The Next Step…

Ever since I passed my teacher’s license exam in May, I’ve been thinking about what my next step should be in this kimono journey. I really enjoy and am fascinated by the process of weaving, but when I am honest with myself, I don’t have enough time to become anything other than a beginner weaver, and that skill will have limited use to me outside of Japan.  Sewing, however, would be very useful. After all, how many times have I found a kimono that I love only to find that it’s a few centimeters too short, or the yuki is slightly too short. Usually something is too short. And I already know how to sew using western methods. So with some nervousness, I went to my first wasai lesson over the weekend.

My teacher is the same woman who granted me my teacher’s license. She has an incredible history with kimono. She has studied with multiple schools of kitsuke and passed exams for all of them. She knows how to sew kimono and has been doing it for forty years. She is also a master weaver. Her weaving teacher was a contributor to the nishijin-ori scrolls depicting the Tale of Genji. Overall, she has more knowledge in her little finger than I could ever hope to achieve in a lifetime.

She also doesn’t speak English; which means these lessons won’t only be good for my sewing skills, but also my Japanese skills.

The first lesson was really trying to get familiar with the different tools and terms that are used for wasai. My teacher gave me sets of different sewing needles, all different lengths and widths, and all used to sew different types of fabric. long thin needles are used to sew silk, short, thicker needles are used to sew tsumugi, and somewhere in between is the needle used to sew cotton. I was also introduced to all the tools of wasai including their unique iron, marking tools, scissors, and rulers. A lot of my teacher’s tools were high quality bamboo, ivory, or metal and had lasted her for over forty years. I’m hoping mine will last me that long as well.  Once I get the money to purchase such high quality items.

Five different types of needles, all for sewing different types of fabric.  I only know what three of them are for at the moment.

Five different types of needles, all for sewing different types of fabric. I only know what three of them are for at the moment.  Study time!

The measurements used for wasai are very different too. After WWII, Japan changed to the metric system, but before that, they used their own unique measuring system, which my teacher still uses for wasai.  In fact, she told me that I’m not allowed to use centimeters in her lessons, so I have to learn REALLY fast!

The smallest unit is called a gori.
Two gori are equal to one bu.
Ten bu are equal to one sun.
Ten sun are equal to one shaku.
Ten shaku are equal to one jyou.

Jyou are still in use today to measure the size of tatami mats.

This is my bamboo ruler.  Traditional measurements are on the top, and centimeters are on the bottom.  Gori are not indicated on the ruler.  The distance between each line indicates one bu.  One sun is shown with the longer lines.  The circles indicate 5 bu.

This is my bamboo ruler. Traditional measurements are on the top, and centimeters are on the bottom. Gori are not indicated on the ruler. The distance between each line indicates one bu. One sun is shown with the longer lines. The circles indicate 5 bu.

Measuring rulers come in two different sizes, one shaku or two shaku. My rulers have shaku/sun/bu as well as centimeters, but my teacher’s tools only have the old system. Imagine my confusion when she started adding up measurements in a  system I just learned, and in Japanese. My head was spinning!

I was asked to bring a few kimono that were too small that I wanted to resize. I ended up bringing three. A yukata, an awase tsumugi, and an awase houmongi. I thought the yukata would be the easiest to resize since it’s cotton and only one layer. I also thought that the houmongi would be the most difficult to resize since the pattern extends over the seams. I was wrong on both counts.

Turns out that the only resizing that needs to be done on the houmongi is the yuki, so the pattern on the skirt won’t be affected at all. We decided to tackle that kimono first. My homework was to unstitch the sleeves, and the top half of the side seams. One thing we discovered was that the seams were originally sewn with a sewing machine. This made it very difficult to take out the stitching. The combination of tight machine stitches and delicate silk made for a few mishaps and small rips in the silk despite my best efforts. It’s just the lining so far, but I’m not finished yet, so I have my fingers crossed. It definitely makes me appreciate hand-sewn kimono more.

The yukata we decided to leave until last. It’s too small in every way that it could be too small. I knew that when I bought it, but the seam allowances looked large enough that I thought I could make it bigger. Well, the seam allowances are smaller than expected and it will require major surgery to make this yukata wearable. We decided to insert a gusset to make it wider and longer. The gusset will be hidden by the obi when I’m wearing it, but it will be very, very visible on the hanger.

So, my homework for my next lesson is to rip apart all three kimono, iron everything as flat as I can make it, and study all the new terminology that was thrown at me during the lesson. And I’m very sorry about the lack of photos in this post. I simply forgot to take any during the lesson. I was to busy and occupied with everything else!


Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

La Japonaise by Claude Monet.  Image from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

La Japonaise by Claude Monet. Image from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Over the last week, there has been some controversy in the kimono world.  the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has displayed a painting by Monet called La Japonaise.  It’s a painting of his wife wearing a blond wig (to emphasize that she is European) and a kimono (to be specific, an uchikake).  It was painted to reflect Europe’s love affair with anything  Japanese during that time.  This exhibit was made interactive with the help of NHK (Japan’s national broadcasting company).  They commissioned and donated an exact replica of the kimono in the paining.  It was creating by some of the best artisans in Kyoto who create kimono everyday. The entire exhibit toured Japan with no problems whatsoever.  And then the exhibit reached Boston.  Until a few days ago, The museum hosted “kimono Wednesdays” when visitors were able the try on the kimono and take a photo with the painting in the background.

Some people weren’t very happy with that.  People started protesting at the museum.  Their message was that non-Japanese people trying on a kimono with no context or background information was racist and reflected the imperialism and orientalism of the French people at the time that La Japonaise was painted.  The museum decided to cancel all further “kimono Wednesdays” events and only have the kimono available for visitors to touch, not to try on.  The Boston Globe has also written a good summary of the events that happened and I recommend reading it.

Here’s what I think about the whole situation.

Their argument:

1) I spent a lot of time looking at their facebook page last night (although it appears to have been deleted by this morning), trying to get to the root of their argument.  I honestly couldn’t.  And I tried.  I was up past midnight trying to understand.  One commenter in the same state of confusion asked “what should I stand up against?” and couldn’t get a straight answer.  The summary of their argument that I wrote above is the best interpretation that I can give, based on what I read.  I also read comments from protesters indicating that they objected just to the presence of the kimono, people taking selfies in the kimono, and a lack of information on the kimono.  Essentially, they couldn’t articulate their argument and convince me why I should be standing up against this.

2) The main protesters identified themselves as Asian-American.  Not Japanese.  Not Japanese-American.  Just Asian-American.  They pointed out that their protest had nothing to do with Japanese people living in Japan.  It was focused on Asian-Americans living in the USA.

  • Does a person with Thai, Chinese, Korean, Malaysian, Cambodian, or any other Asian heritage get to decide how a Japanese company (NHK) chooses to represent their culture overseas? I thought the politically correct thing to do was to identify people by the specific heritage of their family (Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Korean-American, Vietnamese-American etc.) instead of clumping everyone together into a general Asian-American group.  If it’s unacceptable to greet a Vietmanese-American with “konichiwa” then why is it acceptable for a Vietnamese-American (or someone from another group) to decide that a kimono worn by a non-Japanese is racist?
  • I identify as Dutch-Canadian.  I would never dream of telling my Dutch friends (born and raised in The Netherlands) or a Dutch company that the way they choose to share their culture in another country is racist.  In fact, it would probably make me re-examine my own beliefs.  If something like wooden shoes is not considered racist by people from The Netherlands, then why should I?

Here is another reaction to all this from a Japanese youtuber, Rachel and Jun.

My role:

As I’ve stated previously, I’m not Japanese.  Yet I practice kitsuke and I have a license to teach it.  So where do I stand on this?

Kimono and kitsuke is a dying art.  Literally.  Most of the artisans who create kimono are well past retirement age and are dying without a successor.  there is not a high demand for new kimono (due to their high cost) and most young people have no desire to learn the craft of designing, dyeing, weaving, or sewing kimono.  Most Japanese people don’t even know how to dress in a kimono themselves.  The kimono has been relegated to a costume within it’s own culture.  Most people will only wear a kimono for shichi-go-san (a celebration for three-year-old and seven-year-old girls and five-year-old boys), seijinshiki (coming of age ceremony for twenty-year-olds), or a wedding.  Even then, they are usually dressed by a professional.  The days of wearing kimono as an everyday garment are over.

My hope as a kimono teacher is that I can generate interest in kimono overseas, make it accessible, help create a demand for it, and maybe, just maybe, the crafts and skills involved in making kimono will last a few generations more.  I am doing this with the full support and knowledge of my teachers in Japan.  I am not trying to be Japanese.  I am trying to preserve a small part of a culture that is not my own, but that I love and cherish, and does not have a large following in it’s country of origin.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I know, sometime in the future (maybe incredibly soon with this post), someone will accuse me of cultural appropriation.  I’ve seen their arguments on many different websites.  They will dismiss whatever I say because I am white.  Because I have privilege.  I don’t deny either of these things.  I know it exists.  It’s in the back of my mind every time I put on a kimono, teach a class, or write a blog post.  In a world where Japanese people in Japan and around the world have lost the knowledge of kitsuke that was common even two generations ago, where very few people have an interest in learning the art of kitsuke, where the artisans who create these garments are passing away without successors, I have two questions for people who think what I’m doing is cultural appropriation.

What are you doing to preserve kimono and kitsuke?  What are you doing to keep it alive for future generations?

I guess I’ll see what their answer is.