Stripe, the Luxury Cloth

I’ve written two articles regarding the meaning of stripes in Japan. To conclude the stripe series, I think I have to share the history of cotton in Japan first with you.


The history says that the seeds of cotton were brought into Japan by an Indian castaway in 799 for the first time. A boat drifted to the coast of Aichi prefecture near Nishio, on board was the man who had some cotton seeds. It is said that with those seeds, the first cultivation of cotton started in Japan. A shrine was constructed in 1837 for the worship of this Indian man and it was named Tenjiku shrine, which means ancient India. Every October, a festival of cotton is held.  Below is a very short video which introduces this interesting festival.


This is a map of where the ship drifted.

enlarge the map


From a practical point of view, it is a bit difficult to imagine how the boat drifted to the coast of a small bay from India. He could have been a Buddhist Indian priest who was in Chang’an and the ship could have been that of a Buddhism missionary.

Still, this legend is hard to believe, but as the proverb goes, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ There must have been an underlying fact near or as being told in the legend. Recently, an Indian ambassador visited this shrine livening it up and the region, which surely reinforces the evidence of an old connection in between.  As for such backgrounds and that this shrine is the only shrine in Japan that has something to do with the cotton culture, I would like to visit this very interesting shrine one day.

Returning to the story of this Indian man, after his arrival, he continued travelling inland Japan to spread know-hows of cotton cultivation. He should have carried so many seeds with him by chance!!!

Now, many of you may think that the cotton cultivation in Japan started at this moment. Indeed it did but it didn’t last long. In warmer areas as Wakayama, Shikoku and Kyushu, there remains few records of cotton cultivation around 9th century as people trying hard to cultivate but since their efforts were in vain, cotton cultivation declined within few years.

A poet, Fujiwara Ieyoshi (1192-1264) composed a Tanka poem regarding cotton:


しきしまの やまとにあらぬ からびとの うえてしめんの たねはたえにし

(Saionji’s translation: The cotton, which never existed in Nara (Japan) was once planted by foreigners, now leaving no traces of their cultivation,  the cotton seeds have been extinct.)


After the failure of cultivation, cotton was mainly imported from Ming dynasty and Korean Peninsula. Of course, anything “imported” was precious and expensive at that time. Therefore, cotton was not a cloth for ordinary people but only for the high-ranked in society.

Then, what kind of clothes did ordinary people wear?
They wore clothes made out from  hemp cloth. In Tokyo, there is a place called Azabu 麻布. It is a famous very high-class residential area but the meaning of the name given to this area, ironically, is “hemp cloth”, which used to be for ordinary people but not for the rich.


Photo of the station of Metro, Azabu Juban


It was not until 16th century when the cultivation of cotton became popular again in Japan.  In Edo period (1603–1868) the cultivation area of cotton increased rapidly, especially around Osaka. After Meiji Restoration, as the production of cotton was enhanced by the government, its cultivation became even more popular, increasing more and more cultivation. However, even though the cotton was cultivated in Japan, the Japanese cotton was not appropriate for making yarn because the fiber was too short for weaving.  Still, it was good for making Futon because raw cotton was used as the stuffing inside though there needed still more time for cotton-stuffed Futon to spread among the public as people’s household. It was in early Showa period (1926–1989) that cotton-stuffed Futon became the people’s daily necessities all over Japan.


Traditional Japanese style bed (Futon) in Japanese style hotel (Ryokan)


In the mid Meiji period, raw cotton started to be imported from China, India, and the US. The Japanese made yarn from the imported material and produced cotton cloth in Japan. This was the first manufacturing industry of Japan and its economy started to grow rapidly. Surprisingly, the founder of TOYOTA, Sakichi Toyoda, was the one who invented hand loom (in 1890) and automatic loom (in 1924) in Japan, much earlier than other areas.  In fact, looking back to the history of the modern Japanese cotton cultivation and manufacturing, it was Mikawa province (now Aichi prefecture, where Toyota head office is) where the domestic cotton was commercialized in 1510. Thanks for his invention of automatic loom, the cotton cloth was not something precious any more and became general consumer product. And, incredibly, in 1930, Japan became the World’s Top exporter of cotton cloth.

While, with the elimination of the tariff, the share of imported cotton, which became cheaper than domestic one, has grown significantly which engendered the decline of cultivation in Japan. Recently, the production of cotton cloth greatly decreased and its rate of internal self-supply in Japan is nearly none.

This is a brief history of cotton in Japan.

Now we are ready to go to the main topic!



St. Thomas is, as you know, Thomas the Apostle who is traditionally believed to have sailed to India in 52 AD to spread the Christian faith.


photo from Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Church


However, in Japan, St. Thomas means what you see below.



Yes, St. Thomas means stripe in Japan although the pronunciation is ‘São Thomé’, like that in Portuguese, Santome.



photo from Sea – Seek


Originally, it signified the cloth imported from Coromandel Coast, specifically São Tomé de Meliapore, which was one of the Portuguese settlements. This place is historically meaningful as it was where the European countries competed for the control of the Indian trade. As you know, the British won in this competition, but at that time, they were not allowed to make a direct contact with the Japanese.  The goods were brought by the Portuguese and the name “São Thomé” remained in Portuguese. Actually their vowel sounds are similar to those of the Japanese, so I guess it was easier for the Japanese to pronounce it than in English.



photo from Fashion in History, which says at the end of 1780s, just before the French Revolution, coats and figures that were decorated by spectacular embroidery disappeared, while striped patterns came into fashion.


Stripe is called “しま” (SHIMA) and it is written as “縞” in kanji.

If you are studying Japanese, you may notice that “しま” (SHIMA) is also a word which means an island. While, the kanji “縞” consists of two letters, “糸” and “高”. “糸” (ITO) means yarn or thread, and “高” means high or expensive. At that time, any foreign countries were recognized as some islands overseas by the Japanese. Therefore, “縞” can mean “expensive yarn (cloth) of overseas”!

In the early 18th century, in Nishijin, Kyoto, one of the best historical silk textile production area, weavers learned how to make Santome stripe. This technique eventually spread to other areas with the transfer of the weavers. There was a big fire in Nishijin area in 1730 when many craftsmen had to leave their town to survive…


Santome was very popular in Edo city.  You can still see that it was so popular in Ukiyoe that many people were drawn with stripe kimonos.


Musashibo Benkei by Toyokuni


Ebisu-ko by Toyokuni


Shopping at Asakusa Nakamise by Yoshiiku


Yaezakura no Saizo by Kunisada

*Photos of Ukiyoe are from Edo Tokyo Digital Museum


In late Edo period, the production of Santome started in Kawagoe and their textile is called Kawagoe Tozan. They studied the colours as well as the width of stripes which match Edo people’s tastes and made good quality cotton stripe textiles.

Kawagoe is a town called “Ko-edo”, a small Edo, where you can enjoy the atmosphere of Edo, which you can never find in Tokyo any more. We’ve visited there and we liked it so much! We’ve written two articles about Kawagoe in our website, 2 Hours Drive From Tokyo, “How was the Famous Old Kura Street of Kawagoe Made?” and “Kawagoe Stripe“. In fact, it is a place you can reach within two hours by car or by train. I recommend you to visit Kawagoe if you’ve never been there yet.
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ


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