”The Culture of Dyeing”
by Fukumoto Shigeki

Recently I’ve been slogging my way through reading “Somé no bunka”, literally titled, “The Culture of Dyeing”. It’s a relatively long book in Japanese (hence the slog) by Fukumoto Shigeki, a Dyeing Artist and author who trained at the somewhat conservative Kyoto City University of Arts in the late 1960’s. The book is a philosophical look at the cultural history and relevance of dyeing in Japan. Fukumoto has some strong opinions regarding dyeing, which is making it an interesting read (e.g “frame a textile?! What are you, an idiot?”or “Japan is surely the only country who can boast such an accomplished Dye culture!”*translated with some creative licence…).

最近、「染めの文化」という本を読もうとしています。染色作家の福本繁樹氏が書いた内容は興味深いですから、漢字を辞書で調べたり、面白い文章をノートに写したりして頑張っています!「染めの文化」は(読んだ所までにはといえば)、染めという物・行為は日本においてどの意味を持つのか、どのように進展してきたのか、を色々な角度から考察する本です。日本の染めをより深く理解できるように、アメリカでの染織の歴史・現状なども取り上げられていて、面白いです。

Back to Fukumoto and his strong opinions in a moment….but now for something completely different!!

Autumn Grasses in Moonlight by Shibata Zenshin
月に秋草図屏風、柴田是真

What do you make of this painting above Is it a nice painting of a pretty bunch of weeds? Or perhaps a wistful ode to the passage of life? (…how insightful of you!)
福本の話は後述の部分に戻るのですが、ここで違う話をしましょう。
上の絵を見ると感想はどうですか?ただ、綺麗に描いてある雑草に見える?それとも、秋のモチーフによって世の哀れを感じさせる?(まさかの玄人じゃないですか?!)答は、個人の文化的な背景によるのでしょう。

Perhaps that all depends what cultural glasses you are looking through!

つまり、どの文化の眼鏡をかけて見ているかによると思います。
豊原周延の真美人が格好いいでしょう!和服と眼鏡の組み合わせで違和感を感じますけどね。この真美人も面白い!)

In Japanese there is the term “akikusa”秋草. It literally means “the grasses of Autumn”and refers to a stylized motif that can be seen in traditional Japanese paintings (as above!) and designs. It’s a popular motif in contemporary Japan too, appearing on everything from Kimono to notepaper. 

日本語の「秋草」が上の絵のように、秋に生える雑草を描写するモチーフです。琳派などの絵や伝統工芸において人気なモチーフでしたが、今も着物やレターセットなどにも多く使われています。

尾形光琳の秋草図屏風 ‘Autumn Grasses Folding screen” by Rinpa School Master artist Ogata Kourin.

In it’s most traditional conception, Akikusa tends to depict the so called, “Seven plants of Autumn”(seven being an auspicious number). These 7 are usually:

Pampas Grass – Chinese Bellflower – Maidenflower – Bushclover – Wild Carnations – Arrowroot – Boneset

These are often partnered with other set Autumn motifs such as the Moon, Rabbits, Red Autumn Leaves, or Chrysanthemums. 
But why go to all the trouble of painting ‘a bunch of weeds’ anyway??

秋草のモチーフはよく「秋の七草」を描写しています。その七つは萩・薄・藤袴・桔梗・葛・女郎花・撫子だそうです。秋草はよく、ウサギ、月、紅葉、菊などの秋モチーフと一緒に描いてあるですね。
さて、なぜ草というごく日常的な物をそんな綺麗に描こうとしていたなのでしょうか?

Here’s where Fukumoto’s book comes back into the equation.

Something he suggests is that, unlike “the West”, people in Japan have a tendency to appreciate the value of age and patina, as well as favour imagery that suggests ageing, decay and the cycle of nature. 

I think a wonderful example of this Japanese taste for the wistful is the akikusa motif. It is intended to evoke a feeling of melancholy and an appreciation of the passing seasons and impermanence. My Japanese friend described it like, “Akikusa is one of those “Withered Expressions” that Japanese people really love. Japanese people have long loved the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life: to sprout, grow, bloom, make seeds and then die”. 

ここで福本氏の話に戻ります。「染めの文化」に、いわゆる「欧米人」と違って、日本人は哀れの表現を好んで、季節の循環やほろびに深く感動される傾向がある、と書かれました。秋草はこの好みの例としてちょうどいいでしょう?

