September 28th, 2015 / posted by paularath
Japanese plantation clothing from the collection of Barbara Kawakami

                              Japanese plantation clothing from the collection of Barbara Kawakami                                  Photo courtesy Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles


I am really not sure where my passion for indigo comes from. I often think it’s influenced by my two years living in Africa (Botswana and Nigeria). There is some debate about whether indigo came first to Ghana in Western Africa or to Japan.

Of course the passion is also stirred because of Hawaii’s deep roots with indigo and my deep appreciation of Darius Homay, who has taught me much of what I know about indigo and has let me play and experiment in his indigo vat for many years.

Indigo kimono from Hawaii's plantation days. Photo courtesy Barbara Richie

Indigo kimono from Hawaii’s plantation days.  Photo by Trish Coder

No one knows more about our islands’ indigo roots than the incredible Barbara Kawakami, who is now a spry and savvy 94-year-old who still lives independently on her own. Barbara has a remarkable collection of Hawaii plantation clothing, most of which is now housed in the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles.

Many of the garments worn by our Japanese plantation workers were indigo,  as were the kimonos and hapi coats they wore during leisure times. Barbara even added a mosu to the collection, a wool piece used to cover a baby’s diaper so it wouldn’t leak, that’s a beautiful indigo fish print.

An indigo mosu, used to cover a baby's diaper.

An indigo mosu, used to cover a baby’s diaper. Photo by Trish Coder

Far too beautiful for its purpose? Well, maybe. But my maternal grandmother, Helen Jacobs, always said that  everything we touch in our daily lives should be a thing of beauty….

Indigo plantation clothimg

Indigo plantation clothing. Photo courtesy Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles

My dear friend Barbara Richie, with whom I grew up on Papailoa Road on the North Shore of Oahu, has been working on a new book with Barbara on the subject of Japanese picture brides in Hawaii. It’s due to be published in the spring by University of Hawaii Press.

Barbara sent me the wonderful photos featured in this blog. My mother and Barbara’s mother worked together during WWII in the censorship department. They became life long friends.

Since I no longer have access to an indigo vat on a regular basis, I’m going to segue into kakishibu (persimmon) dye to express earth and buildings on my canvases. I’m starting a “Kakaako: Now and in 2025” series. More on that as I progress….

– Paula Rath

Indigo kimono kawakami

Indigo kimono. Photo by Trish Coder



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