Academic journal article Ethnology

Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural, Identities(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural, Identities(1)

Article excerpt

This article argues that the distinction between Japanese and Western attire is a part of the process of the construction of gendered and cultural identities in modern Japan. Kimono in modern Japan has been invented as national attire and as a marked feminine costume. Women have become models of Japanese femininity, as contrasted with men, who have been given the role of models for rational action and achievement. The article follows this dynamic process in modern Japan, and more particularly analyzes the process of producing young women for their coming-of-age ceremony. (Japan, kimono, gender, cultural identities)

Modern Japanese wear Western clothing (yofuku). Japanese attire (wafuku) that is clearly distinguished from Western attire is worn mainly on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals, and the coming-of-age ceremony (seijin shiki) celebrated at the age of twenty. This distinction between the Western and the Japanese lies at the heart of the process of building cultural identity in modern Japan. That process consists of two aspects: by the cultural construction of what is Japanese and what is Western; and by constructing the traditional and the modern. This article illustrates how the construction of gendered identities is related to the construction of cultural identity in contemporary Japan by showing how kimono in modern Japan has been invented not only as national attire, but also as marked feminine attire, and by analyzing how young women are processed for their coming-of-age ceremony.

The aim of characterizing the Japanese woman was part of the cultural remaking of Japan from as early as the Tokugawa period (1600-1867) and has remained the preoccupation of the political and intellectual elite as the "woman question" (Bernstein 1991:13). In the Meiji era (1868-1912), with the state's declared official aim of building a rational, modern nation, women in the new Japan were clearly and officially defined as benefiting the nation by being wives and mothers.

Modern Japanese society has waged a vivid and conscious discourse on women. The issue of how women should or should not behave has rarely been left either to chance or to individual choice (Bernstein 1991:13). The preoccupation with women's proper role has remade them as representations. However, this has not been in the sexual sense that is usually implied in feminist writing (see Mulvey 1989, 1996), but in the sense of models of tradition and the maintenance of the precious household (ie).(2) The proper role of women, which has been defined from the Meiji period by the slogan "good wife, wise mother" (ryosai kenbo), is clearly opposed to the role of men, who are regarded as models for action and rational enlightenment (Uno 1993).

One of the fascinating symbols of the distinction between the sexes can be seen in the difference in dress on significant formal occasions such as weddings, funerals, and the coming-of-age ceremony celebrated at the age of twenty. While men wear rational, "active" Western suits, women are encouraged to put on kimono. This is more than a question of fashion or taste: the kimono that is wrapped around the female body has become a national symbol of tradition, and so perfectly completes the image of Japaneseness, as opposed to Westernness, which the kimono-clad woman has come to represent in contemporary Japan.

This article examines some of the ways by which Japanese women are made into representations of Japaneseness via the role of kimono in modern Japan. My argument draws on a Geertzian distinction between models of and models for. I show that while women have been made into models of Japaneseness (or of Japanese womanhood), the role of men has been constructed as a model for rational action and achievement. While models for provide "non-symbolic" information and are in fact models for action, models of "function not to provide sources of information in terms of which other processes can be patterned, but to represent those patterned processes as such" (Geertz 1973:94). …

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