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Japanese Fashion: Cultural symbol as a pop culture commodity

Few things are as telling about an individual’s sense of self as the clothes he or she chooses to wear. That’s because fashion is an inescapable part of who we are and how others perceive us; it is a symbolic marker of our identities, backgrounds, and affiliations. This is especially true for clothing with cultural and ethic significance, even though sometimes it can be misappropriated.

Japanese Fashion: Cultural symbol as a pop culture commodity

Unfortunately, cultural symbols and fashions can and do become pop culture commodities. When people think of Japan, they likely think of Mt. Fuji, Shinto shrines, and the kimono. Though the kimono hasn’t been a mystery to westerners for some time, it probably wasn't until the mid-2000s that the traditional Japanese dress infiltrated the U.S. mainstream via popular media. The problem is that when it’s taken out of context and used as a performance prop, the powerful symbolism associated with the kimono disappears.

After the widespread popularity of the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha, the kimono’s proliferation as a fashion item was adapted and reconstituted as a silky robe sold in retail chains like H&M and American Eagle, even more so than before. Furthermore, in her 2013 rendition of "Unconditionally" at the American Music Awards, Katy Perry was dressed, presumably, as a geisha framed by a backdrop of falling cherry blossom petals, the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and women doing a Chinese fan dance.

Similarly, Major Lazer misuses the kabuki art form (Japanese dance drama characterized by heavy use of makeup) in its music video for "Come On To Me" to produce highly consumable content. Like Perry's performance, it’s another example of how traditional Japanese elements are used as props, instead of symbols of a centuries-old culture. Interjecting it into a contemporary medium that has no relational context to the song whatsoever diminishes the integrity of these art forms for those who either connect to them for their cultural relevance or are genuinely interested in them.

Still, despite the misguided attempts of certain artists to “bring something new” to the table, fashion is also immeasurably helpful for sustaining cultural identity. While Japan is as a leader in technological innovation and contemporary dress, it is also a place where history and centuries-old rituals are preserved. People dressed in formal work attire commonly appear alongside people wearing traditional kimonos and garments reserved for special occasions. These include the uniform worn in kendo, and the fashions worn during the highly ritualized tea ceremonies.

One of the most interesting forms of traditional Japanese dress are part of Shinto-style wedding ceremonies, where women wear an all-white kimono with layers and layers of garments varying in texture, materials, and heft. Another is Seijin-no-Hi (Coming of Age Day), which is annually observed on the second Monday of January and is an important right of passage that marks a person’s entry into adulthood at age 20.

Japanese Fashion: Cultural symbol as a pop culture commodity

While individuals of Japanese ancestry living abroad may not dress up and participate in these celebrations directly, cities throughout the United States make it easy to partake in cultural traditions. The Cherry Blossom festivals in the spring are a popular time for Japanese and non-Japanese people alike. Most people enjoy hana-mi (flower viewing), and it's quite common for some women to dress up in yukata (a summer kimono that has lightweight fabric with bold colors).

For cities with large Japanese enclaves, matsuri ( festivals) are another way of retaining and celebrating cultural ancestry. In Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, the Japanese American Cultural Community Center hosts Nisei Week, a nine-day celebration that features a parade showcasing traditional garments such as the happi (a thin-fabric coat) and hachimaki (headbands) of taiko drummers.

Having access to these cultural events while being able to dress in the appropriate fashions is a fantastic way for people with Japanese backgrounds to promote cultural diffusion and cultural awareness, instead of cultural misappropriation.


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