跡見花蹊の秋草図屏風 “Autumn Grasses Folding Screen” by Atomi Kakei

(Can I just say though, I get a bit annoyed when authors like Fukumoto make broad claims like “Unlike in the West where They think X, We Japanese think Y”? For starters, I really dislike the use of the term “the West”. The two Kanji in this Japanese word (欧米)refer to the whole of Europe and America, and presumably in today’s consciousness it has also come to include Australia. You can hardly make a sweeping generalisation about what “the whole of Japan” thinks, let alone put words in the mouth of a collective “West”, comprised of at least 70 different countries, all with different cultures!! If Japanese authors are going to contrast the philosophy of their country to that of anywhere else, I wish they would at least be specific, rather than just throw them in contrast to some contradictory “other”.)

話がちょっと変わりますが、日本人の筆者の「欧米人はこう思っていますが、日本人はこう思っています」というような文章はとても嫌です。「欧米」って最低70ヵ国からできている地域なので、全体的にそこに住む人の意見って簡単に説明できないのです。日本人も様々で、「日本人の考え方はこうだ」と言うのも無理でしょう?海外の思想などと比較したい時に、具体的にどの国と比べているかとか、もっと詳しく考慮してほしいだけです。
I do tend to agree with Fukumoto that, especially in the past, Japanese culture has respected and revered the wistful passage of time but I don’t think that an appreciation of the fading and melancholy is exclusively a Japanese past-time, as some would have you believe.
And don’t forget modern Japan is notoriously fickle in her appreciation of the weathered and worn (Think, tearing down old machiya houses to build cookie cutter apartment blocks)…

福本氏が言う日本人は物の哀れを深く感じる傾向に同感しますが、自然の循環や物の哀れをきつく感じるのは日本人に限られていると思わないです。現在の日本社会と言ったら、古いものに対してそんなに優しくないしね。(町屋の代わりに全く味がないアパートを建つとかを例にできる)

Cootamundra Wattle, an Australian Native but notoriously spreads outside it’s natural range = a WEED


All this talk of Autumn Grasses led me to wondering whether I could come up with some kind of Australian equivalent. We certainly have plenty of weeds…which, if you were wondering, differ from a “plant” in that they are malicious and unwanted; a species in the wrong habitat and trying to dominate it. Seems like another case of the right glasses, does it not?

I had seen a lot of different native and weedy grasses in the nature reserve near our house and set out to document some of them. Whilst it’s actually Spring in Australia at the moment, vegetation dries out in the sudden heat and there is actually quite a lot of “autumn-esque” foliage around. Strange how the seasons are opposite to Japan but not really.

grasses and weeds as far as the eye can see!

秋草について調べたりしたら、オーストラリア風の秋草もできるのではないかと思いました。家の近くにある山々の所は雑草が多くて、カメラを持って見に行きました。沢山の種類を見つけたのですが、秋の七草のような7つにこだわるなら、次の7を提案します!

I found plenty of weeds to choose from but I think I’d like to limit my “7 Canberra grasses” to the following:

Salvation Jane. A farmer’s nightmare
but pretty when it forms a purple carpet over fields of grass. 
シャゼンムラサキ

Lambs Ear. Looks like a cabbage, feels like a…lamb’s ear.
「ラムの耳」と呼ぶ雑草。手触りはフワフワ
Wild blackberries:
Prickly wild bushes that were supposed to have been
helpful for lost bushwalkers but are now a noxious pest.
野生のブラックベリー。いばらが多いから美味しそうけど
採るのが凄く痛い!

Random dry grasses –
which Australia has in ABUNDANCE
乾いた草。乾燥しているオーストラリアの
どこにもあるもの。


Something which I don’t know the name of,
but they are everywhere around Canberra
名前が分からない雑草ですが、
形は力があって、面白い。
Another mystery weed- how cool are the floaty tendrils?
もう一つの分からないやつ。
でもリボンのような葉っぱはとても気に入る。

And finally, twisty vines of Hardenbergia,
with cute purple flowers.
最後に、小さい紫の花が沢山咲くハーデンベルギア

Technically I suppose these are Spring Grasses but in future artworks, I hope they will carry the meaning of Japan’s akikusa. Australians too, are capable of an appreciation for the wilting, the fading and the impermanent.

Finally, in an interesting plot-twist, I just found out that the Australian Bourke Parrot, all little and pink and grass-loving, is translated in Japanese as the Akikusa-Inko, the Autumn Grasses Parrot! What a way to bring everything back full circle 🙂
最後にもう一つ!ずっと秋草を検索していたのに、このオーストラリア原産BourkeParrotの和名は「アキクサインコ」だと昨日まで知らなかった!いいね!話はなんかうまいことに染めで始まったけど好きな鳥で終わりました!

Bourke Parrots, a.k.a Akikusa Parrots!