Is Japanese Indigo Dyeing, Dying?

By Ziyan Gong

Indigo dyes have been around for centuries and are known to be one of the oldest dyes. In the 3rdcentury BC, a Chinese book refers to indigo dye in a proverb. The word indigo means a “dye from India” so it is believed to have originated in India. Indigo comes from a variety of plants such as Indigofera, Storobilanthes, and Polygonum. In Japan Polygonum is used to make natural indigo. In order for the indigo plant to be used as a dye, it has to be fermented and reduced. This way, it becomes water soluble and can produce that deep indigo color.

Japan has always been proud of their indigo as it produced a magnificent deep blue color. Almost 80% of the clothes in Japan were dyed using indigo at one point.   However, after the industrial production of synthetic indigo dyeing, natural indigo dyeing drastically decreased since the colorant in natural indigo and synthetic indigo is identical. A few centuries ago, indigo dyeing workshops were called kouya and were all over Japan. However, now almost all of the kouyas have been closed and only a few are left, preserving the tradition. The Folk Art Movement in Japan has definitely helped to preserve the tradition. Even though the end result is the same, natural indigo dyed objects are more expensive because Japanese people cherish and appreciate the value and time that the traditional process takes. Because indigo dyeing was once the pride of Japan, I believe that it will not lose value any time soon and that the craft will be kept alive. Many designers now, including Anna Sui are taking notice and purposely using natural indigo dyes in their collections. Other niche markets such as many denim fanatics continue to use natural dyes and traditional construction techniques. For example, jean store Blue & Green sell jeans that are exact replicas of olden Levis, and other jeans that are made of “Japanese denim” dyed in traditional methods.

For more interesting blog posts, visit Pingmag for a very touching interview of Tadashi Higeta, born in Mashiko-machi, Haga-gun, who is now an 8th generation Indigo dyer and weaver.  Also, there is an interesting article on indigo dyeing in Japan on the Blue & Green blog.



Hill, D. (2008). Is there a future for natural dyes? Coloration Technology, 18-25.

Kawahito, M. (2001). Natural Indigo Dying in Tokushima, Japan. Natural Dying, 25-31.

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