Interview With Kikuo Morimoto
Morimoto talks about reviving a tradition almost lost in the legacy of war and about his own drive for artistic perfection and social change.
Emily Taguchi is a journalist and filmmaker from Tokyo. She is currently working as a field producer and videographer for KQED public television in San Francisco. This is Taguchi's second story for FRONTLINE/World's Rough Cut series; her previous film, The Unforgotten War, about antagonism between Chinese and Japanese youth over the memories of World War II was completed in 2006. She is a graduate of the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism.
Growing up in Tokyo, Cambodia was never far from my conscience. At train stations, volunteers would ask commuters to empty their change to help one of the poorest countries in Asia. Public-service announcements on television encouraged donations and showed the wide eyes and gaunt faces of Cambodian children. Whenever I left food on my plate at the table, my mother would say, "Think about all of the hungry children in the world!"
Still, I was surprised when I read about Kikuo Morimoto, a well-known textile craftsman from Kyoto, Japan, who had moved to Cambodia to help revive the country's ancient practice of silk-making. Many Japanese people are well intentioned but feel more comfortable staying on the entrenched road before them than taking a different, sometimes extraordinary, path. There is even an old saying in Japan that says, "A nail that sticks out will be hammered down."
Morimoto used to hand paint kimonos, and ran his own successful studio with apprentices in tow. But he began to question what that success meant to his life. In the early 1980s, it drew him to the Thai-Cambodian border, where he volunteered at refugee camps. It was there he discovered the beauty of Cambodian silk. "The red of the fabric burned a fierce impression on my eyes," he told me.
Cambodian silk-making is a traditional art that has been passed down through generations from mother to daughter. But Morimoto found the craft in danger of disappearing after decades of violence. When a United Nations mission in the 1990s led Morimoto to Cambodia, he met a few of the weavers. Many of the women were in their 70s and 80s and living in remote villages across the country -- they were the only ones left who knew the secrets of the craft.
During his initial research in Cambodia, Morimoto also found that those who still practiced the silk-making were paid just pennies for their painstaking work. As a fellow craftsman, Morimoto found that infuriating. "These grandmothers were so highly skilled, they should be given the chance to do work that matched their skills and be paid for it," he said.
When I arrived in Cambodia to report this story, I felt some of those same frustrations. Tourists swarm Angkor Wat before dawn -- nearly one million people visit the ancient temples every year, each paying at least $20 to enter and some as much as $60. But minutes away, people live alongside dirt roads, tending to their children and living in poverty. Many of the main streets are dotted with signs that clearly target tourists with warnings in multiple languages. The message? Paying minors for sex is a crime.
In 1996, starting with seven "silk grandmothers," as the women came to be known, Morimoto set up a silk production studio in the town of Siem Reap, which lies on the main tourist route to Angkor Wat. Today, more than 400 people work there, earning anywhere from $80 to $200 a month. It's a modest sum, but far more than the average Cambodian wage of $300 a year.
For the elderly women I met, silk weaving also offered a way of life that didn't violate their beliefs. Chan Sot, who joined Morimoto more than 10 years ago, has lived through great turmoil -- from the French colonial occupation, to U.S. bombardment, to the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror (a time when one in four Cambodians were killed). "Be a merchant, and cheat the customer by cheating the scales" -- as a Buddhist, that was not a value she wanted to live by. "With silk, there is no sacrilege," Chan Sot explained. "I always warned my children not to work where they have to commit sacrilege to make profit."
Today, with the help of Morimoto, a man with an appreciation of beauty and a sense of justice, Chan Sot says she has rediscovered the honorable work she wanted for herself and her daughter.
-- Emily Taguchi