what is Missa

Minsa is one of the traditional fabrics of Okinawa. It is made mainly in the Yaeyama Islands, consisting of 19 islands of various sizes, located approximately 2,100 km southwest of Tokyo and 400 km from the main island of Okinawa. The main production areas are Ishigaki Island, the third largest island in Okinawa Prefecture, Taketomi Island, which retains the most ancient Okinawan villages and houses, and Iriomote Island, which is rich in nature and known for its Iriomote wild cats. Presently, this fabric is still woven by hand with the yarn-dyed cotton threads, dyed with natural dyes from plants which are native to the islands. Minsa means “cotton (min) that has been narrowly woven”. The woven pattern for this particular type of obi combines four and five “kasuri” or geometrical patterns representing the “Itsunoyo” or forever pattern, and such an obi was given by the island’s daughters to their loved ones with the wish that they would be “in harmony forever and ever”.

The “geographical advantage” of Ryukyu, where trade was prosperous

The countless islands of all sizes stretching from the southern tip of Kagoshima to Taiwan are linked together in a bow shape, forming a cultural area known as the Ryukyu Arc. Beyond the Ryukyu Arc are the islands of southern China, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago, where various cultures have come and gone across the sea since ancient times. During the “Great Trading Period” of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which flourished from the 14th to the middle of the 16th centuries, various dyeing and weaving techniques were introduced through trade with many countries, and under the influence of these techniques, unique dyeing and weaving styles suited to Okinawa’s climate and culture flourished. The “geographical advantage” of being on such a trade route is a major factor behind the richness of the unique dyeing and weaving culture on the islands of Okinawa.


The History of Minsa

The history of Minsa is quite long and dates back approximately 400 years. Documents regarding cotton cultivation and trade remain from the Ryukyu Kingdom are dated around the 17th to 18th centuries, implying the existence of Minsa during that period. The roots of these textiles are believed to have come from Afghanistan via Tibet and China; however, the actual roots or beginnings of this particular form of textile is still unclear.

The Minsa Obi that is currently on the market is said to have originated on “Taketomi Island”, and it was originally a narrow “mincerf” which is a fabric dyed with indigo and woven with cotton thread. When there was a custom of a “commuter” marriage, Minsa was given as a symbol of love from a woman to the man she loved. The five and four Kasuri patterns that can be said to be the most distinctive feature of Minsa have the meaning of “forever and ever”. Moreover, the patterns look like the legs of a centipede on both of sides of the Obi, and this symbolizes the wish for the loved one to come and visit often, which was a custom of a “commuter” marriage. To achieve the indigo color found in the obi, it had to be dyed over and over again. This technique was believed to represent the deepening or layering of love which also represents a romantic origin of the fabric.

Nowadays, while preserving traditional dyeing and weaving techniques, the ingenious combination of natural dyes has made it possible to express a variety of colors, resulting in a wide range of obi designs.

“Dyeing” of the land of Okinawa, created by Okinawa’s rich nature

The Minsa Obi is made from 100% natural plant and tree dyes. The reason why such plant dyeing is possible in Okinawa is because of the vitality of the plant life found throughout the islands. Seasonal plants from each season on the island are collected during each period when the plants are full of life to bring out the beautiful colors extracted from nature. The exquisite colors from the tropical sunshine and abundant water are gentle to the eyes and the body. Although natural herb dyeing is also practiced in some parts of mainland Japan such as Yonezawa in Yamagata prefecture and Yūki in Ibaraki prefecture, it is no exaggeration to say that only Okinawa can produce such rich colors. This can be attributed to the fact that plants and trees are becoming weak throughout mainland Japan. On the other hand, Minsa’s natural plant dyeing is a product of Okinawa’s rich abundant nature and can be said to be the result of the dyeing of the Okinawan earth.

Dyes made from plants native to the islands

Trees which are used for natural dyeing are plants which grow naturally in the islands. These plants are not being sold for dyeing materials, but artisans go into the area and harvest the dyes from them. The color of “Kuwadisa” changes when artisans use either the tree trunk or tree branch to produce the dye. Other trees such as “Yaeyamakiai”, “Getkitsu” and “Yaeyamaaoki” are planted as a windbreak in Okinawa along with the familiar “ Fukugi” and “Kūru” plants which habitat Ishigaki island, Taketomi island and Iriomote island.


[ Kuwadisa ]

Its large leaves are used for dyeing, but different colors can also be obtained from the trunk and branches. The colors range from yellow ocher to an iron color.


[ Orange Jasmine (Gekkitsu) ]

A small tree of the citrus family distributed from Amami Oshima to Southeast Asia. When the dye originates from its branches and leaves, it turns into a light green color.


[ Yaeyamakiai ]

One of the plants that produces indigo dye used to dye fabrics indigo. The dye harvested from the tree called tree indigo or Indigofera tinctoria.


[ Fukugi ]

Dye is made by boiling the bark or split wood pieces. The dye obtained from Fukugi is a light yellow color.


[ Kūru ]

These plants are of the yam family and they have large dark red tuberous roots. These plants can produce a reddish brownish color.


[ Yaeyama aoki ]

This is a tropical evergreen small tree with its northern limit of native growth found on Ishigaki Island. This tree is located mainly in Southeast Asia and other regions, and it is also known as noni.

Color of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

There is no fixed recipe, for example what temperature and for how long, for boiling dye from plants and trees, such as used to obtain chemical dyes. Thus, the resulting colors will vary greatly depending on the temperature at which the dye is boiled, how many times it is dyed, and how it is washed and dried. Because plants are living, the colors that appear vary depending on the condition of each individual plant. Also, because the dyes are 100% natural, the color will gradually fade over time and become more natural, which is part of the charm of the fabric.

Regarding “Hand crafts”

There is a wonderful word in Okinawa called “teianda. The literal translation is tei (hand) anda (fat). These two words combined mean to prepare food with care and attention using the fat of one’s hands, or to prepare something with tender loving care. For example, the word “te tsudau (help)” includes the meaning of “can only be conveyed through the hands.” The Japanese words “te ga komu” means “skill”, and the words “ te wo utsu” means “devise a plan to avoid failure or strategize”, etc. Words involving human “hands” often have positive meanings.

In recent days, most fabrics have been produced by machines, often using chemical dyes. There are few opportunities to find or have kimonos or clothes that are hand-woven and naturally dyed. Minsa is a very traditional and cultural textile created by the hands of artisans.


All Minsa Obi are woven by hand using a hand-thrown shuttle and Yaeyama-style loom which adjusts for the Minsa Obi. In the rich nature of Okinawa, the sound of waves of the ocean and the Sanshin, a three-stringed instrument found in Okinawa, coming from somewhere, and the sound of an artisan making a clicking tone while weaving a piece of fabric may create a feeling of calm for the listener – even if it’s just in one’s imagination. Not only the Minsa Obi but also the artisan who has mastered the technique to weave by hand is currently facing problems of aging and a lack of successors to continue this traditional craft. Yamato Co., Ltd. is dedicated to continuing efforts to connect the techniques and crafts to the future.

**Translated collectively by all the members of the Bond Seminar, Department of Tourism and Transnational Studies, Faculty of Foreign Languages, Dokkyo University.