Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Comes Around...

In the summer of 1997, the first after my family had moved into the house on my in-laws' property, the local elementary school hosted a Bon Odori as it had every year for a long time. The Bon Festival is about as traditional as Japanese events can get, so my wife's parents naturally figured it would be only proper for us to follow custom and dress the part. I, my wife, and my (at the time) toddler daughter all dressed up in yukata and strolled over to join the festivities.

What is a yukata? I'm glad you asked! (And if you didn't, shaddap!)

The yukata is essentially the casual version of the kimono. It is usually made of light cotton and tied in the front. Although some women do wear them with an elaborate obi (decorative sash) as they do a regular kimono, it is more common to use a plain, simple sash. Yukata are usually issued to guests at hotels in Japan, particularly at hot spring resorts, and it is common for people to wear them after taking a bath. It has also long been the custom for people to wear yukata at summer festivals.

When I was still a newcomer to Japan and very single, I was often invited to join my new Japanese friends at festivals in the greater Kashima area. There I saw lots of people in yukata. Most of them were women, especially younger women, but I saw plenty of men in them as well. I thought it was great to see people proudly maintaining their traditions. That's why I was only too happy to put on a yukata myself together with my wife and little daughter when we went to that neighborhood Bon Dance in the summer of '97...

...and found everyone else in ordinary, Western-style dress. We got lots of compliments and even cries of "Arigato!" from the elderly folks there, to be sure, but from those of our own generation we got mainly stares, smirks, and grunts of amusement. The men-folk invited me over, gave me a beer or two, and asked me why I'd even bothered. I replied that someone had to maintain tradition, even if it was a foreigner. That got some laughs (and another beer or two).

The same thing happened the following year. The year after that, my wife decided it was time to ditch the yukata and just dress "normal" like everyone else. Then, when the Bon Festivel came around again the next year, neighborhood apathy for tradition had gotten to the point where the Bon Odori was scrapped altogether. It hasn't been held in our area since.

Similar apathy seemed to have spread everywhere. Festivals in general seemed somehow cheapened compared with the way they'd been in the early '90s. There was also a noticeable decline in the number of people wearing yukata (or even kimono during winter events such as New Year). It was as if people in their 20s and 30s had decided it just wasn't worth the bother; they dropped by festivals just long enough to say hi to people and eat something before going back to their cell phones. The sense of taking part just wasn't there anymore. It seemed like Japanese tradition was doomed to die a horribly lonely death.

Now jump to 2010. Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when it was announced on a pop fashion program that yukata are now THE THING among young women. It's true, too; all the big fashion brands are suddenly coming up with their own yukata designs. Even the little teeny-bopper stores like the ones my (now teen) daughter likes to frequent have colorful yukata prominently displayed at the entrance. (My daughter hasn't asked me to buy her one yet, but I figure it's probably just a matter of time...) It's not even uncommon to see young women in yukata walking around in the uber-nauseating hip Shibuya area of Tokyo, the mere idea of which would have been greeted with hysterical laughter a short decade ago!

Does this mean Rush might start wearing kimonos again?

I guess this just goes to prove the old adage, "What comes around goes around." Wait long enough, and an old, dead custom might just become the latest fad. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I'm not really hoping Japanese women start putting resin or some other chemicals in their hair and combing it into strange shapes like...



  • Things really do come around again.

    My daughter loves watching fashion shows on TV and points out things like:

    "Hey, look what she is wearing! A few months ago they were showing stuff like that in a Fashion Disaster section saying that this was a fashion that would NEVER come back!"

    Actually I rather like wacky hair and outlandish makeup!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 6:52 PM  

  • Funny you should bring this up. I wore a yukata to dinner last Monday night and later to the onsen. We were staying at Ikoinomura Hinuma hotel. I like the custom of "feeling at home" in Ryokans (Japanese Inns for those who aren't familiar) and wearing the light, cool, yukata during the stay.

    As for the last two... if I don't see them around here I'll be happy. Let them have their fantasy - whatever the hell it is - in the big city.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:19 PM  

  • That was called "yamanba"(an old mountain witch) fashion. So ugly!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:59 PM  

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