Kimono makers target the young

As purists age, industry forced to change with the times


Mariko Moriwaki, 39, a Web editor at publisher Shogakukan Inc., draws a lot of attention from visitors to her office.

Among the gray suits of her colleagues, Moriwaki wears a kimono almost every day.

“Wearing a kimono is very cool in summer and warm in winter. I think it suits Japan’s climate,” she said in her office in Tokyo. “Many of my friends hope to wear kimono every day, but their working environment wouldn’t permit it.”

Indeed, kimono-clad women are hard to find in modern Japan. Apart from special occasions, like New Year’s Day or Coming-of-Age Day, women dressed in kimono can only usually be seen in the old capital of Kyoto, or in Tokyo’s posh entertainment district of Ginza, where “mama-san” managers of high-class bars serve customers in the traditional attire.

Kimono experts say there are numerous reasons for the dwindling trend, including a lack of effort by the industry to expand its market. While younger kimono lovers like Moriwaki strive to revive the culture, the industry has traditionally focused on its regular wealthy customers in their 60s and 70s.

This autumn, however, the industry began targeting a younger market.

Moriwaki started wearing kimono regularly when she was in her early 30s. But when she started at Shogakukan, her boss asked her not to wear the robes to the office because people may wonder who she is.

After her section moved out of the head office building, she started wearing kimono to work again and her colleagues now seem accustomed to it, she said.

Hoping to find more people who share her feelings, Moriwaki set up a Web site for kimono fans called “kimono paradise” in 1999. It soon attracted more than 250 members, many in their late 20s and 30s. They now exchange information on kimono and related events.

“Many of us feel there aren’t many casual kimono on the market sold at reasonable prices,” Moriwaki said. “I think the kimono industry is not working hard to respond to our demand.”

In fact, the kimono market has steadily declined since the war. The size of the market — 1.8 trillion yen 20 years ago — shrank to less than 800 billion yen last year, according to private research institute Yano Intelligence Ltd.

The market for “furisode,” a style of women’s kimono characterized by wide flowing sleeves often worn in coming-of-age ceremonies or other special occasions by young singles, halved to 77.6 billion yen in 1999 from 150.6 billion yen in 1994, according to Yano Intelligence.

Shoichi Takahahashi of Yano Intelligence pointed out that the market of regular kimono-wearers is getting old.

“Because the industry has relied for a long time on their regular wealthy customers, who are in their 60s and 70s, they have failed to cultivate new customers,” he said.

Price has always been a factor that has put customers off. Despite the economic downturn in the past decade, kimono prices have been rising, with expensive kimono going for nearly 5 million yen.

Takahashi also argued that the industry’s pricing method is not very transparent.

“Compared with other fashion industries, which have a wide range of products from high end to low end, it is very difficult to find inexpensive kimono,” he said. “Pricing is not done in an open way. Some kimono do not even have set prices and shop owners often decide the prices by judging customers’ ability to pay.”

The industry has also counted on wedding ceremonies and receptions to sell high-end kimono over the years. Many young couples today, however, prefer Western-style ceremonies and even with Japanese-style weddings, simpler ceremonies are more popular than extravagant affairs.

Alarmed by the looming possibility that the industry will become a thing of the past, some companies have begun a new drive to lure young women.

In October, four kimono and clothing manufacturers and distributors — Onward Kashiyama Co., Shinso Ohashi Co., Ichida Co. and Arakawa Co. — began jointly selling casual kimono, which are made from polyester rather than silk and cost about 30,000 yen. Their main target is 20- to 39-year-olds, who enjoy wearing summer “yukata,” informal cotton kimono.

Riding on the wave of a recent yukata boom among young women, the rival companies launched the joint project with the hope of expanding the kimono market.

“With this price, young people can purchase our kimono without the help of their parents,” said Masayoshi Harazawa, head of Onward Kashiyama’s kimono division.

In addition, the new casual kimono — “wa-no-fuku” — do not require special training to be put on. To wear traditional kimono, women usually attend a school to learn dressing techniques, including various methods of tying the obi.

“The new type of kimono is very functional and washable,” Harazawa said. “Because the width of the obi for casual kimono is narrower than a regular one, it’s easy to put on. A collar can also be separated from or attached to the kimono with snap fasteners.

“Conservative kimono lovers may frown. But like many other things, we believe kimono can evolve into modern forms.”

Department stores are also gearing up to offer new services to attract potential customers so that more people can experience wearing a kimono.

The Tobu department store in Ikebukuro in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, doubled the size of its casual kimono section in October. It also began offering free use for a day of a casual kimono, where up to four customers — on a first-come-first-served basis — can be fitted every Saturday.

“I think we are at the stage of conveying a message that kimono can be worn casually,” said Kayo Kurihara, head of the casual kimono section. “Compared with three to four years ago, we now have a variety of casual kimono.”

As she spoke, Chika Ito, a 19-year-old who came to buy a new outfit for Japanese dance lessons, was trying on a red casual kimono.

“I like the design, and I feel very comfortable wearing this new casual kimono,” she said, though she noted she is used to wearing traditional silk ones from Kyoto.

Her mother was also impressed with the new lineup.

“I only know the traditional way of wearing kimono, but I’m learning a lot from just looking at these new styles,” said Shizue Ito, 58.