My Kimono is Not Your Couture

Items called “kimono” are having a moment in the fashion world. But as guest blogger Emi Ito points out, this trend revolves around appropriation and erasure of histories that are both deeply personal and extremely political.

The misuse and appropriation of the kimono seems ubiquitous these days. And the term is often used to describe things that are decidedly not kimonos, including jackets, coats, sweaters, tops, and jumpsuits. Since these items hardly resemble an actual kimono, one can only surmise that the kimono label is being used to invoke “exotic” Japan as a marketing tactic.

Adding insult to injury, these garments are typically not modeled by people of Japanese heritage, but by thin white models. This trend perpetuates white standards of beauty and erases the ties these clothing items have to the actual people that “inspire” them. All of these seemingly small but meaningful choices made by fashion makers and brands capitalize on racist stereotypes, erasing Japanese American history and Japanese American people. While the intention may have been benign, the impact is not.

Screenshot of a “kimono” for sale on the Urban Outfitters website. Across the web, consumers can find jackets, coats, sweaters, tops, jumpsuits, and countless other items labeled “kimono”—they rarely bear any resemblance to an actual kimono.

A “kimono” for sale on the Urban Outfitters website. Across the web, consumers can find jackets, coats, sweaters, tops, jumpsuits, and countless other items labeled “kimono”they rarely bear any resemblance to an actual kimono.

Of course this Orientalist love affair with the kimono is nothing new. Since the late 1800’s, the cultural appropriation of the kimono in fashion has had a long and complicated history. Monet’s La Japonaise, The Mikado, and Katy Perry’s “geisha” look, are just a few of the many examples of the West’s fascination with all things Japanese.

But contrary to what Orientalist art and contemporary brands might have you believe, kimonos are not just clothes. They are garments worn for celebrations, sacred ceremonies, and life’s milestones. They are part of our family stories, which for some of us, are the stories of what was left behind and the people who are no longer with us.

My kimonos have been folded and tucked around the bodies of my great grandmother, grandmother, aunt, and mother. They are a part of our family’s heritage and a textured history of my matrilineal line. One day I will pass these pieces down to my own daughter so that she too can wear a garment sewn by her grandmother’s hands. These familial and cultural items have deep, even sacred significance: I wrap my ancestors around me when I wind and cinch my obi about my waist.

Portrait of the author’s mother and grandmother in Hamamatsu, Japan, 1959.

The author’s mother and grandmother in Hamamatsu, Japan, 1949.

The fact that I have a collection of my family’s garments is a privilege. My family does not have the historical trauma of being incarcerated during World War II because my mother immigrated to the US in the 1960s. We did not share the fate of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were charged with the “crime” of looking like the enemy and forced to take only what could be carried, then locked behind barbed wire fences for years.

My family did not have to decide between western style everyday clothes, family necessities, and precious cultural pieces like our kimono, scrolls, koto, shamisen, and lacquer pieces. The fact that some families did choose to bring kimonos with them shows what great sentimental and cultural value they hold. So many tangible pieces of family legacies were lost and even stolen because not every family was able to bring items like their traditional garments into the concentration camps. In some cases, families even burned their heirlooms out of fear that they would be seen as incriminating evidence of an imagined collusion with Japan.

Even though my family was not incarcerated, I experienced the aftermath of racism against people of Japanese heritage. I was called racist names, taunted, made to feel less than and othered. Like so many Japanese Americans, I internalized the societal messages that assimilation would be best.

Especially during the early part of WWII, those messages were explicitly taught in the camps and in resettlement programs.* English language lessons and citizenship classes, patriotic exercises, the sponsorship of boy scout troops, and required seminars on “How to Behave in the Outside World” were all part of a concerted effort to strip Japanese Americans of their cultural identities under the guise of “Americanization.” The crushing pressure of assimilation not only took away the Japanese language from many in subsequent future generations, but also weakened cultural ties, and the ability to pass down family heirlooms such as kimonos.

Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi poses in her kimono in front of barracks at Manzanar concentration camp. While many Japanese Americans had to leave cultural items like kimonos behind when they were forced into WWII concentration camps, some took the risk of bringing them along even though their luggage was severely restricted and scrutinized.

Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi poses in her kimono in front of barracks at Manzanar concentration camp. While many Japanese Americans had to leave cultural items like kimonos behind when they were forced into WWII concentration camps, some took the risk of bringing them along even though their luggage was severely restricted and scrutinized. Photo courtesy of the Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi Collection.

