Commentary / Japan

Oh no, another kimono scandal

by Shaun O'dwyer

In Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel “Naomi” there is a fascinating depiction of kimono culture in the heady days of Taisho Era Japan. The story — a black comedy variation on the Pygmalion myth — begins with the unhealthy fascination of the young engineer Joji for the novel’s titular character, a timid but exotically foreign-looking teenage cafe waitress. Obsessed with Western popular culture — and the Hollywood actress Mary Pickford — Joji resolves to take Naomi into his home, educate her as his ideal Westernized woman and then marry her.

Of course, things don’t turn out well for Joji. Naomi soon takes charge of her transformation to become a spoiled, sexually adventurous “modern girl,” a 1920s flapper and fashion plate, while Joji is downgraded to the status of servant and income provider. Yet her transformation defies easy stereotypes of Westernization: Kimono is as much a part of her flamboyant self-expression as French-designed flapper dresses or Hollywood-style men’s suits. She and Joji experiment with bold new patterns and fabrics, and in Joji’s mind at least, she becomes a leader of avant-garde kimono style.

There is overt sexuality as well as elegance in Naomi’s fashion. Joji’s voyeuristic male gaze sometimes dwells on the more traditional eroticism her kimono evokes; the suggestion of her body lines and curves under its drapery, or the nape of her neck above its neckline. Yet Naomi herself revels in a more audacious eroticism, wearing kimono-like gowns loosely and revealingly around the house in front of Joji and her boyfriends, striking poses to titillate and arouse them. There is a wide cultural gap between these scenes and the prim, traditional Japanese image often attached to kimono today.

However, even Naomi would’ve been surprised at the shapewear underwear line that American internet celebrity Kim Kardashian West controversially filed to trademark as “Kimono Intimates” last week — though we could imagine Joji being titillated by the eroticism in photographs of Kardashian West and her models showcasing the underwear.

It certainly doesn’t look like kimono, but the recent controversy over Kardashian West’s new fashion line was more than a disagreement over fashion branding. For the first time, a cultural appropriation clamor from the American side of social media has been matched by equally strong Japanese reactions to Kardashian West’s trademark claims on the kimono label. Though Kardashian West has now relented and decided to give up the “kimono” trademark claim, it would still be interesting to ask why this scandal occurred, and what this could mean for current understandings of kimono culture.

This social media backlash has followed a familiar pattern: a rapid, snowballing reaction to Kardashian West’s June 25 announcement of her new label on Twitter, elite international news organizations such as the BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post piggybacking onto the trend and further accelerating the spread of the story, and a denouement in Kardashian West’s capitulation.

Yet unlike previous kimono and cultural appropriation scandals four years ago, there has been a large and rapid Japanese response on social media with matching coverage by some Japanese media organizations — though elite level newspapers such as the Yomiuri Shimbun or Asahi Shimbun have remained aloof. There has also been much less of a perception gap between Japanese and foreign online commentators, who are often equally indignant.

Looking at the many Japanese Twitter reactions to Kardashian West’s announcement trending under #KimOhNo or #Kimono, three overlapping types of response have emerged. The first, aesthetic reaction, is that kimono are completely different in form and function from underwear, and more “beautiful and elegant.” Many women posted online photographs of themselves in kimono with messages such as “Fashion is free, but kimono is not underwear … don’t treat culture lightly.”

Commentators also brought up the question of how Kardashian West’s attempted trademarking of “kimono” could impact legally and culturally on the traditional kimono image. One worried about a future in which looking up the word “kimono” online would bring up images of underwear that bear no resemblance to kimono.

What concerns such commentators is the appropriation of a Japanese cultural trademark for products that are utterly unlike traditional Japanese kimono. Because of Kardashian West’s star power and Instagram influencer presence, her legal trademark claim on the “kimono” label could negatively affect the kimono industry, and alter non-Japanese people’s idea of what kimono means.

These responses feed into the moral criticism that Kardashian’s choice of the term “kimono” for an underwear label is a wrongful, insulting act of theft committed against an ancient Japanese cultural tradition. One kimono designer and model wrote: “I am embarrassed that a historic cultural name would be perceived as a label for underwear. Don’t take away our Japanese culture!” The Japanese translation for cultural appropriation, bunka no tōyō, has been used as a Twitter hashtag by Japanese and other commentators calling out Kim Kardashian West.

In the past when Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj or foreign models have worn kimono, Japanese online commentators have often praised them and expressed bewilderment at the mostly American social and mass media accusations of cultural appropriation directed against them. But it seems that for many Japanese observers, Kardashian West has crossed a line. She has not collaborated with kimono designers on her fashion line, but has rather produced a fashion item that looks nothing like kimono while inappropriately helping herself to what many people regard as an ancient Japanese cultural label.

It would be easy to dismiss these reactions as a storm in the social media echo chamber, disconnected from more important real world issues. Some have also noted that the “kimono” label has been used for other products such as condoms, with no harm done to kimono culture. Others stated that Kardashian’s “kimono” trademark applications will not infringe on anyone’s rights to produce, promote and wear actual kimono. Cynics suggested that Kardashian West and her marketing team anticipated a social media backlash when they chose this label, and were reaping a free advertising dividend from it.

There are more positive conclusions to draw from this latest social media blow-up, however. One is that, unlike previous kimono and cultural appropriation scandals, Japanese popular and expert opinions are increasingly being noted and cited in English-language social and mass media commentary. This represents progress for a Japanese cultural soft power that has previously been hampered by linguistic and cultural barriers in communicating its message about kimono to international audiences.

Another conclusion is that in the aggrieved Japanese reactions to Kardashian West’s underwear line, and in the photographs people have posted online of themselves in kimono under the #KimOhNo hashtag, there is a virtual acting out of a cultural nationalist sense of belonging focused on affirmations of kimono as a Japanese tradition.

Yet this nationalism is not being expressed in a chauvinistic, ethnically exclusive manner. Unlike conventional denunciations of cultural appropriation, most Japanese social media posts are not claiming a gatekeeping power to dictate who has the right to design or wear kimono. The focus of their ire is Kardashian West’s use of the kimono cultural trademark, rather than of the garment itself. No one is shouting “White people, hands off our kimono!”

The mayor of Kyoto summed up these sentiments in an open letter to Kardashian West on June 28, calling on her to give up the Kimono trademark claim and to respect the Japanese conviction that “the names for ‘kimono’ are the asset shared with all humanity who love Kimono and its culture. Therefore they should not be monopolized.”

Such sentiments express an understandable national pride and concern for kimono culture, and it now appears that Kardashian West has acknowledged them. But how can this cultural asset be better shared? In “Naomi,” Joji’s reports of Naomi’s kimono wearing habits would shock buttoned-up proponents of kitsuke kimono culture as much as Kardashian West’s shapewear has. At different times Naomi’s kimono are elegantly fastened, provocatively unfastened, disheveled, even stained with sweat and dirt. Today kimono is a rarely worn, often rarefied symbol of Japaneseness; Tanizaki’s novel reminds us it was once an item of everyday wear as well as an aesthetic object.

A more secure, internationalized future for kimono may lie with those innovative designers who are taking it down from its high pedestal, unburdening it of its more restrictive cultural symbolisms and helping customers imagine it for more profane as well as aesthetic self-expression. In such a future, the “appropriations” by celebrities like Kim Kardashian West will matter much less.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.

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