Kimono fashion: the consumer and the growth of the textile industry in pre-war Japan



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Kimono fashion: the consumer and the growth of the textile industry in pre-war Japan
Penelope Francks
‘His nation had not changed its costume for over a thousand years’, a Japanese official reportedly told a shipwrecked Spanish trader in 1609, going on to criticise the castaway’s compatriots as, by contrast, ‘so inconstant that they are dressed in a different way every two years’. This incident was famously quoted by Fernand Braudel in The Structures of Everyday Life to demonstrate the significance of clothing fashion as an indicator of the attitudes to tradition and change that stimulated the emergence of capitalism and industrialisation in Europe: ‘ the future was to belong to the societies fickle enough to care about changing the colours, materials and shapes of costume’ (Braudel 1981: 323). Braudel in fact went on to outline some of the more material links between the emergence of fashion as a determinant of clothing consumption and the growth of production and trade that was starting to transform key parts of the European economy. For many years, his hints were largely forgotten, as supply-side analysis of technical and organisational change dominated approaches to the understanding of industrialisation. More recently, however, as research has begun to return the consumer to a central position in economic history, it has ceased to be possible to ignore clothing fashion as a factor in the ‘consumer revolution’ now regarded as a ‘necessary analogue’ to the industrial revolution itself.
As a result, fashion can now be defined as ‘a cultural catalyst to consumption’ (Lemire 2009: 206), spurring the growth in demand for textiles that underpinned technical change and investment in what proved to be a key sector in industrialising economies. In eighteenth-century Europe, imports of exciting new cotton fabrics, from India and elsewhere, later copied by domestic producers, encouraged innovations in dress and the more rapid turnover of styles that has been termed the ‘fashion system’. While the better-off spent growing amounts of time and money keeping up with the latest fashions, members of the middling and even lower classes adopted and adapted their own new styles, through, for example, use of the second-hand market or the acquisition of ‘populuxe’ versions of the accessories sported by the fashionable elite (Lemire 2005: ch.5). The resulting demand for increasing quantities of textiles in an expanding and faster-changing range of qualities and designs fuelled the ‘cotton revolution’ and lay behind the technological and design innovations in fabric production that played such a central role in the industrial revolution itself.
The emergence of the ‘fashion system’ has thus come to be seen as an inherent part of the development of industrial capitalism in Europe and North America. For Japan, on the other hand, the assumption that, up to World War II at least, incomes were too low to generate anything other than a ‘narrow’ domestic market has deflected attention away from any role for consumer demand in sustaining industrialisation. As regards clothing, a link between consumption, fashion and industrial growth has equally been excluded on the grounds that the majority of Japanese people, especially women, continued to wear Japanese-style garments. The fabrics for these were produced within the ‘traditional’ sector of the economy, where the supply-side forces assumed to have driven industrialisation – imported technology, business structures and products – were thought not to operate. At the same time, if fashion as we know it is inextricably tied up with the emergence of the Western-style industrial economy and the clothing in which it is dressed, it cannot have been operating, as Braudel’s anecdote seeks to demonstrate, within the supposedly static, ‘traditional’ clothing systems inherited by the non-Western world.1 The kimono-clad Japanese could not, therefore, have participated in the kind of fashion-driven growth in textile demand that played such a role in the industrialisation process elsewhere.
This is to ignore the numerous ways in which Japanese-style clothing, for men but especially for women, changed over the period of economic development and industrialisation from the late Tokugawa period to World War II and the existence in Japan, as elsewhere, of mechanisms that spread new fashions to ever wider sections of the population. Moreover, the ‘traditional sector’ of the economy, within which Japanese-style clothing materials were produced, is no longer seen as static and ‘backward’, so that a role for growth in domestic textile demand in promoting and conditioning Japan’s industrialisation becomes a possibility. In what follows, I seek to show that production for a domestic market dominated by Japanese-style clothing played a significant part, quantitatively and qualitatively, in the crucial stages of growth in the textile industry. The characteristics of ‘traditional’ Japanese-style clothes and the nature of the accelerating trends in their fashions are essential elements in any explanation of the pattern of economic and technological change in an industry central to Japan’s modern development. Hence, the consumers of kimono fashion played their part too in determining the distinctive characteristics of industrial growth in Japan.

