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[Part4]Saving the disappearing fashion goes political








Diet members wear kimono at the opening of the current session in January. (Kazuyoshi Sako)

Politicians are not renowned for their sartorial tastes so when 80 of them stood outside the Diet building clad in kimono, they must have caused more than a few eyes to blink twice.


"Japanese attire is a symbol of Japanese culture so Diet members must take the initiative in wearing kimono so the tradition does not become extinct," said Seiko Noda, a Lower House member from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.


Noda serves as secretary-general of a cross-party league of Diet members of both sexes who support the wearing of kimono. The group members lined up for a commemorative photo in front of the Diet building when the ordinary Diet session began on Jan. 26.


Sales of kimono are steadily declining in Japan, and in a bid to reverse this trend, the "kimono league" has also supported the inclusion of Japanese attire into the compulsory education curriculum.






STUDY GROUP


In January, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established a study group made up of experts and representatives of the kimono industry to look into boosting the practice of wearing kimono.


The aim of the study group is to share in success stories to encourage and stimulate the kimono industry, which is known for being very conservative in nature.


One reason the central government has started to focus on the kimono business is because the attire is produced in all corners of Japan, and this matches the central government's strategy of trying to resuscitate local economies.


In recent years, a main theme used in efforts to halt the decline in kimono use is to emphasize the traditional aspect of the apparel.


That led to junior high school students from 2012 being taught how to wear "yukata," a lighter, more casual kimono, in home economics classes. And when the Fundamental Law of Education was revised in 2006, "respect for tradition and culture" was added as an objective.


The kimono industry itself set up the Waso Kyoiku Kokumin Suishin Kaigi (People's promotion council for Japanese attire education). One of its goals since the mid-1990s has been to include classes in sewing and the wearing of formal kimono as a part of compulsory education.


"It is important to learn about traditional culture from a young age," said Michihiro Kondo, 68, the chairman of the council who operates a Japanese clothing outlet in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture.


The next goal of the council is to have kimono registered as a World Cultural Heritage with an eye toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.


At the same time, there has been academic debate over just how traditional kimono is to Japan.


"Those who wore the fancy silk kimono were mainly from the samurai class or from wealthy merchant families," said Rie Mori, an associate professor at the Department of Clothing at Japan Women's University in Bunkyo Ward. "Kimono was out of the reach of the farmers who made up a large part of the population."


Since the Meiji Era (1868-1912) there have been changes in how kimono is worn as well as more modernized in its design.


However, in the Showa Era (1926-1989), the image of the kimono as a symbol of Japan was strengthened, especially by the mass media. A good example were newspaper articles showing women in Taiwan wearing kimono as they wanted to look "more Japanese."


"Kimono today is moving in contrasting directions," Mori explained. "While the garment itself is becoming increasingly less traditional, its image has gained an even greater association with Japan."


Meanwhile, two experts offered advice on what the kimono industry had to do to survive.


David Atkinson, the president of Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co., a company that restores cultural properties, said the cost of kimono was too high considering the base price of the materials.


"In an age when there are alternatives, it will not be possible to sell kimono at such prices," he said.


Atkinson, a British native who came to Japan in 1990 and formerly worked as a financial analyst, added, "There is a lack of understanding for the consumers' side because only the logic of suppliers is focused on."


He explained that something becomes a tradition only as a result of thriving as a trade.


"In order for kimono to survive, it has to be turned into a proper business," Atkinson said.


Taizo Takahashi, the owner of the Ginza Kimono Gallery Taizo in Tokyo, said, "Top-of-the-line techniques will not be handed down unless the skills are in continual use in manufacturing.


"Our company produces kimono, but the average age of our artisans is more than 70. It's the same for all companies in the kimono sector. Within the next five to 10 years, it will be increasingly difficult to create the genuine article even if there are people who desire it. We are facing a crisis."


Takahashi claimed that unlike in the past, the affluent today know almost nothing about kimono and Japanese culture.


"The most important issue facing the industry now is educating such people about the attraction of the genuine article," he said.




By TAKASHI EBUCHI/ GLOBE staff writer


(Emi Tadama contributed to this article.)




Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at http://ajw.asahi.com/category/globe/feature/.



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