Masako Kinoshita (née Matsuoka) passed away in her sleep on August 4, 2022, at the age of 96. Born in Kochi, Japan, she and her husband emigrated from their home country and settled in Ithaca, New York, where he became a professor at Cornell University. They lived there for 60 years before moving in 2016 to Amherst, Massachusetts, where they shared a home with their youngest daughter and her family.
Her three daughters recall childhoods shaped by their mother’s irrepressible creativity and curiosity. “She never had to push us to excel,” her middle daughter June recalls. “She gave us the confidence to pursue our interests and passions. She was the original MacGyver. She could improvise ingenious solutions from whatever was lying around,” a quality all of the “Kinoshita girls” drew on in their careers as high-energy particle physicist, biomedical entrepreneur, and architect-developer.
Masa, as her friends called her, was internationally known as a textile artist and historical researcher who published Nihon Kumihimo Kogihō no Kenkyū (Study of Ancient Japanese Braiding Techniques, 1994), a landmark in the field of Japanese textile arts. The 359-page volume describes her decades-long investigation into the history of the craft of creating decorative braids (kumihimo) used in Japan as ties for Buddhist sutra scrolls and lacings for samurai armor. When she began her research, little was known about what had become an almost forgotten craft. But Masa’s expertise in braiding and mathematical skills enabled her to establish that historic kumihimo braids dating from the 7th century through Japan’s war-torn medieval era were constructed using a finger-loop technique that had largely fallen out of use in Japan by the 19th century.
Modern kumihimo braids are made using a stand-and-bobbin technique that she thought was too cumbersome and slow to allow for the production of huge quantities of armor lacings that would be required during times of war. Masa’s research led her to obscure documents that recorded industrial recipes, including braid-making, that were written in a secret code. With her deep knowledge of braid-making and structure, she was able to crack the code. Her book records her journey in meticulous, scholarly detail, and is filled with photographs and computer-generated diagrams which she created for reconstructing a multitude of historical braids.
While the mystery of Japan’s lost braiding technology intrigued her intellectually, it was the beauty of the braids that engaged her most deeply. Masa loved textiles from growing up in Japan and while living in Ithaca became highly accomplished in weaving and spinning, using natural plant dyes and just about any textile craft that captured her interest. Within a few years after acquiring her first loom, she was winning top jury prizes at regional craft fairs. Her daughters recall she once knit a sweater using fur from a friend’s Samoyed dog.
Masa was born on April 24, 1926, in Kochi City on the south coast of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, to Yoshikazu and Michiko (née Nosé) Matsuoka. The family, descended from samurai, moved soon thereafter to Kyoto, where her father taught philosophy at Doshisha University and her mother taught ethics at Doshisha Women’s College. She was the 2nd of five children and the elder of two daughters. The Matsuokas moved to Tokyo around 1937, where Masa attended Seijo Gakuen, a progressive private school. She attended Ochanomizu University, a top women’s college, where she originally planned to pursue a career in medicine but switched to physics. It was in her physics classes that she met her future husband, Toichiro Kinoshita, a recent physics graduate who had been pressed into teaching.
In 1952, after Toichiro embarked for the U.S. to take a position at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Masa sailed to the United States aboard a freighter to join him. The couple moved to Ithaca in 1955, where Toichiro joined the physics faculty at Cornell University. In those early years, Masa assisted her husband with mathematical calculations on the ground state of the helium atom. After a dozen years of being a full-time, stay-at-home mother, rearing her three daughters and shuttling them to ballet and music classes, she took a job in the Asian collections at Cornell’s Olin Library to support her new-found passion for weaving. Her endless curiosity about textiles eventually led her on her quest to solve the secrets of samurai braids.
Her sons-in-law gratefully recall Masa’s artistry in the kitchen. Holiday banquets at the Kinoshita home featured Peking Duck, which Masa made by painstakingly glazing ducks with honey water for two days, and then roasting them in a blazing oven. The prized crispy skin and tender meat would then be bundled in paper-thin home-made pancakes with a dab of hoisin sauce and slivers of scallion for a memorable repast.
Masa is survived by her husband, Toichiro, of Amherst, Massachusetts; daughters and sons-in-law Kay Kinoshita and Alan Schwartz of Cincinnati, Ohio; June Kinoshita and Tod Machover of Waltham, Massachusetts; and Ray and Charles C. Mann of Amherst Massachusetts; sister Yuriko Tanaka of Hayama, Japan; and six grandchildren, Maya Schwartz, Eito Schwartz, Hana Machover, Noa Machover, Emilia Mann, and Schuyler Mann. There will be a private visitation for family and friends on August 9 at 982 East Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. A celebration of her life will take place at a future date in Ithaca, New York.