Ben Hills

It is the quintessential fashion statement of traditional Japan – the silken kimono in its luminous colours, with long sleeves almost sweeping the floor, bound around the middle with an intricately knotted sash. But, like the rickshaws, tea ceremony and noh dramas of Edo-era woodblock prints, the kimono is in danger of extinction – the victim of its own time-consuming tradition, excruciating discomfort … and ruinous cost.

Last month, the annual “Adults’ Day” when the 2 million Japanese who turn 20 during the year celebrated their majority, the Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and municipal reception halls of Tokyo were alive with a multihued flock of kimono-clad young women.

But, appearances to the contrary, the numbers are falling – more and more, women are turning up in less colourful but more practical Western suits and dresses. Toray Industries, Japan’s largest ready-made kimono-maker, says sales have halved over the past decade.

Naomi Nishimura, a company spokesman, says that women of her age (she is a thoroughly modern salaried woman of 27) are turning away from kimonos because of their cost, difficulty, and the lack of opportunity to wear them. Nowadays, apart from professionals such as restaurant madams and the vanishing geisha, you are likely to see kimonos worn only at weddings, funerals, Shinto ceremonies and occasions such as university graduation or induction into a new job.

“I like to wear one, because it makes me feel special,” says Ms Nishimura. But when offered a hypothetical choice between a new kimono and a Western designer gown, she says: “I suppose I shouldn’t say this, but I’d rather have the Western outfit because I would have more chance to wear it.”

Across the road, in the glittering halls of the Mitsukoshi department store, you can compare the two. If you wince at the thought of a Gianni Versace blouse for $3,400, a Lagerfeld dress for $3,900, or an Armani suit at$4,700, avoid the kimono department.

A top-of-the-line number in handspun black silk and pure gold thread will set you back a little over $20,000 – and, if you want a signed obi (sash) to go with it, the most expensive I saw was $64,000. Add on accessories such as carved combs for the pomaded hair, handbag, special silk underwear, white “toe socks” and zori (clogs) and it wouldn’t be too extravagant for a woman to be wearing $100,000 on her back.

And woe betide the unfortunate woman who selects the wrong one. There is a strict etiquette of styles, colours and designs which depend on your age, the occasion and the season.

Pure white is for brides, corpses and theatre ghosts. Wear a pattern of parasols or paper lanterns and you may be mistaken for someone in the bar or brothel business. People will sniff if your kimono is embroidered with willow in winter, when pine, plum and bamboo are the approved texts. An older woman in bright colours or with long sleeves is “mutton dressed up as lamb”. Even the set of the collar can be a faux pas.

So why not hire? There are shops which will lend you the complete outfit -but it will cost at least $3,000 a day for the costume, plus $100 for removing each stain, should you slop a little sake down the front.

And then there is the problem of putting it on. Mioko Tominaka, celebrating Adults’ Day with friends at the Zojoji Temple, was wearing her first kimono -but she had gone to a special dresser where she paid $225 for the hour and a half it took to swaddle her in her new outfit.

“I hope it looks good,” she says, hobbling along with 20-centimetre steps, slightly stooped under its three kilo weight, and rubbing her stomach where the four-metre-long obi is cutting into her, “because it sure is uncomfortable”.

In an effort to win women back to traditional costume, the Toray company has undertaken the first major re-engineering of the kimono since it reached its exquisite height in the Heian court nine centuries ago. Using new fibres, and modern technology such as plastic fasteners and velcro straps, they have produced an outfit called Cinderella Time.

At $9,000 for the complete outfit, it is lighter and cheaper than conventional silk kimonos. And instead of an hour or more, it can be slipped on and off in just two minutes, with no assistance.

However, since it was launched two years ago, sales have been only a disappointing 2,000 a year. The new high-tech kimono has failed to capture the younger market, but is selling well to older women whose stiff joints make it hard for them to tie a traditional obi.

For some Japanese feminists, the kimono – like the topknots, shaved eyebrows and blackened teeth that Japanese women used to affect – is a symbol of oppression and exploitation.

“I don’t think we will ever see the end of the kimono,” says Ms Nishimura. “It is such an important part of Japanese tradition. But it will never be as popular as in the old days – Western clothing is so much more practical … and less expensive.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Tuesday 1 February 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Good Living
Sub section: Page: 31
Word count: 917
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: The kimono … wrapped in ceremony