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Tuesday, July 3, 2001

LONG, PROUD TRADITION

Yokohama's scarf trade moving with the times


Staff writer

Abstract shapes, stripes and the obligatory "animal print" are patterns set to adorn scarves from Yokohama-based design house Marca Co. this fall season.

Tokie Asakawa, an employee of scarf maker Marca Co. in Yokohama's Naka Ward, displays some of the company's original designs.

"Scarves made in Yokohama have a good international reputation, and I am sure the quality of scarves can compete with those produced in Como, Italy (the center of European scarf production)," said Tokie Asakawa, an employee of the company that was established 50 years ago.

Scarf production is one of Yokohama's major industries, and the history of the trade can be traced to the opening of the port to the world in 1859 and its birth as a modern-day city.

In the industry's heyday, scarves from Yokohama accounted for more than half of all scarves traded in the world. However, at present, the industry is suffering from a protracted economic slowdown as well as an influx of cheaper products from other parts of Asia.

Yokohama was an ideal place for the silk scarf industry to develop, with foreigners settling near the port after it was opened, increasing demand for silk handkerchiefs.

As the port was the main export gate for raw silk at the time, there was ample material to produce handkerchiefs along with a sufficient number of workers in the city.

Craftsmen place patterns on white textiles with screen stencils at the factory of scarf printer Hattori Senkoh Co. in Yokohama's Asahi Ward.

"Many people say it seems easy to produce scarves in any place. But scarf production developed in Yokohama because material, human resources and distribution gathered here," said Katsuo Koizumi, director of the Silk Museum in Naka Ward.

Yokohama currently produces about 90 percent of all scarves made in Japan, he said. As an indication of the near-monopoly the city has in this field, of the 30 member companies of a nationwide association of scarf manufacturers, 29 are based in Yokohama.

In 1873, Yokohama-made silk handkerchiefs were sent to an international exposition in Vienna, where manufacturers got firsthand information on technologies used overseas. This helped elevate the production of silk handkerchiefs to a level worthy of export, followed around 1934 by the actual production of scarves for export, first to Britain, then to other countries, according to Koizumi.

But even this history cannot make the industry immune to globalization. Industry experts say competition with scarf makers in China and South Korea is heating up, not only in the export market but also in domestic sales, especially over the past decade or so.

In order to survive, the city's scarf shops and manufacturers are making renewed efforts to maintain tradition while at the same time exploring new business strategies.

Scarf firm Marca has been promoting a series of scarves with prints based on old "ukiyo-e" woodblock prints once used in newspapers that circulated in the city at around the end of the 19th century.

"We wanted to make scarves with original patterns, not those imported from Europe," said employee Taro Masuda, who came up with the idea of making scarves designed from ukiyo-e art.

The series offers elaborate prints of foreign sailing ships arriving at Yokohama port, ladies in Western-style dresses riding in carriages and locomotives -- which first ran in Japan between Tokyo and Yokohama.

The recognition of the need to differentiate and change is also shared by others involved in the scarf-making process.

"In my company, the printing procedure has been done by craftsmen. That's why the patterns of our scarves are more elaborate than those mass-produced by machines," said Hiroshi Yoshida, executive managing director of Hattori Senkoh Co. in Asahi Ward. The firm is one of the roughly 40 members of the Textile Printing Association, most of which are based in Yokohama and other cities in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The production process includes printing by silk screens, steaming to fix dye stuffs on the textile, washing, adjusting and folding, all which is done by 41 craftsmen. A scarf with 15 colors needs the same number of silk screens, and the different colors should overlap by no more than a width of a hair, said Yoshida, explaining that it takes 10 years to become recognized as a full-fledged craftsman.

But printers cannot manage by solely producing scarves, Yoshida said. Thus the factory also prints silk-cotton blend handkerchiefs under license from foreign brands such as Celine and Trussardi, who's products are popular in department stores across the country.

In another effort to stand out from competitors, the company in 1999 acquired the ISO14001 standard that the International Organization for Standardization provides to firms which have cleared certain standards for environmental management. It was the first scarf printing company in the world to obtain it, according to Yoshida.

"The international standard instills a sense of trust and gives a good impression (to customers), thus creating more business opportunities," he said in citing the reason for obtaining the standard. By meeting the severe ISO conditions, he added, the company has not only reduced its impact on the environment but has also cut costs and saved energy.

As one way to revitalize the traditional industry, attempts have also been made to make scarves utilizing old designs. The Yokohama City Center for Industrial Technology and Design in Kanazawa Ward has made a data base which contains the patterns of about 40,000 scarves exported from Yokohama to other countries in the past.

"The data base has been used by scarf makers for designing new patterns, and also to design other products like wallpaper," said Ikuhiko Akahori, a center staffer who input patterns into the database with the cooperation of Otsuka Institute of Textile Design in Tokyo.

At the same time, the city is also testing new waters. An event coming up this fall aims to unearth new scarf patterns through a design contest to be held by the cooperation of organizations in Yokohama and South Korea.

The Yokohama Fashion Association is organizing the 45th Yokohama scarf design contest with two themes; "Year 2002 Soccer Yokohama" and a freestyle category.

This year the contest is cosponsored by the Korea Fashion Association as a runup to the 2002 soccer World Cup, which Japan and South Korea will cohost. Anyone can join the contest by sending in an original scarf pattern. Some patterns that win prizes will be commercialized.

For more information, call the association at (045)221-0700.


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The Japan Times

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