Of kimono and cultural appropriation


Special To The Japan Times

Fifteen years ago I visited Nishijin, Kyoto’s famed kimono manufacturing quarter with my then host family. I had just finished reading Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Old City,” a novel steeped in Kyoto’s kimono culture; its main character Chieko is the adopted daughter of a kimono merchant. I misunderstood the novel’s elegiac tone, and naively expected to see the Nishijin that Kawabata knew 50 years ago.

I got a rude shock. The district looked gutted, there were apartment buildings everywhere and only a few traditional dwellings and workshops in between. We passed a kimono merchant’s house that was being demolished. “There’s Chieko’s home,” I said.

We visited one kimono workshop and the owner kindly agreed to show us around. His family had owned the workshop for 140 years, he said, and now times were tough; customers were dwindling and nearby workshops were closing down. We saw a computer programmed jacquard loom, and on it there lay the answer to some questions I had in my mind — an exquisitely beautiful kimono obi worth $8,000.

Japan’s kimono industry has long been in decline. After 1945, Japanese women abandoned their role as bearers of Japan’s fashion traditions and embraced Western styles, and the market for high-end kimono is now collapsing as wealthy customers opt for cheaper, more casual fashion.

A recent Asahi Shimbun article explained that between 1982 and 2012 kimono sales declined from ¥2 trillion to one tenth of that figure, and kimono tailors’ numbers fell from 6,300 in 1984 to 1,351 in 2014.

In Kawabata’s novel a traditional kimono weaver predicts that if any business like his survives the coming decades, it will only be because it is “under government sponsorship as an ‘Intangible Cultural Treasure.’ ” This seems like only a slight exaggeration in hindsight.

So now the kimono industry is trying to innovate, to diversify beyond the formal, conventional styles that had been its mainstay, and to seek out overseas markets, much as it has done in the past. There is a genuine conversation to be had among non-Japanese about how to help preserve and respect this industry, but as we shall see, it can go terribly wrong.

A recent “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan” exhibition in Japan and America, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, incidentally incorporated some promotion of kimono culture.

Showcasing the works of 19th century European impressionists alongside works by Japanese artists that had influenced them, the exhibition included Claude Monet’s 1876 painting La Japonaise, a wry comment on the contemporary French rage for Japanese art that features his wife in a formal kimono.

For the Japanese tour, NHK commissioned some gorgeously embroidered uchikake like the one Monet’s wife wears in the painting, and patrons were invited to try them on and be photographed in front of the painting.

After the painting returned to its home in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it was exhibited again in late June with the kimono try-on sessions scheduled to continue into July as “Kimono Wednesdays” for American patrons.

Then something off-script occurred. A small group of young protesters, mostly Asian-Americans, came to the first Kimono Wednesday event with placards to protest its “Orientalism,” “racism” and “cultural appropriation” which they claimed was victimizing Asian-Americans.

The protesters created a Facebook page, “Stand Against Yellowface,” and posted sophomoric manifestos on Tumblr featuring tone-deaf karaoke of their hero: the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, author of “Orientalism,” a central text for postcolonial theory syllabuses in American liberal arts faculties.

A social media battle ensued. Twitter hashtags appeared — or, like #whitesupremacykills — were appropriated, provoking widespread derision, while the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Facebook page was inundated with accusations about the exhibition’s “racism” and “Orientalism.”

On July 7th the museum canceled the kimono try-ons and restricted patron access on Kimono Wednesdays to touching the uchikake. International media coverage by the BBC and the New York Times gave the protests a wide audience.

Japanese-Americans, Japanese residents in the United States and their supporters counter-protested at the museum and on social media in vain. Counter-protesters pointed out that very few of the protesters were Japanese, and that they had no right to dictate what counted as racism or cultural appropriation against Japanese or Japanese-Americans. They complained that the protesters had chosen the wrong event to protest against with their parochial identity politics agenda.

Some wondered if Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis was relevant to the controversy. That thesis argues that the knowledge-based enterprise of 19th-20th century Western scholars and artists classifying and representing Middle Eastern and African societies was itself an expression of colonizing power, essential to the West’s self-definition as it sought to dominate those societies. Cultural borrowing from these societies thus also amounted to “cultural appropriation.”

Said’s thesis hardly applies to the Japanese or Asian-American cases. When early 20th century French designers “appropriated” kimono styles and transformed European women’s dress lines, Japanese textiles manufacturers happily accommodated these trends.

For their part the Japanese reciprocated with their own fascination for, and assimilation of Western fashions. By then Japan was also a colonial power which was turning its own Occidentalist gaze — and naval guns — back on the Western powers. In such circumstances, Western fascination with Japan’s exotic arts and fashions fits a loose definition of Orientalism, but it is more benign than Said’s thesis allows for.

