Scope#28 | Kyoto Marubeni – the Past and Future of the Kimono

Definitions and explanations for the various Japanese terms that appear throughout the article can be displayed by hovering your cursor over the word.

“Telling the Story of the Kimono” & “Growing the Kimono Wearing Population”

In the Gojo area of the ancient former capital of Kyoto is Kyoto Marubeni. The store carries all manner of traditional Japanese wear, from homongi and komon, to furisode and yukata, and even hakama and obi.

When the kimono industry was at its peak, from 1981-1982, sales reached an incredible 1.8 trillion yen. In recent years however, sales have fallen, and currently remain around 300 billion yen per year. In the midst of this “kimono slump”, how are traditional practices like kyo-yuzen and nishijin-ori being carried on today?

 “The entire kimono industry has to contend with the issues of an aging population as well as the lack of people who want to continue the tradition.” says Yoshiyuki Umejima, President (at the time) of Kyoto Marubeni, who showed up to our interview gallantly dressed in a kimono garment of his own, “So we are working hard to deepen our relationships with industrial areas that attract young yuzen craftsmen, and young people who like making things.”

Kyoto Marubeni has three sales divisions. The first is the “Formal Kimono Department” which handles silk wares; the second is the “Casual Kimono Department” which carries yukata and other more fashionable types of kimono; and the third is the “Rental Kimono Department”. This last department works with shichi-go-san, furisode, and other kinds of kimonos that are typically worn at ceremonies. Additionally, the Formal Kimono Department manages its own original brand called “sense+sense” that develops a line of kimonos meant for everyday city-wear and that are marketed to a wide margin of age groups. Also, the same department’s “SASSO.to” brand of simple design kimonos hit the racks of the Daimaru Tokyo department store this past January. What’s more, the Casual Kimono Department also runs an antenna shop called Wafukan ICHI (there is one in Harajuku, Tokyo and another in Kyoto) that carries kimonos created together with modern fashion brands and in collaboration with celebrities.

Here’s something else that I didn’t know before visiting Kyoto Marubeni: traditional Japanese clothing at elementary school graduation ceremonies is currently experiencing a huge boom! As Mr. Umejima tells me, “Kyoto, Nagoya, the Tohoku Region – all of these places are experiencing the trend. A rental kimono for an event like this will cost between 30 and 50 thousand yen. Aesthetically, it looks really good, so if you search #elementarygraduation or #hakama on Instagram, you’ll actually see a lot of pictures.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Mr. Umejima about how he sees the future of Kyoto Marubeni. His response was powerful. “The key is to work hard to grow the population of “kimono wearing people”. I want to make kimonos into something that doesn’t seem so foreign to people. So I want to move forward with product creation, brand strategies, distribution, and all other processes while keeping that in mind as a goal.”

One new initiative that Kyoto Marubeni is considering implementing is called “Smart Tag”. Using breakthrough QR code technology, smartphones can “read” the tag on kimonos and immediately show a short movie about the region where the kimono was made. “Kimonos contain a wealth of knowledge and stories.” Says Umejima, “Using Smart Tag, I want to give our products an introduction that illustrates their historical and cultural value.”

Capturing the Younger Generations’ Attention with “Retro Modern” Kimonos

The “Wafukan ICHI” antenna store in Kyoto is located on the first floor of Kyoto Marubeni.

Wafukan ICHI’s history began nearly 20 years ago. At the time, antique kimonos were the popular style in the kimono world, but there was a problem: no matter how beautiful the designs were, many of the garments had become old, and were in too poor a condition to wear. That’s where the Wafukan brand came into the picture. Working with Kyoto-based dyeing factories, Kyoto Marubeni reimagined the antique kimono.

From there, the brand continued to evolve into what eventually became Wafukan ICHI. Now, Wafukan ICHI has locations in both Kyoto, and Harajuku, Tokyo. The concept behind Wafukan ICHI’s kimono designs is to retain the classic nostalgia of kimono colors from Japan’s Taisho Era (1912-1926) and the beginning of the Showa Era (1926~), while also incorporating more modern, kawaii elements. The resulting style is called, “Retro Modern”. The shop makes furisode and graduation ceremony hakama kimonos marketed towards students, and also carries yukata for summer wear. Customers of all ages visit the store, looking to purchase their very own Wafukan ICHI style kimono.

 “Our challenge is to try to use colors that people haven’t seen before in kimonos. We hear from a lot of very fashion-conscious young people who say that they either don’t know about kimonos, or that the colors don’t match their taste,” says Wafukan ICHI store manager, Yoko Kinugawa, “so our approach is to also have designs that are more popular and easier to wear.”

Wafukan ICHI’s kimonos are actually made from polyester, as opposed to the traditional silk, which means that they can be cleaned in a washing machine and do not need to be ironed. The fact that they can simply be hung to dry without the cloth stretching, just like normal everyday clothing, is part of what makes them so desirable.

