Are you a Jedi….or maybe a priest?


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.





Keeping tabs on tabi

One of the adjustments I have had to make when wearing kimono is taking more time in the morning to get my clothing organized.  Keeping track of all the accessories can be a challenge and if I hurry through my routine I inevitably leave something behind.

Recently I left the house in a rush, already late for work, when  five minutes into the commute I realized I left my tabi at home (tabi are the split toe socks worn with zori or geta sandals).  I normally wear regular shoes to drive to work where I then change into tabi and zori.  Becoming a bit annoyed I decided to go back home to quickly grab the tabi and made my way to work.  Upon arriving in my office I proceeded to change and realized I had two right tabi…  This left me with two options: wear the zori without tabi or wear my shoes for the entire day.  Neither choice was very appealing.  Luckily I had a pair of black athletic socks with me that were thin enough to wear with the zori sandals and give the appearance of the traditional tabi.

I am certain that most people would have not noticed the missing tabi, but I would have spent the day feeling incomplete.  IMG_1016

Doorways and Staircases


When is the last time you consciously thought about how you walk through a doorway? I don’t mean the philosophical choices of choosing one path from another, although that could be a topic for another post. I am referring to the actual physical act of opening and closing a door. Do you rush through? Does the door close quietly or is there a resounding slam that follows you as you move forward?

I never gave this much thought until I started wearing kimono as daily work clothes. With its large flowing sleeves the kimono presents numerous challenges with doorways. I have been abruptly brought to a standstill by doorknobs catching my sleeves. Once, while rushing out my office to get to class, the door slammed behind me capturing one of my sleeves. To unlock the door and regain my freedom required physical flexibility worthy of an Olympic gymnast! Stairs prove to be another challenge. The long “skirts” of kimono or hakama will consistently get under foot and it is necessary to lift them up to step clearly.

Doorways and staircases require me to slow down and become more aware of my surroundings. Wearing kimono means I have to be more careful of office chairs, and climbing in and out of cars. I even walk a bit more slowly down the hallway. Wearing kimono means I have to be aware.

Appreciation or Appropriation?



AokiclancrestOne of the most common questions I receive while wearing kimono is “Why are you wearing that?”. Depending on my mood at the moment and how much time I have, my answer is usually, “These are my clothes…why are you wearing what you are wearing?. But, often beneath the surface of these inquiries is a much more complicated and potentially controversial idea…”Should you be wearing that?”

More than any other concern I have about wearing kimono in public (breaking social norms for example), the idea that I may be participating in cultural appropriation worries me the most. This is especially true because as an anthropology professor I have spent many hours in class discussing with my students the various ways that minority cultural icons are used by the dominant culture…most especially the issue of Native American imagery for sports mascots or the grossly inappropriate ethnic Halloween costumes. I debated for over a year about the impact my wearing kimono might have on my teaching, my interactions with students and colleagues, and how I would address any concerns of appropriation.

But, I have yet to come across a single Japanese or Japanese-American who has been anything but enthusiastic and encouraging. They see kimono as a shareable piece of culture and appreciate the commitment I make to wear it properly. Oddly enough, it has been non-Japanese who are usually the most verbose about issues of appropriation. Often this comes from a misunderstanding of the kimono as something sacred or that choosing to wear it is an attempt to become Japanese.

I still have moments of doubt about wearing kimono, but there has been an overwhelming positive response, especially from those who are most empowered to approve my choice. The picture attached to this post is the Aoki clan crest depicting Mt Fuji san…one of my wife’s family clans. Her aunt Kaeko gave me one of the family kimonos bearing this crest. I could not ask for a better sign of approval.

Walking the Kimono Path

The idea of wearing kimono came to me from three different, but converging sources of inspiration: music, martial arts, and marriage.  As an ethnomusicologist I have taken up shakuhachi studies and, more recently extended that interest to shinobue and shamisen.  Those paths led to an interest in budo; the philosophical study of the classical martial arts of the samurai, particularly for me iaido and kenjutsu.  Both fields of interest are connected to kimono as the traditional attire for practice and performance.  While my participation in these pursuits would certainly have led me to wearing some form of kimono from time to time, it was a much more personal life event that has made kimono an important part of my teaching: marriage to my wonderful wife Mako.

A short time before our set wedding date, Mako surprised me with the idea of traveling to Japan to meet her aunts and uncles…with just two weeks to pack!  It was an incredible first adventure and her (and my soon to be) relatives were excited at my deep interest in traditional Japanese culture.  In particular her Aunt Kaeko was very encouraging of my pursuit of music and wearing kimono…not only did she give me my first lessons in kitsuke, but she had some family kimonos (complete with the family crest of Mount Fuji san)  altered to fit me and advised me on the purchase my first kimonos.  Other relatives and an ever expanding network of friends in Tokyo and Kyoto added their support.

Music, Martial Arts, Marriage…

Thus began my journey of kimono contemplation…IMG_0233