Is the act of wearing Kimono (or Cheongsam or any ethnic clothes not from your ethnic group) inherently disrespectful to the Japanese (or Chinese or whatever group it is?)
I think the answer is no, i.e. It's fine for foreigners to wear kimono.
Let me make it clear up front that I consider the Kimono and Cheongsam to be different from the Native American headdresses, which hold religious value to the community. I think the closest thing to a 'religious dress' for the kimono would be the Hakama for the Miko, but there are non-religious Hakama anyway so it's not a huge deal. Also, I'm assuming that the person wearing the kimono does not intend to be offensive, even if they don't know how to put it on the traditional way.
Oh yeah, and I started by thinking about kimono, but I have the same thoughts for Cheongsams so I put in my thoughts on it here and there.
First, watch this:
This video is basically an interview with several Japanese people, asking them whether they found Katy Perry's Kimono performance offensive, whether they think foreigners can wear kimono, etc. I highly recommend you watch it because the answers given are very thoughtful.
And then you have the opposing views, where Asian-Americans take the view that anyone wearing the kimono/qipao/ethnic dress incorrectly is somehow 'appropriating' their culture (quotes because the academic definition is a lot stricter) and that no foreigner should be allowed to wear them because even if they sincerely like the clothes, it's probably because they're exoticising it anyway. (This is a summary of the stuff I've read)
For me, I have to objections to this line of thought:
1. What right do Asian-Americans have to speak on behalf of Asians?
I understand that growing up/living in a country when they're a racial minority means living with a set of challenges that Asians in Asia don't necessarily face, but that still doesn't give them the right to prohibit foreigners from wearing their national dress, especially when this heritage is shared with the Asians still in Asia.
The kimono industry is located in Japan, and the cheongsam (and hanfu and whatever) is located in China (if it has switched to the US, that'd be different but as far as I can find, it's Shanghai/HK). If the Kimono industry is happily selling to foreigners (and they consider it to be one way to save the industry), then I don't see why someone else who's not related to the industry gets to step in and discourage others from buying their products.
Besides, it feels an awful lot like cultural colonialism when the argument is "I live in the West and therefore I have more right to speak about this than you" (which is what I was told once, by an Asian-American).
1.5. They're contradicting/hurting the Kimono Industry
To expand on the second paragraph.
The kimono industry has been struggling because of a decreasing lack of interest (plus the price, since Kimono has to be hand-made). As a result, the kimono makers are actually looking towards the foreign markets and by claiming that foreigners cannot wear kimonos because of "cultural appropriation" or whatnot, they are actually hurting the industry.
(Apart from the economic argument, most Japanese really do welcome an interest in their culture)
2. We live in a Globalised world
2.1. Taking an interest in foreign cultures is good
Do you want to know how to make someone The Other? You cut off all contact with them. You stop others from getting to understand The Other, and they stop being a fellow human being and start becoming a boogeyman. Wearing Kimono is one way of getting to know Japanese culture (and can lead to other things, like tea ceremony). It is not the only way, but it is a valid way.
And to all the people worried about foreigners changing the culture, I say "that might be a good thing"
Like one of the interviewees, I think that new cultures coming out of two cultures are awesome.
I mean, think about it, Peranakan culture is basically Chinese + Malay culture (in SEA). Would this have happened if everyone decided to just stick to their own little world? Nope. And if something similarly beautiful comes out of more cultures mixing, then the world will be a better place.
2.2 You can't tell if someone has 'no right' to wear a kimono just by looking anyway.
So let's say you see a non-Asian wearing a kimono/cheongsam/hanbok/etc. That doesn't actually mean anything other than "oh, she's wearing an (insert ethnic dress)"
Because of the way the world is now, you can't tell if the non-Asian looking foreigner has not spent significant time/grown up in Asia. Or if they don't have connections there (not that you need connections to appreciate another culture). Or if they have Asian heritage or not.
Of course, this argument is quite weak because it presupposes that only certain groups of people have the right to wear something, but I think it shows that those people who attack others based on photos have faulty logic because you cannot tell how Chinese/Japanese/Korean a person is merely by the colour of their skin or hair
Other Arguments I Saw
3. "But you're wearing it wrong!"
For kimono, yes, you can wear it wrongly. But this is a problem that even Japanese encounter - such as wearing a casual (but expensive) kimono to a formal event. In that sense, it's a matter of education rather than wrongness based on your skin.
There's also the 'putting it on wrong' argument, which I admit that I don't really get. There are actually quite a few schools of Kimono wearing. Right now, I'm learning the 森田明美流 (heard that term once), which is a comparatively comfortable style.
There are also kimono shortcuts, such as pre-tied obi, kimono variants (like the kimono + Lolita combi) and various others. So what is the "right" way of wearing a kimono? I've seen little girls in a kimono+skirt combination in Japan, is this the wrong way? I don't think so.
So unless it's very clear that the kimono is being worn in disrespect, I think we shouldn't be hasty to accuse someone of wearing the kimono wrongly.