The textile industry and the domestic market

The production of textiles has long been recognised as having played a key role in the industrialisation process in pre-war Japan, as in many other industrialising countries. Textile output grew in real terms at an annual average rate of 6.6 per cent over the whole 1874—1940 period and at over 10 per cent up to 1900 (Ohkawa and Shinohara 1979: Table 5.4). The share of textiles in manufacturing output rose from around 20 per cent in the 1870s to almost 50 percent at its peak in the 1890s, remaining at 30—40 percent through to the mid-1930s (Table 1). The main focus of interest in this process has always lain with the growth in textile production for export: the raw silk reeled from domestically produced cocoons that provided Japan’s major source of export revenue following the opening to trade in the 1850s; the cotton yarn, spun from imported raw cotton, that the first modern textile mills were successfully able to sell abroad from the 1890s; the woven cotton fabric competitively produced for export, once integrated spinning and weaving mills began to be set up around the turn of the century. Growth in these areas of textile production has been viewed as crucial to Japan’s industrialisation, not just in terms of the expansion of output and exports, but also as driving the process of adoption of modern forms of technology and industrial organisation, with relatively large-scale textile mills pioneering mechanised methods and the development of a factory labour force.


Nonetheless, production for export and the emergence of large-scale mills represent by no means the whole story, as regards the role of the textile industry in Japan’s economic history. Even at their high point in the 1910s and 1920s, exports continued

Table 1: Textiles and fabric production in the domestic economy (%)




Share of textiles in manu-

facturing output



Value of exports as share of total textile output

Share of fabric in total textile output

Share of exports* in cotton fabric output

Share of exports* in silk fabric output

1875

22.3

14.9

44.8

0.1

0.2

1880

27.9

10.6

42.5

0.2

0.3

1885

28.4

18.3

40.8

1.0

0.5

1890

36.1

13.1

35.8

0.5

7.3

1895

47.3

19.7

37.5

3.7

19.2

1900

35.8

24.1

41.5

9.3

22.3

1905

31.9

37.3

35.0

16.1

50.1

1910

33.6

40.0

40.8

16.8

29.1

1915

33.1

40.7

39.5

21.1

35.5

1920

34.3

38.2

43.8

48.3

33.9

1925

39.4

45.2

37.4

56.1

28.3

1930

30.6

37.2

42.2

55.2

16.8

1935

29.1

37.2

44.2

61.2

13.4

*outside the Japanese empire

LTES 10: Tables 1 & 18; Bank of Japan Statistics Department (1966): Table 116 (1); Ohkawa and Shinohara (1979): Tables A19 and A26
to account for less than half of the value of textile output as a whole (Table 1). The

domestic market for textiles continued to exert a major influence on producers in the industry, stimulating growth in both the ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ sectors in forms that inter-connected with and complemented the expansion of exports. In mechanised cotton-spinning, output increased more than 50-fold between the 1880s and World War I, but exports were insignificant before the 1890s and still only accounted for a third of output in 1914 (Abe 1990: Table 2(3)-1). As large-scale cotton spinning mills were established, a major part of their rapidly growing production therefore went to supply the domestic cotton-weaving industry. In raw silk production, the bulk of the expansion in output of the machine-reeled thread produced by larger-scale mills was exported, but still, by the inter-war period, 30—40 per cent of the raw silk produced in Japan was consumed by the domestic weaving industry. Most of this took the form of the lower-grade thread produced by hand-reelers or small-scale mills, intended for use by weavers producing fabric for the domestic market (Matsumura 2006: 96—7).


