Underneath the ‘Orientalist’ kimono


Special To The Japan Times

Is it “racist” for non-Japanese to wear kimono? That question has been fiercely debated since protesters entered Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in late June to decry an exhibition encouraging visitors to try on a red uchikake kimono in front of a 1876 painting by Claude Monet of his wife wearing a similar garment.

The original protesters — who, though not Japanese, identified as Asian-American — said the museum was perpetuating a racist stereotype that exoticized Asian culture. That stereotype has its roots in the colonial era, when Europeans viewed non-Western cultures as an oversimplified selection of traits in a way that dehumanized them — known by cultural theorists as an “Orientalist” perspective.

The museum stopped allowing visitors to try on the kimono but continued allowing them to touch it. By July 16, protests had increased and become part of a wider advocacy movement protesting modern Orientalism on social media through the hashtag #whitesupremacykills on Twitter and “Stand Against Yellow Face” Facebook group.

But the reaction to the exhibition from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono.

In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival, as two new books recently published on the subject show: “Kimono: A Modern History” by Terry Satsuki-Milhaupt, and “Kimono Now” by Manami Okazaki.

Satsuki-Milhaupt reveals the kimono to be a tool of nationhood and a projection of Japan’s self-image. She shows how, during the mid-1800s, Japan itself was complicit in encouraging tacit Orientalism by making the kimono a symbol of the unified national identity it created after opening its borders to the West in 1853.

The government proudly marketed kimono at international expos, while Japanese traders sold their wares to European shops specializing in Chinese artifacts, unbothered by Westerners’ tendencies to blur the distinctions between the two countries’ forms of dress.

At the same time, the West misappropriated the kimono, tainting it with sexual connotations just as it did with geisha, a misperception perpetuated by artists such as Jacques Joseph Tissot, who, in 1864, painted a European woman with a kimono flapping open to reveal her nude body.

Satsuki-Milhaupt was one of many experts who reappraised the kimono in recent years amid a crisis in the industry. Sales continue to plummet as Japanese people wear it less and less, while traditional fabrics and techniques are facing extinction as aging artisans pass away without successors.

Satsuki-Milhaupt suggests that portraying the kimono as “traditional” will only diminish its relevance. In fact, deliberate attempts last century to preserve the kimono industry by turning its once-anonymous artisans to celebrities had the ironic effect of transforming it from everyday apparel into a rarely worn form of ceremonial dress.

Those efforts also froze the kimono in time, codifying the way it is worn in a set of rules now deemed so complex that only special schools are able to teach them.

“The real reason why traditional kimono culture is about to (become) extinct,” wrote avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, “is because of its tendency to aspire to ‘perfection’ as a style that does not allow any other foreign item to be added to it. My advice for anyone wearing kimono is to challenge this rigidity; let’s forget about attending kimono lessons.”

Even though clothes recognized as kimono have been worn for more than 1,000 years, the current rules are based on mid-1800s fashion, when Japan created the word “kimono” to distill its vast culture into a marketable format it could present to the West. The various garments that existed at the time — including the uchikake (a padded overlayer), kosode (short-sleeved variation), hitoe (single layer summer garment) and yukata (light robe originally worn after bathing) — were subsumed under the umbrella term “kimono,” which literally means “something to wear.”

Satsuki-Milhaupt describes how the kimono became a canvas onto which both contemporary life and Japan’s self-image — torn between patriotic fervor and a sense of inferiority toward the dominant West — were projected. By 1900, wearing a kimono was a way of expressing patriotic pride, while adopting Western dress signaled one’s aspirations to be equal to Europe.

Yet, at the same time, kimono also became more “Western,” with designs shifting from representations of indigenous plants to European motifs such as yachts and tulips, and incorporating artistic styles such as art deco. They were also increasingly made with imported wool rather than domestic silk.

The kimono industry is now trying to adapt the garment to the modern era, as Okazaki’s visually rich “Kimono Now” demonstrates. Okazaki feels that adversity in the industry has created a frenetic energy and increased innovation. She showcases kimono houses striving to preserve traditional techniques for weaving and dyeing the kimono, but also shows contemporary designers reinventing the garment by adopting new fabrics, patterns and ways of wrapping it around the body.

One kimono format offering more freedom for interpretation is the yukata, which is seen as a younger, hipper and easier-to-wear version. Okazaki quotes Rumix, a young designer based in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, whose graphic designs are inspired by everything from the movie “Apollo 13” to Yukio Mishima novels, as comparing yukata as the “b-side” to the formal world of kimono.

