The #KimOhNo Conversation: How Do Japanese People Feel About It Now?

A controversial topic that has some people raging and others scratching their heads

Cultural appropriation, publicity stunt, eye rolls, and outrage. An intimate look at the opinions of Japanese people, in and outside of Japan, on Kim Kardashian West’s latest move: attempting to co-opt the word kimono.

Body Spandex #KimOhNoIn late June, reality television star, Kim Kardashian West, announced a new shapewear collection called “Kimono.” The backlash was instant. With Japanese people at its forefront, a #KimOhNo Twitter campaign was launched against West, as well as a petition via change.org with as many as 120,000 signatures just days after her news. At first, the fashion mogul remained unwavering; she made an official statement in a New York Times article that said, “I understand and have a deep respect for the significance of the kimono in Japanese culture,” reaffirming the pride she has for her brand and its inclusivity.

My perception and image of kimono are not going to change at all…[I’m] sure people will keep using the word with what it has meant for thousands of years.

However, just a day after the mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, penned an open letter to West asking her to reconsider. The celebrity backed down and agreed to re-release her product under a new name, Solutionwear. This shift took place less than a week after her initial kimono brand name reveal.

Intrigued by the heavy wave of protests and its fast turnaround success, I interviewed twelve Japanese people living inside and outside of Japan on how they felt about the recent news. Here’s what they had to say:

For the sake of privacy, some interviewees have used pseudonyms. Their responses have been condensed and edited, and some have been translated from Japanese.

Confusion and Eye Rolls

Words, Words, Words #KimOhNo

Some simply questioned Kardashian West’s latest move. It was difficult to place their finger on the exact problem—including their feelings on it.

“My friend had texted me about the kimono fiasco, and I remember shrugging; I wasn’t entirely surprised nor thrilled by the scandal…” says Naomi Hirano, 27, an account manager in Tokyo. She continues, somewhat perplexed, “Was the name used because of Kim’s assumptions of what a kimono was? Was it purely literary?… Ignorance is certainly not an excuse but…” She trails off there, wondering.

For me, [Kardashian West using ‘kimono’] is not a heavy thing. This way of thinking is really American. In America, cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue.

While there was confusion, sales engineer from Yokohama, Taishu, 28, isn’t upset. In fact, he thinks this isn’t such a big deal. “For me, [Kardashian West using ‘kimono’] is not a heavy thing. This way of thinking is really American. In America, cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue.”

SSS, a 27-year-old office worker in Tokyo, didn’t feel confusion nor content. In fact, she replied that she felt “Not much. Actually, nothing.” Confident that Kardashian West doesn’t actually have as much power as she is made out to have, SSS declares, “My perception and image of kimono are not going to change at all…[I’m] sure people will keep using the word with what it has meant for thousands of years.”

To be honest I hate the word “cultural appropriation”. It’s like racism—it’s casually thrown out so much so that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Sharing a somewhat similar opinion is Daigo Kawai, 39, a CEO and producer in Tokyo. He is adamant that all of this is nonsense, and dives into a bit of word politics and criticism. “To be honest I hate the word “cultural appropriation”. It’s like racism—it’s casually thrown out so much so that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

He continues to say that America doesn’t really have any cultural traditions that have lasted a “millennia” the way that Japan does. For this reason, it shouldn’t be considered “offensive” to pull from cultures from all over the world. “People are too sensitive about everything… Life is short, just enjoy and appreciate other cultures.”

Outrage and Disbelief: A Kimono is a Kimono

Kimono #KimOhNo

“It makes me very angry.” Says Alex Maya Goldberg, a 28-year-old urban planner currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “[It’s] absolutely a form of cultural appropriation. There is no indication that Kim K. named her new line with hopes of observing a Japanese cultural tradition.” Goldberg describes West’s decision as “blatant,” asking, “how did nobody stop her?”

No Connection to A Traditional Kimono

Goldberg was not alone in expressing her commiseration with the #KimOhNo movement. Kaoru Imafuku, 40, a filmmaker in Kanagawa, explains that he isn’t usually bothered by word politics.

“Personally I’m not too precious about how words should be used and I believe words are something that can assimilate into other cultures and evolve their meanings over time… In the case of Kim Kardashian’s product line, however, I understand the backlash. [Her product] appears to have little to no connection to the Japanese garment, and the fact that it’s used for an underwear product line is quite confusing.”

I thought it was a lie. I thought I heard the news wrong. But then when I realized it was real, I was so mad.

In line with Goldberg and Imafuku, many others were concerned with the simple fact that West’s new fashion line had nothing to do with the traditional kimono and lacked respect its inherent history. Some cited “ignorance” or “a lack of originality” as components of West’s decision to co-opt the word “kimono” into a fashion that had no similarity to its original namesake.

Although some interviewees stated that it was indeed a form of cultural appropriation, others, like Sachy, 40, a web producer in Tokyo, couldn’t confirm it was, but expressed her uneasiness nonetheless. “I thought it was a lie. I thought I heard the news wrong. But then when I realized it was real, I was so mad.”

Sachy sites geography as a factor in her reaction. “The situation is kind of distant from us [in Japan], but if I saw the lingerie up close [in the U.S.] I would be very sad because there is such a big gap between her product and our kimono.”

Kimono Is Not A Business

The controversy deepens when it comes to the idea of trademarking and owning intellectual property rights to “kimono” itself.

“It’s infuriating and it also reminds me how much power capitalism still has today.” Laments Naomi Hirano.

It’s infuriating and it also reminds me how much power capitalism still has today.

Daigo Kawai recalls his knee-jerk reaction after reading an article in Vice. “There she goes again. Another PR stunt. Nobody knows her in Japan so my initial response was that no one would care about this but, oh boy was I wrong.” He continues with conviction, “It’s neither cultural appropriation nor a celebration [of diversity]. It’s a pure marketing ploy from Kim and her PR/Marketing team to leech on.”

West’s attempt to source her intimates line with “kimono” would shadow the true meaning of the word, which is what struck the innermost chords of distress amongst Japanese people.

Kimono Is Art

Deeply rooted respect for the garment is was what fueled the larger crowds against West’s initial move to use “kimono” in her next enterprise.

Loli, 30, and currently living in France, illustrates the importance of the traditional kimono to her. “To me, kimono is one of the most emblematic cultural symbols of Japan. It is beautiful, delicate, and elegant… it’s an art.” She states with emphasis, “There is nothing in common between her product and an actual kimono.”

Language Symbols and A Long-Standing Tradition

#KimOhNo

To gain a better understanding of this issue, I reached out to two Japanese professors who taught or are currently teaching in the U.S. for their takes on the matter.

“This problem actually has more to do with language using symbols [associated] with the cultural understanding of the people who share that language.” Says Masakazu Watabe, 72, a retired Japanese professor in Orem, Utah with a Ph.D. in Theoretical Linguistics.

“… In our society, when people use certain names or words, they take on the meaning related to those products.” Watabe uses “Kleenex” as an example of a tendency that humans have to associate a symbol or in this case a brand, with meaning.

… our hope is that people [will] become more sensitive to these symbols and make decisions with better educated and sensitive consideration rather than using legality or other means to pursue mere business pursuits.

Another example he shared was of the infamous use of the Swastika. Though today it is associated with Hitler and the Holocaust, it was actually adapted from Japanese Buddhism where it stood as a symbol of peace.

“[Japanese Buddhist Temples] recently announced to change this symbol of temples in Japan due to the negative association with the Swastika symbol. With this in mind… our hope is that people [will] become more sensitive to these symbols and make decisions with better educated and sensitive consideration rather than using legality or other means to pursue mere business pursuits.”

In short, I can not imagine passing on my body spandex to my daughter and [have this be a way to] appreciate the garment culturally.

Japanese senior lecturer, Atsuko Takahashi, 45, in Northampton, Massachusetts, shares that the incident has reminded her of the importance of the kimono. Having recently given her three-year-old daughter her own kimono for the memorable Japanese holiday, 七五三(Shichi-Go-San), she reflects on the value of the family tradition of passing down kimonos generation after generation. The professor’s grandmother had made the kimono for her 40 years ago for the sake of the very same ceremony.

Takahashi denotes that spandex is not a reflection of the tradition she recognizes. “In short, I can not imagine passing on my body spandex to my daughter and [have this be a way to] appreciate the garment culturally.” Takahashi continues, “[Kimono] contains [a] much deeper meaning. I felt like it was lost in translation.”

Thoughts on Speaking Up

Kimono #KimOhNo

Americans are acutely aware of who Kim Kardashian West is, but the controversial celebrity is not well-known in Japan, making the strong reaction to West’s maneuver all the more remarkable.

Many women posted on social media photos of themselves dressed in their kimono for special life events with the hashtag #KimOhNo. Ayaka, 39, a salesperson in Tokyo, notes on the surprisingly male involvement. “I saw many Japanese females posting and raising awareness, but this time I saw many Japanese males commenting on [social media] and that makes me especially happy.”

I saw many Japanese females posting and raising awareness, but this time I saw many Japanese males commenting on [social media] and that makes me especially happy.

To Yoko, 40, a teacher in Tokyo, speaking out on social media wasn’t enough to cause a real change. Instead of focusing on the Kardashian West problem, she wants to shift the nation’s attention instead to its current political problems. “I would like to write a letter to Shinzo Abe rather [than] writing and complaining to her.” SSS’s final answer on the matter is simple. “Ignore Kardashians.” On a different note, Alex Maya Goldberg suggests, “Call them out as needed.”

The use of symbols and how we associate language seems to have an effect on many people, including those who are tired of hearing about it. Looking forward, perhaps we can anticipate societies to grow increasingly vocal about things they believe in via the accessibility of social media. While, at the same time, we can also expect to hear varying degrees of doubt and objection to those reactions. Change or no change, in this age of congested information, there is a certain level of fatigue and resilience experienced by all.

How did you feel when the shapewear brand was first announced? Did you brush it off or post a photo of yourself in the traditional garment? Tell us in the comments below.

Photos in the featured image were compiled from the following public Instagram accounts: @visit.kyoto, @emiksn, @rootinandgaijin, @monfantome, @0oyukao0, @smappa_mg