As for the protesters, Said would have mocked the ressentiment of alienated middle class Americans wallowing in victim cosplay. Their denunciation of Kimono Wednesdays as “a clear dismissal of our country’s current struggles regarding race and racial violence” that “propagates … the Orientalist gaze, inherently white supremacist and misogynist” was a comic misconstrual of an event originally conceived by Japanese and American sponsors to celebrate cultural exchange.

Objections like this fell on deaf ears, and will probably do so again once another “cultural appropriation” controversy erupts — if, say, pop singers perform in “Orientalist” kimono cosplay like Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj have in the past, provoking the obligatory social media pile-on.

But why should anyone worry about such controversies? Author Manami Okazaki, whose book “Kimono Now” analyses modern kimono fashions, told me that her main worry was “that this (protest) will affect museums/ event organizers wanting to do kimono shows in the future, which is the last thing the industry needs.”

Jargonistic polemics against cultural appropriation and self-appointed experts on sartorial “cultural respect” may also sow confusion about when, or how, it is culturally respectful for non-Japanese consumers to wear kimonos.

If posing in an uchikake before Monet’s painting is “yellowface,” when is it not “yellowface” to wear a kimono? Now that Uniqlo is selling yukata, or casual kimono, in its foreign stores, this is not an academic question.

Yet unlike the international media, Japan’s mainstream media barely touched the story. There was also a muted reaction from the fashion and cultural establishment within Japan.

Japanese social media briefly lit up in exasperation and bewilderment. People were mystified that anyone could accuse a kimono try-on event of being racist or imperialist. Few comprehended the identity politics assumptions driving the protesters. Some right-wing nationalists assumed they were anti-Japanese Chinese and Korean agitators.

Perhaps for the mainstream Japanese media and for many fashion commentators such a controversy is of little concern, being just another inexplicable skirmish in America’s culture wars. But it is more than that; if casual yukata styles are to attract foreign consumers who are also sensitive to social justice issues, a clear message needs to be communicated to them by Japanese supporters of the industry.

That message, recently iterated to me by an employee at the Nishijin Textiles Center in Kyoto, is this: Anyone can appropriate and creatively modify kimono styles whenever and however they like.

This message should be broadcast to counter those who misguidedly oppose the appropriation of Japan’s fashion traditions by “the West.” Japanese are not the West’s victims, and the kimono industry is ill-served by obsessions about Orientalism and politically correct “understanding.”

Kaori Nakano, a professor of fashion history at Meiji University put it to me this way: “Cultural appropriation is the beginning of new creativity. Even if it includes some misunderstanding, it creates something new.” It may be the key to the future of kimono fashion.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University.

  • One of the best opinion pieces I have read in the Japan Times in a long time.

  • Seph

    Thank you for this. It adds a useful and refreshing perspective on what has occurred in Boston and rippled out to the rest of the culture.

  • Whirled Peas

    I cannot thank you enough for this excellent piece!

  • manami

    Yes, yes and yes. Excellent, well written run down on the happenings
    around “#kimono gate”. Thanks so much for this nuanced piece
    and hopefully food for thought for the SJWs (I didn’t actually realize this was a “thing” prior to this Boston debacle) — I really wish if they
    have that kind of time and the energy, that they tackle something that is,
    actually racist.
    The #whitesupremacykills hastag….I have no words.

    • Makes you want to reply with “#notyourhashtag”. :)

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      I had a few words in mind about their abuse of that hashtag…but they weren’t fit to print.

  • Sabrina

    Fantastic piece. Much like other critical theorists that social justice activists distort, Said’s nuance and value is utterly lost on these idiots.

  • ty2010

    SoJus is intent on destroying everything and everyone while navel gazing.

  • zer0_0zor0

    This is a complicated issue.

    There is a substantial difference between “casual yukata” and “formal kimono”, for example. It would not be offensive to see anyone in the former, but to see someone not familiar with or engaged in Japanese culture dawning the later (unless they are the wife of someone akin to Monet) is bound to come off as pretentious, at the very least, and pompous, in all likelihood. Monet (and his wife, too, presumably) was a student of Japanese painting (and culture), which came to influence his own work. He was already a person of culture engaging another highly cultivated culture.

    Cultural sensibilities have to be appreciated so that culture can be engaged, and in due course become intelligible to those pursuing its course of development from the past into the present and, hopefully, the future.

    Culture is not something that can be accessed simply by the purchasing power brought by finance industry riches, for example. Its appreciation entails a degree of requisite cultivation on the part of an interested party.

    • Please read the last three paragraphs of this article.

