The Kimono in Modern Japan

Introduction

“The Kimono is an universal symbol of Japan – a symbol of traditional beauty with a sense of timelessness and endurance.”[2]

The word ‘Kimono’ literally means ‘the thing worn’, which, to the Japanese people, means as much as ‘clothing.’ Kimonos are traditionally only available in a single size and are adjusted at the waist through a band. They are made from full width lengths of cloth by being cut and sewn flat. Additionally, they are usually made of expensive silk; however, “for less formal wear, kimonos may also be made of wool, cotton, linen, or synthetic fabrics.”[5] Especially the ‘Yukata’, the summer kimono, is often made out of quality cotton. Furthermore, in contrast to a common misconception, kimonos are “traditionally worn by [both] men and women.”[2] However, kimonos have started to be widely recognized as a “marked female custom.”[5]

History

“Prior to the Heian period (C.E. 794-1192) the arts of Japan, including textile design, were heavily influenced by China. The original form of the kimono (kosode) was similar to the official costume of the Chinese nobility and scholar.”[2] As much of its cultural heritage, such as its characters, Japan originally adopted the kosode, the ‘ancient kimono’, from the Chinese Empire. In the 8th century already, this “plain and undecorated kimono-like garment was worn by men and women”[2] at court. Originally, the kimono was not decorated due the Buddhist conservatism, which was widespread in the Japanese nobility. With the Renaissance of Japanese arts, including the art of kimono painting, during the Momoyama period (1568-1603), however, this conservatism began to decline. Additionally, the kimono first started to become popular over all classes during this period, opposed to only being worn by the nobility as it was the custom in the centuries prior. “By the sixteenth century, this garment had made its way to an everyday outer garment worn by all classes because it was light and practical.”[2]

The Kimono during Contemporary Times

Like several other ancient traditions, the kimono has moved from being a casual item of clothing to being an exquisite antiquity since the beginning of globalization. It is widely associated with Japan’s culture, although mostly worn on special occasions nowadays, such as New Year’s. As such it had to be reinvented as “a national attire.”[2]

The decline of the Kimono as a casual garment began with Japan’s forced opening to the west in 1854, after Matthew C. Perry, a U.S. Navy Commodore, entered the harbor of Tokyo, formerly Edo, and forced Japan to open its borders. Soon later, the Tokugawa Shogunate and its policy of Japan’s total seclusion from foreign influences collapsed and Japan officially opened its doors to the West for the first time in over 250 years. Japan’s new government soon found it necessary to prove themselves ‘civilized’ to the western powers. Even “the empress of Japan shifted from Japanese dress to western clothing for public appearances in 1886.” Additionally, “the government sponsored western-style social events,”[4] to spread western civilization and customs throughout the country. “Japanese styles of dress lost their dominance in the Meiji period due to the growing availability of Western attire, which not only was cheaper but also was much more convenient as work apparel.”[3] Although nationalist movements soon started to develop everywhere in the country, the popularity of the kimono has decreased ever since. Currently, kimonos are generally worn on special occasions only. “Once the garment of choice for samurai, aristocrats and workers alike, kimonos are rarely worn by today’s young Japanese, who prefer to wear Western clothes. Even if a formal occasion does demand a kimono, they are likely to put on machine-made version – much cheaper than a traditional handmade kimono which costs between 180,000 and 1 million yen (£1,400 – £7,800).”[1] Kimonos have even moved from being a unisex garment to “a marked feminine custome.”“While men wear rational, ‘active’ Western suits, women are encouraged to put on kimono.”[3]

Furthermore, since the beginning of the 20th century, the kimono industry itself has changed magnificently. While “the generation of women who grew up before the war sewed kimono for the entire family,”[5] kimonos are currently almost entirely machine-made. The traditional way of making kimonos consists of over a thousand different steps, each of which has to be performed by a different craftsmen. Due to the lack of suitable successors, many of these steps/crafts are nearly extinct. Soichi Sajiki, whose family has made the garments for 200 years, stated, “Japan’s kimono industry is at a critical stage. We are seriously struggling to find ways of passing on our precious craftsmanship to the next generation.”[1] For instance, the Telegraph reports, “In his workshop in Tokyo, Mr. Komiya is the only artisan still able to undertake a delicate form of hand painting kimono silk in pure gold.”[1] Mr. Komiya has actually been recognized by the Japanese government as a ‘Living National Treasure,’ because with his death, the skill would die out as well.

From being the dominating garment of the Japanese market less than 200 years ago, to many of the Japanese people, the traditional kimono has become not much more than an over-expensive formal wear. Due to the lack of popularity, kimono renting has become a popular business since many don’t see the necessity of owning one themselves. Furthermore, not only are the handmade kimonos dying out, the Industry itself is close to extinction as well. Over the last 30 years, the number of companies making kimonos in Tokyo has decreased from 217 to 24. The kimono is a dying yet preserved Japanese tradition. Although being deeply associated with Japan, the kimono is not much more than a shadow of its original existence.

 

Works Cited

  1. Tokyo, Danielle Demetriou in. “Kimono Making in Japan Is a Dying Art.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 23 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8082875/Kimono-making-in-Japan-is-a-dying-art.html&gt;.
  2. Goldberg, Barbara. “The Japanese Kimono.” School Arts Apr. 1993: 31+. Questia School. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  3. Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra. “Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural, Identities(1).” Ethnology 38.4 (1999). Questia School. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  4. Hastings, Sally A. “The Empress’ New Clothes and Japanese Women, 1868-1912.” The Historian 55.4 (1993): 677+. Questia School. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  5. Kamachi, Noriko. Culture and Customs of Japan. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Questia School. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
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