Today’s post is provided by Dr. Jan Bardsley, Professor Emerita, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Jan is well known for her captivating studies of Japanese women, from beauty queens to housewives and now, most recently, to maiko. Her forthcoming monograph, Maiko Masquerade: Crafting Geisha Girlhood in Japan (University of California Press), takes a look behind the scenes at dance lessons and recitals and explores the depiction of maiko, the apprentice geisha, in contemporary films, memoirs, and manga. Over the course of her research on this project, Jan spent considerable time in the hanamachi, or geisha world, where she saw plenty of kimonos. But perhaps one of the most compelling kimono-clad figures she has interviewed so far is IKKO, who, whereas not affiliated with the hanamachi, clearly represents the vitality and enduring allure of the kimono.

IKKO’s Kimono Transbeauty

IKKO, celebrity beauty advisor, lifestyle author, and TV talent, often wears kimono. In fact, IKKO’s initial claim to fame came from her flair in fashioning updo hairstyles for actresses in kimono. Eventually, she became a model of chic herself. In her fifties, IKKO prefers the neutral shades that signal maturity.

In June 2020, she wore a deep grey, lightly patterned kimono to speak at the KIMONO: Fashioning Identities exhibit at the National Museum in Tokyo. She explained the core of her kimono philosophy to reporters at the event:

“I imagine those who wear kimono already know this. When I put on a kimono in my thirties, I was completely charmed by it. That’s because the second the obi was fastened, I felt this sense of dignity, I guess you’d say, a rush of confidence that made me feel, ‘I can still do things, I will do things.’” IKKO continued, “At times when I’ve felt insecure, the instant my obi was tightened, I had a sense of strength.”

In contrast to the docility and female silence often associated with the kimono in orientalist literature on Japan, IKKO promotes the kimono to feel empowered. Her kimono, she feels, gives her a strong voice, a motivation to speak and act. And claiming this personal freedom is what IKKO is all about. Her numerous books mix beauty tips, personal stories of struggle and fulfillment, and friendly advice.

As a transgender person, IKKO had a long road to self-acceptance

As a transgender person, IKKO had a long road to self-acceptance. Born in 1962 in a coal-mining town in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, IKKO grew up with the name Toyoda Kazuyuki [豊田一幸] the only boy in the family. The stage name IKKO, which she later adopted, is written with the same characters as Kazuyuki, but with a different pronunciation. In her stories of childhood, IKKO relates the strong sense of dislocation that came from feeling like a girl in a boy’s body. She uses her personal story to advocate that her readers take strength in their own uniqueness.

IKKO’s “personal aesthetics of virtue, beauty, and self-cultivation can lead to social change…”

Encouraged by co-editors Laura Miller and Rebecca Copeland, I researched how IKKO crafted her public persona to write about her extraordinary life for their volume, Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History (University of California Press, 2018). I enjoyed watching clips of IKKO’s various appearances, reading her many beauty books and her travel guide to Korea. My chapter, “Transbeauty IKKO: A Diva’s Guide to Glamour, Virtue, and Healing” discusses these works, explaining how IKKO’s “personal aesthetics of virtue, beauty, and self-cultivation can lead to social change, even when the diva does not seek political action.”

IKKO opened the door to her Tokyo studio to greet us

IKKO greets Makiko and Jan in March 2014
IKKO greets Makiko and Jan in March 2014

When my friend Makiko and I had a chance to meet IKKO in person in 2014, we were very excited. I will never forget when IKKO opened the door to her Tokyo studio to greet us. Her black kimono was spectacular. Her obi was fastened in an intriguing way, with an inner fold slightly raised, as you can see in this photo. “This is a geisha style,” she explained.

Generous with her time, IKKO spoke in her characteristic frank and friendly manner. Speaking about her love of kimono, IKKO described how she had commissioned kimono from the renowned designer Ikeda Shigeko. Ikeda (1925-2015) strived to make kimono from unusual materials that capture the personality of the wearer, a sensibility that IKKO appreciates. One can find exhibitions and photo-books in Japanese of Ikeda’s kimono.

Perusing Rebecca Copeland’s blogposts reminded me of IKKO’s kimono fashion. I look forward to following IKKO’s career and how she uses kimono to craft her public role. Many thanks to Rebecca for inviting me to try my hand at a guest blog post.