To invoke the name of a deeply significant cultural item, the kimono, without the consideration of how Japanese Americans were made to feel inferior and in many cases forced to assimilate, is hurtful and renders the history of Japanese Americans invisible.

We are witnessing a moment when history seems to be repeating itself: children and families seeking asylum are being incarcerated and separated. They too have only what they were able to carry. These stories are all too familiar to Japanese Americans. We are being told that they are the enemy we need to keep at bay by building a wall.

The stakes are high and there is much for Japanese Americans to speak out about. In light of the stark realities we are living in, cultural appropriation may feel insignificant. I would like to offer that there is room for speaking out about the large and the little injustices that hurt our hearts. I would like to offer that when we start speaking up about the little things, it gets easier to speak up about the big things.

Screenshot of a Jesse Kamm garment originally called a "kimono jumpsuit." After Ito reached out to the company, they changed the name and removed other culturally insensitive language from the description.

This Jesse Kamm garment was originally called a “kimono jumpsuit.” After Ito reached out to the company, they changed the name and removed other culturally insensitive language from the description.

As someone who enjoys fashion, especially the rise of ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion, where small brands feel more approachable and interested in a genuine dialogue, I worked up the courage to speak out. For garments that seem to be more inspired by the haori, I asked makers to use haori instead of kimono. I also asked some makers to change the name of their garment to duster or coat if the item did not resemble a kimono. So far several brands have made the changes including two sewing pattern makers. These tiny wins give me hope at a time when hope feels rare and far off.

I wear my kimonos to remember.  When I wear them, I remember my foremothers and invoke their strength, love, and resilience. Let us be mindful of how we interact with and are inspired by cultures that are not our own. Let us truly appreciate and not appropriate, by slowing down long enough to deeply consider the unique histories and the people who wear their cultural garments to communicate pride in their heritage; who wear their textured legacies wrapped around them to remember what may have been lost and what is their right to reclaim.

* While WRA administrators did eventually allow dance performances and other displays of Japanese culture in the camps, realizing it was in their interest to make a few symbolic concessions to pacify inmates, this did not undo the harm of strategic and systematic assimilation efforts.

Emi Ito is a mother and an elementary educator. She is a Japanese American of Mixed heritage and is part of the transracial adoptee community. She taught in Bay Area public schools for twelve years and has been an intervention teacher and coordinator for the past three. She founded and directed an arts based summer camp and after school club for youth of color who identify as multiracial, mixed heritage, and/or transracially adopted/fostered. Emi teaches rising sixth graders about Japanese American incarceration history at a Japanese American summer camp. She also served as a co-facilitator of her Union’s teachers of color organization. Slow and sustainable fashion has been a personal interest for the past few years and you can find her on Instagram @little_kotos_closet musing on social justice and toddler-proof clothes. She currently lives in the Bay Area with her partner and their very active and hilarious toddler.

[Header image: Two Nisei children wearing kimono, Seattle c. 1927-1928. Photo courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.]

    • 01/02/2019 at 3:58

    Ask Japanese people, living in Japan, and you will hear a different argument. They do not see it as cultural appropriation. It is just the natural cycle of seeing something you like or view as useful, and adapting it you your own needs. They are happy that it is done. They see it almost as a celebration of something Japanese. And in fact, Japanese do it to many things from other cultures.

    • 01/02/2019 at 17:53

    Suddenly Dan is speaking for the entire Japanese population? Do not make sweeping assumptions, it’s inappropriate. Just because you might be able to find a few Japanese heritage people to co-sign using kimono as a term for non-kimono garments, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Cultural appropriation has gone on for far too long and it’s time for change.

    • 01/02/2019 at 19:47

    “Kimono” has been a generic term in the fashion world for over a century. It denotes a garment made in the general style of a kimono, and everyone is well aware that a traditional kimono is not the same thing. There are many examples in the fashion world of particular styles of clothing being known by the names of the traditional clothing items from which they are derived: “parka”, “moccasin”, “dirndl”, “sari”, “kimono”, “muumuu”, and at least a hundred more. They are generic terms, just like “saltines” or “Kleenex”.

    A rational human being can encompass in their mind BOTH the heritage invoked by a traditional kimono AND the use of the word, “kimono” as a generic fashion term, without having any problem making the distinction.

