Hirohito Murai has worn a kimono every day for the past 10 years.
As the president of a kimono company with stores in Kyoto and Tokyo, who also makes regular trips overseas to sell his goods, he feels he should make the effort. Even without that, however, he likes the feeling that wearing one gives him.
“You become everyone’s friend,” Murai says. “Lots of people speak to you and they remember you.”
There are plenty of things Murai doesn’t like about kimonos, though. The wide silk sleeves often catch on door handles and rip, and going to the toilet can be a chore. He laments the fact that many people with an interest in wearing the garment can be put off by the numerous rules that dictate which type of kimono should be worn for a particular occasion.
Murai also believes that attitudes are changing. Although he doesn’t expect the kimono to return to anywhere near the level of ubiquity it enjoyed in Japanese society for centuries, he does think a new wave of interest can help bring it to a wider audience.
“I think kimonos are becoming more popular,” Murai says at the Tokyo branch of his shop, Kyoto Kimono Kyokomachi, in the city’s Nihombashi neighborhood. “As the kimono has disappeared from everyday life, more people have started to think they want to wear one. Polyester has made kimonos more accessible because you can wash them at home, unlike silk. They’re cheaper and easier to take care of, so there isn’t such a barrier to wearing one.”
The kimono is one of Japan’s most recognizable cultural artifacts, and has been worn for around 800 years. Since around the middle of the 20th century, however, the garment has all but vanished from everyday life.
The shift toward wearing Western clothing in Japan started during the reforms of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), particularly among men who were encouraged to adopt the new “modern” style. Then, when people started to rebuild their lives and their wardrobes following the devastation of World War II, the kimono went from being a practical, everyday item to a symbolic costume reserved for special occasions.
Nowadays, a kimono is generally worn for celebrations such as weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies and graduations, while a lighter, more informal yukata will be worn for summer festivals and fireworks displays. If most modern Japanese tend to associate the kimono with tradition rather than fashion, however, two major exhibitions showing this year have a different opinion.
“Kimono: Fashioning Identities” is a special exhibition which runs from July 30 to Aug. 23 at Tokyo’s National Museum, while “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk” opened at the V&A Museum in London on Feb. 29 before being suspended 19 days later because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is set to reopen on Aug. 27.
Both exhibitions aim to show the huge influence the kimono has had on fashion around the world for centuries.
“I think there’s a general perception that fashion is a European invention and that fashion always means Western-style clothing,” says Anna Jackson, curator of the V&A exhibition, which brings together kimonos from the Edo Period (1603-1868) through to kimono-inspired pop-culture pieces such as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes from the “Star Wars” series and outfits worn by singers Madonna and Bjork.
“We wanted to show that fashion has flourished elsewhere in the world,” Jackson says. “I think people think of the kimono as being a traditional, timeless costume. They don’t think of it as an item of fashion, but actually our perception of the kimono is very much based on what happened after World War II. We wanted to show our audiences that there was a really dynamic fashion culture in Edo Period Japan, and has been ever since. Also, although you think of the kimono as quintessentially Japanese, it has had an enormous influence on international fashion.”
Some of the contemporary designers that feature in the V&A exhibition, such as Rumi Rock and Hiroko Takahashi, offer a modern twist on the classic kimono by using bold patterns and colors and playing with the rules of how the garment should be worn. Furifu and Kiiro, two high street brands owned by clothing company Mimatsu Group, have taken a similar approach.
Mimatsu Group’s flagship brand is Mimatsu, which was founded 88 years ago and sells traditional pieces of kimono. Furifu, on the other hand, was founded 20 years ago and sells kimonos with vibrant, quirky designs aimed at young women interested in subculture, as well as kimono-inspired Western clothes. Kiiro, which was launched two years ago, takes the overall look of the kimono and reinterprets it with Western elements.
Akira Sakai, brand head of Furifu and Kiiro, says the rise of social media has made today’s younger generation see the kimono in a different light.
“Young women will wear kimonos, take fashionable photos and post them on social media, and that has really had an effect,” Sakai says. “There are also lots of young people who are interested in Japanese subculture, things like anime, and they also show an interest in kimonos. Kimonos used to be really expensive, but Furifu sells them at a price that’s affordable. It’s become easier to wear them.
“Our company’s mission is to get young people interested in kimonos, and from there for them to move on to the more genuine article sold at Mimatsu.”
The advent of inkjet printers means kimonos can now be dyed quickly and cheaply, and many are made from polyester, which can be washed at home.
For all the recent developments in the fashion end of the market, however, there still remains a steady, if gradually shrinking, demand for traditional, high-quality silk kimonos. These will usually be made to order at a specialist kimono shop, with the customer choosing the color and pattern from rolls of fabric, known as tanmono.
The customer will be measured in the shop and an order will be placed, but from then it will likely be another two months before the garment is completed. Several different subcontractors will be involved in the manufacturing process, with the material being dyed or woven by a specialist and then sent to a tailor, who will cut and sew the pieces together.
Akihiko Watanabe is the section chief of Tokyo Kimono Kakou Service Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of Mimatsu Group that tailors and mends kimonos for the company’s brands. Watanabe’s father and grandfather were both dyers, and when Watanabe was around 4 or 5, his father told him he would become one, too. The work was demanding, though, and after becoming fed up with plunging his hands into cold water in the dead of winter time and time again, he left to join Mimatsu.
