Project 14, part 2 – Please Pay Me in Obiage (Part 1 here)
Welcome back to Mukashi no Sewing! Having finished sewing my obiage, this week I wanted to show them off a bit! Obiage are a relatively recent addition to the kimono corpus – dating from 1823, to be exact. At that time in Tokyo, there was an opening celebration for the new Taikobashi – Drum Bridge – and several geisha attending the event tied their obi in this new style for the occasion. Obiage (along with obimakura – the supporting pillows – and obijime – the cord that ties around and secures the obi) were invented to go along with this new musubi! (Musubi literally means knot, but in many cases the obi itself isn’t knotted – rather, it’s supported in place by the accessories.) As the obimakura aren’t particularly stylish, the obiage is wrapped around it to conceal both the pillow and its ties, and also to provide a pop of color above the obi.
They started showing up in woodblock prints from 1877 or so, and commercial advertisements can be seen in old newspapers starting around 1907. The market price back then was about 1.50 yen. What does that equate to today? I’m so glad you asked. 😀
Ok, buckle up because currency equivalencies get crazy. In the early 1900s, one yen was worth approximately 50 US cents on the foreign exchange. The starting monthly salary for an elementary school teacher was about 8 yen, and a carpenter could earn up to 20 yen a month. Takeout curry rice cost about 6 sen, or .06 yen, but an American bicycle could cost as much as 250 yen – far more than that elementary school teacher made in a year! For an idea of what that 50 cents could buy you at the same time in America; a man’s dress shirt was about $1, and a pound of coffee was approximately 35 cents. So an obiage wasn’t cheap – but it wasn’t out of reach of that school teacher either.
It’s a little trickier for me to figure out exactly what that amount is in current yen and dollars because of the effects of WWII – there’s no historical value of the yen during that time, and inflation calculators pick up again in 1956. $1 in 1956 is approximately equivalent to $11 today, and ¥1 in 1956 is roughly ¥6 in 2022. $1 in 2022 is, at the time of writing, exchanging for about ¥140 – it was even more unfavorable for the yen a couple of months ago when it was upwards of ¥170 to the dollar! I shop secondhand for many of my kimono accessories, but a new silk obiage from Mamechiyo Modern currently retails for ¥16,500, or about $118.
An elementary school teacher in my neck of the woods makes, on average, $67k/year, or about $5500/month. They could, then, in other words, afford to buy 45 obiage every month (assuming they bought nothing else, lol). Their compatriot in Tokyo makes an average of ¥7,547,511/year (~$54k/year), or about ¥629,000/month (~$4500/month), and thus can only afford approximately 39 obiage monthly. However, this is still much better than their Meiji-era comrade, who could only buy 5 obiage a month with a little left over for curry rice. 🙂
Another wrinkle to take into consideration, however, is that I don’t know the relative value of the Meiji-era obiage pricing. I’ve taken Mamechiyo’s obiage as a midpoint for modern pricing, but a quick search on Rakuten reveals that obiage range from ¥660 for solid-color polyester to ¥25,300 (~$4.50-$182). On Yahoo Japan Auctions the range is even wider – 1 yen to ¥36,500 (~less than a cent to $262). So if you’re looking at the highest end, a PNW schoolteacher can only buy about 20 obiage a month, and a Tokyoite is buying 17.
What should your takeaway be, other than that I absolutely consider “obiage per month” a valid measure of salary and purchasing power? Japanese sources I’ve looked at use a conversion of anywhere from Meiji ¥1 = Reiwa ¥3,800 to Meiji ¥1 = Reiwa ¥20,000. The low end of the scale simply compares prices, but the high end looks at purchasing power as I have done (taking into account that lives, jobs, and necessities vary considerably between the centuries). So if you think about the higher end of the scale, that comes out to an almost perfect equivalency with today’s more luxurious obiage pricing – something that would be (or would have been) a treat, but not out of reach of an elementary school teacher.
I don’t teach elementary school, although several of my friends do, so I guess I’ll have to ask them how many obiage they buy every month! 😀 I have 17 obiage including these, and I’ve been seriously wearing kimono for a couple of years, so that’s a little less than an obiage a month. I guess I need to work on that! 🙂
I hope you’ve enjoyed your impromptu lecture on historical economics, and also hope you’ve enjoyed getting to see my new obiage in action! I actually loved the fabric that I made them out of so much that I have another project featuring it in the works, so look forward to that as well as other history and fashion madness next time here on Mukashi no Sewing! ❤
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