I mean, even if you want to go the "slutty kimono" accusation, there is the Oiran style which is meant to look like that. So who's to say the wearer isn't riffing on it?
Oh and incidentally, I was talking about kimonos with my finishing school once, and all the ladies there (who own kimono and love it) were like "you can do anything you want. Turn it into a dress, into a top, anything. It's better than letting it sit in a closet, unused."
4. "Ok, fine. You can wear the kimono while you're in Japan, but not outside (or to non-Japanese events) because that would be disrespectful"
This is another argument that I'm reluctant to agree with because:
1. I don't really get how simply moving to another location makes turns something from acceptable to transgressive (again, I'm assuming that whoever is wearing this knows how to wear it and is doing it respectfully).
2. Personal experience.
I think most of you would have remembered that I wore my 訪問着 to my cousin's wedding in Singapore.
Before the wedding, I was already aware of some blog posts claiming that to be a non-Japanese and wear a kimono at the same time was very disrespectful so to be on the safe side, I asked:
- My kimono sensei (at least twice)
- The kimono shop I got the 訪問着 from
- Teachers from my finishing school
If it was appropriate for me to wear my 訪問着 to my cousin's wedding in Singapore.
All of them said yes, and were in fact very enthusiastic about it because it would be a chance for more people to know about kimono (I even got extra lessons so I had more chances to practice).
Their only concern about it was whether it'd be too hot since my 長襦袢 is for Autumn/Winter wear. (And I'm sure if I tried to wear something casual they wouldn't be happy but that is more on dress code than on me not being Japanese)
Apart from my personal experience (and vested interest), there is one more thing. My kimono sensei is basically trying to convince people that kimono is not just for special occasions, but is something that can be worn everyday, for any occasion. She would be thrilled if people wore the kimono out of Japan, as she has (and as I did) because she wants more people to love the kimono too.
Stuff I saw on the Japanese/Chinese Internet
Just for fun, I decided to google the phrase "is it ok for a foreigner to wear a kimono/cheongsam" in Japanese and Chinese.
The Japanese results were mostly on "foreigners like kimono isn't that awesome?", so it's safe to say that Japan isn't concerned about the awful foreigners stealing their culture.
I also found a post on a comment site about the video I shared with you! The comments are the most illuminating part (the article is a summary of the video and a translation of a few of the comments from Reddit).
The comments here are a lot more varied, but overwhelmingly, and there were differences - like whether they agreed with the kilt analogy or certain terms - but they all agree that there's nothing wrong (or discriminatory) with letting foreigners wear Kimono.
There was one commenter who disagreed with a term a commenter used but then continued "but there's nothing wrong with foreigners wearing kimono".
Quite a few were along the lines of "the more the merrier".
A lot of the comments mentioned how they couldn't see a problem with foreigners in kimonos.
Oh yeah, and not everyone thought the Katy Perry dress looked like a Kimono (some said it looked Chinese), but even those that thought it wasn't like a kimono didn't see a problem with foreigners wearing kimono in general. (I notice that I'm repeating myself quite a lot :p)
And one that I thought was interesting went along the lines of "I don't care if you wear it as long as the stuff that should be tied is tied. Also, I don't care if someone says "I made this in the style of the kimono", but I wish people wouldn't be like "this is an authentic kimono because I spent time studying in Japan" no matter how similar or dissimilar it is to the real thing."
The Chinese results were more mixed, but the negative pages (which was basically the same page on different sites) more along the lines of "Westerners are too big to fit into a qipao" and the rest were on "why do people like it/what else do they like". Didn't see anything on stealing culture or prohibition (although it wasn't unanimously positive).
The Sociology Perspective
Second, cultural appropriation is real, but for something to be cultural appropriation, it has to fulfil certain conditions. So not every (perhaps most) accusations are not valid.
For example, the Boston Museum of Fine Art's kimono controversy was probably not cultural appropriation. The kimono in question was commissioned by NHK (which you may recognise as Japanese). A lot of Japanese-Americans were fine with it. Most protestors were non-Japanese Asian Americans.
Katy Perry's Kimono performance is slightly more complicated. Most Japanese are fine. Japanese-Americans seem to be divided. So, who are you going to listen to?
Obviously, the topic is complex* and could go into things like white privilege and whether a localised issue (i.e. What Asian Americans feel) should have global effects, but at its core, I really don't see anything wrong with appreciating and participating in other cultures.
Do you need permission from every single member of that culture (however that's defined) to participate in it?
I don't think so. (Aka don't let dissenting voices stop you from pursuing your interests). Just relax and have fun. Unless you intentionally try to offend, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
*For example, my friend gave the example that most Western people participating in Japanese culture wouldn't have power over the Japanese (especially in Japan). But, if they became a master at it (be it Kendo or Ikebana or Karate or whateveR), that does change things as they move into a position of power. But does this mean that you have to prohibit all foreigners from mastering Kendo/Karate/Ikebana/etc (but letting them be amateurs)? To me, that's rather ridiculous.