Japan from the inside out

Yukata: Japan’s summer fashion statement

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 10, 2007

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN a Japanese woman who didn’t look lovely wearing a yukata? Neither have I!

A yukata is a lightweight cotton kimono for summer wear and has been part of the Japanese wardrobe since the Heian Period (794-1185). Court nobles wore first them as summer bathrobes, then the warrior class picked up the habit, and finally the fashion spread to everyone during the Edo Period. Both men and women wear them, sometimes as nightwear, sometimes for lounging around the house, and always after a bath at a ryokan, a Japanese-style inn. Guests are provided with yukata to wear along with the towels and washcloths.

The popularity of the yuakata is reportedly surging, particularly among young women, and according to some observers, they are increasingly being worn in public. As far I can tell, however, they never really went away—women have always worn them in public in the summer, particularly for festivals, but the industry reports that sales are soaring again.

Here are two superb examples of how yukata are worn in public, one in a specialized tradition, the other in a more recent popular tradition. Regardless of the circumstances, however, both result in a situation referred to in Japanese by the expression, hyakka ryoran, or a profusion of colorful flowers.

Last week on the 6th, about 100 geisha and apprentices from Gion Kobu in Kyoto (a famed hanamachi, or geisha district), visited the nearby Yasaka shrine in matching yukata as one of the events in the shrine’s month-long Gion Festival, which has been held since the 9th century (first photo). The ladies went to offer a prayer for good health in the summer and achieving excellence in the arts. They gathered on the shrine grounds at 9:30 a.m., greeting each other with o-hayosandosu, a variant of o-hayogozaimasu, or good morning. After walking quietly around the main shrine hall, they participated in a purification ceremony conducted by a Shinto priest.

College students
Meanwhile, the day before at Mimasaka University in Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture, students attended classes dressed in yukata in celebration of Tanabata, continuing a tradition they began in 1993 (second photo). Tanabata falls on the 7th, which was a Saturday this year, so the event was held earlier. According to school officials, about two-thirds of the student body of 1,400 came dressed in the summer robes. I’m not sure how long the link will last, but here’s a brief television report in Japanese about the students. (Just click on the black screen.) You don’t have to understand Japanese to appreciate the story. Good morning, little schoolgirls…I’m a little schoolboy too!

The Japan Times printed an article that never made it on-line a couple of years ago about the resurgent popularity of yukata. Here were the main points:

  • According to the Japan Federation of Yukata Manufacturers, demand for yukata peaked in 1964 when 13 million rolls of cloth were sold nationwide.
  • Production levels bottomed out in 2000 at 1.6 million rolls, rose in 2002, and climbed again to 3.5 million rolls.
  • Major department stores have been expanding their sales sections for yukata.
  • Fast Retailing Co., operator of the Uniqlo chain, now offers a 3,990 yen yukata set that includes an obi (sash).

The article also reported that while yukata are usually made of cotton, some companies are bringing out polyester varieties because they absorb perspiration better, dry quicker, do not crease, and are easy to wash. Considering the oppressive heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, a polyester yukata would seem to miss the point, but then I’m not about to try to figure out female fashions. They also mention that robes made of hemp are also selling well because of the material’s smooth texture.

This seems to be a later version of the same Japan Times article, though with less detail.

As you’ve already figured out, yukata are characterized by a striking visual beauty, derived from exceptionally colorful and imaginative patterns. If they remind you a bit of Hawaiian shirts, that’s probably because some think the original Aloha shirts were created by island shirtmaker Ellery Chun, who used yukata cloth to make them.

Here’s a nice website with an explanation of yukata and kimono. This site offers yukata for sale online, both to men and to women. Here’s an interesting snippet about an 87-year-old merchant who has 30,000 patterns in his collection, and includes a picture of a pattern from the Edo Period. If you want instructions in how to wear one, visit this page. And if you really want to check them out in detail, this Japanese-language site is an online shop with hundreds of patterns. Each of the icons at the left takes you to a different color group.

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