Travelling Welshman
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Discussions,  Japan

Why Foreigners Should NOT Wear Kimonos!

Amongst each national monument, Buddhist temple and historic avenue in modern-day Japan, men and women from across the world come to play out their little fantasies of living in the 16th century by dressing up in authentic rented kimonos.

Many say that it’s a beautiful sight to behold and blends so perfectly amongst the narrow brick lanes and high-rising pagodas. Of course, those who wear kimonos think they look utterly fantastic and truly lose themselves in their mythical fantasies. Yet the cold hard reality is that these tourists look absolutely ridiculous, and some even find the practice to be offensive! So let’s look at why you should avoid wearing a kimono during your time in Japan!

What is a Kimono?

The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment that’s seen as an iconic national symbol. The word literally translates to mean “something to wear”, as for centuries kimonos were used as typical daily clothing. Though it used to be the clothing choice of commoners, it was soon adopted by society’s elite!

The T-shaped garment has square sleeves and is always worn left side wrapped over right, unless the wearer is dead, so best avoid that mistake! They’re also traditionally come with a broad sash, called an obi, and usually worn with zōri sandals and tabi socks.

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Visiting the sites in the kimonos

Different types of kimonos are used for men, women and children, though ladies’ kimonos are easily the most popular! This is mostly because they have more elaborate designs and eye-catching colours, as well as being made from finer materials such as silk.

There are also different kimonos for different occasions, seasons, age and, in years past, their marital status. The most common type of kimono is the yukata, which are usually more lightweight and a little more comfortable for daily use.

When are Kimonos Worn?

For centuries, kimonos were used daily for any and every occasion. They were worn by the poorest peasants to the noblest of samurai warriors! Colours and designs displayed economic or political classes, and battling warriors even dressed up in matching colours.

Today kimonos are generally only worn for special or formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals, festivals and graduations. They’re similar to how we would wear a suit in the West.

And just like a suit, some people are required to wear a kimono as part of their job! The most famous of which is another of Japan’s biggest icons, the glorious geishas and maiko (apprentice geishas). Sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, are must also wear a kimono at all times in public, apart from when they’re bumping bellies of course!

Why Are Kimonos Less Popular Today?

For thousands of years, Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world and maintained a more old-fashioned way of life. As the country entered the Meiji Era (1868-1912), they left behind their Shogunate rulers and samurai warriors as the country began a phase of Westernisation.

Kimonos of all sizes. Photo by Benh LIEU SONG, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the casualties of this transition has been the beautiful kimono. Not only were they (and still are) incredibly expensive, but they were much more of a hassle to put on than your average T-shirt! Western-style clothing, therefore, seemed like the more convenient option.

By the end of World War II (and thanks to the added influence of American troops stationed in Japan), kimonos have all but disappeared from everyday life. Yet they’re still a symbol of national pride and seen as more of a tradition than daily fashion.

International Interest

Many people, such as myself, are absolutely fascinated by all aspects of Japanese culture! Kimonos are just one of the country’s many marvellous traditions that have managed to capture the imagination of people across the globe. You might think the Western love of kimonos is relatively new, but actually, it has been the case for centuries!

17th Century Europe and Kimonos

For hundreds of years, Japan isolated itself and shut its borders to the outside world. During that time, only one notorious trader had access to the mythical Far Eastern land, the Dutch East India company. These traders had exclusive access to Japan’s shores from the 17th to 19th century, meaning they had unique access to some highly lucrative items. One of which was the humble kimono, which instantly caught the attention of Europe’s elite with its spectacular designs.

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Vintage kimonos of a forgotten age

Kimonos quickly became a status symbol and a proof of contact with faraway exotic lands. During the Meiji Era, Japan opened its borders began forming new channels of foreign trade and share cultural, political and economic ties. One of the most highly demanded products was the kimono, which were quickly funnelled to Europe and the Americas, bringing the garment onto the international stage.

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Modern-Day Revival

Foreigners are just as fascinated with kimonos today as they were centuries ago! The number of kimono collectors and enthusiasts has increased around the world, and museums are filling up with surviving relics. Kimono dressing schools have also seen an increase in foreign enrollees who hope to become certified kimono stylists.

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Finally able to wear kimonos

Even the Japanese government themselves keep trying to revive their dying tradition and actively encourage their citizens to wear them! Thankfully there has been some resurgence in places like Tokyo, where youth in the trendy Harajuku district are bringing kimonos back in style!

The biggest exposure to kimonos around the world has been through other aspects of Japanese culture! Die-hard fans of anime and manga and lovers of Japanese media have become enamoured by the elegant garments. As such, the popularity of kimonos has been maintained by a very important group of people, tourists!

Tourists That Wear Kimonos

Many visitors to Japan just can’t help themselves! Everyone wants to live out their fantasy of walking through traditional Japanese streets wearing an authentic piece of local culture. It’s a common sight in many cities, such as Kyoto and Kanazawa, where the number of traditional streets and geishas are at their highest. You’re actually much more likely to see a tourist wearing one than a local!

