BORO - The Art of Necessity

BORO - The Art of Necessity

Image: Sodenashi (Sleeveless Jacket).  From Aomori, date unknown. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. 

Boro, which literally means tattered rug in Japanese, has become a popular collectible textile in recent years. They are typically of indigo cloth, blankets or kimonos, showing fades and tears, with "sashiko" stitched hand mending and patches.  Individual textiles hold traces of those who previously owned and repaired them. They mesmerize with a fortuitous beauty.

Decades before the boro came under the spotlight, Chuzaburo Tanaka (1933 - 2013) started collecting them in Aomori and in the surrounding far north area of Japan. Tanaka was born and lived in the area. He was a renown archeologist, folklorist, and enthusiastic collector of everyday objects made and used by local families of farmers and fishermen. 

Among Tanaka's collection of 30,000 objects, the textiles made for special occasions, such as "kogin-zashi" and "hishi-zashi" are noteworthy. They feature a meticulous embroidery that was recognized by the Mingei Movement for its unique beauty. The textiles quickly found new homes in established museums. Boro, which had been seen as a symbol of poverty and shame, did not receive attention for years. In 2009, just four years before Tanaka's death, the Amuse Museum was founded in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The Museum's mission is to preserve and display Tanaka's collections, focusing on boro. Today it is considered a must-see destination for textile lovers. 

Hadagi (Undershirts). From Aomori, c. 1870-1920. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. 

While boro can be found in most areas in Japan, those from the northernmost area are especially breathtaking. The textiles reflect harsh conditions that their owners lived under. They survived with few fabric resources while facing severe cold weather and continual hard labor in fields. 
The cold climate did not support growing cotton, and commoners were forbidden to wear cotton until the late 19th century. The local feudal clan controlled money outflow to southern clans. Hemp and ramie were the primary materials available. It was a common household practice, mostly by women, to layer fabrics with sashiko stitches, patching them with scraps of cotton swatches when available. Any garments, whether it is a noragi (field jacket), donja (kimono-shaped futon) or bodoko (birth cloth), were used over several generations, thus constantly mended and layered. Boro pieces Tanaka collected from the far north are examples of items of bare necessity. Though not primarily for decorative purposes, they nevertheless hold a profound beauty. 

"Bodoko" (multi-purpose blanket). From Aomori, c. 1800-1950. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. 

Since the Amuse Museum was closed in 2019, Tanaka's collection has  been on a tour around the world. Last year, when the exhibition was presented at Japan Society New York, it had to close shortly after opening due to the city-wide lockdown. Now the collection is on view in Stockholm, Sweden. The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, part of the National Museum of World Culture just opened "BORO - The Art of Necessity." After a long closure, the museum finally opened its "real" door to the public. An exhibition catalogue was published and is filled with stunning images of Tanaka's collection. It features the photography of the collection by Kyoichi Tsuzuki, renowned writer, photographer and co-author of "Boro: Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan." 

Donja (kimono-shaped futon), From Aomori, c. 1800-1950. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.

We spoke with Petra Holmberg, the curator of The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.  
KOFU: How did the exhibition start? 
Holmberg: I initially had an idea of a small exhibition of boro with objects from the National museums of world culture's collection, primarily The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. Three of the four museums belong to the National Museum of World Culture have boro or related objects. At one of my lectures on boro at the museum, I met Sonoko Sato, who later worked as a coordinator for us for this show. I knew about the closure of Amuse Museum, and Sato connected us with Amuse Museum and said that the collections might become available for exhibition. So, I expanded my original proposal. Later, our project group was formed, led by producer Karl-Johan Cottman.
How is your exhibition different from Japan Society New York? 
Amuse Museum requested every venue to have our original input. So, we included some "Swedish boro" in this show.  One example is a patched blue dress and jacket worn by a Swedish couple, Cecilia and Johan Karlsson. They married in October 1921 and lived a wandering life hopping from one temporary job to another, in and around Stockholm. Johan's last job before he died in the 50s was as an elevator operator, and Cecilia was a house maid. They wore these clothes over decades of repeated mendings. 
The exhibition also includes some commissioned works for the exhibition. Swedish luxury brand Rave Review created a coat by upcycling dead-stock blankets. Japanese-born Swedish Takao Momiyama contributed some pieces, such as his signature, mended, kendo-gi (a woven sashiko uniform for Japanese martial arts, kendo).  We also commissioned four local female musicians to interpret the concept of boro and compose musical pieces.

The show and catalogue also include a jacket by Tokyo-based fashion brand, KUON. It's part of our museum's collection. KUON makes clothing with boro and other heritage textiles in Japan, labeling it "neo vintage". It is also fascinating to see how a new generation is exploring boro in a contemporary context. 

Installation view of patched jacket. c. 1950. from Sweden.  Courtesy of The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. 

Jacket by KUON. Courtesy of The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. 

Did you have a specific approach to displaying Tanaka's collection? 
We didn't put too much stress on the aspect of sustainability in texts or such. Our show is more connected to time and space, Tohoku, the far north of Japan around 1870s-1950s, when these boro pieces were actually in use. It wasn't easy as we had quite little access to information about who wore them. We tried to show people and their lives through these boro pieces. We also have included a studio space in the middle of the exhibition room for people to try out mending themselves.
You are a textile designer yourself. When was your first personal discovery of boro? 
I saw it first in a book around 1994. I don't think it was labeled boro but it was a picture of dress hanging from kakashi, Japanese scarecrow. I just fell for the beautiful image. Later I got to know more about boro and had an opportunity to stay in Tokyo and Kyoto on a study grant in 1997. I visited Amuse Museum in 2017 and also stumbled upon the store of Nuno back in 1997, the well-known textile company in Roppongi and was excited to find their book "Boro Boro." 
What about boro fascinates you? 
Both the aesthetic and its plurality. One piece of boro has many expressions; reflecting the individual behind, their mind, especially women who needed to make fabric, clothing and kept mending them. When I visited Amuse Museum, I was very touched by both objects and texts which explained the circumstances these fabrics were made under. 

BORO - The Art of Necessity
The National Museums of World Culture
On View through August 15, 2021
The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities
Tyghusplan, Skeppsholmen, Stockholm

Donja (kimono-shaped futon), c. 1800-1950 from Aomori. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.


Back of "donja" (kimono-shaped futon), c. 1800-1950 from Aomori. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.


Adult nappies, c. 1910-1950 from Aomori. Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.


Tabi (socks), c. 1870-1920. from Aomori, Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection. Photo by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.