Having spent an entire school year teaching in kimono, and making my public debut in downtown Tokyo this past summer, I decided it was time to move about my own public spaces and go about my usual routine. I have shopped for groceries, pumped gas, purchased coffee, posted mail, and generally gone about my day to day activities whilst wearing various forms of kimono. I have come to expect that interested individuals will ask about my apparel and, depending on their method of inquiry, have developed a number of responses that explain what and why I am wearing odd, but somehow familiar, clothing. Sometimes a conversation leads to another insight about how people think.
The town where my wife lives is an upper middle class suburb of Hartford, predominately Euro-American (although there are a number of south Asian families in the region) and could be considered quintessentially New England. On my way to her house I decided to pick up dinner supplies, including a stop at the liquor store. It was a pleasant summer afternoon and I was wearing a dark brown yukata, blue and white obi, and informal zori. As I was perusing the selection of beers, a voice behind me asked, “Are you a Jedi…or maybe a priest?” I turned to find a middle-aged male store clerk quizzically looking at my attire. I was momentarily speechless as my brain attempted to form a response that was appropriate to the inquiry…
“Very observant, you are. Yessssss” or “Yes, my son, may I take your confession.”
However, at the start of my kimono practice I made the decision never to respond in a joking matter. In part to maintain my own dignity, but mostly to discourage others from thinking of kimono as a costume. It is after all a representation of Japanese culture and I have a responsibility to ensure that it is presenting respectfully. So I gave my standard response of “These are my clothes and I am wearing them as part of my studies in Japanese culture…” and he left me to my purchase decision, probably a bit disappointed at my straight forward answer.
It wasn’t until after that I started thinking about the context of his question. Yes, I know that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Japanese culture and film in his creation of the Star Wars universe. Likewise, this was not the first time I was asked if I was a priest, or more often, a monk. But, I thought it strange that this person asked both, mixing fictitious character with religious calling. Sure, he was joking and I don’t feel his intent was to be hurtful. But, what if I was a priest or a monk? Would his question then become an unintended insult? Now to be fair, the woman who was working at the checkout asked about my clothing too. She started with “That is a wonderful outfit you are wearing…is it Japanese?” Our subsequent exchange revealed that she had an interest in Japanese film and that she had never seen anyone in person wearing kimono. They each phrased their questions from the context of individual experience, one a bit more learned perhaps.
Wearing kimono helps me to be more aware of cultural context as I place myself outside of it by my choice of clothing. Each time I am asked about what I am wearing I have the opportunity to expand someone’s exposure to other ways of being and I discover another way to think about my own sense of the world.