On paper, the idea sounds so incredibly romantic and frankly quite cool! However, in reality, it’s absolutely ridiculous, and here’s why…

You Look Stupid

Let me ask you a question, would you walk through the streets of Texas wearing cowboy boots and matching hats? Or would you perhaps walk through the streets of Mexico wearing a poncho and a sombrero? Both do have some genuine cultural and historical significance to the area, but do you wear them? No, why? Because you’d look like a fucking fool. So why exactly is wearing a kimono any different?

Doing the tourist thing. Photo by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr

Yes, kimonos are a part of local Japanese culture, but it’s not your culture, therefore you look odd when you wear it. So is it only acceptable to wear them because kimonos are very beautiful? So what? If that’s the case, why don’t visitors wear a gown and a tiara while visiting Buckingham Palace?

And that is exactly how wearing a kimono looks like, a little girl dressed as a princess while visiting Disneyland. It’s cute, it’s utterly adorable, and it’s the absolute perfect setting for it. However, it’s not so cute when a 47-year old woman does the same.

You Might Be Offensive

I’m not some fragile snowflake that thinks little girls “culturally appropriate” Maori culture while dressed as Moana or that Super Mario is a negative Italian stereotype. In fact, I find it all a little pathetic and overly sensitive. That being said, some people could claim that foreigners are being somewhat offensive when they wear kimonos.

There’s just something about a tourist sauntering amongst national treasures and religious sites dressed in another culture’s traditional dress that just seems a little strange. The act of wearing a kimono isn’t a crime in itself, you can still be perfectly respectable while wearing one, even if you do look strange. It’s those people who wear them JUST for those few extra likes on Instagram. Those girls that demand their boyfriend to take their 57,000th picture of the day whilst they stand beneath cherry blossoms or before the hall of a Buddhist temple. I can’t fucking stand it.

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As long as you look good right?

I feel if I was Japanese, I would be enraged if I saw an obese, triple-chinned, red-headed whale stamping her way through the streets of my nation with a ground-shaking vigour that would put Godzilla to shame, speaking at a decibel level beyond the realm of human hearing whilst she desecrates a piece of my culture, just for the sake of (and failing) to look cute for the selfie.

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Okay, It’s Not All Bad

I’m not made of steel, and neither am I a triggered Karen looking for a new thing to be annoyed about. Even I will admit that people dressed in kimonos do look fantastic, and that’s not just each individual! Having traditionally preserved streets lined with glowing red lanterns and filled with people wrapped in authentic kimonos looks sensational! You can really lose yourself in your imagination of what Japan must have been like centuries ago.

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Walking through the streets of Kyoto

I also understand why you would want to wear a kimono. You are IN Japan, the land of the kimono, there would be no more appropriate place to wear one than here! This is your chance to live out your fantasy and role-play life as Japanese royalty! I understand all that, but it doesn’t change the fact that you-look-STUPID!

Wearing a Scarface-esque white suit and red velvet shirt while driving the streets of Miami would look absolutely amazing…yet you’d still look like a complete fool. It’s like those stories of people legally changing their name to Dragon or Max Power. On paper or for a 12-year-old, it sounds really cool, but in the real world, it’s fucking ridiculous. And it’s the same with kimonos, some things are better left to your imagination.

What Do Locals Think?

Generally speaking, most Japanese people have no issue with it! Some might think it looks amusing (often they do), though they rarely find it to be offensive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

Identity politics isn’t a big issue in Japan, especially compared to the West. Japanese people generally feel happy when tourists take a keen interest in their cultural heritage and actively want to share it with the outside world. The older generation also wants Japanese youth to wear more kimonos! Thus, in a strange way, foreigners are one of the biggest driving factors of keeping the tradition alive and give kimonos a place in today’s modern world.

When is it Offensive to Locals?

Much like other debates on cultural appropriation, it’s all about the context and varies between each person. A foreigner wearing a kimono in Japan will barely get a second glance. On the other hand, a foreigner wearing a kimono in a place where Japanese people are marginalised or using their culture in a distasteful way is another story. Such as when Katy Perry wore a kimono and a powdered-white face during the American Music Awards. That’s more likely to raise some eyebrows.

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It’s Big Business!

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Plenty of kimono designs

What’s always been more important than culture, history or a common sense of decency? Money of course! And kimonos are a big money-maker! Despite it being a shell of what it once was, it’s still almost a £2 billion industry, and a big proportion of that can be put down to foreigners!

The streets of Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa have multiple stores which rent out kimonos to wear for the day. Basic kimonos cost around 4000 yen and can get as high as 13,000 yen for more intricate styles! Essentially the same kind of price you would expect to rent a suit.

