My most popular post is “Where to buy yukata”? Nowadays, instead of pride, I feel guilty. As I’ve gotten more socially aware, I have realized that it is no longer my place to supply this information. Since I am not Japanese, I am contributing to cultural appropriation, and that is not something I want to do. I apologize to any individuals of Japanese descent for offending them.
Cultural appropriation is hard to define. It’s often explained as borrowing or stealing of elements from one cultural by another, usually dominant one, but that ignores cultural exchange, which is not a bad thing. As The Long Way home points out in this great article (a must read), “cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person.” The issue with cultural appropriation is then the removal of culture out of the context that surrounds it. You can’t just wear a yukata because you think it’s pretty. That ignores the history of oppression faced by Japanese people and all the times they were forced to adopt a Western style of dress or get rid of any Japanese items. It ignores the fact that Japanese kids get bullied for dressing different, that Japanese women are still fetishized (Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls and “Asian Girlz” anyone?), and that there are people who think that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was some sort of divine retribution for Pearl Harbor or the fishermen killing dolphins (I knew a woman who believed in the latter).
Yes, it’s not fair that people have spoiled the opportunity for others to appreciate Japanese culture through clothing. It’s also unfair that white men are the stars of samurai movies in the West and that Chinese actresses were cast in Memoirs of a Geisha. Furthermore, there are other ways to appreciate a culture: learning a language, hosting an exchange student, attending a local festival, purchasing music and movies from that culture, or (if you’re in Japan) taking classes in wearing kimono. I’m NOT saying that you can’t wear a yukata or a kimono, but you have to really dig deep and think about why you’re doing it and you’re going to have to prepare for the stink faces that sometimes are a gut reaction (I give it to non-Chinese people who wear qipao outside of volunteering situations even if they are my friends).
There’s not a clear line between when a non-Japanese person can and cannot wear a yukata or a kimono. Different Japanese people have differing opinions about it. However, there are obvious things that you should not do, and I hope you can learn from the mistakes I made with yukatas and kimonos.
The first outfit was a costume based on an image of Nana Osaki in a robe (last photo in Nana 1st Illustration here). It’s acceptable to wear kimonos and yukatas if you’re cosplaying a character at a convention, but you have to do it right. Confusing a robe for a yukata/kimono is not doing it right. Furthermore, my roommate picked out a brocade with a “very Chinese” (a Japanese co-worker’s term) design. I should’ve said something, but I didn’t and I wound up making things worse by tying the obi in the front like Nana did with the robe. Major fail.
The middle picture would not have been so bad if I hadn’t decided to stick a wig on it. The JETs were invited to wear yukatas to our farewell party; that’s a perfectly good time to wear one. Due to my problems with self-image and attention, I decided that I would stick a pink cosplay wig. This Tumblr post describes why wearing cosplay outside of a convention is problematic. I basically took an honor and selfishly stomped all over it.
If I had not learned my lesson, I again committed a horrific act of bastardizing a yukata via steampunk. There’s a difference between making an outfit with components inspired by traditional Japanese clothing (like “kimono” sleeves or wa-lolita) and altering the original garment itself. While there are Japanese steampunks who do alter yukatas or accessorize it in an atypical way (as non-Japanese steampunks who have the knowledge and the proper motivations to do the same), it is not my place to do so.
How about when it is okay to wear a yukata or kimono? A safe bet is whenever you are invited to by Japanese people. The photo below on the left was taken when our ALT music group was invited to perform and given the opportunity to rent kimonos and be dressed by a professional. On the right, I’m being dressed by a Japanese friend from Sister Cities during our charity concert. It was originally my idea to wear my yukata in order to attract attention towards our efforts to raise money for earthquake and tsunami survivors, as well as to celebrate the kindness of my co-workers in Miyagi who gave me the yukata. My friend approved, and she’s actually asked to borrow it to let a Caucasian girl wear it to help promote our organization and its exchange program.
These are my opinions, and I’m still adjusting them with new information I receive. I don’t have an answer to whether you can wear a yukata to a matsuri, like my “Where to Buy Yukata?” post encouraged. The Tumblr post I had previously linked makes a good case for why it’s not a good idea. I can’t prevent anyone from wearing a yukata, but if you do, please don’t put on awful “geisha” make-up (that’s the equivalent of blackface) and purchase it from a Japanese seller. The least we can do is to support the original culture’s economy instead of buying non-Japanese kimonos and yukatas. If you want another perspective, a good site is This is Not Japan.
Listening to: “Ibitsu” by the GazettE