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Why No Kimono?

One of my patrons, after watching the videos of the abdication and accession ceremonies, commented that everyone was wearing Western clothes, and asked why. Actually, this wasn’t quite true; the female Cabinet member at the accession ceremony was wearing a kimono. It was, however, overwhelmingly the case — no men, and no members of the Imperial family, were wearing kimono. Given that these were traditional Japanese ceremonies, one might well wonder why.

This is something that we see a lot in Shinto. While the formal vestments for priests are closely based on Japanese costume from a thousand years ago (and thus do not look very much like what now comes to mind when you say “kimono”), almost everyone else wears western clothing. This even applies to priests who are attending a ceremony, but are not on duty: they all wear boring western suits. At a formal gathering in Japan, one sees very, very few men in kimono, unless the gathering is for a traditional Japanese art. There are usually more women wearing Japanese-style clothes, but they are still a minority in most cases.

The immediate reason for this is that this is the custom, so most people do not own a kimono, and do not know how to put it on. (We do all own kimono, and can put them on, although I have to tie my daughter’s belt.) Kimono are also expensive, because the demand is low, which further reinforces the trend.

But how did the trend get started? As regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear, it began in the Meiji period, in the late nineteenth century. As part of the drive to adopt everything western as quickly as possible, the government ruled that the Tennō would wear western clothes, as would members of the government. People were legally required to abandon traditional Japanese hairstyles (to the point that only sumo wrestlers have them now), and the pressure on men to switch to western clothes was strong. This continued until the war, and then in the post-War period, US culture was very influential on Japan, leading to a further drift towards western clothing.

While the Shinto establishment is very keen on Japanese tradition, that tradition only starts in 1868, so they have no particular enthusiasm for kimono in everyday life, or even in ceremonies. Jinja do not even, normally, specify what kimono would be appropriate for a ceremony.

That said, there does seem to be a strong grassroots feeling in favour of kimono among priests. People wearing Japanese dress to attend hatsumōdë at New Year, or to attend a matsuri, are generally looked on favourably. It is very common for women to wear yukata (a very casual variant of a kimono, which is substantially easier to put on) for summer festivals, and some men do as well. Even the Shinto establishment seems to be in favour of children wearing kimono for Shichigosan, and new adults wearing kimono for the adulthood ceremony.

So, the attitude is more ambiguous than one might expect. Personally, I think it would be good for jinja to be more positively in favour of kimono, to help preserve this part of Japanese culture.

4 thoughts on “Why No Kimono?”

  1. It is sad that they decided so quickly in favor of western ways of doing, specially when japanse ways were far better at the time. Western hygiene at the time was awful, while japanese was outstanding. And western clothes are less comfortable and more restrincting.

    1. Japan was certainly far too undiscriminating in its adoption of western customs at the time. The big mistake was adopting imperialism, but the clothing change was also an error.

  2. Very interesting! Given how attached Japan still seems to be to many of its arts and traditions, it does seem strange that they don’t promote traditional dress more. Or is my impression wide of the mark, and such things as ikebana and the tea ceremony are actually as fringe as kimono these days?

    1. I think the issue is that they are fundamentally different. Unless you are a professional flower arranger (which is always a minority thing), you do not spend most of your time doing that. On the other hand, you always wear clothes (except in onsen). Japan’s traditional arts are minority, but probably only in the sense in which arts are always a minority, and they do occasionally become the current fad again. I think it is fair to say that they are being successfully kept alive. Kimono are not part of everyday life, and as traditional clothing, they could be. Thus, although kimono are probably as common as the arts and traditions, that is very marginal for kimono, and not for the arts and traditions.

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