Kimono as Traditional Clothing in Japan?

When we think of Japan and the words “traditional clothing”, the first thing that comes to mind is kimono. Beautiful, embroidered clothing that influences many fashion trends and Western accessories, the kimono is worn in Japan to this day for special ceremonies.

 

Originally, this article of clothing was designed to simplify the Japanese style of dress and clothing production. That was the reason the kimono was first introduced during the Edo period(1603 to 1868). It gradually became a craft and artisan item when the intricate embroidery came into play, distinguishing the levels of Japanese society. The embroidery also indicates family lines based on a variety of patterns.  

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Have you ever heard of Ainu? What about their traditional attire, the Attus?

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If you’re familiar with Asian History (specifically Japanese History) there is a slight chance that you might know about Ainu. They are the indigenous people of Japan who now reside in Hokkaido(the Northern island of Japan) for the most part. During the Meiji period(1868 -1912), also known as the Restoration period in Japan,  Ainus were forced into an assimilation policy in 1899 in which they had to abandon the Ainu language and culture in order to blend in with the rest of Japan. Western modernization was barely ahead of new Japan at the time. It wasn’t until 1996 that the old policy was lifted from the Ainu people. In 2008, the government of Japan officially acknowledged Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan.

For a long time, those who are Ainu were ashamed of their cultural identity, losing tradition along the way. Now, there is hope to try and revive that identity. By doing so, many natives in Japan and Ainu abroad(especially the young generation)  are trying to revive their culture. An Ethnographic video by Dr. Kinko Ito, professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock(UALR), features interviews of the older Ainu generation discussing their way of life in Hokkaido, what they remember, and how they keep their culture alive.

In the video, she(Ito) interviews a woman who is sewing some traditional Ainu clothing. A tradition that was passed down in her family.

Patterns in the clothing were specific to the regions of families of Ainu, passed down from generation to generation. They even crafted protection patterns to keep out certain spirits that can enter someone's body. Ainu clothing were made of many different materials like bird skin, animal hides, fishskin(of which they no longer wear), and tree bark. Bark is often worn embroidered as formal wear. The bark clothing without patterns are usually worn as everyday wear. Although this older style is not commonly made, Ainus now wear their traditional clothing crafted in cotton instead called the “Attus.” This was later introduced when the cotton trade in mainland Japan became popular.

Dubbing the kimono as “traditional wear” in Japan is a misguided notion, especially from an outsider's perspective. Kimono’s were introduced in recent history and made by people who migrated to Japan. Japan has layers of diversity, even when it seems like a homogeneous country. Not only are there minorities, but there are also natives like the Ainu people. Because of human migration throughout history, certain populations overtake the image of an area. Thus, national holidays, diet, and clothing don't always represent the full spectrum of cultural diversity. Luckily, people in Japan are more aware and willing to revive some parts of history that tell a more accurate story of how Japan came to be. When countries like Japan and the United States take an honest look into their history, they redefine the representation of their respective country and end up with a story that has justice in its accuracy.