Touring Asakusa in Kimono with Friends

Two friends from Toyohashi (near Nagoya) visited me on the weekend. They wanted to have lunch, then dress in rented kimonos to wander around Asakusa and visit Sensoji Temple. After that, they wanted to view the illuminations at Skytree Town.

Tokyo SkyTree

At first that, especially the kimono bit, seemed a somewhat “touristy” plan to me, but then I realized that Toyohashi is a considerable distance away and considered inaka or somewhat countryside.  In spite of its urban appearance it’s not urbane. In addition, the train fare is pricey. Consequently, my friends rarely travel to Tokyo and had never visited the temple or explored that area before; whereas, I’ve stayed in Asakusa for a week at a time more than once.

Sensoji Pagoda

Though it’s not the only target, in the West a great deal of tut-tut noise is made (usually around Halloween) about non-Japanese dressing in kimono. The apparel is banned at some costume parties as inappropriate. In some instances, wearers have had to take cultural sensitivity training.

When that controversy comes up, as it does every year; I have often wondered whether those who protest about cultural appropriation can pronounce, or know the difference between a maiko, a geisha or geiko or a Japanese woman simply wearing a kimono. (It’s not an uncommon sight on an ordinary day in Japan.)

I also wonder whether protesters would know it if a Korean or Chinese woman “appropriated” the clothing.

Do   protesters know anything about the history of the apparel? Or the history and numerous skills as artists and entertainers the women called geisha or geiko and their maiko apprentices strive to perfect?

It seems Japanese people don’t give the same consideration to the question of cultural appropriation as some in the West do. Rather, they actively promote wearing of kimono as an activity for visitors to enjoy.

Maybe that’s because they’ve happily been appropriating religions, writing systems, poetry, pottery, painting, technologies, business dress, holidays and whatever else from other countries (and making those their own) for so many centuries that it’s no biggie.

Child in Kimono

That afternoon we were girls having fun, dressing up and wandering around Asakusa. There were many others doing the same and no one gave any of us a second look. It’s simply something visitors enjoy along with the many other ways to dress and types of cosplay in Japan.

Really, how is it different from studios in North American pioneer or gold rush towns which dress the tourists for photo ops in the garb of bygone days?

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2 Responses to Touring Asakusa in Kimono with Friends

  1. Sara says:

    To answer your last question, it differs from tourists dressing up for a photo op in the garb of bygone days because kimono is not of history; it is still worn today. Also, a photo op is different as one doesn’t leave the premises, where with kimono renting the person can go out on the town.

    I have no opinion either way on whether it is appropriate or not, but having lived in Japan for 13 years I’ve never worn yukata and only wore kimono once at New Year’s when my best friend’s mother wanted to dress me up for the occasion (I was 22 then.) My children are half Japanese and as it is their heritage I dressed them in yukata during the summers. To me, in the end, the question is, “Is the action I’m taking offensive to anyone?” If I don’t know the answer, i.e. I’m wearing a kimono out on the town and can’t possibly know who will see me and how they might feel, then I would not do it out of respect for a country where I am a guest.

    • Lynda Philippsen says:

      Thank you for you contribution to the question, Sara. Your sensitivity as to whether or not your action offends is commendable and you are comfortable with your position.

      What makes any issue, not just dressing in kimono and yukata, tricky is that what is offensive to one person is not offensive to another in the same culture. When considering two very different cultures, any culture not only Japan’s, that becomes even trickier.

      In my case, my friends would likely have been mystified and possibly offended last weekend had I refused. I’d also like to add that I have been given yukata and kimono by friends and dignitaries with the hope that I would wear them in Canada. This I have not done, except the one time when the giver was present in Canada and the occasion merited doing so.

      However, from my experience and I may be wrong, I sense that Japanese people are not uncomfortable with non-Japanese (it wasn’t only Westerners wearing kimono last Saturday) wearing clothing that is still worn today. Especially since this is an actively promoted activity like riding through town in a rickshaw. That is one thing, however, I will not do simply because it makes me feel like an imperialist/colonizer when, in fact, my heritage is of a minority culture in two different countries. I am the first child of refugees. How that’s different from taking a taxi could be argued, especially given that by taking that position I deny someone employment.

      As I said, it’s tricky. And I thank you for you perspective on the questions.

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