Today I have a story. It started a few months ago with a random email from a man named Robin Williams. He saw what I was I was doing with up-cycled kimonos and wanted to give me his grandmother’s obi for use in my work. Although I had discussed cutting this Obi up, it soon became clear that I should preserve it. This was clearly something very special indeed! So, I wrote back to Robin, and asked him if he might share more details about his family with me.
This remarkable Obi features ancient Chinese characters, which, according to my friend’s mother, is actually one word, “longevity” written in many different calligraphy styles. It’s a very special and time-intensive skill and has a long tradition in China according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amongst friends, (we are no scholars) we think the calligraphy dates back to the Song Dynasty (970- 1279) or even further to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC).
The Obi itself belonged to Rin Miyahara, who with her husband, Toshi Miyahara, were born and raised in Tokyo leading up to the Meiji Restoration (1868). The Meiji Restoration, consolidated the political system under the Emperor of Japan and led to the rapid industrialization of the country through Western ideas and production methods. Miyahara’s father worked as an interpreter at the Paris World’s Fair in 1867-- the first time Japan exhibited in Paris.
According to Miyahara’s Kamon, or family crest, they were part of the Kazoku, or hereditary peerage of Japan. The Kazoku succeeded the feudal lords (daimyo) and court nobles (kuge), and were eventually abolished in 1947. Like all Kazoku without an official government appointment in the provinces, they were obliged to reside in Tokyo would have been educated at the Gakushuin. The Gakushuin was founded in 1847 to educate the children of the aristocracy along with the emperor’s children.
As Robin says, “from what I can decipher …[my grandparents] lived quite well.” Then the war came and his family lost everything. They moved to the countryside and according to Robin, this devastated his grandfather, so that he died soon after - from a lack of will to live or absence of ikigai.
After the war was over, Robin’s grandmother moved back to Tokyo and lived in a modest home. When she died the obi and note were given to his mother as a memento of her life. As he remarked, “The few times I remember being with my grandmother, since I couldn't speak Japanese, we would just sit and smile at each other. She seemed like a very quiet, gentle woman.”
Along with the Obi, was a lovely handwritten note written by Robin’s grandmother. The family could see that the calligraphy was beautiful but it was difficult to decipher as it was written in old Japanese. As my own father explained, it was a feminine-style hand, and very well done, so much so that the writer had a red signature stamp made. After asking even more friends for help, we learned that it was a poem by Ono no Komachi, the famous waka poet of the Heian period and whose name today is still synonymous with beauty in Japan. The poem loosely translates to:
Wow, can you believe this? There is just so much meaning to Rin Miyahara owning this Obi. To me, it was likely a hope for her to live a long-life (she lived until 96), with the repetition of the characters of longevity being a way of wishing the most perfect, full version of that word for her. The use of many different calligraphy styles to express it, could have been a nod to her own calligraphic prowess. And the poem itself—Ono no Komachi was famous for writing about love--could it have been an ode to her deceased husband or a message for her daughter after her own passing? Either way, we know that it is all so very special and I’m so happy to have been able to help facilitate uncovering all of this for Robin’s family.