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Untangling the Threads of the Kimono: Japan’s Colonial History & Cultural Reparations in Fashion

Content Warning: Colonialism, “Comfort Women,” war crimes, reparations.

“Comfort women” will be placed inside quotation marks to emphasize that this was a euphemistic term created by the Japanese Imperial Army to downplay the human sexual trafficking and abuse that they were engaged in.

For many Japanese heritage people around the world, our kimono, yukata, and haori are symbols of deep sacred and cultural ties. For Japanese American, Canadian, and Latin American people who were incarcerated during World War II and their descendants, these garments often take on an even more poignant significance. Simultaneously, the symbolism of these cultural garments do not reverberate in the same way for people who were colonised by Imperial Japan and their descendants. Japan invaded and colonised or occupied the following places: Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, MalaysiaSingapore, Burma, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, East Timor, New Guinea, and Guam spanning from the 1800’s through the 1940’s

Living in a white supremacist world that has been violently impacted by colonialism and settler colonialism, means cultural appropriation is based on power that is inextricably linked to whiteness and how it is elevated on a global scale to this day. As I have stated in more than one piece that I have written, I believe wholeheartedly that cultural appropriation of the kimono and Japanese culture is an important matter within the fashion industry, especially for white owned brands and makers who value sustainable and ethical practices. I continue to ask white makers and brands I come across to make changes to garment names when I see “kimono” and other Japanese cultural terms being misused. 

When it comes to cultural appropriation, power is the first dynamic that must be examined, so I felt a responsibility to attempt to untangle some of the nuances surrounding Japanese traditional clothing given Japan’s horrific colonial legacy. The symbolism of the kimono has a lesser known history and impact that must also be woven into our discussion of cultural appropriation. 

“Comfort Women” & Kimono

During Japan’s colonisation of Korea and other Asian countries, historians estimate that 200,00 to 410,000 Korean, Southeast Asian, and Chinese girls and women were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army. A profound and rarely mentioned fact is that the girls and women who were trafficked by the Japanese Imperial Army, were forced to wear traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono, haori, and other traditional garments. They were also forced to cut their hair and change their names to Japanese names.

During the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in December 2000, Park Yong-sim, who came to Japan with the prosecutors, was unable to eat or talk, since she saw yukata provided in the hotel. As yukata reminded her of the Japanese kimono, which she had been forced to wear in the comfort station, Park lost her words, and was haunted by flashbacks. As a result, she was not able to enter the witness box, and the video was used as evidence. – Mori, Rie. “Kimono & Colony: From Testimonies and Literature.” Voice From Japan, No. 25, March 2011, page 17. 

The kimono is a symbol of cultural pride and resistance in the face of racial injustice for some, and also a reminder of the worst human atrocities for others. How can both things be true?

A row of "comfort women"
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Photos taken from Daily Hunt and Mary Evans Picture Library

 

Both/And Thinking 

More than once I have been told by people via social media that Japanese people are colonisers and so I have no right to speak out about the cultural appropriation of the kimono and Japanese culture. As a wise friend once told me, “Binary thinking is a white supremacist mindset.” Oppressor and oppressed can coexist and more than one truth can be present. 

As someone who is both Japanese and white American, I have spent a lot of my life thinking about how my identity contains both the oppressed and the oppressor, particularly in the US. With family still living in Japan, I have also spent a lot of time learning about and reflecting on Japan’s colonial horrors. There is room at the table for Japanese heritage people to share our grief and hurt about racial injustice due to white supremacy, while making a place at the head of the table for the elders who were brutalised during World War II by Japan, to express their rage and their need for redress. 

It is possible to both speak out against cultural appropriation of Japanese culture– and seek justice for the girls and women who were harmed and traumatised during World War II by the Japanese government. Japanese heritage people have the right to call out the appropriation of Japanese culture, especially our sacred symbols such as the kimono. It is also erasure to conflate the experiences of the diaspora of Japanese heritage people with Japanese heritage people in Japan. It further marginalises Japanese American/Canadian/Latin American histories that so often get left out or glossed over in contexts that range from curriculums in schools to conversations of cultural appropriation of Japanese culture in fashion.

We can both demand justice for the people harmed by Imperial Japan– and recognise the negative impact of white supremacy on the Japanese diaspora within and without Japan due to the colonising influence of the US in forcing Japan to open its doors, atomic bomb trauma, and also the racial discrimination and mass incarceration during World War II of Japanese heritage people outside of Japan.

