Marshall Islands’ Traditional Handicrafts Take On Japanese Moniker

The tradition is theirs, but the name is Japanese.

The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority said the term was “coined by the Japanese in the early 1900s to describe any and all of the handmade crafts created by the Marshallese people.”

Handicrafting has been with the people of the Marshall Islands, an archipelagic country in the central Pacific, from even before the Japanese occupied it in the early part of the 20th century.

Loretta deBrum of the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority told Kyodo News that before the Marshallese people adapted the Japanese word “amimono” to refer to handicrafts, they used the local word “monakjen.”

“We have this tradition already on our own. We knew how to make ‘amimono.’ I heard it being called ‘amimono’ when I was growing up,” Gradle Alfred, who owns a handicraft shop in the capital Majuro Atoll, said in a separate interview.

Alfred, 83, was born in 1934 during the Japanese occupation of the Marshall Islands, a nation in the heart of the Pacific Ocean above the equator made up of 29 atolls and five islands.

The relatively young country of some 60,000 people now is known as a former nuclear bomb testing site of the United States after World War II, and as among those presently bearing the brunt of climate change.

Japan took military possession of the Marshall Islands in October 1914 when World War I broke out. Prior to that, it was a colony of Germany.

From 1914, Japan expanded its presence in the island nation and went on to establish military fortifications on several atolls in the late 1930s.

Alfred disclosed that her father was a Japanese man identified by her mother as a certain Marita Fujita who was said to have been an engineer on a ship that brought commercial goods to the islands back then.

“My father did not see me when I was born because my (maternal) grandfather kept me and my mother away from him for fear he would take me with him to Japan,” said Alfred. “So, we don’t really know what happened to him — whether he went back to Japan, or stayed here until he died.”

She adds she does not even have a photo of her father.

Alfred recalls that during the Japanese occupation, the Japanese called their handicraft products “amimono.”

The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority said “amimono” was “coined by the Japanese in the early 1900s to describe any and all of the handmade crafts created by the Marshallese people.”

Alfred shared that she learned about making handicraft products from her grandmother and mother when she was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, creating handicraft skirts and sleeping mats even when she was still a little girl.

“The Marshallese already had this handicraft tradition even before the Japanese occupied us,” she said.

Japan’s occupation of the Marshall Islands ended in 1945 after its defeat in World War II. The United States took over and went on to be its administrator until the Marshall Islands sought independence in 1986.

After retiring from government work and with the intention of helping local women make their own living, Alfred opened the Leipajid Handicraft Shop in 1988.

Employing some women, her shop produces handicraft items and sells them. She also makes purchases from handicraft makers outside and sells them in her shop.

Before opening her shop, she recalled that a women’s club on Majuro was already running a formal handicraft business.

According to the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority, the Marshallese have perfected their skills in handcrafting over time as resources are naturally available.

With just basic materials like coconut shoot membrane, pandan leaves, and strips of coconut frond, the Marshallese are able to create woven mats, model canoes (decorative), work baskets, hats, and a popular wall ornament called “ubon.”

They have also ventured into making purses and fashion jewelry, such as earrings and hair pins, with the utilization of additional materials like seashells.

Alfred’s shop is filled with “ubon,” baskets, fans, necklaces, keepers, and some wall and car decorative items, among others.

With five employees at present and supplied handcraft products from makers outside, Alfred also brings some items to outside of the Marshall Islands, such as Guam, Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan.

“(Foreigners) like it,” she said.

Currently, more than 10 shops are operating across Majuro, aside from individual vendors and handicraft sections in some stores.

“The Marshallese are very well known now with ‘amimono’ in the Pacific region (for the) very nice and fine weaving,” Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine proudly told Kyodo News in a recent interview.

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(Source: Kyodo News 17 December 2017)

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