The season of the (gasp, choke) ugly kimono is once again upon us. Year-end rolls around, and the Japanese celebrate Christmas with all the sincerity with which it is celebrated in Mecca.
Christmas joins the list of such Western holidays as St. Valentine’s and Halloween, shoplifted by the Japanese in the hope of Hoovering the very last yen out of the pocket of the infinitely patient Japanese consumer. But why bother with filching other people's holidays when all they need to do is make Ugly Kimono Day official?
That is the day of the year — the first official day of business — when many young Japanese women turn up for work in a kimono, probably the only day of the year you will ever get them into one. This is hardly surprising, as the kimono is difficult to put on unassisted, uncomfortable to wear, and nearly impossible for the unpracticed to walk in.
Nobody has any idea how this got started, but it is rapidly becoming something of a custom. At this point, when almost no one under the age of 20 knows how to operate a pay phone (mobiles are ubiquitous), it's a puzzle why young women subject themselves to the complicated fussery that the kimono has evolved into, even once a year.
It doesn’t help a bit, either, that the kimonos are garish to the point of bad taste. No one really knows anymore what a kimono should look like, and no one seems to care. An entire sense of how women should look beautiful in a kimono has been lost.
In the last 20 years, there has been something of a vogue for schools that teach how to wear a kimono. As the kimono dropped almost completely from use, it got more and more complicated. Now it is difficult to put one on without the help of a trained assistant, or at least Mom. Of course, the more useless and pointless they get, the more wildly expensive they become. The average kimono for a young, unmarried woman runs in the US $2,000 to $4,000 range.
Here are a few kimono hints: you can tell the married women from the unmarried women by the length of the sleeves of the kimono. Unmarried women wear kimonos with sleeves that are so long they nearly drag on the ground. The special sandals that are worn with kimono are called geta. Also, the best way to walk in a kimono is a pigeon-toed hop, where you pick up the toe first, not the heel. The length and the tightness of the kimono make any other method of walking almost impractical.
At this point, most kimono shops are totally dependent on one-off sales to young women, or more exactly, to the mothers of young women who have dragged them hissing and pouting into the kimono store. So no wonder they all end up with the kimono from hell.
At one time, both men and women wore kimonos. Men's kimonos were — and why do I even have to say this, it seems such a universal rule? — both more comfortable and more practical than those for women. As well as kimonos there were all sorts of work clothes for men, and some of them even linger on today. For that matter, trousers never did disappear from the Japanese court, and here the operative word is "disappear."
This is because the kimono, like blue jeans and the mini-skirt, is a foreign invader. The kimono entered Japan sometime around 800 A.D., along with Tang dynasty Chinese culture. Native Japanese dress of the time quickly disappeared, except for some holdouts at court. Japanese clothing before the kimono appears to have been a thigh-length tunic worn over a pair of trousers for both men and women. But (good grief!) you don't want to be mistaken for an outer barbarian do you? So the kimono it was.
With the fall of the Sung dynasty, the kimono disappeared forever from China as clothing underwent a total change. Although it had died out in China, the land of its invention, the kimono continued in use in Japan for more than a thousand years. However, by the middle of the 1930s, kimonos had mostly disappeared from the streets of Japan too, except for a few women here and there.
Kimonos are still worn occasionally by older women to weddings or funerals, and one occasionally sees an older bar hostess — a mama-san — making her way to work in a kimono. The dignity of the subdued and elegant colors chosen by women who really know kimonos and wear them daily is undeniable.
There are still a few designers in Kyoto who continue stubbornly, flying in the face of common sense, to put out new collections of kimonos of the most refined beauty. These are met with thunderous silence. Interestingly, some of the greatest names in European fashion design have turned their hand now and then to designing kimonos too, sometimes with stunning effect. Their fate has been to be ignored, just like the Japanese designers.
Something of great importance has been lost with the kimono. Perhaps the day will come soon when global McDonaldization reaches the point where the only difference from nation to nation will be the language and the food. With the end of garments like the kimono — but more importantly, the esthetics of the cultures that produced them — in effect, we are seeing the end of the cultures themselves.
The end of the kimono brought with it the end of a distinctive Japanese sense of color and design, though now and then it still emerges sometimes in architecture. Looking through 19th century authors writing on Japan — and it doesn't matter what they start out to write about — they inevitably come back to the Japanese sense of beauty and how it seemed to permeate every aspect of day-to-day life. This is why Japan had an effect all out of proportion to its size and importance in the 19th century.
In the years following the opening of Japan, their color sense, their feeling for space and their sense of artistic order took the world, particularly Europe, by storm: Van Gogh collected Kunisada prints and Whistler's "London Bridge" and "Symphony in White" are conscious imitations and tributes to Japanese mastery of color and the Japanese esthetic. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Japanese esthetic was the moving force behind Art Nouveau, that it deeply influenced the Mission Style in America and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. That it is a major force in impressionism and expressionism is without question; one glance at Monet's "Water Lilies" will confirm this.
This has all been lost. In the end, it is the individual sense of beauty each separate culture creates which is the mirror that reflects back upon itself. It is the culture at its most profound and confident, the greatest contribution it can give to the world. The Taj Mahal could never have been built by Bernini, nor the kimono dyed by the banks of the Arno. With the death of the kimono and the entire sensibility that went with it, the loss to Japan has been profound, but the loss to the rest of the world has perhaps been even more severe.
Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.