      The Japanese created the kimono. And the Japanese themselves (including kimono experts and creators) are telling the world, “you may use and wear the kimono, however you please. Including badly or in parody, or offensively, regardless of whether it’s a ‘casual yukata’ or a ‘formal kimono’. Regardless of your sex, race, nationality, or creed.”

      There are Japanese themselves (especially in the 21st century) that wear formal kimonos “improperly” or “badly”, or even in parody or in “offensive” situations (yes, Japanese do sometimes use real formal kimonos in pornography). Japanese are open minded and say that non-Japanese have the same privilege to do this as Japanese.

      Kimono is not religion. It is a garment the Japanese want to share with the whole world. Unrestricted.

      Now, a Japanese person may see a person wearing the garment improperly and think they’re foolish or ignorant or silly or in bad taste — much like a person that is wearing a formal tuxedo or evening gown improperly.

      But banning “bad” kimono wearing because it is done “offensively” or because it is done by the wrong ethnicity or nationality is akin to banning freedom of expression or banning “bad” art because somebody thinks that freedom of expression or art is offensive.

      Now, there are some societies and countries wear the wearing of certain garments is not allowed or prohibited by religious based law (in particular, many countries in the Middle East).

      Both Japan and America, however, embrace freedom of expression as proof that they are a free society. And that includes kimono wearing. Even “bad” “formal” kimono wearing.

      Saying “Cultural sensibilities have to be appreciated so that culture can be engaged” is like saying “only the cultured are allowed to wear this” and reminds me of discriminating-based societies wear people are not free to wear what they want because they are not educated.

      “Whoa there. You want to wear a tuxedo? Not so fast. You must first pass this test showing you fully appreciate the cultural sensibilities that went into it. Can’t pass that? Sorry, you’re going to that party in jeans and a t-shirt … a more appropriate outfit for the culturally ignorant.”

      No Virginia, you do not have appreciate the cultural sensitivities of a kimono because “engaging the culture” is not a prerequisite requirement for wearing one.

      Some people just want to wear a kimono because it looks good. Or it’s “neat-o” or “cool” (Cool Japan!) or a new experience. And yes, the Japanese that actually know the most about kimono say that doing this is “okay.”

  • Ronald W. Nixon

    No one is going to tell me what I can wear and when. Guess what? color is appropriated from other animals, so these people shouldn’t wear clothes with color.

  • Platypus

    Kimono are basically just old-fashioned clothes. White people learning how to properly wear traditional Japanese garments is akin to Japanese people wearing Victorian reproductions.

    Things like Native American headdresses and bindi are different though — and those are non-fashion related worn items that “social justice warriors”
    protest because they hold spiritual and cultural significance for peoples who are minorities in the US. When people not part of those religions or cultures wear things like that, it’s akin to a civilian wearing a Medal of Honor or treating a rosary like a necklace.

    If it has religious, spiritual, or profound cultural significance, would it kill you to show a little respect and not wear it to a party or a concert?

    But the majority of modern kimono/hakama/yukata are pretty much just retro garments.

    Katy Perry and costume-y stuff like that is a different story though. For example, her inexplicable cheongsam/kimono hybrid and submissive Madame Butterfly-esque performance really played up some awkward, potentially harmful stereotypes.

    Keep it classy and respectful. It’s not hard.

    • You should blame the Japanese then for Katy Perry’s performance. Prior to it, last year during Halloween, Katy Perry visited Japan where Japanese encouraged her to wear kimono and have fun with it casually, mugging for selfies and laughing and pretending to be a maiko/geisha. If you Google it you can find photos of her hamming it up with other Japanese in kimono.

      As for the “cheongsam/kimono” hybrid, the actual costuming and accessories and consulting of the proper use/wearing was designed and provided exclusively by Kimono no Kobeya in Pasedena, California — a boutique that specializes in “authentic kimono” and is owned/operated by Japanese-American Mikko Nakatomi (a trained and recognized kimono expert).

      • @havill do you have a source for Mikko Nakatomi being JA. I couldn’t find anything either way so I didn’t specify when I wrote about her but if she’s JA, I’d like to update my post. Thanks!

      • Sorry, actually, I was being pedantically correct, in the fact that Nakatomi is ethnically Japanese and physically lives/works in America. I don’t know the status of Nakatomi’s nationalit(ies).

      • Ah, okay, thanks. :) I have learned to be careful not to refer to Japanese nationals who are permanent residents of the US (even those with US citizenship) as “Japanese American” because many of them feel strongly that they don’t identify that way.

  • J.P. Bunny

    To the kimono protesters: get a life. I’ll smile and think of you fools whenever I wear my galea while shopping.