Sadly, those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. One of those is Hiromi Asai, a kimono designer who is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 by July 31 to hold a show at New York Fashion Week next February to show that the kimono can be a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”

Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist.

“Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”

  • GBR48

    Us Brits are supposed to be ‘whinging poms’, (a stereotype I find amusing, often correct and am not bothered by) but nobody whines and moans like a politically correct American, trying to ban anything they don’t agree with and overwrite, abolish or criminalise history-their own and everyone else’s. Flags, kimonos, whatever. Don’t these people have jobs to go to?

    A stereotype isn’t going to kill you and neither is a bit of retro orientalism or dressing-up. They’ll be banning cos-playing next, for anyone who doesn’t have a Japanese passport. PC Nazis: Vile people, sucking all the joy out of life like self-righteous little vampires.

    Guns do kill people though, but Americans still seem to love them.

    The United States is increasingly becoming a place to avoid and ignore. Full of strident people yelling at you to live your lives within strict politically correct boundaries that they will helpfully define for you according to their own whims.

    To hell with them. You want to wear a kimono, you wear one.

    #KimonoPride #IgnoreSelfRighteousAmericans

  • Al_Martinez

    Two points:

    1) It should be noted that this group protesting the exhibition in Boston is a tiny, insignificant collection of non-Japanese hotheads with inferiority complexes. The press gave them way more attention than they deserved and the Museum caved too easily.

    2) Wearing a kimono is UNCOMFORTABLE. This is probably the biggest reason for its decline.

    • Mary Witt

      I want to say that kimono is Comfortable. More comfortable than the other dress, If you felt uncomfortable, you did not experience the correct method to wear kimono. It’s your bias.

    • Katrina

      I collect and wear kimono. I try to wear them once or twice a month. I concede that they are not comfortable at first and they do take getting used so, but westerners are used to clothing that allows us to move freely and quickly. We wear minimal amounts of layers unless it’s in a region that experiences colder winters. Kimono requires 2-4 few layers, plus various ties and ribbons that keep everything in place, then add the 18 ft long obi on top of that…I can see how first time wearers would say it’s uncomfortable. I am accustomed to them and a full say in one is still tiring, though I can walk just fine (even chase my dogs!) while wearing one.

    • velvetnitemare

      It’s not uncomfortable, at least not if worn right. And it also depends on your activities and what type of kimono you’re wearing. You’re not gonna go out and play with a full-blown formal furisode get up are you?

    • CHWolfenbloode

      Comfort is subjective. For example, I find wearing traditional stiff starched collars comfortable whilst others find them not so. I also find jeans uncomfortable but many find them to be very comfortable.

      Anyways, there are many kinds of kimono, not just the formal stiff type you are referring to, each with a different level of use and intent, and comfort. Saying that it is the biggest reason why there is a decline in kimono wearing based on one style being uncomfortable is like saying that because white tie and tails is uncomfortable to wear therefore there is a decline in suit wearing in general.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Good article!

    The design and motifs on kimono are culturally specific, and therein lies part of the problem.

    While there should be no problem with women, which are the specific focus here, of trying out a kimono, when taken out of their native cultural context, they become creatures of the culture in which they have been appropriated, to a certain extent.

  • CHWolfenbloode

    “My advice for anyone wearing kimono is to challenge this rigidity; let’s forget about attending kimono lessons.”

    This I don’t 100% agree with. You’ll put these teachers out of business in the process. Also, one should embrace all forms of kimono, not just either traditional or modern, or at least try and learn appreciate all forms before deciding which form you wish to take up.

  • Slam Dunk

    I wish there was an agency or service that gathers people who have nothing going on in their lives together so they can harass each other, and leave people doing important things alone. I hope Hiromi Asai’s project goes well.

  • Children Of Nephilim

    I love how these “Asians” whom hilariously lump themselves together with Japanese as though they’re “one” (a country that hates other asian nations and considers them inferior for many reasons) dare to try to speak up on Japan’s behalf–HA! I almost choked on my tea as I read that line–what a gag! What utter s##t that goes through the mind’s of people who’ve clearly never picked up a history book or simply don’t know squat about what the majority of Japanese think about non-Japanese Asians. Would they continue to defend the kimono against the “big bad whities” if they knew the Japanese people would sooner spit in their face than they would toward other non-Asian races entering Japan?

    Or perhaps they do know, perhaps the real reason they spoke up was out of bitterness and hate towards Japan, and this was merely a way to stigmatize the Kimono which belonged to the country of their ancestors enemies.

