I’ve been doing a bit of an informal survey after hearing a friend spout off what sounds like anti-Japanese sentiment disguised as facts. In an attempt to disparage the character of Japanese culture specifically and the Japanese people in general, she mentioned that the kimono was designed specifically for the woman to easily have sexual encounters with men at a moment’s notice. That is why what appear to be cushions or pillows are attached at the back of the outfit. This factoid (or to cut to the chase, this lie) seems to be designed to hurt the Japanese image by basically calling their traditional attire a sex attire and by virtue implying that Japanese women have a history of having loose morals.
I’ve been asking Koreans around me about the reason for the kimono’s design and most people reference this rather risqué explanation to different degrees, with some being more polite than others. This was very fascinating since the people I asked were mostly well-educated people who have visited Japan several times, if not lived there for several years. They mostly came up with the same explanation, although some expressed doubts regarding its veracity.
Now, I’ve read about kimonos, seen them worn many times first-hand, and been with people who had it put on. There are many degrees, but kimonos can be quite complicated to put on. It took my friends almost an hour to have it put on them, and this is with a professional assistant. When you see people walking around Japan with their Sunday best kimonos, these are mostly complicated attires with several layers. They are not the fastest things to take on and off. Probably the easiest and least layered kimono I could think of are the yukatas worn in the summer, but compared to the Korean hanbok, they are probably a little more complicated to put on and off, so I don’t understand this idea of “easy access.” As for the cushions or pillows attached in the back. They are otakos or oversized ribbons mainly placed there for aesthetic purposes. I would hardly consider them pillows. One of the reasons for putting so much material around women at the time was that it was considered ideal for women to have a straight, flat figure. It was simply the aesthetic at the time. And as for pillows and the idea of having women basically be on their backs, Japanese women, when fully attired in traditional garb will have a very complex hairdo. Back then, they would never rest their head on pillows for fear of ruining their hair, and instead rested their head and neck on what amounts to a wooden platform. The whole pillow/easy access thing is simply a fantasy.
But what lends it credibility is a bit of truth. One is that there is a history of courtesans and prostitution in Japan which does involve the image of geishas wearing heavy make-up and kimonos. But this is counter to the easy access image the rumor I’ve been hearing. Another bit of truth is that kimonos are usually tied from behind, thus women would often require assistance when putting on such complicated attire. Prostitutes would sometimes tie their kimono in front so they could easily put them on and off without assistance, but that it not the only sole reason to wear a kimono with the ribbon in front. Elderly people for example, would tie their kimonos in front to make it easier to wear them. In any case, there are many reasons why kimonos could be tied in front, but I think the originators of the easy access lie just latched on to the prostitution story and made it true for all kimonos.
But what is the purpose of the lie. I imagine it is a relic of anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. I ask people where and when they first heard of this explanation and not many people could tell me exactly when. It seems to have been rooted in their childhood. Thus, even when I offer a counter explanation, some find it hard to divorce themselves from the old take. Perhaps it was designed to disparage the Japanese, and in doing so, boost Korean nationalist sentiment. This is not the first time I’ve seen this happen. In the 80s, children in the Philippines were taught that Armando Lite invented the ArmaLite (M16), Agapito Flores invented the fluorescent lamp, and Eduardo San Juan invented the Lunar Rover. There’s a possibility that Eduardo San Juan did exist as an engineer, but there is no record that he was the chief engineer for the Lunar Rover. And as for the other two, they are nothing but clever puns. But why make up the lie? They were designed to boost national pride, encourage children to take up science and engineering, and instill a bit of anti-American sentiment since all inventors were said to have had their inventions stolen and their credits removed, thus making the lies unprovable. I suspect the Japanese kimono lie was created in the same vein, especially since the Koreas were occupied by the Japanese the same way the Philippines was occupied by the Americans.
I believe this is an early attempt at “fake news” or propaganda. Unfortunately, with me trying to disprove the old “fake news,” I could be labeled as “fake news” as well. I’m not sure if propaganda had the same vicious back and forth cycle back then as well. I figure some lies just faded after people saw the light of truth and reason. But maybe I was being naïve in thinking they are not as persistent, after all, what was my friend spouting? And to bring it back to the modern era, I had my wife look up some of the anti-Japanese sentiments my friend was spouting including the kimono explanation online. True enough, she finds them in a Korean anti-Japanese site. Old “fake news” makes it to the modern age.