  1. Densho
    • 01/02/2019 at 22:12

    Hi Heather! Thank you so much for explaining the true meaning of “kimono!” What’s a few centuries of cultural knowledge passed down through generations of our families compared to the expertise of “the fashion world” — an industry famous for respecting and fairly compensating Asian women for their labor and craft? Who are we, a mere community of descendants of people who experienced this history, to imply that a garment invoking our cultural heritage somehow deserves more care and respect than a cracker or disposable snot rag? Thanks for taking the time to open our silly, irrational minds to the reality of our own lived experience!

    • 02/02/2019 at 18:49

    Hi, I am not of Japanese decent and own 2 kimono, a plain men’s kimono with a haori and a kurotomesode. Both are imported from Japan. I have worn the men’s kimono in public but have not found a suitable occasion for the kurotomesode. Is there a way I can wear these garments in a way that is respectful to the heritage of Japanese Americans?

    • 03/02/2019 at 15:17

    The interrment of the Japanese and other Asian peoples in the USA was a scourge of history, especially because of how we position ourselves as Americans striving for equality and justice. Yet, the population of Japanese rooted Westerners (not to mention those who were fully caucasian) in Japan during WW2 also suffered in a society still known today for the extremes of its racism.

    • 05/02/2019 at 3:44

    Hi Kyle,
    I appreciate your asking. If you’re not someone who has dedicated time and energy into learning, for example, an art form that might necessitate wearing formal Japanese garments for performances, I do not understand why you would be wearing Japanese garments as a non-Japanese person. Frankly, it feels like appropriation and like the exotification of Japanese culture. Why do you feel the desire to wear these garments when they don’t reflect your own heritage? What the essay is expressing is that these garments have deep significance to many Japanese heritage people, so as a non-Japanese person, where are the deep ties for you? It comes off as superficial and confusing…

    • 05/02/2019 at 3:47

    Hi Martha,
    Why are you centering white people in the comments section of an article about the experiences of Japanese Americans and Japanese heritage people? Your comment doesn’t make sense in the context of this article. It comes off as silencing.

    • 06/02/2019 at 9:05

    Thank you so much for this article. As a 3 & 4th gen Japanese american who had both sets of grandparents (except 1 grandma) in interment camps. Articles like these mean so much to me. It wasn’t until a couple years ago where I realized the impacts that forced assimilate and culture erasure had on my family and my upbringing as a Japanese american. It’s so frustrating to see many mainstream fashion brand not be aware of the way their marketing and designs impact us. It brings me hope that those couple of companies listened when you reached out. Thanks for writing this insightful article. I deeply appreciate it.

    • 07/02/2019 at 4:06

    I am a great admirer of all things Japanese, especially textiles, and the textiles and garments of many of the world’s cultures. I am an Italian American so have had a glimpse only of appropriation and alteration of my cultural artifacts. I know my grandparents did everything they could to leave “being Italian” behind them as did many immigrants.
    I missed knowing everything about their experiences in Italy.
    How do we acknowledge these cultural differences in an admiring way? At one time, “imitation” was considered flattering. I don’t mean to insult anyone. I have garments from many different cultures. I have been invited to wear them by those who have gifted them to me, and I have worn those I have purchased.
    I have collected “scrapes” of fabrics from many cultures as well, and hope to use them in garments I will wear. I understand your family kimonos are precious to you as they should be. I also know people who have been ridiculed and embarrassed to the point of giving up much of their culture.
    How can we share our multiple cultures in a way that shares deeply and respectfully food, clothing, celebrations, and other cultural elements?

    • 14/02/2019 at 21:44

    I’m a non-Japanese person with a longtime interest in Japanese culture…it began inexplicably (!) when I was about 9 years old growing up in the Bay Area with the strong Japanese influences we had in the 1950s. I spent most of a year in Japan in the ’80s and have been there 10 other times. A friend’s okaasan there once hand-sewed a haori for me as a gift. I treasure it, but have never felt it was appropriate for me to wear it in public, for the kinds of reasons you explain. I’ve come close a few times, but have never done it. After reading your thoughts, I can put reasoning to my instinctive sense. I’m also beginning to examine my inclination to speak Japanese to whatever extent I can because I enjoy and appreciate the language (its expressiveness and sound); I wonder if there’s any sense of appropriation in this and I’m not being respectful enough.
    Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,

    • 15/02/2019 at 0:56

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what kimono means to you personally. I don’t know how to follow the appropriation argument all the way through — it’s important, but it’s difficult. On the one hand, the history of Americans with Japanese heritage — from racist treatment even before WWII, through WWII internment that you mention in your post and beyond leaves many people disconnected from the culture, language, traditions of their ancestors. This is historical trauma, it is real, and it still hurts people through ongoing racism. On the other hand, Japan itself has a long history of brutal and de-humanizing treatment of gai-jin (outsiders); and frankly, of appropriation of anything and everything not Japanese in origin.

