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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Japan is...not about tradition

I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between "tradition" and my own designs recently. I always tell people that I make knitted accessories inspired by Japanese design, made using Scandinavian technique. But what do I mean by Japanese design? At the moment, this mostly means Japanese textile-inspired design. My gloves reference sashiko (Japanese quilting) designs, which tend to be associated with more humble origins.

Like these designs...

The colors and designs of my hats and scarves are inspired by kimono fabrics. So, lots of Japanese tradition, if you will. Except, I beg to differ. Or at least, with what people tend to mean when they say Japanese tradition.


Tradition is one of those pesky terms that get historians' panties in a serious twist, and I'm no exception. Here's the thing: the very notion of something called "traditional" was created to separate out "the past" (somehow always the same and never changing since the dawn of time) from "the contemporary" or "the modern." This is a modern concept. (Modern is recent history for historians...or like 18th-19th century for everyone else.) To put it another way, there was a time when people--mostly in the West but also in other places--started doing things and thinking things that we now call modern; everything else they did before was considered "traditional," and "traditional" was assumed to have always been that way, never changing, always the same, 1000 years ago til now.

This is my issue with associating things even like kimono designs with tradition. You will hear lots of people say "kimono is the traditional attire of the Japanese people." And that's not wrong. Before the introduction of Western clothing, people in Japan wore a different kind of clothing that we now call kimono. And now, kimono-wearing is associated with all sorts of rules and regulations and rituals. Most people don't know how to wear them, or clean them. My grandmother's generation is the last one where most girls were raised knowing how to take a kimono apart for cleaning, who didn't struggle to put one on, and who owned a few. In the house where I grew up (and where my mother still lives) there is a chabako (a tea box--literally the large wooden box tea is packed in that is also used to store kimono because it is bug-proof) with several kimonos that belonged to my grandmother. My mom didn't even wear a kimono for college graduation or her wedding--they are expensive even to rent, and she couldn't afford one at the time.

Here's me in a not-kimono! This is a yukata, or summer cotton garment. In Utah at my grandma's house, while giving my cousin a sarcastic look. Totally not traditional.

What are now mostly ceremonial and expensive, rarified garments were once everyday wear. So how did this happen? It used to be that kimono-wearing was not regulated by all the rules and rituals and laws and annoying stipulations that surround "traditional kimono" now. When kimono were actually everyday wear, they were affordable, trendy, changed with the trends, included a dizzying array of contemporary motifs and illustrations (ever seen a kimono with modern buildings or warplanes on them? well, they were totally a thing).

Military planes and soldiers on a kimono!

Militarism is so fun! (I am kidding)

One of the truisms about Japan is that for all the ways it is a place full of rules and rituals and "tradition," it is full of people who see "foreign" things and say "hey, that would totally go with this thing I have!" Which is how you end up with samurai armor with a European cuirass (better for bullets...which they totally had in the 16th century! Take that, Last Samurai!)

Now this is one badass bit of armor!

As soon as trade with the West was hoisted upon Japan in the 1860s (well, technically starting in 1854, then 1859...), textile manufacturers started studying western weaving and dying techniques and began incorporating them into kimono design. This is not about rejecting "tradition" and displacing it with "western fashion," but is about always engaging with the world around you and taking what you like about the new things you discover.

Some of the kimono "rules" that are so rigid now only go back a hundred years or so. And to a historian, that's barely within the realms of history. (We have a weird sense of time. I spent half of my life in ca. 1905 for about 10 years. It can be confusing.)

I've been spending lots of time thinking about my own relationship to mimicking and being inspired by textile design because the idea of replicating "tradition" always makes me uncomfortable. I don't believe in "tradition" as a stable idea--sorry, this is historian talk for "tradition is made up and it's not what you think it is." I don't want to be thought of as someone who is somehow obsessed with Japanese tradition, or is trying to capture tradition in what I make. I like to think that what I'm doing is carrying on in the very Japanese (well, human, really) "tradition" (see what I did there? ha!) of taking bits and pieces from things I like from the past, things I like from what I see around me, and coming up with something new. And of course, because you can't always flush the historian out of your system, sometimes I have these scholarly thoughts about my making endeavors.

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Feb 07, 2018

Sakaguchi Ango would deliver a fist bump if he were alive today, and then order a hat.

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