As such, renting out kimonos is a huge source of income for local economies, which locals are happy to accept! As one of my Japanese friends said “If they’re stupid enough to spend all that money, then we’re happy to take it.”

Conclusion

Everyone has their own definition of cultural appropriation. If some people had their way, we wouldn’t be able to eat cuisine from any other country or listen to their music and enjoy their movies for fear of “stealing their culture.” I’ve never been of that opinion, it just seems like political correctness going a little too far.

In the case of the kimono, I can see why many people would see it as such. It’s a true piece of Japanese heritage that dosey white little bitches put on giddily just to get those extra few likes on Instagram. To me though, the argument against wearing one is pretty simple, you look like a complete and total fucking idiot.

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

6 Comments

  • Ben Zabulis

    I tend to agree with you there, the grace and attire of the Japanese is unique and doesn’t quite fit with our western ways and physique. The only times I have participated in this sort of thing is wearing a yukata provided at an onsen which didn’t seem to bad in the cirumstances !

    • TravellingWelshman

      Absolutely, I find it quite strange! I completely agree with you, in that circumstance then of course you should wear a yukata, it makes complete sense. However, walking around Kyoto with a kimono and a selfie stick is just a little odd in my estimation! Thank you so much as always for taking the time to read through my article, I appreciate it!

      • Erin

        Hey there! Thanks for the article, I appreciated your interest in preserving the dignity of traditional dress. If it’s alright I would like to throw in my 2 cents and disagree with you on the reasonings behind the “looking fucking stupid” arguement. Of course everyone’s experience is different, but personally I have discussed this topic with many of my friends and coworkers (I live in Japan and work at a Japanese company) and all of them so far have shared the same enthusiasm for seeing foreigners in kimono. To people living in Japan who are potentially disconnected from the new age ideas of appropriation the west has decided to apply to many other nations with different standards and ideals, no one considers it silly here (rather, not many people do). In fact, on the whole it’s encouraged for foreigners to wear kimono! In this time period not many Japanese people associate any sacred or exclusive qualities to wearing the garment, and in certain situations such as ceremonies it is actually much more appropriate for a foreigner to wear kimono. Maybe as Westerners we tend to apply our own perspectives and values in order to discern what looks “silly” or childlike, but in reality wearing kimono is just another wonderful way to show Japanese people that you are enjoying the culture that you are there to experience!
        Nevertheless, I see that you have a love for world cultures and I hope you return to Japan one day and have more lovely experiences!
        Stay well!

        • TravellingWelshman

          Thank you so very much for your comments and I highly appreciate your courtesy too, many haven’t had such a polite reaction to the article! Oh absolutely, I do not believe (for the most part at least) that Japanese people have any real issue with foreigners wearing a kimono, rather many, as you say, would encourage it not only to proudly represent and maintain this fascinating tradition but also as a financial benefit.

          I couldn’t agree with you more about the Western tendencies to believe that anything taken out of any other culture should be considered cultural appropriation. Thankfully, whilst living in Asia I haven’t had to hear that tiresome debate. My real issue however is with the people who don’t appreciate the culture. It’s the individuals who want to wear something culturally significant simply because they find it eye-catching or might get them a bit more attention on their social media, which let’s face it, is the reason why many foreigners wear them in the first place.

          In the right context and with the utmost respect, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a foreigner wearing a kimono, as I myself would love to try one sometime! However for those people who wear this beautiful cultural garment “just for the likes” I find it foolish.

          Despite that, I completely respect your opinion and I can absolutely appreciate where you are coming from. As I say, this is just my personal opinion and people have the right to wear whatever it is they want, who am I to judge? Who knows, I might find myself wearing one someday too! Thank you once again for your wonderful comments and thank you so much for taking the time to read my article regardless!

  • Angelina

    As a Japanese American with my mother being the only one in her lineage to leave her homeland, we encourage and LOVE when foreigners wear our clothing. More often than not, it’s non-Japanese who find it offensive. As with anything in life, intentions matter and anyone can be offended for any reason. Embracing my culture is not only educational, it’s important as it creates a connection between us. Wear the Kimono.
    There are only two types of people in this world…good people and assholes. Regardless of race, religion, politics, there is always going to be that person who is a jerk but that should never be a reason to deny others if the joys and beauty of my people. Wear the Kimono!❤️

    • TravellingWelshman

      I’m happy to hear that Japanese people are more than happy for foreigners to wear kimonos, and I couldn’t agree with you more that adopting someone else’s culture is by no means offensive, rather it should be encouraged!

      My real issue was actually perfectly defined by what you said; “intentions matter”. There are plenty of people who do not have the right intentions when it comes to embracing other cultures and treat it as a novelty and an opportunity for social media attention rather than respecting its history and cultural significance.

      That being said, I couldn’t agree more that your culture should undoubtedly be proudly represented and deserves to be shared with the world!

      Though you might not agree with the points I have made in this article, I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read it and I respect your thoughts nonetheless 😁✌🏻

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