The weaving sector, which produced around 40 per cent of the overall value of textile output throughout the pre-war period, therefore represented a major user of Japanese-made yarns, whether from large-scale modern mills or more ‘traditional’ establishments. Exports of woven cloth were negligible before the end of the nineteenth century, and although they subsequently increased to account for over half of cotton fabric production, they rarely accounted for more than a third of woven silk output (Table 1). The domestic market for clothing materials thus remained central to the overall demand that Japanese textile producers – spinners and weavers – aimed to meet.
Moreover, that market was expanding fast: expenditure on clothing in real terms grew at an annual average rate of almost 5 per cent over 1874—1940, so that annual per capita expenditure on clothing multiplied 10-fold in real terms between the 1870s and the 1930s and the share of clothing in total consumption rose from 3 per cent in the 1870s to 12 per cent in the 1930s (LTES 6: Table 4; Ohkawa and Shinohara 1979: Tables 8.3 and 8.6). Given that the relative price of clothing fell by two-thirds over the period, the implication is that Japanese people were coming to acquire a great many more, though cheaper, items of clothing, fuelling the growth in the domestic textile market.
This growth clearly had its origins, as elsewhere in the world, in the switch from home-made to purchased materials, especially cotton. By the later Tokugawa period, most urban consumers were buying their clothes, but in the countryside it was still only the better-off who had the cash incomes to purchase clothing material, new, second-hand or as thread to weave (Tanimoto 1987: 54—5). Thereafter, however, rural as well as urban consumers began to enter the market for cotton cloth in growing numbers and increasing amounts, as cash incomes rose and the price of clothing materials fell. Some of this expansion in demand was initially met by imported cotton broadcloth, so that, at their peak in the 1870s, imports accounted for around a third of domestic purchases of cotton cloth, while other imported materials, such as wool, also found their way on to the market. However, imported cloth was very different, in design and quality, from that produced by domestic weavers for use in Japanese-style dress and the share of imports soon fell off, as producers responded (in ways to be described later) and consumer demand for ‘traditional’ clothing materials increased (Tanimoto 1987: 60—63; Saitō and Tanimoto 2004: 278—94). The domestic clothing market therefore remained, to a large extent, the province of those producers able to come through import competition and the temporary down-turn in the 1880s, and to tap into the widening network of textile dealers and retailers supplying the fast-growing, though competitive, market for the kinds of textiles that Japanese consumers demanded.
For reasons to be examined in detail in the next section, these producers proved for the most part to be those manufacturing specialised, differentiated products on a relatively small scale. Uchida estimates that in the 1890s, before there was any significant production for export, about half of cotton cloth output consisted of the striped (shima) or splash-patterned (kasuri) yarn-dyed, narrow-width kimono fabrics associated with local weaving areas; the other half was largely made up of plain white cloth, which could, for certain uses, be factory-made or even imported, but was still predominantly produced by small-scale weavers for use in ‘traditional’ clothing, either cloth-dyed, as for casual kimono (yūkata), or undyed and bleached for linings, socks, etc. (Uchida 1988: 159—61). The market for silk remained even more heavily dominated by the narrow-width fabrics, intended for kimono and their accessories, that small-scale, specialised weavers produced.
As a result, a division of labour emerged, with the large-scale integrated mills specialising in production for export, leaving the major part of the growing domestic market to small-scale producers. In cotton-weaving, the vast majority of weavers continued to work either on contract at home or in small-scale workshops (Tanimoto 2006: 12—13). Most in due course came to operate within local industrial districts – known as sanchi – specialising in particular types of cloth, and Abe and Saitō estimate that sanchi production accounted for 81 per cent of total cotton-cloth production in 1919 and still 64 per cent in 1929 (Abe and Saitō 1988: 146). In weaving as a whole, through to 1940, around 90 per cent of plants with more than 5 workers were in the smallest 5—29-worker category (Minami 1987: 215), and many continued to work in household enterprises with fewer than five workers. While larger-scale producers carved out for themselves a growing share of the overseas textile market and some small-scale producers eventually did find niches for themselves in export markets – by the inter-war period, 40—50 per cent of cotton cloth exports were coming from sanchi (Abe 1989: 4—5) – the local weavers, dyers and finishers who made up the small-scale sector survived and developed for the most part as suppliers to the domestic market for Japanese-style clothing textiles.
As the growth in this market demonstrates, Japanese consumers proved no different from consumers elsewhere in desiring more clothes more often, as soon as they were able to afford them, and it was to the domestic weaving industry, dominated by small-scale producers, that they turned, as their spending power and desire for clothing grew. As a result, production for the domestic market in Japanese-style fabrics continued to represent a distinct and important element in the expanding textile industry of pre-war Japan. Underlying this, as the next section will argue, was the development of consumer demand for clothing along lines laid down by a predominantly indigenous fashion system. This in turn, as the subsequent section will show, became a major factor determining the characteristics of the ‘traditional’ but far from static producers who responded to that demand.

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