Japanese native cotton, Gandhi and You Reporting from Japan
NI Japan No.87
April 2007 p26-33


On a cold day in February, Caitlin Stronell attended a workshop on Japanese native cotton (called wa-wata in Japanese) and how to spin it, organized by Yachiyo-Kyosei-Kai, The teacher was a man called Tahata Takeshi, who, Caitlin discovered, is a pioneer in more ways than one and whose philosophy, in the great tradition of Gandhi, provides a practical connection between cotton and an independent, sustainable life.

by Caitlin Stronell (NI Japan)

When Tahata-san introduced himself to the workshop participants, he said that, now his wife takes care of the chickens, he spends his life doing only the things he wants to do. I wondered how many people, especially men in their 50s and especially in Japan, a country with a reputation for high stress levels, could make a claim like that. Indeed many of the workshop participants reacted with expressions of mild jealousy. But certainly no one doubted his claim as he gives a strong impression of deep-rooted contentment. So what does Tahata-san do that makes him so happy? All of his activities seem to be in some way connected with his beloved wa-wata: growing wa-wata from seeds he harvests himself, designing, making and selling various gadgets that help turn wa-wata into usable forms and teaching others these techniques. Tahata-san is the representative for Kamogawa Wamen Farm, situated in Chiba Prefecture, where he lives and grows wa-wata, as well as carrying out his designing, building, spinning and weaving activities, occasionally taking in interns.

Tools of the trade

During the workshop, we were introduced to some of the devices used in the process of turning wa-wata from the tree into something human beings can wear?firstly the ewatakurikif (see photo1) a nifty little gadget that separates the wata (cotton) from its seeds. As you wind a handle, and feed the wata through what looks like a miniature laundry wrangle, the wata goes through and the seeds are collected in a box for planting at the appropriate time. We also saw a demonstration of the ewata-yumif (see photo2) which, as its name suggests, is like a bow (as in bow and arrow) which is plucked so that the taut string vibrates. A small pile of de-seeded wata is put near the bowfs string so that when itfs plucked, it strikes the wata and sends the fibers flying. Separating the wata fibers like this is essential so that they can be more easily spun. This process also allows more air into the wata so it can be more effective when used as padding in, for example, futons. gJust make sure you donft have the air-conditioning on when you do thish warns Tahata-san gor wata fibers will get blown all around the room.h

By this stage I had begun to realise how little I knew about something that was actually very basic in my lifecI mean, I sleep on wata every night. But, according to Tahata-san, 100% of the cotton now used in Japan is imported. Native Japanese cotton was indeed in danger of becoming extinct, which is what prompted Tahata-san to start the Wa-wata Seed Network, with the aim of registering all the different types of wa-wata at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, located in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. There are around 30 members of this network, living in different parts of Japan and preserving the wa-wata seeds that are native to their particular region. Another important activity of this network is sending, free of charge, wa-wata seeds to people who would like to grow wa-wata in their own fields or gardens.

Several participants in the workshop were already growing their own wata and were there to learn what to do with it. After de-seeding the wata and separating it out, it was ready to be spun. At first we used the most basic spinning device, which resembles a spinning top (see photo3). A silence settled over us all as we concentrated our efforts on trying to make a thread out of fuzzy balls of wa-wata. It took most of the morning, and some of us almost managed to re-acquire a skill that really is as ancient as human civilization itself.

The philosophy of Charka

Our next challenge was the Charka, a type of spinning wheel made famous by Mahatma Gandhi. Maybe we had gained a bit of confidence with the spinning tops, but there seemed to be a lot more conversation as people attempted to once again create threads from wata balls. Tahata-san sat in the middle of the circle of participants, spinning as though it was second nature. I was able to ask him a few burning questions. gHow did you ever get started on wa-wata?h gActually,h began Tahata-san, gI was doing contract work for an advertising agency during the bubble economy, earning a fortune, really, but I somephoto3 how knew that the whole thing was destined to crumble, the economic system and prevailing attitude at that time seemed completely unreal to me.h

