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 as 16th-century nobility 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 before you mark down this tired cliché onto your itinerary, take a second to think why you should avoid wearing a kimono during your time in Japan!
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Table of Contents
What is a Kimono?
The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment that’s seen as an iconic national symbol. The word translates as “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 the 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.
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 is 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, 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.
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.
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.
Kimonos quickly became a status symbol and proof of contact with faraway exotic lands. During the Meiji Era, Japan opened its borders and began forming new channels of foreign trade and sharing cultural, political and economic ties. One of the most highly demanded products was the kimono, which was quickly funnelled to Europe and the Americas, bringing the garment onto the international stage.
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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.
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?
Yes, kimonos are a part of local Japanese culture, but it’s not your culture, therefore you look odd when you wear them. 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 what 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 Offend Someone
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.
I feel if I were 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.
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.
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 in keeping the tradition alive and giving 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!
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 4,000 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.”
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 people would see it as such. It’s a true piece of Japanese heritage that dosey little girls 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.
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