Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Arguably one of the few highlights of being stuck at home this past year was wearing boro boroz – sometimes even during work. After all, it’s mainly the face and shoulders that can be seen during Zoom meetings. “Boro boroz,” for non-local ears, is the Hawai‘i pidgin Japanese loan word meaning “worn out” or “worn down” clothing – comfortable, yet a little faded or ragged. A piece one wouldn’t mind getting dirty.
The History of Boro Textiles
Derived from the Japanese onomatopoeic word boroboro, meaning worn out, ragged or tattered, the kanji characters for boro can be read as ranru, which may be defined as tattered, rags or shabby. Boro also refers to patched, pieced and mended Japanese utilitarian textiles or garments, often made from indigo cotton or hemp kasuri cloth (fabric woven from dyed-thread fibers used to create patterns and images).
In Japan, during the 19th and 20th centuries, rural commoners, especially farm families, painstakingly created boro clothing or utilitarian items that resembled patchwork quilts. Rural women pieced together and meticulously sewed patches using tattered, cotton or hemp fabric patches over holes, or thin areas of a garment or bedding to create boro pieces. Sashiko (Japanese embroidery) stitching of the patches as well as the indigo dye itself gave boro garments more durability. Japanese at the time favored indigo dyes for their purported antibacterial and insect-repelling qualities.
Boro garments included work clothes such as noragi jackets, momohiki and mompei pants. Other boro items include futon covers, diapers, mittens and tabi. As years passed, these worn pieces served generations of families as women continued to patch, repair and hand down the boro-textile clothing. Naturally these patches that they layered upon the worn areas also provided the wearer with more warmth than the traditional hemp that was grown and used in northern rural areas such as the Töhoku region. Today both contemporary and antique boro are appreciated and appeal to many as an admired traditional folk craft as well as a distinctive, contemporary art form.
Created out of necessity rather than for aesthetic reasons, boro carried a slightly negative connotation in the past, as struggling or impoverished commoners in rural Japan often had no choice but to patch, mend, recycle and pass on clothing and other boro items to their posterity.
During the 1700s and 1800s women primarily homespun cotton and hemp to make yarn and thread which they later used to loom their own cloth from which they fashioned garments and other items. Although cotton was finally grown for commercial purposes in Japan during the 1600s, rural commoners living in the Northern Töhoku region of Honshü faced harsh winters which prohibited cotton from being produced. It was also expensive to import it from the larger, more urban centers like Ösaka or Kyöto. Merchants thus shipped this valuable commodity to these northern regions along the Kitamaesen – a trade route along which merchandise travelled along the Japan Sea side of Western Honshü, from Ösaka to Hokkaidö.
Generations of rural women acquired these valuable indigo-cotton remnants and then meticulously mended, repaired, pieced and patched clothing and household items with this scarce commodity. According to Susan Briscoe, author of “The Book of Boro: Techniques and Patterns Inspired by Traditional Japanese Textiles,”
Five or six women would club together to buy a 48-52 lb. bale of cloth from itinerant travelers. They washed the dirty, damaged rags in lye, removing the worst of the grime by scrubbing with rough fish skins, and starched the scraps with rice water before grading them.
Many then tore these scraps to make rope while they turned other pieces into patches for clothing and household items. Women stuck indoors during the bitter winters then used these remnants to painstakingly patch, repair or repurpose boro items. Hemp did not provide as much warmth or comfort as the scarce cotton did, and thus boro garments patched and reinforced with cotton scraps provided welcome layers of warmth. As family members passed down their handsewn pieces from generation to generation, these pieces embodied the personal care and spirit of those who came before.
Boro and Sustainability
Sustainability, recycling, upcycling and reducing the carbon footprint are concepts that pervade the world today. What makes boro relevant is that its very essence is a traditional lesson in contemporary sustainability. Boro emerged from the Edo Period’s progressive culture of recycling and sustainability.
By 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu successfully unified Japan and became the first Shögun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). With various checks and balances imposed on the Daimyö feudal lords to prevent rebellion, Ieyasu also closed the country off from outside threats to his rule. Feudal lords now needed to ask permission to enter another lord’s fief, or seek permission from the Shögun to arrange marriages or fortify his castle.
To prevent foreign threats, the Tokugawa Shögun also enacted laws that restricted Japanese from travelling abroad and foreign missionaries and traders from entering Japan – the exception being Dejima, a small island off of Nagasaki where the Dutch were allowed to trade. Because of its isolation and limited resources, the island nation, out of necessity, entered a period of self-sufficiency which required sustainability. Japan thus adhered to a mottainai culture. Basically “mottainai” means “waste, wasteful.”
