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Study Abroad and the Art of Kimono

by Ashley Hayes
Ashley Hayes was a Bridging Scholar and JET Programme participant. She currently works for Google.

Ashley_hayesKimono, literally, “thing that you wear,” is a simple word for a vast cultural institution. I first became fascinated with kimono during my self-initiated exploration of Japanese history and culture during my teenage years. Right around that time, Arthur Golden’s acclaimed novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, graced the New York Times bestseller list. The book’s thoughtful descriptions of these ornate robes, with their intricate embroidery,  silky textures, and myriad of parts left a deep impression on me. It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to don a kimono myself, as a high school exchange student in Fukuoka, Japan. Although, the outfit selected for me was not as sumptuous as those worn by the geisha that I had read about, this thrilling experience paved the way for me to incorporate kimono into my own life as a student of the art of kimono-wearing (soudou). The kimono has also become the lens through which I reflect on my study abroad experience as a whole. Just as we say that you must walk a mile in one’s shoes in order to empathize with that person, I’ve found that dressing up in kimono has helped me to better appreciate Japanese culture.

Even the most enthusiastic study abroad student faces discomfort and awkwardness when they first immerse themselves a culture that is foreign to them. Often they lack confidence in their foreign language skills, feel bewildered by local customs, and do not know how to connect with their hosts. Similarly, when I first began wearing kimono, I could not help but be distracted by the uncomfortable feeling of being tightly bound up. That is because, in order to create a smooth, even silhouette, kimono wearers must wrap and pad themselves with specialized undergarments that eliminate one’s curves. Thanks to my American figure, hiding my curves involved several feet of folded towels and a hip pad custom-made by my sensei!

Wearing a kimono also imposes restrictions upon one’s movements that affect simple actions like walking and sitting. As a person who tends to power-walk everywhere, learning how to take small, demure steps required a conscious adjustment. Sitting in seiza, with one’s knees tucked beneath the body, is a posture that flatters the straight, clean lines of a kimono. However, for the longest time, I couldn’t help but tilt and squirm while trying to sit that way, in an effort to keep my calves from going numb. The more I practiced wearing kimono, and the more I learned about the mechanics of the garment, the more I was able to gradually shift my focus from feelings of physical discomfort to a sense of accomplishment at being able to take such an age-old foreign practice and make it my own. I also began to see myself as more refined and ladylike. Perhaps most importantly, the reactions of my sensei and other Japanese people who complimented me on my “kimono look” helped me to feel more integrated into the local culture and community.

The art of kimono wearing also gave me insight into the tangible objects and intangible qualities on which Japanese people place great value. First and foremost in my mind is the importance of form, and attention to detail. One must be very meticulous when lifting, tucking, folding, and tying the various parts of the kimono in order to make sure that seams align just so. This requires a kind of manual dexterity almost akin to a sixth sense, as often times one cannot rely on a mirror for guidance. The patterns that decorate kimono fabric — cascading flowers, graceful birds, and majestic landscapes, to name a few — a convey hints of the deep reverence for natural beauty that pervades Japanese culture. Many kimono are also decorated with depictions of everyday knickknacks from a time long ago, like fans, toy balls, and jewelry boxes. Others have sprawling designs in gilded threads that depict historical buildings or streetscapes. In my mind, these types of images represent an appreciation for a rich past whose elegance reverberates through the present.

Although I would never dare to pass myself off as an expert on Japanese culture, I do feel that the experiences I had as a study abroad student and, particularly, my engagement with kimono provided me with a more in-depth perspective on the country than I could grasp from books and films alone. Furthermore, draping myself in kimono also enables me to add a layer of almost ethereal sophistication to the regular, everyday me. I would encourage all young people to study abroad in order to see what new insights they can uncover about the world and themselves.