Kimonos: a gateway to Japanese culture

Kimono Culture, an exhibit on the history and art of this Japanese textile, will run until Sept. 3, 2017 at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby. A special talk by guest curator Hitomi Harama will be held at the centre on June 24.

Kimono is a core element of Japanese traditional culture. It contains various impressive artistic elements in its design and creative process,” says Harama. “In this Kimono Culture exhibit, I hope to introduce those artistic beauty, traditional designs and culture behind it. We can see the wider Japanese culture through a kimono.”

Harama is a kimono and Japanese cultural consultant based on Vancouver Island. She runs Umesilk, a kimono couturier business in Victoria, and has provided her expertise to the film industry throughout North America, as well as for exhibitions in art galleries and museums. Kimono Culture has an array of kimonos on display dating back to the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taishō periods (1912–1926).

Summer kuro tome-sode kimono (formal attire for married non-royalty women) from the Meiji era. | Photo by Nurlaila Jamil

The many layers

Apart from detailing the structure of the traditional Japanese costume, Kimono Culture seeks to educate visitors on the different types of kimonos that exist. According to Harama, kimonos are designed to fit the different seasons and ceremonial occasions of Japan. For example, visitors will learn that awase (a double-layered full sewn kimono) are meant for the winter, fall and spring periods. Hitoe (a type of kimono sewn without lining), on the other hand, are reserved for periods transitioning between the high and low temperatures such as the early summer and early fall.

The majority of the pieces on display at the exhibition are derived from Harama’s family collection. The Harama family has a penchant for kimonos and strives to preserve the artisanal craftsmanship of this traditional costume.

“There are so many elements in a kimono that we appreciate,” says Harama. “The beauty and intricacy of the traditional kimonos, the quality of silk materials, the ornate brush-painted yuzen-dyed design patterns, elaborate embroidery works and various detailed patterns of stencil dye.”

Influencing art and fashion

Kimonos have gained global prominence through Harajuku street fashion and anime films but the garment’s influence on the west has expanded beyond those popular mediums. According to Harama, kimonos and other forms of Japanese arts have impacted the western world since the late 19th century with the emergence of the Art Nouveau movement. Many impressionist artists were inspired by Japanese art, and European female fashion was strongly influenced by kimonos in the early 20th century. The influence of Japanese art on the west diminished during wartime and this cultural exchange was almost completely reversed with the westernization of Japan.

“During the wartime and after 1945 Japan and Japanese lifestyle drastically changed,” says Harama. “kimonos are no longer the everyday clothing of Japanese people. Since Japan has become more westernized, most Japanese people don’t know how to properly wear Kimono, and good traditional Japanese cultural matters are starting to disappear.”

When asked if the younger Japanese population (especially those part of the diaspora) should feel intimidated by the complexity of the kimono, Harama pointed out that the appearance of the kimono may be intimidating to those who find it to be foreign. She explains that the perceived complexity is just a by-product of the attire being a formal and decorative process, as opposed to an unnecessarily strenuous process.

“If you try a more decorative style of obi [a sash to fit and decorate the kimono], it is usually more complicated and time consuming. This is true for any types of clothing in any other culture where the attire is more formal and decorative. For example, putting on dress shirts and neckties is more time consuming than wearing t-shirts. The same applies for the kimono wearing process,” she says.

Harama believes that despite no longer being worn as daily clothing in Japan, kimonos will continue to exist as a central element to the Japanese culture.

“I wish this exhibition will inspire visitors to be more interested in Japanese culture. The items I introduced in this exhibition are just a tip of iceberg but I hope they are intriguing enough to garner more attention to Japan and her culture,” she says.

For more information on the exhibit, please visit