– By Charlotte Brill
Walking through the streets of Kyoto I saw tourists wearing elegant Kimono or Yukata (the more casual summer alternative), taking aesthetically pleasing photos in front of temples, shrines and other tourist hotspots. I was confused, surely this was cultural appropriation? Accusations of cultural appropriation pervade in global media, so much so that there is often a strong sense of anxiety about the dangers of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and being disrespectful. Yet, the number of tourists sporting this cultural look was so abundant, there must be more to the story.
For years, the Kimono industry has been in decline. Kimonos are incredibly expensive and difficult to put on, often requiring expert help. Instead, most Japanese favour ‘western’ clothing for everyday wear, reserving kimono for special occasions, such as weddings and coming of age ceremonies. Frequently, these kimonos have been part of a family’s heritage for generations and do not necessarily help keep this traditional industry alive.
In Kyoto’s most touristy areas, it is not hard to find kimono rental services offering ‘Geisha and Maiko Makeover Experiences’, complicating my initial assumption that tourists dressing in Kimono are being culturally appropriative. In fact, these experiences are actively advocated on Japanese tourism boards as a perfect way to immerse oneself and truly experience Japanese tradition. Japanese local and student of Nagoya University, Mizuki Mori, referring to a trip to Kyoto, said: ‘’I felt so happy that many tourists are interested in wearing kimono and enjoying Japanese culture.’’
Such a response is not uncommon. Japanese people generally feel happiness or pride to see tourists taking a keen interest in Japanese cultural heritage, especially because young Japanese women often have little interest continuing the kimono industry; by sharing kimono with foreigners the tradition can live on in a new and modern way. Emma Field, whose mother is from a small Japanese island, explains that at kimono rentals, ‘’they will likely dress you in it and that ensures you’re wearing it properly and respectfully.’’
It is these ideals of appropriateness and respect which typically distinguish cultural appreciation from cultural appropriation. In the Japanese case, many locals’ even welcome modification and hybridisation of traditional kimono with other cultures’ attributes. For Mizuki, tourists having fun and enjoying Japanese culture is more important than wearing kimono in a traditional way.
With fervent neoliberal globalisation, the world and it’s cultures are constantly changing, developing and interconnecting; we are at the epoch of international cultural transmission, augmented by The Internet and consumption trends. Co-Director of the Sussex Asia Centre, Maurizo Marinelli, describes some cases of reinvented kimono as a ‘’transcultural object which is more than a garment…and really assumes a transcultural dimension.’’ It is imperative to address what this means for the very notion of culture.
In 2013, Katy Perry was accused of ‘’racism’’ when she performed in a modified kimono (which was more of a fusion of Japanese kimono and Chinese cheongsam) at the American Music Awards. With a large slit down both sides and a cleavage-bearing front it is understandable why this performance received criticism, particularly as its common to monolithically combine East Asian styles. But what do Japanese people in Japan think?
YouTuber, ‘That Japanese man Yuta’ asked random people on the street. The general consensus was that they felt her love of Japanese culture, much like with kimono tourism, and did not really understand why it was criticised. Poignantly, one interview participant, when asked about the modification of kimono, said: ‘’if that would create a new culture, it would be a wonderful thing.’’ Others, comparing Katy Perry’s ‘Americanised’ performance to Japan’s own absorption of culture, talked about the fluidity of culture and the importance of this hybridisation for continual adaptation and self-improvement.
Kimono, or items which hardly resemble the traditional dress, have long been central to the fashion industry. It is this form of cultural ‘borrowing’ which is likely to more insidiously commercialise and dishonour cultural traditions. Last year, Kim Kardashian received backlash after naming her shapewear brand Kimono. Taking to Twitter before the projects debut Kim claimed ‘’Kimono is my take on shapewear and solutions for women that actually work.’’
The sentiment, to provide body confidence solutions for women, is not particularly disagreeable. However, I honestly do not understand how she justified not only calling her intimate line Kimono, but also applied for a trademark to share the word with the traditional Japanese garment. She has since responded and changed the name of her new brand to Skims. Much more fitting- literally and linguistically!
This, however, does not mean that Kimono cannot and should not be celebrated in the fashion world. This March the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition opens at London’s V&A Museum presenting ‘’the kimono as a dynamic and constantly evolving icon of fashion, revealing the sartorial, aesthetic and social significance of the garment from the 1660s to the present day, both in Japan and the rest of the world’’, according the museums website. It is important to understand the history of tradition and the history of cultural exchange to reveal how culture is shared and incorporated, and the potential power imbalances which may be present. We should be wary of disrespectful cultural appropriation but before we assume that this is the case, we need to consider the wider picture and understand that cultural transmission can be a beautiful thing which brings our worldly cultures together and educates people on tradition and cultural appreciation.
Image credit – Creative Commons Zero