    So maybe I should look at this then in terms of who holds the power. In Japan, Japanese people hold the power. In the U.S., white people hold the power (the ‘ism’ of racism — referring to systems, or in the case of racism, systems of race, where the structure is built and maintained to privilege one category — in this case white — above the others. White people want everything, and can take it for granted that they can have it. Americans with Japanese heritage want everything, but cannot have it. ‘Everything’ means everything — it’s the ‘American Dream’ — jobs, education, opportunities generally — so there’s an unfairness to that, if everything is not accessible by everyone. So the appropriation argument then is what… Stop taking everything just because you can? Leave some of my ancestral traditions alone / let some things remain sacred? Stop exploiting what isn’t yours for profit? Some of this / All of this / more than this?

    Can white people — many, if not most of whom did (completely) assimilate when they arrived in the U.S. — leaving their Irish / Scottish / English / other white European roots behind and now long-forgotten — understand what it means to hold on to cultural heritage in a society that in many ways still opresses & discriminates against their racial assignment?

    This is work. It’s bigger than a kimono, the specific roots/origins of which pre-date Japan’s adoption of this ‘clothing’ (literally what kimono translates to), and I think can get lost in the weeds, so to speak, if we think that the kimono is actually what appropriation is about.

    Respect. And again, thank you for posting.

    • 15/02/2019 at 18:48

    I’m just wondering when Japanese or other non-western cultures wear western style clothing, do they according to your opinion, also misuse and appropriate another culture’s clothing without thinking about the specific roots/origins of the piece of clothing? This is not an argument or a disagreement of what you wrote, but an honest question that came to my mind when I read your posting and saw your mother as a little girl wearing her western style dress in 1949. I would appreciate a reply that does not have the sarcasm or hostility I sense in a couple of your replies in this blog. I can tell this topic is close to your heart and I appreciate the passion you display for this topic.

  2. Natasha Varner
    • 15/02/2019 at 20:05

    Hi, Elaine. Densho Communications and Public Engagement Director here and I’ll jump in on this one! Cultural appropriation is problematic when people who have privilege take things from people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized. In the US context there’s a long history of white people violently policing the cultural expressions of people of color and then cherry picking aspects of those cultures to appropriate, often in decontextualized and offensive ways. In most of the world, white “western” cultures have colonized and oppressed other peoples and similar dynamics have played out. The fact that western styles are as widespread as they are is partly a result of colonization. So when people in Japan wear western clothing, it is not harmful in the same way that white people appropriating the kimono is. (Japanese appropriation of Korean customs and styles, on the other hand, would be a whole other conversation because of the history of Japanese colonization in Korea.) In other words, because of the unequal power dynamics that exist in our world the impacts of cultural “borrowing” are also vastly unequal. Hope that clarifies things!

    • 15/02/2019 at 20:11

    Elaine — I wonder… If the non-dominant culture, which importantly, holds no power over the dominant culture, attempts to assimilate / get-along with the dominant culture, then adopting their clothing / ways generally is a matter of survival. If the dominant culture — e.g., the one that has all of the power (over banking, education, safety, and otherwise every aspect of life in society) — takes from the non-dominant culture, they’re not doing it for survival — it’s often for profit, or often a characterization (read: misrepresentation, often insulting). I don’t fully understand appropriation, but I think this is a big part of it.

    Beyond that, there’s a history of westernization in Japan that explains a lot of culture change there — read back to Commodore Perry “opening trade” with Japan in the mid-1800’s (by firing cannons into a town that didn’t want to trade with him) that makes appropriation in that direction a little different than it is currently in the U.S. (i.e., buy our stuff and adopt our ways, or we’ll shoot you was the message he was sending there.). It always comes down to who has the power (and importantly, who doens’t).

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