Recently, I received a rather thick envelope in the mail. With deep breaths and trembling hands, I opened the envelope and saw exactly the news I had been waiting for: I had passed my exams. I am now a fully trained and certified kimono teacher and stylist.
When people ask me why I went to kimono school, they’re pretty surprised to hear Kim Kardashian’s name come up. I’m hardly a fan of celeb culture, so this tends to surprise people quite a bit. However, it all began when Kim K famously attempted to trademark the word “kimono” and the scandal it caused. Who knew I would end up inadvertently and begrudgingly thanking Kim K for anything? What a bizarre world, right? But how exactly did I end up here?
Let’s jump back to kimono. Whenever one hears the word “Japan” or thinks about Japanese culture, one of the first things they think of (besides anime) is probably kimono. Indeed, it’s hard to consider Japanese culture and not consider kimono at all! Kimono is such an important symbol of Japan that in 2017, it was proposed that the art of wearing kimono be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Around the world, kimono is revered for how uniquely beautiful and graceful it is, and renting a kimono and having photos taken is often high on one’s list of Things to Do When Visiting Japan. Major tourist destinations have kimono rental shops that appeal to both foreign and domestic visitors.
However, for Japanese diaspora (“Nikkei”) and mixed Nikkei like myself, there is something else added in: heritage.
Wearing Heritage on One’s Sleeves
Throughout the short history of the United States, Japanese Americans have not only been a part of the American story, but also have struggled to maintain Japanese identity and culture in spite of adversity. The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and soon after their arrival, the great agricultural achievements by Japanese immigrants on US soil bred insecurity and resentment.
Xenophobic sentiments towards Japanese immigrants began to increase, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII only further cemented a divide between Japanese Americans of that generation and their ancestral culture. Decades later, while anti-Japanese sentiments were still being held onto after WWII, the US would see “war brides”, Japanese women who married US soldiers, or their children entering their shores.
My father was one of these: a half-Japanese child whose mother got together with a US soldier during the Korean War. The women and children who immigrated to the US sometimes joined with American families that may have still held resentments towards Japan and Japanese people leftover from WWII. This would result in them being discouraged from actively participating in or sharing Japanese culture with their new American family members or their children, and so heirlooms like kimono were often put away and forgotten.
Part of the American Patchwork
Now, almost a century later, there are over 770,000 Japanese Americans and mixed Japanese Americans, all with varying degrees of connection to their Japanese roots. Some learn Japanese at home and are able to go to Japan often. Some were discouraged from learning Japanese or participating in Japanese culture in order to avoid discrimination and make assimilation easier in the face of anti-Japanese or anti-Asian sentiments. This has left many Nikkei feeling robbed of their own culture and yearning to connect with their heritage, a heritage that they never should have been denied to begin with. Given the importance of kimono to Japanese culture, this is a common area of interest for many of them.
But where does one even begin?
As a mixed Nikkei, while I was extremely lucky to grow up in a place with a large Japanese population and was able to connect with my heritage, kimono was still something that mainly eluded me. Most of the Japanese living in my hometown didn’t know how to put on kimono by themselves. This is nothing new; even most Japanese in Japan don’t know how to put on a kimono by themselves!
After the war, Japan was so economically devastated that many people either couldn’t afford new kimono or were forced to sell their old kimono to survive. If any kimono were damaged, it was too expensive to replace them. Coupled with the fact that ever since the Meiji era, Western clothing had started to become the norm (first with men and then later with women decades later), slowly the kimono started to fade out of everyday life. Businesses started to make Western suits mandatory, and it was just plain cheaper to wear Western clothing after the war.
Kimono: A Return to Tradition
Around the 1970s, kimono schools began to emerge in Japan. A major reason behind this was the fact that once again, Japan was starting to enjoy economic growth. People could start to afford kimono again, and schools were created to help local Japanese re-learn how to wear kimono. A majority of the items we use in kimono nowadays were created for modern convenience to help make the process of wearing kimono in today’s world a lot easier.
Still, seeing all of these items for the first time can be a bit intimidating for a lot of people, and it takes time to learn how to wear kimono. Furthermore, most heritage kimono are quite small as they were tailor-made for the individual who originally ordered them, and women in the past were shorter than they are now. This has left many Japanese both in Japan and overseas puzzled about what to do with these precious heirlooms. Sometimes, they are recycled and remade into modern dresses or accessories like pants, bags, etc. Others end up staying in their closets or sent to secondhand shops where one hopes they will be bought and worn again.
Kim’s Kimono Connection
This is the situation I found myself stumbling into when I made the decision to come to Japan and learn kimono. As a mixed Nikkei, I have heard so many stories about other Nikkei and their experiences with kimono. Some Nikkei have inherited kimono from their parents or grandparents. Some have gone to Japan before and bought kimono but still don’t know how to wear them. There is also a disconnect sometimes, and many Nikkei feel passionate about learning traditional Japanese culture, but don’t know where to begin. For a long time, I wanted to change this situation. I wanted to help preserve kimono, and I wanted to help other Nikkei who cannot speak Japanese or who cannot come to Japan learn how to wear kimono and connect with their heritage. But how?
This is, oddly, where Kim K ended up coming in. Her line of lingerie had nothing to do with kimono at all, much less Japanese culture. The outcry at her attempt to trademark the word was massive; even the mayor of Kyoto wrote a letter to Ms. Kardashian, asking her to please reconsider.
At the time, I was quite angry about it and someone shared an article published in the Japan Times that had interviews with professionally licensed kimono stylists/teachers. To tell the truth, I had no idea such a thing existed beforehand as no one I knew really talked about it much! Everyone I knew of Japanese heritage or nationality either had kimono they inherited (but had no idea how to wear), or their experience with kimono was limited to rental shops for occasions such as Coming-of-Age ceremonies, weddings, etc. I was then determined to study for my license too, and so I came to Japan three months later that very year.
Re-engaging with the Past
My family was a bit surprised at this. Talking with family back in the USA over Christmas and explaining that I was studying kimono in order to start my own business as a kimono stylist/teacher, one of my aunts asked me, “Why do you need a license in silk?” It was such a funny yet cool way to introduce what I was doing that I’ve run with it as a joke. “Licensed in silk,” huh? Sure, let’s go with that!
Deciding on which kimono school to study with was a bit difficult. As mentioned, kimono schools have only existed in Japan since the 1970s. There is no singular kimono association that oversees kimono education here in Japan. Different schools belong to different kimono associations, and different places have different focuses, or teach the same obi knot in different ways.
Eventually, I found a kimono school in Osaka and then spent a year and a half going through all three levels offered for the main kimono studies course. I learned not only how to wear kimono, but also things such as the meanings behind different patterns on the kimono, different fabrics used for kimono and how they are woven, how to care for kimono, which kimono are for which occasion and so on.
Though it’s been well over a year since I’ve begun and nowadays I wear them several times a week, I feel humbled whenever I touch a kimono and begin to put it on. I am even more humbled whenever I am able to share kimono with others, either as a teacher or a stylist. My heart is full knowing that I am connecting with my heritage in such a precious way. I love seeing people’s eyes light up when I explain the history, meaning, and function of the garments they are looking at. It tells me that indeed, I am helping to preserve kimono. I wanted this to be much more than someone feeling like they’re putting on a pretty costume. I’m pleased to see that when people truly learn more about kimono, they are able to really appreciate it and respect it more, delightfully.
No Easy Task
To say kimono school is difficult is an understatement. However, my teachers were extremely kind and very excited to help someone like me with mixed Japanese heritage. They want kimono to be appreciated and loved by everyone all over the world. They’re eager to help me in my personal mission of helping the Japanese diaspora connect with their heritage via kimono, as well as help non-Japanese learn how to understand and appreciate kimono.
After a while, even doing more complex obi knots and dressing myself or others no longer felt so nerve-wracking. Preparing for the exams, however, was something that genuinely made me nervous no matter the occasion. Exams in my kimono school are usually divided in both written and dressing parts. The written part involves standing before a panel of judges; you are then expected to dress in kimono within a certain time limit, usually around fifteen minutes. Once you’ve finished dressing, you present yourself to the judges and they examine how well you have done with the dressing. The judges will then make remarks about how you did during the dressing, not merely the final result of how nice and balanced the kimono and obi look.
Recently, after all my classes and the terrifying-yet-thrilling examinations were finished, I achieved my Rank 1 license/certification. This granted me the title of shihan (師範, “master/teacher”) within the kimono organization that trained me. I must confess, I do not feel I deserve this! Not because I haven’t studied very hard, but because I firmly believe that I will be studying kimono for the rest of my life. There is so much out there that I haven’t learned yet or skills I wish to perfect even more. So, even though I may have this title now, and can technically call myself a professional? The truth is, I know that I’m going to be an eager student of kimono for the rest of my days.
A Greater Whole
It has been a real privilege to be able to connect with other kimono enthusiasts, stylists, and artisans living in the Kansai area. We all seem to share the same dream: to protect kimono, and for more and more people to return to wearing kimono on a regular basis. Kimono will likely always be a part of Japanese peoples’ lives for things like Coming-of-Age Day, but we sincerely hope that kimono pieces can make their way into daily wardrobes once again, even as accents to Western style clothing. Kimono is much more accessible than many people believe, and it’s a sincere goal of mine to not only help Nikkei who are interested in kimono and spread kimono education, but help people feel more comfortable with kimono.
So, what direction is kimono heading? That’s unfortunately another topic for another day, but for now, I can say with confidence that there are people who are working hard to keep kimono relevant and organizing kimono events. More and kimono meet-ups and workshops are being offered, and I sincerely hope that kimono will not only continue to be beloved by many, but also embraced even more in the future.