Restoration In Progress: “Great Big White Birds”

There is so much excitement and anxiety in my stomach for this piece. Getting my hands on this was some Grade A craziness. The odds of ever coming across it again were so small it it’s stupid. Then it got weirder. The universe has presented to me a bizarre smoothie–an absolute puree of people’s lives that I thought I had a better grasp on than I do. Trying to describe what it is accurately and inclusively is absolute insanity. The help I had to pour through federal documents, and the mismatches of what I’ve been told vs. what has been reported is probably a greater testament to the tragedy that created the conditions for this shit than anything else I could come up with.

So here we fucking go. Are you ready?

Back in 2005ish, my sister gave me my first furisode. It’s a big green beast that I haven’t shown off here yet, and I love it. I was over at my now husband’s family’s house gushing about it to grandma, and Great Uncle Aki–grandma’s brother in law–was there. I hadn’t shared many words with him. He wasn’t often a person of many words. But my mentioning of it made him ask me about it. He then described to me his mother’s kimono that had been taken before they were interned. He described a big, red kimono with long sleeves, great big white birds, lots of gold, and pine fronds. With our family crest, but on a shield.

Because I am a crazy person, I tend to remember shit like that. When someone has a conversation with me that means something to them, I’m going to remember it. My brain can almost play it back like a goddamn video recording. It drives some people crazy, and it’s also why I’m a fucking nightmare to go up against on trivia night.

So there I was a few days ago, scrolling through my usual haunts and this beauty came up.

And I was all like: “Oh my god. Somebody shit my pants.

So I got a clean pair of underwear and the war began. The other bidders put up a hard fight, and I wasn’t expecting to pay anywhere near as much as I did for it. But with familial support an alarm set…well I wanted it more. Because they saw all of the amazing embroidery and gold work on it, and yeah yeah, that’s great. I saw this:


Behold, our “family crest on a shield.” Or more accurately, a yukiwa (snow crystal) variant of our kamon.

And very importantly, those “Great big white birds.” That’s what he said. He didn’t call them cranes. He didn’t call them tsuru, even though that’s a theme he knew. He called them “great big white birds.” I’m like 90% sure these are doves.

This is where I decided not to talk much about my family history, and talk more about the kimono. And there’s a hard reason as to why: I need to be sensitive to the survivors. The federal data does not match some of the verbal stories told to me. People are moved around. Siblings are missing. Names have changed. Ages are nuts. Dates are meaningless. And the fact of the matter now is that most of the people who lived these things firsthand are gone now, and those that might have even a clue as to what some of it means…well, they didn’t come over on the Korea Maru in 1918. They hadn’t been born yet.

I would bet a fucking kidney that this kimono once belonged to Great Grandma Akiye. And how I was able to find out how to spell her goddamn name was an absolute shitshow. Which is fine, I guess, because shitshows are what I specialize in here. It’s important to me that I try to keep things to what I know. What I do know, is that Great Uncle Aki told me that before internment, some items were buried, but his mother arrived at the internment camps with a suitcase with a few silks in it. It was confiscated for “inspection.” She never saw it again.

But when it comes to those who remain, I realize that between the second generation and third generation children and the federal records–there are no reliable narrators. Shit’s going to be weird on record because–I don’t have to spare the US government’s feelings here–there was some hardcore racist bullshit going on. And shit’s going to be weird when it comes to conveyed stories and information because…well, Grandma gave all of her children “American” sounding names for a fucking reason. Talking about some of this to those that remain sparks some confusion, or correction of the records.

There is no truth. It has died.

The only thing I can do now is restore what is in front of me, and be sensitive enough not to trample on generational trauma by spouting “facts” that are on official records. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Do you ever just know something? As I’ve touched this, and felt it, and inspected it, and called to mind Uncle Aki’s words, and asked the few people who would remember what he’d said…this is it. I’ve brought it home, and now I’m going to fix it.

So let’s talk about the damage.

She’s in shockingly good condition for her age. Solidly Taisho, as I have all the fucking provenance I need, it was made before 1918. And for having been stolen, she’s solid. There are no signs of shattering, no holes or fraying that I can find.

Staining is actually quite minimal. My biggest challenges are going to be these transfers of what looks like oxidation. They’re in the same spacing as some of the silver wire work in the silk elsewhere.

My biggest task is going to be all of the kinsai (gold paint) work on it. Because of fucking course it is. -Ugly sobbing- There are spots where there is severe chipping on both the gold and the silver painted pine branches. Have a look:

It’s actually not that bad. These are some of the worst spots. My plan of attack is to handle the stains, and then heat set what is still here. Then, I can fill in the fragmented and missing pieces with my mixture. Hopefully, I can blend my gold paint with theirs easily. There’s no signs of decay in the sizing (adhesive used to affix it), and I actually see some oxidation in the silver. So that’s a thing!

I’m going to need more gold leaf to make into paint. And I’m going to need to get some silver, too.

All of the gold couching and embroidery is with real gold. I was even able to fucking polish it. LOOK AT IT:

Also, that embroidery is exactly as soft and luxurious as it looks.

Speaking of things that look like things. Because I have birds, I had a good laugh at this dove:

Pictured: SQUAWK?

So, we’ve got a bird from the top down. Look at those wings and the head position. You know how I’m convinced the artist got their reference on a bird that looks like that? They had to have had someone hold a goddamn dove like a hotdog and spread the wings open. I’ve done that. Isn’t that right, Cricket?

Pictured: Actual stupidity incarnate.

My last challenge is going to be removing the right sleeve and reattaching it. The thread has broken in several places, but the silk itself is in good repair. It’s just a simple seam fix.

Pictured: tiny yike

The rest is wrinkles. And unless heat is needed to remove a specific kind of stain–and that is a thing sometimes!–I always wait until nearly the last step to do any kind of ironing or wrinkle release. You can accidentally set a stain if you apply heat to it too soon, and there’s really no reason for me to make this any harder on myself than it already is. That’s not my kind of suffering.

I decided to save all of the delicious details and nerd knowledge bits until it’s fixed and I’m presenting it as a finished piece. I also fully intend to wear it at least once. Otherwise, I need to make a plan for display.

I think that more than any other piece that I’ve recovered that had been lost, this one scares me the most. I want to do right by this so badly. So much wrong has already been done–so much wrong that finding a good timeline of true facts or even a correctly spelled fucking name has been an impossible task. So much wrong that survivors might all disagree on what “real” is. And there isn’t shit I can do about that.

But I can take this piece, and I can love it. I can fix it. I can give it back its name. So that’s what I’ll do.


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