Wearing a kimono; cultural appropriation or not?

These days, there’s so much talk of what’s appropriate or not that you worry precisely when you’re going to be called out for some lack of political correctness.

Remember when Katy Perry wore this to the American Music Awards? Some of the comments at that time ranged from ‘she looks so pretty’ to cries of outrage and a sense that the outfit was cultural appropriation. There were some who felt that Perry had no right to wear the kimono – a Japanese cultural emblem that dates back to the Edo period. Most of the haters failed to realise that it was just a performance – nothing different from a stage show , or let’s use Madame Butterfly as another, slightly different example wherein white singers play the parts of Japanese characters.

Katy Perry’s infamous Geisha dance

Scroll through the negative comments on Youtube and you won’t find any from Japanese people. It seems that nearly all Japanese people are pretty much fine whenever someone not Japanese decides to wear a Kimono. Yet, many still feel that whenever people step outside their culture to wear ethnic clothing they are committing a crime tantamount to racism, or at the very least, cultural appropriation.

I got my own taste of this recently when I borrowed a kimono to wear for the day. Most people understood what I was doing but I was blind-sided by the comments of some. What right did I, as a privileged white male – have wearing a Japanese garment that Japanese people have been mocked for wearing? The argument being that I can never wear a kimono with good intent? Did it make any difference that I was wearing it correctly? Or that it was assembled and sewn by a Japanese person? Apparently not. By this point, I couldn’t think of a good argument that would sufficiently counter these claims.

My head was spinning. Were these people actually saying that people of certain races should be prevented from wearing the clothes of other races? Weren’t they guilty of the same racism and intolerance that I was being accused of? Still more fantastic was the argument that those of true Japanese culture had no say in the debate because they couldn’t appreciate the discrimination that second generations of Japanese had to face in America.

the good news is that I went away with more enthusiasm for the kimono than ever, and I resolved to wear it again as much as I can. I looked for examples of people like me who love wear Japanese clothes (plenty, it turns out). And I looked at examples of famous people over the years and found so many. David Bowie proudly wearing one as ‘Ziggy Stardust’; Bjork for her album cover ‘Homogenic’. Perhaps there are many more for those who care to look. The kimono has permeated our clothing habits so much that we are not aware that a dressing room is a simplified kimono – see Obi Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film. No-one cried ‘cultural appropriation’ then, and they shouldn’t now. If we aren’t careful, we risk creating a world where no-one can ever really understand the culture of other countries or experience it – something that would make the world a much less diverse and interesting place. I say let everybody wear whatever they want.

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