Seeds of an idea: Thailand’s inspiration for a Japanese sustainability pioneer
Tomi Matsuba’s transformation of Omori, a town in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture, has become a global model of sustainability and safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage. After moving to the old mining town with her family nearly 40 years ago, Ms Matsuba and her husband devoted themselves to breathing new life into old traditions, from restoring a samurai’s house – as living culture, not a museum – to championing the techniques of centuries-old arts and crafts. Omori, with its Iwami Ginzan silver mine and cultural landscape inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is now famous for its tranquility and aesthetics as a conscious alternative to today’s hyper-consumer society.
The untold story – until now – is the inspiration that contributed to this sustainable community. As a key speaker at UNESCO’s International Meeting on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) organized in Bangkok (9-10 July 2018), it is fitting that it was here that Ms Matsuba tells us of her connection to Thailand, and how Thai culture in turn contributes to the safeguarding of her own.
Q: As a sustainability pioneer, you were invited as one of the key speakers to the Education for Sustainable Development meeting. You mentioned that Thailand provided an inspiration in reviving Omori’s townscape and traditional way of living. Would you please tell us more?
A: This is my second time to visit Thailand. About 20 years ago, I saw Thai textiles at an exhibition in Hiroshima and became very interested in Thailand. When I decided to visit the country, a friend told me about a place named ‘Beautiful Bamboo village’ in Chiang Mai. There, I saw a traditional Thai house raised on stilts that was used as an atelier to make beautiful fabrics using natural dyes from native plants. What intrigued me the most was the way the Thai lady who founded this atelier chose to live. While many young people were moving to Bangkok for more lucrative work, she managed to enrich her life by choosing to stay in her village where she worked closely with the community to cultivate cotton, spin thread and weave to make beautiful artisanal products.
Replacing the raised-stilt Thai house with a Kayabuki house (a traditional Japanese thatched-roof house) in my mind, I immediately imagined replicating the beautiful bamboo village in Shimane prefecture, where I had moved with my husband and our young children in 1981. Upon returning to Japan, I spoke to my husband all excited about the plan and it was only a week later that we saw a newspaper ad looking for someone who could take over a 250-year-old Kayabuki house in Hiroshima. There were over 50 applications, but somehow the house came to be in our possession.
Q: This Kayabuki house was a stepping stone towards reviving the life and economy of Omori, which prospered during the Edo period (1603-1868) due to the Iwami Ginzan silver mine, now a World Heritage site, but which rapidly declined at the beginning of the last century.
A: This house became the symbol of our philosophy, the way we aspire to live, which is represented in the word 復古創新 (Fukko Soshin, which means to learn and revive from the old and create the new) created from the Chinese idiom 温故知新（wēn gù zhī xīn, to review the old and know the new) We were impressed with the traditional domestic craftsmanship of this house, made out of materials such as wood, soil, iron, paper, bamboo, rocks and haystacks.
In Japan, designated and important cultural assets are preserved, but still many traditional houses have been destroyed or left to decay. By restoring and preserving this house, we wanted to help transmit skills and craftsmanship and train new artisans. The house was moved from Hiroshima to our 3,300sqm property in Omori where we had already started cultivating rice fields, making cobblestone-bedded rivers and building logwood bridges. I was very happy to see that our rural village was starting to resemble the scenery of the beautiful bamboo village in Chiang Mai. If I hadn’t visited that village, Omori might not be what it is today.
I also started making cloth after my trip to Chiang Mai. Today, 97 per cent of garments sold in Japan are made outside the country. I do not want to function on a business model of making huge profits with mass, foreign-produced clothing. I make all my cloth domestically. The Japanese regions producing textiles have shrunk to one-tenth in size compared to the industry’s peak period. There are certain fabric-weaving techniques that can only be performed by a few craftsmen.
I try to make our cloth with these ‘endangered’ artisanal textiles as much as possible, in collaboration with the craftsmen, and tell customers how these textiles are made. The scarf I am wearing today is made with a special weaving technique called Shijira. Unfortunately, the atelier that was producing this cotton fabric had to close business 10 years ago, so the technique has now disappeared. I want my work to contribute to preserving the old craftsmanship and transmitting these beautiful handmade products to the next generation.
Q: What you are doing with artisanal textiles resonates with UNESCO’s effort in preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage: traditions or living expressions inherited from one generation to another.
A: When governments restore old houses, they tend to turn them into museums, but what I wish is to preserve and transmit them as living culture. We have restored a 230-year-old samurai residence and turned it into the ryokan (inn) ‘Takyo Abeke’. Our staff chop wood, cook rice in kettles, and all the guests eat together around a table located next to the kitchen as they would have done when visiting their grandmother’s house. Our inn only has three rooms, so it can accommodate about 10 guests per night. It’s a difficult business model to make financially successful, but I hope someday to see a society where this type of business can flourish.