  • Ralph Mosenez

    If its racist to wear a Kimono ……. something in Japan they gladly let/encourage foreigners to wear or try on as a way to share their culture …… then is must be racist for a non-Irish person to wear a green bowler hat on St. Patrick’s day or any other sort of “Irish” ornament ……. imagine the insult and racism of a non-white person trying on a kilt. Is it insulting for my grandmother to try on a cowboy hat while on a trip to Arizona?

    Relax. Depends on the context and what the person is doing. A foreigner wearing a yukata to a festival in Japan during the summer is not considered an insult to most Japanese people. Sharing an experience and may even be helping to promote it as an article of clothing and not something that is removed from normal life.

  • comslave

    As a frequent traveler to Japan, I found myself repeated encouraged to don local clothing and engage in local customs. The Japanese are very open to engaging and sharing their culture with foreigners.
    The protestors are misguided activists looking desperately for something to be offended by. They have clearly engaged the wrong target as I think all Japanese would think their efforts to be insulting.
    To claim an art form may not tread beyond national or nationality borders is to degrade it. To limit it.
    To put it clearly, to claim that the Japanese may not share the Kimono with the world is racist.

  • Sebastian Mosur

    This line pretty much says all that needs to be said about Japanese culture:

    “The real reason why traditional kimono culture is about to (become) extinct,” wrote avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, “is because of its tendency to aspire to ‘perfection’ as a style that does not allow any other foreign item to be added to it. My advice for anyone wearing kimono is to challenge this rigidity; let’s forget about attending kimono lessons.”

  • Joe Lee

    Depends on whether usage of cultural icons such as kimonos could be intepreted as cultural appreciation or appropriation. Maybe having groups of people undergo a seminar or a quick talk by the museum to understand the history and the cultural importance of kimonos would properly put things in perspective? Becomes less touristy as the museum seems to be presenting it.

  • Ostap Bender

    Typical first world problem.

  • joeymom

    Do these protesters wear pajamas to bed? Do they know what a “pajama” even IS?

  • Dehydration

    Let’s not forget that the protesters attempted to end MFA Boston’s Kimono Wednesdays, apologize for things they didn’t do and further pressure them to create events teaching the SJW idea of cultural appropriation.

    Oh and that they blocked me when I asked if they wanted an apology as their end-goal.

    And that they’re largely not Japanese at all.

    And that the opening of trade during that very period gave Japanese artists an entire perspective and dimension to work in, along with several new methods of colouring.

    And that shibuya-kei and anime are essentially the same ‘cultural appropriation’. And that those things are fantastic.

  • kayumochi

    There is a photo published in the Boston Globe of three protesters. There you have it – three women with a chip on their shoulders. Meh.

  • Jane Beckman

    I am waiting for the next wave of “orientalism” backlash, with protests against Grauman’s Chinese Theater, for which my father was the decorator/muralist. After all, he was a Finn, who combined Chinese motifs with Art Deco, oh the horror. Raised among his close friends, who were Chinese and Japanese, I thought everyone grew up eating chicken feet and wearing kimono. And that is why I love America, where these things can happen.

  • http://sebastienlebegue.photoshelter.com/gallery/KIMONO-NOW/G000072.cxBSWacs/C0000T74YCaIY8zI Sébastien Lebègue

    Thank you for this article, ans specially thanky you to use 3 of my photographies to illustrate your purpose.
    I would be very glad and grateful that you use the right credit on those photographie :
    Now it is written […………….] | PRESTEL PUBLISHING
    And it should be : […………….] | Sebastien LEBEGUE / PRESTEL PUBLISHING

    The 3 photographies are :
    1 – The top page photo (yellow room and blue and red Kimono)
    2 – The front cover of the book KIMONO NOW
    3 – The jumping woman with umbrella and denim Kimono.

    Thank you very much for your understanding.

    Sebastien Lebegue

  • Mariko Iwai

    As Japanese, I am happy to see non-Japanese people enjoying Japanese cultures as well as kimono…I never find it offensive when seeing the paint.

    Actually, it bugs me when seeing a kind of comedy sketch where Japanese cultures are depicted in distorted (or exaggarated) ways but i think such things are rare to be seen nowadays since everyone is fussy about PC.
    It’s a very simple thing which would apply to any kinds of cross-cultual communication not only with Japan but also others; show your respect to diffrent cultures whether you agree with them or not.