Watanabe says modern innovations have made the kimono-making process much easier, but he stresses the importance of experience.
“The dyeing itself is also very difficult,” he adds. “If you dye it with a brush, it becomes uneven. How fast it dries will depend on the room temperature. You have a 13-meter-long piece of material, so if you don’t dye it all from start to finish really quickly, part of it will become dry and part of it will still be wet, so the color will be different. You have to be fast. The color will also change depending on how much dye you have on your brush. Everything about it is difficult.”
“One difficult thing about dyeing is making up the dye,” he says. “Nowadays, you add a certain percentage of each color like a formula. But two pieces of material aren’t the same and, even if you use the same mix, you won’t always get the color you’re looking for. In that case, you need to adjust the formula. It’s like cooking. You have to use your senses.
The price of traditional kimonos can, understandably, be high, with silk outfits starting from around ¥30,000 and then spiraling up into the millions. For those looking for just a taste of the experience, however, kimono rental shops provide a much cheaper option.
Yusuke Otomo had been working in the kimono industry for around 25 years when he opened a rental store, called Daikichi, in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood in October 2018. He felt unsatisfied that the kimono had all but disappeared from daily life, and he wondered if he could help bring it back a little by offering full rental outfits for ¥1,880 a day.
Others in the Asakusa area, encouraged by Japan’s recent tourist boom, had the same idea. At the time Daikichi opened, Otomo says there were around 15 kimono rental shops in Asakusa, which is home to the Sensoji temple and a big draw for overseas tourists because of its traditional atmosphere. By the start of this year, Otomo estimates there were between 50 to 60 shops.
Many of the stores in Asakusa are geared exclusively toward tourists, but Otomo says his establishment attracts mostly Japanese customers.
“Japanese people don’t often get the chance to wear a kimono,” says Otomo, who says around 80 percent of his customers are women, most of them in their teens or 20s. “It’s like a magical feeling that you don’t get in your everyday life. It’s like when you go to Disneyland and get dressed up in Disney goods and spend the day in the land of dreams. You change out of your everyday clothes and into a kimono, then spend the day walking around a traditional Japanese area eating traditional Japanese sweets. People want to have a different experience from their everyday lives, and that’s why they rent kimonos.”
Otomo says his shop was drawing an average of 30 groups of customers a day until this year, with some days even bringing in around 100. Then, when COVID-19 began to take hold, the landscape changed completely.
“Of course, we closed when the government declared a state of emergency, and we opened again after it was lifted,” says Otomo, as he surveys the quietude of his shop one Wednesday afternoon in late June. “Even though we’ve reopened, we’re not getting many customers. We had some at the weekend but it’s still very few.
“We had taken on more staff to prepare for this summer, because Asakusa would have been really something if the Olympics had been held as planned,” he says. “I think some shops will recover and some won’t. I’m Japanese and my staff are Japanese, and our business is aimed at Japanese customers. I think for businesses like ours, customers will start to return to some degree when the virus dies down. A lot of the businesses round here are run by Chinese people and aimed at Chinese tourists, though, and I think they might struggle because Chinese tourists aren’t returning yet.”
The pandemic has taken its toll on the kimono industry in other ways, with the cancellation of graduation ceremonies, school entrance ceremonies, weddings and summer festivals having a particularly damaging impact.
Kimono company president Murai says that without ceremonies and festivals to give people a reason to dress up this year, it is up to the kimono industry to suggest new places where people can wear them. Not everyone, however, needs to wait to be told.
“Every time you want to wear a kimono, people feel like they have to come up with a reason,” says Anji Salz, a German national who works as a kimono stylist and artist in Tokyo. “The common excuse I hear from people is, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know where to wear the kimono to.’ And I always say, ‘Anywhere — go out to a restaurant with friends, go to a museum, go shopping, whatever.’ You can wear it any time, but people feel like they need to have a proper reason and they’re embarrassed to wear a kimono alone.”
Salz was working as an airplane mechanic in Germany when she was first given a yukata as a present. She fell in love with the garment, moved to Japan and decided to devote her life to it. Now, her work involves styling for photoshoots, promoting kimono culture through events, lectures and tours, creating her own designs and writing columns for magazines. She says her goal is to inspire more people to wear kimonos as everyday clothes.
“Everything changes when you wear a kimono,” says Salz, who usually wears a kimono two or three times a week. “Because it’s a little bit like a corset, the kimono limits your movements a little bit so you automatically stand more upright. You move in smaller steps than you would, you move a little bit more carefully. It feels different. It makes you feel more feminine, you take more time in your surroundings. I feel more gracious and like a better version of myself when I wear a kimono.”
Salz says her customers come from all around the world, and other kimono makers have also found success selling their goods overseas. Murai usually visits the United States on business about four times a year, and regularly travels to Thailand and Taiwan. He says some overseas customers buy kimonos because they appreciate the craftsmanship, while others like the way they look and wear them to restaurants or tea ceremonies.
As for Murai himself, he enjoys the reaction he gets when he wears his kimono overseas.
“If I wear one, people know I’m Japanese,” he says. “Sometimes people mistake me for being Chinese, but generally, people understand that I’m Japanese just from me wearing a kimono. That doesn’t happen much for people from other countries.
“Everyone respects me for wearing a kimono,” he says. “That makes me very happy as a Japanese, and it gives me great pride. It’s fun.”