” Katoh says.
Among her collection is a bridal kimono from the Meiji era (1868 to 1912) that would have formed part of a dowry, decorated with a crane and symbols of the rice harvest. In it Katoh sees “tremendous joy, gratitude and celebration.”
Indigo is a universal color, but there’s a richness to Japanese indigo. It was supposed to have magical properties, to protect and heal, and also guard against snakes and insects. People would use indigo for a baby’s diaper, decorated with auspicious symbols of turtle, plum, bamboo, pine to protect the child in a time of high infant mortality.
Many of the textiles and objects Katoh collects are found at flea markets, which she loves exploring and browsing. “The flea markets are a great history lesson and a social diary of how people have lived,” she said.
She collects boro – the indigo rags of Japan – made of recycled indigo fabric by poor rural farmers at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. They are patched and sewn, piece-by piece, like a historical quilt. Passed down from generation to generation and repeatedly repaired and added to with whatever bits and pieces of scarce fabric that were available, they are like a scrapbook of family history, with a life and soul of their own. “I have always felt I could hear people talking through these textiles,” says Katoh.
“Amy has taught us the beauty of boro, which lots of Japanese, including me, have never found a value in,” says Chie Kobayashi, a visitor to the exhibition. “Her selection touches us greatly because she has done it with lots of love and passion for those crafts.”
Many of these beautiful textiles and crafts are from Tohoku in northern Japan, the part that was devastated by last year’s tsunami. Katoh thinks it now even more vital to help preserve these ancient crafts, and she’s working with craftsmen to make sure the crafts survive the disaster.
A renowned Japanese fashion designer, Issey Miyake, also recently opened an exhibition of Tema Hima crafts from Tohoku. “Tema” means effort, “Hima” means time, and the exhibition reflects the growing interest in the ancient crafts and artefacts that Katoh champions.
For Kobayashi, this is a good thing for Japan. “Amy has shown us how much we have lost our appreciation of Japanese handcrafts,” she says. “I hope more and more Japanese people will visit her shop and her projects, especially in the wake of the great disaster we experienced last year.”