Dressing Up in Japan or how I came to terms with cultural appropriation

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My favourite outfit was waiting for me here

The Soybean flour café is a small café and antique shop near my friend’s house in Kasugai, about an hour from the centre of Nagoya. I’ve been there a few times to browse among the antiques and drink coffee by the waterfall.

old ceramics in the concrete

On my last visit in February this year, among the second hand clothes and old ceramics, I found a two piece outfit, made from old kimono material and painted silk. It is Western in style, a skirt with an elasticated waist and a jacket with a shirt collar, and it fitted me, unusually for Japan where shopping is frustrating for a tall long limbed woman. (So many beautiful clothes forever out of reach!) It seemed as if it had been waiting there for me.

Japanese materials, western style

The first piece of clothing I bought in Japan was one of those padded winter jackets called hanten. In midwinter when I was there it seemed everyone was wearing them, both in the house where I was staying and in TV dramas. I desperately wanted one. I bought mine in Narita from the tiny shop where it was hand made, but I had to buy a man’s one as the women’s sizes were all too small. I still wear it in the winter – 22 years later. My other Japanese jacket is 10 years younger, also a man’s size and style, again bought in winter. Because of this jacket and my height I am often mistaken for a man, and it seems to symbolise the way I feel in Japan – hovering between male and female, west and east, even between young and old. I fall out of the categories I usually dwell in and this is a great freedom, not a bad place for a writer to live.

Sometimes mistaken for a man

I seem to be always dressing up in Japan. At first I was reticent, but then I realised it’s part of the experience of travel, adopted enthusiastically by Japanese tourists: a court lady of the Nara period in the Osaka history museum; a stage hand in the kabuki theatre in Uchiko, straw hats for an Edo period style boat ride on the Shimanto river, a glorious red kimono in Wakamatsu-Aizu castle. A few years ago I visited the Yokohama Silk Museum, and found myself being dressed in one of the most beautiful kimono I have ever seen – the whole procedure was carried out by two dressers and took a long time. Taking the kimono off and giving it back, was surprisingly painful. I still yearn for it and for the person I briefly was in that attire.

Yokohama silk museum


When staying at traditional inns, like everyone else I put on a yukata after the bath (though I usually change back into pajamas to sleep, but then so do many of my Japanese friends.) Each time I get a little inkling of a way of life very different from the one I was brought up in. The cut of the fabric, its texture, its smell, all transport me to another world, the one I try to recreate in my books. Walking on old roads, being in ancient forests, visiting remote temples are all part of a similar desire, to feel on my skin and in my bones, the same breeze, the same sunlight, rain and snow, that my characters would have felt in that imaginary world, hundreds of years ago.

Dinner at traditional inn

Japan is the home of cosplay: even construction workers dress up.


Yet their distinctive tobi pants are said to derive from 19th century European knickerbockers. If you feel like playful fantasy your choice is endless, from maid cafes in Shinjuku to Shinsengumi restaurants in Kyoto, Inspiration is drawn chaotically, promiscuously, from within Japan and from all over the world while year round, festivals proudly display traditional masks and costumes, like the ones that inspired The Tale of Shikanoko, dating back centuries. There’s a richness in all this cultural cross-fertilisation which is far removed from narrow concepts of cultural appropriation. My books, I like to think, resemble my garment from the Soybean Flour Café, made from old Japanese material, cut in a Western style, a unique hybrid.



4 Responses

  1. A Laurie LaMont

    Absolutely love your Otori clan series of books. It is like a trip back in time to feudal Japan. Your writing style and immersion of the reader into the lives of your characters reminded me of Arthur Golden’s riveting novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. I look forward to discovering your other novels.

    • Lian Hearn

      Thanks for your very nice comment. I also loved Memoirs of a Geisha. I hope you enjoy the new series.

  2. Everytime I see a book placed in japan I want to read it. I am reading the “Emperor of the Eight Islands” by yourself. I shall also try to find in the West Austrailan Library sytem the “Tales of the Otori” I like your books and hope to see more.
    sincerely Tony Wall

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