Indigo leaves are fermented under rice straw mats, watered and mixed 20 times during the fermenting process
For some, indigo represents livelihood
Indigo has been Akihito Satoh’s life.
Mr Satoh, 88, started making sukumo – fermented indigo leaves that are the base of natural indigo dye – at age 10, at what was then his grandfather’s farm. He still runs the 10-hectare farm, 24 kilometres from Tokushima City, the capital of Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, the fourth biggest island of the Japanese archipelago.
Indigo plants are sown in March and harvested in July and September.
A yearly total of eight hectares of indigo plants – 24 tonnes to 25 tonnes – are put into a machine that separates the leaves from the stems.
During 100 days from the beginning of September through November, in a traditional process that Mr Satoh says he and only four other sukumo producers in the prefecture preserve, the leaves are placed in four wooden pods. They are watered and mixed 20 times during a fermentation process.
The green leaves turn purple when their temperature rises to over 65 degrees Celsius. “The temperature has to be kept between 65 degrees and 75 degrees, otherwise the dye will fade and be uneven,” Mr Satoh says
The straw mats need to be dried every five days, either by air-drying or putting them in a hothouse.
The farm produces about 24 tonnes of sukumo yearly, which, based on figures from the Indigo Museum in Tokushima Prefecture’s town of Aizumi, is enough to make about 231,429 litres of indigo dye.
Mr Satoh sends his sukumo in straw bags all over Japan to indigo shops, where the product is mixed with water to make dye. Sukumo prices have remained the same for 30 years. “We cannot increase the price because of competition from chemical dyes, so nobody wants to do this business anymore,” Mr Satoh says.
Natural indigo is over 10 times more expensive than synthetic alternatives, so 99 per cent of Japanese companies use the latter. “I am very frustrated,” Mr Satoh says.
He works with his son Yoshiaki, 53, and six other employees. It’s important to keep this tradition in Japanese culture and pass it on to future generations, he says.
“Unfortunately, there are not many young people who want to do this work in Tokushima.”
To resolve that problem, labour-saving machines that can alleviate the harsh agricultural work in the summer need to be developed, Noriko Ariuchi, Faculty of Life Sciences professor at Shikoku University in Tokushima City, tells The National.
Young people also need to be given the opportunity to observe and experience sukumo making, Ms Ariuchi says.
There are young people from outside Tokushima who come to the prefecture and produce sukumo to make aizome products. “Young people who want to create aizome and sukumo also gather into regional co-operative groups,” she says.
“I think that it is necessary to increase the number of people seeking added value such as tradition, nature and environment, rather than focus on price competition,” she says.