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Kimonos Today: A Dying Tradition?

LinkAsia Student Ambassadors Natalie Ornell and Zheyan Ni speak with some of the kimono's last remaining practitioners, the artists and historians keeping the tradition alive, about the past and future of this remarkable clothing.

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  1. Kimonos Today: A Dying Tradition?
  2. "If you go to Japan, you don't see that many people wearing kimono," says Kobe-born textiles artist Yoshiko Wada. Among the first in her field to introduce Japanese fiber art to the US and a pioneer in the art-to-wear movement, Wada said that kimonos faded out after World War II when "extensive bombing almost destroyed everything people owned. They had lost not only houses but clothes...there was no luxury item to be had. The change to mostly Western clothes happened rapidly and the younger generation didn't grow up with kimonos," she said from her home in Berkeley, California. 
  3. Yet Wada believes kimonos have retained their allure even years after the war. "There is still a mystique and romance about kimono," she said, citing the 2005 movie Memoirs of a Geisha as an example of the mystery that still shrouds kimono culture. Even though she worked on Memoirs of a Geisha as a costume advisor with her friend, anthropologist Liza Dalby, she said it wasn't a "true portrayal of the traditional and culturally accurate Geisha's life." She explained kimono's deeper roots in Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which introduced the mystery of the Orient and of Japanese women to the western world.
  4. Lee Hanae Ung, a traditional Japanese-American woman who wears kimono on special occasions, believes that reasons for a dwindling kimono culture go beyond the destruction they suffered during the war. In today's Japan, she said there is a disconnect between Japanese youth and their grandparents when it comes to wearing kimono. "The older generations will expect you to earn it," she said, adding that they will think, "They're not working for it, so why should I share my knowledge?"   
  5. In the past, kimono culture had long been passed down from older to the younger generations. One of the few kimono weavers left in the world, the largely self-taught Fukuko Katsuura, explained recently at the University of California, Berkeley, that her grandmother's gift of a rare piece of fabric in post-war Japan inspired her to become a professional kimono weaver. Because the post-war life she experienced living on a farm in Wakayama Prefecture came with "few rewards," the cloth from her grandmother allowed her to dream of a better future and sustained her hopes of one day becoming a master weaver. Only in her middle age, after the onset of Japan's so-called economic miracle, did she first touch a loom and learn how to dye her own threads. Four years after performing menial tasks with her first teacher, she traveled to the Kawashima Textiles School in Tokyo in 1987 where she met the late weaver Kagaku Hosomi, one of "Japan's national living treasures," and began to participate in national competitions.
  6. Lee Hanae Ung in her first kimono
    Lee Hanae Ung in her first kimono
  7. Like Fukuko Katsuura, Lee Hanae said her grandmother inspired her practice of kimono culture and tea ceremony, practices she too dedicated herself to at an older age. The granddaughter of a traditional Japanese calligraphy teacher based in Los Angeles, Lee Hanae said she couldn't wear kimono until she had proven her commitment. She first wore a bright red kimono at five, began learning at nine years old, and returned to study kimono culture seriously after college when her grandmother debuted her in a traditional tea ceremony. She is now living in Japan as a language teacher in Okayama Prefecture. 
  8. "I think that traditionally kimono are so expensive and so revered because they're passed down in the family. The older generations want whomever has their kimono after them to really know how to take care of it, how to wear it appropriately, when to wear it appropriately, because it's too precious or revered a garment to just give to someone and say 'use it how you see fit,'" she said.
  9. Many young Japanese have found that, "The big flash of the city lights and the convenience and the affordability of modern western fashion to be more attractive than traditional kimono Japanese art and crafts," she said.  
  10. Still, she explained, twenty-year-olds in Japan revel in the kimono's mystique -- partaking in a "coming of age" ceremony where women will wear a long-sleeved kimono or "furisode" that can run up to twenty thousand dollars. "Even my friends in the US will have a coming of age ceremony," she said. "It's an important life event for young Japanese women." And Wada noted that on her return trips to Kyoto, where she studied textile arts in the late 60's, she has seen schoolbuses full of children visiting national monuments in summer "yukata" -- a simpler kind of kimono that's cheaper and easier to wear -- a practice which now earns students rewards in school.
  11. Lee Hanae added that like many before her, she admires the kimono's unique beauty. An ideal body shape for kimono is a rectangle, not an hourglass, she said, adding that wearing kimono restricts movement and that it feels like wearing a corset. Putting on a kimono is also an arduous task: "You can't ever spill anything on your kimono. You can't really clean it. And just the general inconvenience of putting it on and wearing it...There's no bathroom break when you wear a kimono. You have to be careful about how you position yourself," she said.  
  12. But wearing kimono outweighs those nuisances. "When you wear a kimono you feel almost regal. When you first see yourself after you've first put it on, it really is like a sort of body transformation. It really is a unique kind of beauty being dressed in a kimono. I think that's why it holds the fascination of everyone."
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