The establishment of a new Japanese Textile Conservation Fund

This fund has been established in order to support conservation work on historical Japanese textiles. While the importance of preserving historic architecture, paintings, and sculpture has attracted the attention of many, and various sources for funding such conservation have emerged, the equal need for preserving fragile historic textiles has gained little notice and therefore less support. The Japanese Textile Conservation Fund is aimed at redressing this lack.

As functional objects used for clothing and interior decoration, textiles lie close to our cultural and individual identity. In Japan, the colors, materials, and designs of fabrics rival the fine arts in their vivid expression, painterly composition and inventive techniques. In addition, Japanese textiles historically have served to enhance social situations in the form of treasured gifts, tax payment, and donations to religious and secular institutions. Still, textiles are subject to wear and tear and are more likely to disintegrate over time than pottery, metalwork, or even lacquer. As a result, worldwide, most surviving old textiles have been excavated from graves or tombs, while the rare examples of textiles from the Middle Ages and later have been passed down in religious institutions or by wealthy families.

Japan has a particularly good record of preserving its textiles through careful handling and storage. Here the Buddhist temples played an integral role. Special importance given to religious and ritual garments and temple decorations has led to the preservation in Japan of superb textiles produced locally and imported from China from as early as the 7th century. The Japanese custom of honoring garments worn by outstanding figures merged with the Zen tradition of passing down kesa (surplices) from master to disciple as a sign of spiritual transmission. These transmission robes (denpô-e) brought back from China often found rest in a Japanese temple as a symbolic contact relic. In addition, the idea that something worn close to the skin had somehow become imbued with the spirit of the wearer meant that lay people often donated garments of the deceased as prayers for their souls. Some have been preserved intact, as have ritual garments, providing invaluable examples of datable garments. Along with other donated fabrics, such textiles were frequently deconstructed and sewn up into the banners and altar cloths used to evoke the world of Buddha. In this way, religious institutions, large and small, became storage houses for textiles reflecting the pageant of secular as well as religious history.

Many temples keep their old textiles packed away in boxes, or enclosed in paper or cloth wrappers, to be taken out and displayed only for special occasions. Particularly sacred pieces are sometimes kept in a box that remains unopened for centuries, and then when it is finally inspected, one finds little more than crumbles, or fragments, or frayed pieces that, if salvaged, might provide a clue to the life of a person, the styles of a time, or the technical achievements of a period.

During the past decades of working with Japanese Buddhist convents and monasteries our researchers have become acutely aware of the great number of historically important textiles that urgently need attention. It is often difficult to judge which among them deserves attention first. Priority, however, will be given to textiles with known provenance, and with special historic or religious significance, as well as to textiles that are outstanding examples of artistry and technique.

Needless to say, action is needed to conserve Japan’s precious performing arts costumes, as well as the wide variety of kosode robes that represent the changing periods of Japanese history. As this Conservation Fund grows we hope to expand efforts into these areas as well. We welcome the participation of all those with Japanese textile expertise, and we are actively seeking the financial support of those who share our concern for historic textile conservation.

Dollar contributions to the Fund can be made to the Medieval Japanese Studies Foundation, which is a 501 (c) (3) Not-for-Profit Corporation in the State of New York, which provides full tax benefits in accordance with US law. Dollar checks should be written to the “Medieval Japanese Studies Foundation” and mailed to the Foundation president, Barbara Ruch, 35 Claremont Ave., #10-S, New York, NY 10027 USA with an indication it is for the Japanese Textile Conservation Fund. Bank transfers can be made to the bank account indicated below.

Come join us in this pioneering venture.

For further information or conservatory participation in this project, or for how to make yen contributions to this effort, please contact either of us in Japanese or English.

Monica Bethe, Director, Japanese Textile Conservation Fund


Michiyo Katsura, Executive Director, Medieval Japanese Studies Institute


Medieval Japanese Studies Institute

Daikankiji Convent, 3 Tsuruyama-cho 5-chome,

Teramachi-dori, Imadegawa agaru, Kamigyo-ku,

Kyoto  602-0802

Tel/Fax: (075)212-1206