According to Wafukan ICHI, the large quantity of unique designs is due to the fact that many customers don’t want their kimono to be the same as someone else’s. It is not uncommon for people to travel great distances to the store in order to get a kimono that shows off their individuality. “The Wafukan brand has also been published in books.” Ms. Kinugawa tells me with a smile, “We get lots of customers who visit the shop after reading about us in one of those books.”

Kyo-yuzen: Evolving and Preserving Traditions & Maintaining a Playful Spirit

In the world of kyo-yuzen, the Ueno family is a household name. The first generation of this “kyo-yuzen family” was Seiko Ueno. Seiko was succeeded by Tameji Ueno, who in 1955 became the first yuzen craftsman to be recognized in Japan as a “Living National Treasure”. Then, after the sudden death of Seiji Ueno, the second son of Tameji, Seiji’s wife Machiko took over the family legacy. The partnership of the Ueno family and Kyoto Marubeni began in 1927, when Kyoto Marubeni launched an exhibition called “Biten”, which features dyeing and weaving arts. The Ueno family and Kyoto Marubeni continue their relationship even today, more than 90 years later.

On the subject of the Ueno family’s traditions, Machiko Ueno had this to say, “Our style has changed with the passing of each new era – though it has changed but a little bit at a time, it has changed nonetheless. I do want to preserve the goshodoki and chayatsuji designs of my ancestors. But it’s not so easy to continue making new things while also maintaining traditions.”

 “Kyoto Marubeni often urges us to “try making newer things”. While we are grateful for their support, it can be quite challenging,” Machiko says with a laugh, “but new challenges are meant to be overcome. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

The yuzen dyeing process is complicated. First, an outline based on a design made by Machiko is applied to white fabric with aohana, which can be washed off with water. Next, the outline is traced with glue, then the outlined design is filled in with fusenori, and the entire fabric is dyed. The parts of the fabric to which fusenori has been applied will not retain color, so once the fusenori is chipped away, the revealed white fabric is carefully colored by hand. Actually seeing the whole, meticulous process done by hand with your own eyes is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. The Ueno family style is born from the skilled hands of exceptional craftsmen.

 “I do want to continue to proudly produce traditional works, but sometimes I also want to incorporate “Kani-Botan” and other designs like that.” Michiko says with a mischievous smile. Machiko’s unique style lies in never losing her playful spirit.

Art Nouveau Found in a Nearly 500 Year Old Textile Business

My next visit was to Monya Iseki Inc. in Nishijin, Kyoto. Monya Iseki (“Iseki”) is a textile business that has been around for almost 500 years dating back to Japan’s Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573). The goryo-ori style of obi – the traditional fabric kimono belt – crafted by the company that have been used to cinch together the kimonos of generations of Imperial Families, noblemen and women, and shoguns. These obi belts are a testament to the company’s considerable age. The family run business has remained in the family, even after all this time, is currently led by its 20th generation, Sorin Iseki. The company boasts an equally impressive business relationship with Kyoto Marubeni, which has continued for nearly 30 years.

Adorning the various rooms of Iseki’s headquarters are numerous, exquisite obi meant to catch the eye of any passersby. I was impressed by their delicate yet imposing design.

Takaaki Hirao, Senior Managing Director of Iseki, told me an especially interesting story that comes from a letter written by Sen Shoan (1546 – 1614), the second generation of the famous Sen family, founded by renowned Japanese traditional tea master – and Shoan’s father-in-law – Sen no Rikyuu (1522 – 1591). According to the letter, a rinpa painting created by Ogata Korin (1658-1715), disciple of well-known rinpa painter Tawaraya Sotatsu (c. 1570 – c. 1640), was displayed at a World’s Fair held in Paris in the 19th century, and thus had an effect on the evolution of the art nouveau style.

 “Right now we are collaborating with Marubeni on an art nouveau influenced obi. Our current work is being produced in tandem with our study of the fusion of Japanese and Western culture.”

When I was shown the art nouveau obi, the fusion of Eastern and Western culture was unmistakable in its design. I felt as though history itself was alive in this present day nishijin-ori.

 “Basically,” says Hirao, “we have this culture of mon-ori that we set as our foundation, and we collaborate with Kyoto Marubeni to build new things on top of that. What we make is a fusion of our deeply held traditions and the new school, as well as Mr. Iseki’s sensible input. I think that this will take us into the future.”

Regarding Iseki Inc.’s relationship with Kyoto Marubeni, Hirao said that, “Due to working with Kyoto Marubeni, we have significantly more opportunity to interact directly with our customer base, and that is a great plus. Also, Kyoto Marubeni’s influence has changed the products we create, and the materials we use to create them. Further still, we have been able to develop an entirely new method of weaving the fabric.”

Kyoto Marubeni plays no small role in keeping kimono traditions alive; to both preserve traditions, and at the same time give rise to their evolution, is no easy task. But each and every one of the people I met during my stay in Kyoto welcome the challenge. Perhaps it is that traditions are the beating heart of Kyoto itself, and that they provide for so many of its people. As I left Kyoto, I felt reinvigorated with new energy for old thoughts and ideas.

 (The information in this article is based on interviews conducted in February of 2019.)