Both/and thinking is not just a thought exercise, but is rooted in action. Once we are aware of the presence of these multiple truths, we can move toward uplifting them with awareness and care.

Cultural Reparations VS Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

What do we call it when Asian designers and makers who are descendants of the countries who were colonised and occupied by Japan, who carry intergenerational trauma within them, create Japanese inspired garments and utilise Japanese terms and concepts? It most certainly is not cultural appropriation because of the power dynamic, so could it be this: an act of resistance to make a profit and create art from that which was a source of oppression? And if it is an act of resistance and therefore healing, a small stitch of repair for an open wound, could we call it cultural reparations? Meaning, makers from the cultures that were colonised and oppressed by Imperial Japan, have the freedom and right to fully embrace, reject, and reimagine with any and all elements of the culture of the oppressor and make a new story in fabric and folds that tells about how trauma might be transformed in some small way, perhaps one stitch at a time.

Recalling that yukata that Park Yong-Sim saw on top of the bed of the hotel, that triggered waves of haunted memories of her abuse, I wonder if makers who are descendants of countries harmed by Japan, would find it a repair and reparations of sorts to particularly create kimono, haori, and other traditionally inspired pieces. When there is the freedom of choice and expression, rather than a cruel stripping of culture and personhood via colonialism, could the idea of cultural reparations via the kimono be the opposite end of cultural appropriation of the kimono? 

As my own thinking has evolved about the nuances of cultural appropriation, I have advocated for consumers to be thoughtful about purchasing kimono and haori inspired pieces from Japanese heritage makers. Delving into this topic of cultural reparations in fashion takes me even further into exploring this question of– who should be profiting from Japanese inspired clothing? If makers who come from cultures oppressed by Imperial Japan during WWII are making kimono and haori inspired garments, in my opinion, that is their right. 

As I hold these threads of thoughts, Korean, Filippino, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Indonesian elders who were forced to be “Comfort Women” as girls and young women, continue to wait for formal apologies and reparations from the Japanese government. Since that brutal time, many women have bravely spoken out about their abuse and have led protests and demands for apologies and reparations. With only a small number of the elders alive, this work of demanding a formal apology from Japan’s leaders in addition to reparations, is urgent and necessary.

South Korean Comfort Women Protests
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Photo taken by Jo Yong-Hak

 

If we are compelled by both/and thinking to take action and be a part of spreading truth, then here is where to begin:

– Sign this petition.
– Write a letter to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo demanding an apology and reparations. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan 1-6-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo 100-8968, Japan.
– Leave an online comment for Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Emperor Akihito insisting on an apology and reparations for all of the women across Asia who were abused by the Japanese Imperial Army.
– Advocate for school districts in your state and/or country to teach about the “Comfort Women” history as well as the activism work of the women. Consider this California example, which was organised by “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition.
– Speak out against cultural appropriation in fashion when you come across it, while centring the work and voices of activists and community members who are speaking from first-person experiences; be mindful of power dynamics influenced by colonial history. The global backdrop of white supremacy cannot be underestimated and asking white makers and brands to stop culturally appropriating is the priority over asking BIPOC makers and brands, as those nuances and one’s own position need to be very carefully considered.
– Support the work of organisations like Densho, which are preserving history and creating teaching resources about Japanese American, Canadian, and Latin American histories.
– Continue to learn about the “Comfort Women” history and activism (links below).

While writing this piece I kept thinking of the last stanza of the poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” by Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
And the door of my heart
Could be left open,
The door of compassion.

When we are in the presence of truth, then our hearts open, and we can enter into the doorway of compassion in action, by speaking out and showing up in solidarity. May we all continue to share our truths and wake up the world together.

Further Resources 

http://learnwhr.org/comfort-women
https://remembercomfortwomen.org
https://bust.com/feminism/195171-the-comfort-women.html
The Apology
Documentary Film
Spirits’ Homecoming Film


Emi Ito is a mother, San Francisco Bay Area public educator, and sustainable fashion community member who has been outspoken about the cultural appropriation of the kimono and Japanese culture since she started her public Instagram account in 2018. She is the founder and a co-moderator for the account @buyfrombipoc, which is a community resource that celebrates Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour makers and brands in sustainable, ethical, and slow fashion. You can follow her work here.

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