Japanese Propaganda Kimono

wafuku – noun: traditional Japanese clothing

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Japanese Propaganda Kimono

Japan has a particularly rich textile history. The main focus for artistic expression on textiles is the kimono.

It is through choice of colour and, more importantly, decoration that the Japanese have always expressed their personal, cultural, and social sensibilities on their clothing. A kimono shows one’s social standing, age, the season and whether one is dressed for normal daily duties, visiting or any of several degrees of formality in an occasion one might be attending. It could also be used to show one’s partiotism.

Japan, with its tradition of potent textile designs, produced striking and varied propaganda textiles in the period 1931–1945.

In Japan, most of the clothing with textiles displaying propaganda images were worn by men and young boys. The propaganda textiles used for men’s garments appeared predominantly in traditional clothing such as nagajuban (underwear kimonos) or the linings of haori (jackets worn with kimono), and therefore were designs hidden from public view and seen only by people close to the wearer. More striking is Japan’s use of propaganda textiles in children’s clothing.

Imagine a Japanese child with his parents, in 1930s to mid 1940s, wearing a kimono like the one shown here, waving a Japanese flag and cheering Japan’s latest victory. Most of these propaganda fabrics did not survive after the war, as it was forbidden by occupation forces and ordered destroyed when the Second World War ended in 1945.

Wearing propaganda is totally unexpected and, nowadays, given the often overt militaristic sentiments, can seem rather disturbing. However, with their bold and evocative designs, Japanese propaganda textiles are certainly still worthy of aesthetic consideration.

These propaganda textiles have begun to gain much attention and there are now a number of significant collectors. Recently the V&A made its first acquisition in the area of propoganda wafuku; a boy’s winter kimono celebrating the journey of the plane Kamikaze-go, which set the speed record for a flight from Tokyo to London in 1937; not a war theme but nonetheless a patriotic one.

The baby boys’ kimono you see here is one from my own collection. The baby who wore this kimono would probably be in his 70s now. These propaganda kimonos are very hard to find and, even though it has a few little moth holes in it, I couldn’t resist such an oddity.

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