Textiles of Battle: A Look at Japanese Wartime Propaganda Kimono

Textiles of Battle: A Look at Japanese Wartime Propaganda Kimono

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Japan's wartime propaganda kimono
Were Japan's World War II-era kimonos depicting images of war a propaganda tool - or a natural outpouring of support?

When one thinks of kimono patterns, one perhaps thinks of intricate and elegant designs depicting elegant flowers, gorgeous scenery, and auspicious animals such as cranes. But as Japan modernized during the Meiji era and textile production advanced, so did the need for patterns to reflect the times and enchant buyers.

Out of this consumer-driven need came a type of kimono that to this day is seldom found, and not very often talked about.

War pattern kimono

Called 戦争柄 (sensougara; war patterns) or 面白い柄 (omoshiroigara; interesting patterns), these particular kimono patterns feature war scenes that were produced in Japan over a period of about 50 years.

Starting during the Sino-Japanese War with production ending during WWII, the bold, colorful patterns on these kimono included slogans and images related to Japan’s military ambitions at the time. They contained a variety of vivid, colorful images ranging from patriotic symbols, tanks, prominent leaders, maps, and images of soldiers or airplanes in combat.

These remarkably eye-catching designs drew inspiration from a wide variety of art movements and periods, including social realism and Art Deco. Artists designed early cartoons to convey a sense of strength and valor.

There are three distinct types of styles of war propaganda kimono that can be classified by their time period. Before the advent of the photographic press, Ukiyo-e prints were first used to make elegant, more traditionally inspired designs during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), and thus they resembled more of that style of art.

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Artists created postcard-style designs during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) as a result of the popularity of postcards. They bear the influence of the photographic press around the time Art Nouveau-style designs were featured as a result of the Paris Exposition (1900).

Beginning in the Taisho era (1912–1926), when cartoonish depictions of children were all the rage, adult soldiers were sometimes depicted as children with oversized heads. Weapons like tanks and airships still retained a more realistic appearance. 

Depictions of victory

Wartime kimono from Japan
Picture: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Before the war, a bright, Westernized future was often portrayed in designs from the early 1920s to the late 1930s. These designs featured cityscapes with subways and skyscrapers, ocean liners, steaming locomotives, sleek cars, and airplanes.

However, support towards the future war effort turned more conservative. Those in power saw militarization as a vital part of modernization. As a result, more people associated Western influences with the enemy. If such imagery remained in kimono, it was often shown as a threat that Japanese military might must overcome.

Because of the direct influence that current events had on these kimono, the patterns often also showed victories Japan had won in battle or other important events. Sometimes the patterns were even graphic in nature. However, those were usually reserved for the underlayers of men’s kimono instead of women’s or children’s pieces. During WWII, more and more of these patterns showed support for Japan’s allies, including Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. 

Despite how bright and alluring these patterns were, an Edo period law banned the purchase of extravagant things for common folks in Japan. This led to the development of 隠れたおしゃれ (kakureta oshare; hidden fashion) in kimono.

In this style, the outer layers of kimono bore more modest patterns. Kimono makers then put the more flamboyant, vibrant patterns in the underlayers. As a result, when Japan modernized, a thirst for bolder, more eye-catching patterns emerged. They were subtle, imprinted on the inside of the garments, appearing when the kimono moved just right. 

Gender differences

Boy's propaganda kimono
Boy’s propaganda kimono for sale by dealer. (Picture: Norman Brosterman)

While there were women’s kimono that did depict war patterns, such war propaganda kimono were typically found on kimono for boys and adult men. The women who wore such patterns, however, mainly worked in the entertainment industry, such as courtesans, dancers, and geisha.

Women such are housewives didn’t wear such extravagant kimono for their daily lives. Influenced by the aforementioned Edo law, designers printed the war patterns on women’s kimono on underlayers such as on their eri collars of nagajuban or the lining of their haori coats. There were also obi that depicted these patterns. 

As for children, there was a clear gender difference when it came to the imagery of these war propaganda kimono. Kids clothing for boys (including kimono) bore more war imagery depicted. However, the focus was on items and vehicles such as planes, steamships, warships, and so forth. The goal was to inspire feelings in young boys of strength and pride in being brave.

By contrast, girls’ war propaganda kimono focused on the greatness of Japanese culture through more “delicate” things such as literature and fine art.

Government propaganda – or willing support?

Despite being called war propaganda in English, how much of this was considered propaganda on behalf of the Japanese government within Japan?

Historians mostly agree that the general public willingly created and wore them, absent persuasion from the Japanese government.

Yoshiko Inui, author of the book Images of War: Kimono, wrote the production of such kimono was instead inspired by the supply and demand of the time period for unusual patterns. The lingering effects of the Edo-era ban on elaborate kimono, in combination with the daily atmosphere at the time.

At the time, leaders yearned for Japan to modernize and have a strong military in order to secure its future. This then was reflected in daily fashion, with some people wearing propaganda wear to show solidarity towards the idea of a stronger Japan. Others simply wanted to indulge in something trendy and neat.

The boldness of the patterns and their contrast with the more conservative, daily fashion norms was striking. So it’s no wonder they were seen as something in vogue.

Still, at the end of WWII, occupation authorities promptly banned the imagery used in war propaganda. More people now knew of the meaning behind the patterns. They ceased being “cool” for the sake of fashion. Japanese people did not dare wear them.

Considered a source of shame, it wasn’t until more recent years kimono enthusiasts discovered them again. In 2005, Jacqueline M. Atkins, a scholar of Japanese textiles, collected these kimono and exhibited them at several museums. 

Conclusion

Since then, more and more scholarly interest in war propaganda kimono has developed, even though the subject is still a touchy one to discuss or even research.

Regardless, we can’t ignore history. It’s important to learn as much as we can from these kimono. Looking at these things with a critical eye means that we can truly learn from them. We can understand how easy it can be to normalize something like the warfare imagery depicted on the kimono at the time.

Japan is no exception to the rule here. Understanding the culture of war is a valuable lesson for all. 

Licensed in Silk – a Mixed Nikkei’s Journey in Studying Kimono in Japan

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J. "Rin" Shiroshita

J. "Rin" Shiroshita hails from Michigan, USA and currently lives in Osaka, Japan. Born to a half-Japanese father, she grew up in a hometown with a large Japanese population and didn't learn the English word for "beansprouts" until a classmate finally corrected her in university. She has recently received her full certification as a kimono teacher/stylist and is the sole proprietor of Mainichi Kimono. She focuses on Nikkei issues and traditional Japanese culture.

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