Not a Costume

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

Not a Costume

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

Not a Costume
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 29 2009 10:54 AM

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

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When I was a child, the entire family would gather at my grandmother's house for two annual occasions: Boxing Day dinner and the Miss World pageant. For the latter, we'd all study the form conveniently provided by that morning's paper, then gather around the television to cheer our favorites and wager on the winner. My strategy was simple: I always favored Miss USA. One year, though, the organizers insisted that all the contestants get into the spirit of the "national costume" segment of the show. You see, while Miss India sported a sari and Miss Japan shuffled onstage in a kimono, the Brits and the Americans usually wore some variation on business casual involving miniskirts and go-go boots. That year, their outfit had to reflect national tradition. I've managed to block whatever culturally inappropriate outfit the American wardrobe department came up with, but Miss United Kingdom's rendition of a beefeater is forever seared into my cerebral cortex.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

I tell you all this to explain why the Japanese attitude toward the kimono unsettles me so. All the years of that questionable family ritual make it difficult for me to think of it as anything other than a costume. Yes, generations of Japanese—men and women—woke up and put on a kimono every day of their lives. But even though Frenchwomen used to dress like the cast of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and America's Founding Fathers wouldn't leave the house without a powdered wig, the only time you'll see those clothes in Paris or Philadelphia today is during a movie shoot.

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Kimonos aren't exactly common in modern Japan, but every day I was there I saw at least 15 kimono-clad figures, almost all women. It wasn't the raw numbers that surprised me; it was how normal it seemed. Women in kimonos eat breakfast in coffee shops, they strap-hang on crowded trains, and they poke about in 100-yen stores. Other Japanese people don't pay the slightest bit of attention—it's as if they haven't noticed that the person next to them happens to be swathed in several thousand dollars' worth of beautifully tailored silk. As a gaijin—a foreigner—I attracted more attention than these women, and I can guarantee that I was far less interesting to look at.

In Spain, when a woman dresses up for a bullfight or the neighborhood fiestas, everyone compliments her appearance. True, anyone who doesn't offer a piropo will get an earful, but you don't sing praises out of politeness—you do it because she looks great. In England, mockery is the most likely response to a spiffy outfit, but at least it's a reaction. The Japanese nonchalance contravenes the laws of nature: When a bird primps its plumage and does a little dance, attention must be paid.

The Japanese seem to love uniforms—parking-lot attendants are kitted out like generals, guys who pick up trash wear full-dress blues—so perhaps kimonos are just another kind of uniform, a way of establishing that the wearer belongs here, that she hasn't lost her connection to her nation's history. Making a fuss would question that connection, rendering it invalid.

I thought about all this when we went to see Takaki Nagashima in Kyoto. I'd first caught sight of him at a seminar in New York, where he was teaching U.S.-based Japanese women about obis—the ornate sashes used to tie kimonos. On that sweltering day in August, Nagashima sat at the end of a long table unfurling bolt after bolt of astonishingly luxurious fabric, the very picture of opulence.

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Although Nagashima is not an unknown craftsman—he's a salesman, not a shokunin, and his family's obis proudly bear the company shoushi, an identifying seal—his line of work is just as steeped in tradition and just as endangered. His family's obi-making business, Nagashimasei Orimono, is based in the Nishijin—a textile center for more than 1,000 years—and I asked him to give my girlfriend and me that classic travel experience: the factory tour.

Nagashima showed up at our hotel decked out in a gorgeous steel-blue kimono, and everywhere he went, the man turned heads. He is a one-man kimono-and-obi-promotion campaign—young, attractive, and used to being stared at. Our first stop was the company besso, a special house where executives take guests to discuss business or negotiate deals away from the office. It was spectacular—even though we were in a dull, residential neighborhood, as soon as we passed through the gate, the modern world fell away—but it was also somehow emblematic. Every room seemed to include a feature, such as a weaving technique or a type of wood from a tree that could no longer be harvested, that was threatened or already extinct. Even the garden was endangered: These days, few gardeners know how to handle the maintenance of such a jewel.

At company headquarters—and later in the jam-packed, slightly anarchic factory—the impression was again of opulence: 300,000 colors of silk, stitches too tiny to be seen with the naked eye, and endless luxury. The Nagashimasei Orimono specialty is weaving with metallic threads that produce a shimmering fabric that moves like liquid gold or silver. The designs are intricate and complex—some are taken from traditional paintings—and the traditional Nishijin weaving process produces an almost three-dimensional effect. The workers—there are 40 in all—tend to be middle-aged; Takaki, at 35 the youngest person around and clearly accustomed to being treated like the prince of the family business, complained that these days young people aren't interested in learning these nontransferable skills, preferring office life and business suits.

Although there has been a bit of a kimono boom in recent years, thanks to a resurgence of interest in tea ceremony, overall the prospects aren't good. Kimonos and obis are expensive—an outfit can cost as much as a car—and they're delicate. Kimonos must be washed at least every 10 years, and all the stitches are removed for laundering, which means they must be reconstructed by a kimono tailor each time, a three-day job. Putting on a kimono and tying the obi is a complicated business, and women who don't wear them very often can forget the technique. Outside of weddings, funerals, and formal events, there just aren't many opportunities to don traditional dress—which might explain all the kimono-clad ladies enjoying the No. 2 breakfast at Beck's Coffee Shop.

Nevertheless, Nagashima is sure that kimonos and obis will survive because of the Japanese reverence for tradition. And, while there's a thin line between holding on to tradition and turning your back on the world, the Japanese women who walk around town in beautiful kimonos don't seem like Civil War re-enactors playing at history or buggy-riding Amish rejecting the internal combustion engine. They put on their kimonos and get on the bullet train as if it's the most modern thing in the world.