  • Paul Martin

    Many non Japanese find the kimonos,etc boring and antiquated…belonging in the drearyness of ancient times !
    Most young Japanese women today prefer the Western lifestyles much to the disdain of the older generation who cannot believe or accept change !

  • justathought

    It’s not a Japanese art exhibit. It’s a French Impressionist exhibit, wherethere was no discussion of the kimono, but of Impressionism. There originally was not even the slightest bit of education of the specific kind of Kimono it was, the fact that it was a Kabuki costume, nothing that acually brought people an understanding of Japanese culture. The event was simply about imitating Camille Monet and being invited to plaster one’s picture all over social media imitating Camille Monet, mostly still clueless about actual Japanese culture.

  • Clayton Forrester

    Good for you!!!

  • R0ninX3ph

    I agree with you, economically Nazism and Fascism are more akin to Socialist policies. But you know that isn’t what I was referring to.

    Cultural/Racial segregation is not a liberal “left” ideal, but you decided to ignore that because it doesnt support your narrative.

    Segregating cultures and claiming one group cannot wear something because it is from another group is not freedom, it is not liberal, it is not left.

  • kayumochi

    America has gotten both better and worse, just like the rest of the world.

  • theonewhogrins

    I wouldn’t really call it racist, but it feels super gimmicky, like they’re getting people to go HEY let’s wear a KIMONO! WOW I’m wearing a KIMONO look at how much cooler and exotic I look!

    I kind of get where they’re coming from, the Asian American protestors (though I don’t think the exhibit should have been shut down). It’s like how at Halloween, you see these “dress as an Asian Geisha” kind of thing. It’s not racism so much as cultural appropriation? It’s more like, if the exhibit was so that people could try it on to admire the kimono and the craft of it, sure. If it was an exhibit of the different beautiful kimonos and an exhibit on the different types of kimonos, maybe. Or if it at least included more information about kimonos in Japanese culture. But instead it’s a Monet painting (which is cool, I like Monet) and from my understanding there was nothing of the sort as far as information about Japanese culture or kimonos, which is kinda disappointing.

    In my mind (and probably the protesters) it’s no different than if the museum had showcased a painting done by someone famous of a native american (or whatever the PC term is now, sorry) and the museum had decided to just be like HEY try on this FEATHERED HEADBAND so you can look like the picture!

    I definitely feel like there’s a way to mindfully share and participate in other cultures without it being offensive or coming off as perpetuating stereotypes of exotic asian cultures. Cause you know what gets annoying? Being told that you’re exotic because you’re asian. Cause that happens sometime in public. I’ve even got asked if I wear kimono regularly at home.

    So please, before you go comparing these protestors, or liberals, or whomever, to Nazis, who literally killed people who were moral and ethnic outliers as well as people who supported them, consider what sort of reasons they have for protesting these things (also consider not comparing them to Nazis). They aren’t protesting for the hell of it. Stereotypes might not kill you, but they wear you down after hearing them over and over.

  • Brian Mapleton

    Everything crumbled down in my mind and my life was torn apart but the hope that was inspired by Madonna’s 1997 single “Nothing Really Matters” changed my destiny for the right way. I realize my own species of people have turned against me, I know you will not believe my words but nobody likes me on the internet these days and it is all because of China’s interconnection for the first time with the INTER-NET. We are codes of language on the sticky threads of the mechanical spider that is at the center of the INTERNET SUPER-HIGHWAY. I’m sorry my beloved Japan, if I could offer more I would cherish the chance but destiny has taken me to this point in time but I hope you have a great year Japan, don’t let the negative historical events get you all down ….

  • basedgod

    Asian Americans are officially Gibs me dats.

  • Manisha Purwaha

    This doesn’t sound right. Next time when a Japanese asks me if they can wear my country’s clothes I am going to feed them the same BS instead of accepting them culturally.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    Their incompetency is stunning in this regard. Museums have had to deal with protesters who have demanded censorship and changes to exhibits since as long as I can remember.

    And these old-school outraged-at-the-museum-folk didn’t just try to censor, they tried to damage works of art too.

    Back in my day, the pro-censorship people tended to be religious and they protested things like nudity or using one of their religious systems or figures for art in a way they did not approve of.

    I guess in the 21st century, these puritan zealots and religious fundamentalists have been replaced by social justice warriors.

    Anyway, my point is: the museum should have already had policies to deal with this sort of protest, as protesting museums and its exhibits is nothing new.

    The MFA staff is in need of remedial training imo.