Mottainai has links to beliefs in Shintö and Buddhism that wastefulness is also being impious or sacrilegious. It denotes a sense of humility and respect and gratitude for an object and those who produced it. After all, in Shintö many objects contained kami, or gods.
During Edo times, mottainai had more to do with the economy of available resources as well as the frugal lifestyle that townspeople led. Recycling was a way of life from which many townspeople made their living. Tinkers repaired metal products such as pots and pans. Artisans repaired ceramics with rice glue. Others collected paper lanterns and even collected and repaired umbrella ribs. Merchants gathered and bought used paper, barrels and even candle wax. Others even collected night soil or human waste to sell to farmers as fertilizer. Clothing such as kimono and boro garments too, did not escape recycling. Although thousands of used kimono shops also existed, worn kimono endured many more uses. Repurposed kimono and boro garments often went through a multi-stage recycling process as people transformed them into futon coverlets, furoshiki, diapers and finally rags. Amazingly, the textile’s use did not end there. After burning the rags, ash collectors gathered the ashes which were then used for detergent, ceramic glazes, color dyes and fertilizer.
Japanese Immigrants in Hawai‘i
In a sense, boro is related to refashioning and reusing clothing during the plantation days of Hawai‘i, too. According to the well-researched “Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii 1885-1941,” by Barbara F. Kawakami, many issei immigrants who came to work the pineapple and sugar plantations used the same concept. In her book, Kawakami relates that “The great majority of both the men and the women began working in the fields within a few days of their arrival, and they quickly remodeled the cotton kimono they had brought into clothing suitable for field work.”
Kawakami also cites many other instances in which clothing was patched, repaired or refashioned. Some issei women, for example, remade kasuri kimono into Chinese-style work jackets with a mandarin collar which they then altered to fit the needs of immigrants working in sugar cane and pineapple fields. They turned wide kimono sleeves, for example, into long fitted sleeves that better suited work in the fields. Worn yukata turned into diapers, sleep wear or casual dresses. Thus the ideas and construction associated with boro even followed the Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i.
Aesthetic Beauty: Wabi, Sabi and Shibui
Today boro is seen globally as contemporary art, exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Last spring, in March of 2020, the Japan Society of New York held a boro exhibition, and on March 30, 2021, the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden, opened its own boro exhibition which will run until Jan. 9, 2022 (see ostasiatiskamuseet.se/en/exhibitions/boro—the-art-of-necessity).
Besides being appreciated for its distinctive and abstract qualities, woven into the attractiveness of boro are traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals. The aesthetic terms wabi and sabi are at play. Although difficult to define, “wabi” is often thought of as “rustic simplicity,” capturing ideas that hint at poverty and at the beauty found in simplicity. “Sabi” or “desolate beauty” is associated with the elements of old age, loneliness, resignation and tranquility. Both Buddhist-related aesthetic concepts are closely associated with imperfection and austerity, along with a feeling of the passage of time or feelings of loneliness or sadness; however, at the same time, an appreciation for the beauty can also be found within these concepts.
Faded, torn, mended, patched and repatched. Created out of necessity from poverty, yet at the same time exhibiting resignation and beauty, boro clearly captures the essence of wabi and sabi. Boro in its primarily indigo shades produced from tattered and faded scraps, handed down from generation to generation, also possesses the aesthetic of shibui, or unobtrusive, subtle beauty.
Perhaps these traditional aesthetic qualities, as well as the current necessity for sustainability, drive the renaissance of boro-like fashion in today’s retail clothing markets. One need look no further than Patagonia’s ReCrafted collection created from pieces of worn garments as evidence of this old-new trend. The upcycled collection includes a $57 repurposed boro-like t-shirt or a $294 jacket. An upcycled medium bag is priced at $150. Other labels have also joined the upcycle trend – Adidas has shoes made from recycled plastic, Coach has upcycled bags and even Miu Miu’s collection has dresses in the line “Upcycled” by Miu Miu.
Japan’s boro tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries proves that to look forward one need only to look back – in this case, to the Japanese folk craft of boro. These days wearing boro boroz to that next Zoom meeting might not be so bad after all.
Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Söseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tökyö to a traditional onsen inn in Kanazawa and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.
Briscoe, Susan. “The Book of Boro: Techniques and Patterns Inspired by Traditional Japanese Textiles.” USA: David and Charles, 2020.
Kawakami, Barbara F. “Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii 1885-1941.” USA: University of Hawaii Press,1993.
“JAPAN’S SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY IN THE EDO PERIOD (1603-1867)JFS Japan for Sustainability.” JFS Japan for Sustainability, JFS Newsletter No.7, March 31,2003, www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id027757.html.