I arrived in Japan at my first job, in a Japanese company just as the bubble was bursting and I must say that I didnft detect anything but shock and amazement when business took the plunge. I wonder how on earth Tahata-san knew the egood timesf were going to end spectacularly, but before I had time to ask, he was already talking about what he did after quitting his well-paid job. gI moved to the country because I wanted to grow my own food and try to be as self-sufficient as I could. I went to cooking lessons and tried to learn more about the basics of living as a human being. The real basics?food, shelter and clothing. And as I looked into it more, there seemed to be lots of people active on food issues and quite a few building their own eco-houses, but hardly anyone trying to become self-sufficient in clothing. It was around then that I discovered the importance of wa-wata, but everyone thought I was crazy to concentrate on that.h

I guess pioneers are often considered crazy, but luckily for Tahata-san he went to India and visited Gandhifs Ashram where he discovered people gathering in the morning and evening to spin cotton as a form of prayer, which encouraged him greatly. Tahata-san has edited a book on Gandhi and it is in the Mahatma that he found a kindred spirit, someone as passionate as he was about spinning cotton, and saw it also as a social statement.

gGandhi is known, especially in Japan, as Indiafs eFather of Independencef but he wasnft really on about independence simply from Britain. To him eindependencef meant something much deeper,h explains Tahata-san. gThe industrial revolution began in Britain with the textile industry. Spinning machines and mechanical looms were used to mass-produce cotton fabric, much cheaper than it could be produced by hand. Soon everyone was convinced that it was much more convenient to buy all their clothes from factory manufacturers. But this is what Gandhi was warning us of. Once we become dependent on this system to mass-produce all the basic things we need to survive, we can never be independent. None of us.h

I must say that when the Charkafs were first brought out, I thought it a little incongruous that Tahata-san, who was so adamant that Japanese wa-wata should be cultivated and used in Japan, was using an Indian spinning wheel. But watching him spin what seemed like miles of thread, completely effortlessly, while we were chatting, made me see that the Charka could well be the best technology available, certainly in terms of being portable and available for everyone, any time, any where. Not only that, it is the symbol of Gandhifs revolution, which is universal.

Wa-wata, self-sufficiency and community

Alarm bells are already going off quite loudly regarding Japanfs lack of self-sufficiency in food, and people are beginning to question Japanfs reliance on foreign timber resources while neglecting the native sugi forests which are the cause of serious outbreaks of hay fever every year. Not only do Japanese suffer or at least become vulnerable as a result of these situations, the environments and peoples of other countries are also seriously impacted by Japanfs aggressive import strategies. Although as yet it doesnft perhaps receive as much attention, cotton is very much the same kind of problem. In terms of efood, shelter and clothing,f it is an essential item for which Japan depends totally on imports, largely oblivious of the devastating environmental effects cotton production is having on the countries where the imports come from.

But from this workshop, I was able to see that everyone can be very much part of the solution and actually itfs a lot of fun! Seeds can be obtained from Tahata-sanfs Kamogawa Wa-wata Farm or from Yachiyo-Kyosei-Kai and as wa-wata is a native cotton, it is ideally suited to Japanese conditions and not that difficult to grow. And as for spinning it, thanks to Tahata-sanfs excellent instructions and encouragement, after just one day, all of the workshop participants proudly went home with their own skein of cotton - albeit in varying thicknesses and styles - not to mention food for thought and a warm glow of having shared time and conversation with others.

500 grams of wa-wata...
---can be harvested from a 3.3 square metre field of cotton plants, which flower in the same year they are planted.
---costs 8,000 yen to buy from Kamogawa Wamen Farm.
---takes an experienced spinner about 70 hours to spin and 5-6 hours to weave.
---can create 1 shirt, which will last forever!

Kamogawa Wamen Farm>> http://wamen-nouen.life.coocan.jp
Yachiyo-Kyosei-Kai>> http://www.yachiyo-k.co.jp