We did not restore an old samurai residence to keep it as a museum. We did not convert it into a country inn to earn lots of money. At Takyo Abeke, we provide a place where guests can experience the beautiful Japanese traditional living culture – and appreciate a sense of frugality known as mottainai. At the inn, washcloths are made from discarded yukata (light cotton kimono) fabrics, hand towels from tissue originally designed for diapers, and furniture and decorations are made out of old materials, scraps and pieces from dismantled old farm houses. Our guests are fascinated by the idea and the aesthetic of these materials, but we are not doing anything new. Our ancestors used to live like this for centuries using their wisdom, imagination and creativity, reusing old materials to make new things. In Omori, there are still 70 to 80 abandoned old houses. We have restored 10 of them and use them as shops, ateliers, a guesthouse and our private home.
Around the time Iwami Ginzan was inscribed on the World Heritage list, a Thai student at Tokyo University, Nattapong Punnoi, who used to pay regular visits to Omori, wrote a thesis entitled ‘Living Heritage’ and taught us that that we were doing something very meaningful. Nattapong is also one of the main reasons I feel so connected to and in debt to Thailand.
I was very happy to see that our rural village was starting to resemble the scenery of the beautiful bamboo village in Chiang Mai. If I hadn’t visited that village, Omori might not be what it is today.
What I can do personally is very small, but I think what I am trying to sell is not our products but our message, our philosophy. When consumers are lured into buying products that are not respecting the environment, we are paying a high cost for the future of the planet.
Q: In general, young Japanese people who are born and raised in Japan are not typically attracted to traditional Japanese culture. They tend to be fascinated by modern or western styles of living. In that regard, beauty is a transcendent and powerful factor that appeals to the youth. You manage this so well through your products and the lifestyle you propose. They are beautiful.
A: Pretty and beautiful are two completely different things. Through my work, I would like to show that we can make things that are beautiful and fashionable locally. I would like to teach that the components of our products, their background and how they came to be should also be beautiful. The materials we use should not harm the Earth; the way we produce our goods should not damage the environment.
There is an old Chinese story about two teachers in a village: one gave his students money and the other taught them how to fish. Which one is a better teacher?
I want to teach young entrepreneurs how to be successful by respecting sustainable development. I want to help young people acquire knowledge, skills and wisdom so they can make a better choice. I hope to do this through creating a model in our village for the future generations.
The wrapping paper we use for our products also functions as our newspaper. Articles I’ve written are printed – I have started writing about this ESD meeting as well. These papers are used at our 30 shops around the country and I hope some of our customers will read them and learn about our way of looking at life and living it. I was not formally trained as a designer, but I have a message I wish to transmit to the world. That is why I think I was so fortunate to meet so many people who were willing to help and collaborate with me to produce cloth and create a town that I believe represents a model for the future for our planet.
Q: What was the main message you wanted to convey at the UNESCO International ESD meeting?
A: What I can do personally is very small, but I think what I am trying to sell is not our products but our message, our philosophy. When consumers are lured into buying products that are not respecting the environment, we are paying a high cost for the future of the planet.
Consuming is voting for the future. We are voting towards our future through our everyday acts. What we produce, what we eat, what we buy all have an impact. We need to keep our future in mind with every step of our actions. Individual activity will lead to change and I can see that the world is ready to make that change. People are more aware and interested in environmental issues. The fact that I was invited to this international meeting on ESD is one of the proofs of this change and, although I could not understand all the discussions, I was grateful to see that government officials, policy-makers and UN representatives were interested in my story.
Another Chinese word I like is 納川 (No Sen, deriving from 納百川於海 meaning all rivers run in the sea). Its literal meaning is ‘to supply the river’ but it also means ‘ocean’. By swallowing many heterogeneous flows, oceans become very deep and beautiful. In other words, rather than refusing different things and cultures, by appreciating and adapting to new and different things, you can become like an ocean.
The name of our company, Gungendo 群言堂 (which means group, word or hall) is a Chinese word describing a way to work by incorporating people’s opinions in the process. Our work is made possible precisely through such an approach. By prioritizing efficiency and economic growth, Japan has forgotten and lost so many important things. People in Japan can nowadays afford to buy all kinds of electronic appliances that can make their lives convenient and comfortable. But I’ve been living comfortably in a 230-year-old house and have come to realize that not everything convenient is necessary. We live in an era in which we can make our own choices. We should benefit from the latest technologies, but that should not make us forget about the traditional ways of life that help to create a sense of cultural identity and foster closer relationships with nature.
I want people to realize that each and every one of us are important decision-makers.
Interview by Akane Nozaki, UNESCO Bangkok
Photo credit: Gungendo
UNESCO website: Japan: It takes a (small) village