Kakishibu, the Color of Astringency

It is difficult for the Western mind to conceive of a color belonging to a flavor: astringency. This is especially true because in France the flavor is rather unknown, limited to the tannins in wine. In Japan, on the contrary, the idea enjoys surprising amplitude. Shibui (“astringent” in English) evokes foremost the flavor of the persimmon, or kakinoki. Hundreds of varieties of kaki exist, both sweet and astringent. Its trees grow abundantly throughout Japan. The kaki, a blushing green color in autumn, is the national fruit, and its tannins have historically always been extracted.
The adjective shibui and the noun shibumi are a challenge to translate as the terms and their derivatives are common and predominately positive in their use. They are complimentary, evoking a certain refinement; one may hear about an “astringent man,” or an “astringent voice,” or even “astringent colors.” These three common uses are exemplary of a daily usages that can extend to anything possessing aesthetic qualities.
01_Plaqueminier (kakinoki)_Sakai HOITSU_Japan_1816_inv.57.156.3 _c_Metropolitan Museum_detail_600x475
Persimmon tree (kakinoki), detail, Sakai Hoitsu, Japan, 1816, Metropolitan Museum, n° Inv.57.156.3
The origins of the positive use of the term can be found in shibugonomi, a fashion aesthetic born in Edo (Tokyo) in the 19th century that was based on fleeing from ostentation in favor of discretion and distinction. In other words, bling-bling styles were shunned in favor of an understated, subtle beauty, a shibushibu beauty. Amidst the browns, blacks, greys and indigos faded by the hands of time or of artisans, the color of kakishibu founds a place. Up until then, a fan prepared with kakishibu was considered low-end or expected to receive other tints and painted motifs as finishings. By choosing to conserve the tonality of kakishibu in its fullness in the finished product, without added motifs, connoisseurs had enacted a reversal of values, thereby inventing a minimalist beauty.
The Japanese, then, had a very clear idea of the color of kakishibu. And as kakishibu means “persimmon astringent,” astringency began to be “visualized” through this omnipresent tint in quotidian lives. The resulting color is called kakishibuiro, kakiiro or shibuiro (“color of persimmon astringent,” “color of persimmon,” or “color of astringent,” respectively). In this way, a vocabulary of astringency was concretized. Behind the dark matte shade of shibuiro, can one perceive the bright orange fruit within?
04_Kimono en papier teint au kakishibu_19eme_Japan_inv.1999.247.12_c_Metropolitan Museum_web
Kakishibu dyed paper kimono, 19th, Japan, Metropolitan Museum, n° Inv.1999.247.12
Technically speaking, kakishibu is the fermented pressed juice extract of unripe persimmons. Its uses are varied; among those related to textiles, kakishibu is notably used in the production of:
shibuzome or kakizome dye, a natural reddish-brown tint. Via alloy with chemical elements, a range of colors emerges: iron reveals a grey-black palette, titanium gives orange and alkalis clarify and lighten the tint. This dye solidifies fabrics and is particularly useful in work clothes ranging from hunting gear to the garb of sake merchants.
– windproof and waterproof outerwear known as kakiso (“persimmon dress”)
– solid, waterproof paper called shibugami (“astringent paper”) used in the production of umbrellas, shibusen (“astringent fans”) and kakiuchiwa (“persimmon fans”) and storage bags.
– stencil patterns for kimonos.
The flavor of astringency is incarnate in the persimmon fruit and then embodied by objects treated with kakishibu. The word shibu, which foremost describes a taste, has gradually grown to register as color on the retinae of Japanese culture.
For further reading, see Astringent by Ryoko Sekigushi, from which this article excerpts, or watch the NHK report The History of Persimmons.