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Of kimono and cultural appropriation

by Shaun O'dwyer

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.