Kimonos exist in both tangible and intangible forms. Having worked on modern Japanese women’s writing for several decades now, I am constantly aware of the attention to the detail of dress—more often than not to kimono. And the references are there not just to provide vivid portraits, which they do, but also to develop and deepen the nuances of the text. Kimonos define not only the physical contours of the character but provide keys to the character’s financial and social status, sexual availability, and emotional state. In other words, the kimono functions as an important metaphorical layer over the language of the text.

Take, for example, this scene from Tamura Toshiko (1884-1945) 1911 short story “Ikichi” (Life blood, translated by Edward Fowler):

Akiji exited the room in silence to wash his face, leaving Yūko to stand there listlessly on the veranda, the sound of his footsteps still ringing in her ears. Her unlined kimono, made of silk crepe dyed a deep violet, enveloped her heels, its upturned hem spilling onto the floor.

From this first mention of her garments—an unlined kimono—we recognize the season to be summer. The crepe fabric is naturally wrinkly and soft, the dense fibers allowing a rich saturation of color that produces a subdued luster. The upturned hem, the violet color, all coalesce to give the image of elegant languor. But, as we learn with the progression of the story, this gentle elegance is in sharp contrast to the physical violence Yūko had endured the night before at the hands of Akiji.

Kimonos define not only the physical contours of the character but provide keys to the character’s financial and social status, sexual availability, and emotional state.

In another brilliant story by the writer Enchi Fumiko, “Otoko no hone” (1956, translated by Susan Matisoff “Skeletons of Men”), the central motif is that of the obi or the sash that ostensibly holds the kimono in place. The sash in this story is a hand-me-down from the protagonist’s grandmother, and it is a heavy, lined brocade. As the story “unwinds” we learn that the sash binds, not just the body of the kimono wearer, but the lives of all the women in the family. It serves as their legacy of both submission and survival.


Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash