A kimono is more than just a garment. It’s a container of memory. For many it’s a living entity. By that, I don’t mean kimonos get up and walk on their own. No, they are animated by the body that wears them. But in some sense, the kimono also absorbs the energy that the body conveys. Even before a kimono wraps itself around a body, it has inherited the life force of those who made it. This claim is more true of those kimono that are made by hand (rare these days) and not as significant for synthetic products. The process of making a kimono by hand, of creating the fabric for the kimono, is laborious. The spinning, the weaving, the dyeing all involve careful attention. To enrich the concept of the living kimono even further, the materials used to make the fabric are themselves living entities. Whether spun from the bodies of silk worms or from the fibers of plants, the kimono bears the trace of this life force.

Meeting the Kimono Spirit: Enchi Fumiko’s Masks

There’s a compelling scene in the 1958 novel Onnamen (translated by Juliet Carpenter as Masks) by Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986). The main character, Mieko, pays a visit to the venerable noh master, Yorihito Yakushiji, to see his collection of costumes and masks. There she hears the story of how, during a performance before the emperor, the actor looked from the stage to see a strange little man in the booth with the imperial retinue. When he looked again, the man was gone. Later he learned the man was the artisan who had woven the magnificent costume he was wearing in the performance. Only, the man had died. So, it was his lingering spirit that had appeared in the theater that day. In life, he had invested so much of his energy in the creation of the costume that he was drawn to the theater even beyond the grave to see how the garment might appear to the emperor.

“In life, he had invested so much of his energy in the creation of the costume that he was drawn to the theater even beyond the grave to see how the garment might appear to the emperor.”

Lingering Spirits and the Kimono Afterlife

For all these reasons, it is difficult to discard a kimono. Nowadays a stroll through a flea market in Japan—such as the famous one at Tōji Temple in Kyoto—would challenge such an assertion. There are booths galore piled high with old kimonos and obi sashes. But in the past, kimonos were passed down from mother to daughter. Especially precious ones. And when an everyday kimono grew threadbare, or too stained to wear, often they’d be turned into equally useful items, like cleaning cloths or diapers. Particularly beautiful kimonos would be donated to temples to be refashioned into altar cloths or banners. Terry Satsuki Milhaupt wrote a brilliant dissertation on the journey of an aristocratic woman’s kimono from garment to altar cloth. Flowers at the Crossroads: The Four-Hundred Year Life of a Japanese Textile (2002) traces this history.

From kimono as spirit to kimono as language…come back soon for more kimono talk. And please leave a comment letting me know about your kimono encounters.


Photo by Kevin Xie on Unsplash