Foreigners in Kimono: Appropriation or Appreciation?

Note – The pictures in this post feature people wearing both kimono and yukata, two forms of traditional Japanese clothing. I’ll use kimono as the colloquial term to simply my message.

Intent and context matters.

On many occasions, I’ve been told by Japanese nationals that I probably know more about Japanese culture than the natives to this country. As flattering as the comment often is, I could never claim to know more about Japanese Culture than those who are born here. If anything, I’ve just been fascinated by what I’ve discovered, and am eager to continue learning. I’m simply taking advantage of my opportunities and experiences here.

After a lifetime of wanting to see this country for myself, I feel amazingly blessed to call Japan my home away from home.

In Japan, I’m always met with positive reactions when I wear my kimono out in public. My first true outing in traditional Japanese attire was to attend a bon odori festival in Yokosuka. Everyone came together to dance and socialize to the beat of taiko drum music.
These are the kind of events where everybody attend wearing kimono. I distinctly remember one of the food vendors shouting かっこいい (cool), at me, from a distance and asking to take pictures with me. This kind of reaction is normal.

Photo by Gray Sanchez Photography

I own my own kimono. Because I’m taller than average Japanese people, I had to do some online research and order my own set. Men naturally have a more limited selection of designs that women. Ladies’ kimono come in a variety of colors and designs. And if for some reason you cannot find your size at a store, I promise you’ll find a wider selection online. Once I figured out my size, the harder step was finding a pattern that spoke to me.
For reference. I’m a 73 inch male with an athletic build. I wear a LL sized yukata.

Photo by Gray-Sanchez Photography

You can order reasonably priced sets online that come with the kimono, obi (belt), sandals, fan and hand bag. Thrift stores are another option for hidden gems. After my daughter out grew her first kimono, I was able to find one at a thrift store. The pattern featured a prominent Japanese cartoon character.

I’ve spent most of my life on the other side of the world, the So-Called West. It would be a shame if I didn’t take advantage of these opportunities to expose myself to this culture. Unfortunately, folks where I come from often categorize wearing a kimono as a form cultural appropriation. Non-Japanese celebrities are often berated online and cancelled for wearing kimono in popular media. It must be noted:

There are distinctive differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. There’s nuance to it.

Photo by Yahoo! Entertainment

Yes, kimono have significant cultural value, but outrage culture needs to calm down. Katy Perry wearing pseudo-kimono inspired clothing is not racist. She isn’t putting on a minstrel show nor is she conveying a Breakfast at Tiffany’s vibe. I see Katy Perry as a woman fascinated with a culture that she might not completely understand, and I think it provides an opportunity to start a substantial discussion. Because wearing a kimono is a form of cultural appreciation, especially in Japan. It’s no different than wearing dirndls and lederhosen during oktoberfest.

Now, would I wear my kimono back in America? Probably not.

I’d only ever wear my kimono to events in America that are less exploitative and more respectful to Japan. I know that New York hosts Japanese festivals in Central Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. But, you’ll never catch me dressing up for a comic book convention in a kimono. It just doesn’t feel right.

You would think living to Japan would expose me to people walk around in kimono on a daily basis, but that’s not always the case.

Most Japanese people wear kimono exclusively to special events. Unless they have an occupational requirement to wear kimono daily, they don’t. Festivals, graduations, weddings and other events are typical occasions when they’re worn. It’s kind of like American men and the perception of wearing a suits. Most men don’t even own a proper suit. Wearing a suit is considered dressing up where I’m from. The same sentiment applies to Japanese people and their kimono.

Every once in a while, the U.S. Navy’s public affairs office in Yokosuka collaborates with the local community to host a cultural exchange event where Americans are given a kimono to wear and mingle around the city. We’re paired with a group of Japanese locals and given the chance to chat and hang out while wearing our kimono.

Western identity politics does not apply in Japan. Not only is it okay for foreigners to wear kimono, it’s invited. There’s no better form of validation than the local government sponsoring events like this. They (the Japanese government) want to share these aspects of their culture with us. Most importantly, they want Japanese folks to wear their kimono more often.

Kimono sales have been steadily on declining in Japan for decades.

But a movement exists to reverse this decline. For one, the creative design of kimono designs are evolving. Today you can find traditional Japanese attire made by both foreign and Japanese kimono designers. They’re more unique patterns and arrangements being put together that shift kimono away from their formal perception. Making people stand out as unique individuals in this monolithic society.

Wear a kimono. Wear kimono to a festival. Wear kimono to a summer fireworks show. Wear kimono and take selfies under a cherry tree. If you have an opportunity to wear a kimono in Japan, go for it~!

What’s your opinion? Have you worn a kimono before?
Let’s start a discussion in the comments below.

‘A kimono is not supposed to be fast fashion’

2 thoughts on “Foreigners in Kimono: Appropriation or Appreciation?

  1. Great post! Just finished reading it. It’s infuriating the whole cultural appropriation cancel culture. Karlie Kloss/Vogue magazine was another huge international incident that was extremely controversial. For apparently their “Vogue diversity issue” they chose to have Karlie dress geisha-like and pose in various positions with Sumo and sake barrels and everyone freaked out. She even issued an apology on twitter accepting the criticism that it was cultural appropriation and “yellowface”. It was ridiculous. If only people knew about the subcultures in Japan and how they literally imitate every culture out there in the universe. Also geisha/Maiko makeovers are literally offered everywhere in japan to tourists. I think if it’s not harming anyone and not made to harm anyone (ex of made to harm: KKK propaganda films + blackface) then people should just leave it alone. I took it as “diversity issue” meaning that issue of Vogue would have some cross culture photo spreads. What were the other photo shoots like in that particular issue? It’s silly to think it bad if it’s not made to satire or harm anyone. I do think the Native American feather head piece and Kim Kardashian almost calling her underwear line Kimono is/was not okay. If the NA people’s say that headdress is sacred and not ok for people to wear than I think as a cultural appreciator people need to respect that and refrain. KK trying to copyright “Kimono” that’s just plain fucking insane and Japan was clearly not okay with that and as a cultural appreciator I was definitely not okay with that. Thank god she changed it to Skims which is a MUCH better name to respresent her products.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I had the chance to visit Japan and was fascinated with all the beautiful kimono worn. Fabrics and designs are gorgeous and I think reflect relationships with culture and history that are not present in America in such concentration. I think wearing kimono is appreciation.

    Liked by 2 people

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