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A Shrinking Market Is Actually a Business Opportunity?!
The Kimono Industry Today—a Vendor of Japanese Culture

Toshihiro Horiuchi
Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Many different kinds of kimonos remain in Japan, with brand new styles still coming out. The kimono is a genre of clothing and is treated as an industry—the kimono industry or clothing industry—when analyzed from the perspective of industrial economics. These days, it is also referred to with katakana expressions like “キモノ産業” (kimono industry) or “アパレル産業” (apparel industry). The kimono industry has declined over the long term since the end of World War II, despite temporary booms in business. This is mainly due to the increased westernization of Japanese lifestyles, and it doesn’t look like the trend will change. Thinking about the kimono industry today means thinking about the transition and future development of a declining industry and considering the universally applicable experience and wisdom gleaned from it.

There is definitely a big difference between kimono (traditional Japanese clothing) and other types of clothing (collectively referred to as yōfuku, or Western-style clothing). Just taking a look at the sewing style reveals fascinating differences. Kimono sewing is flat with hardly any three-dimensional devices. This can be attributed to the average body type of Japanese people. On the other hand, Western-style clothing is three-dimensional, making individualization the ideal, and the comfort and ease of movement of the clothing depends a great deal on how well the sewing is carried out. When kimonos are folded up they can be laid inside a tansu (Japanese-style chest of drawers), but it doesn’t make sense to fold and store Western-style clothing in the same way.

Despite these differences, we humans wear both types of clothing, and just as our features and body types vary from person to person, both types are designed to be as individualized as possible. The ultimate example of this is haute couture and other types of made-to-order production. Such garments may certainly be satisfying when tailored to individual needs, but they can be quite expensive. By its very nature, however, clothing is something designed to be as individualized as possible. From the standpoint of a manager, it is essential to devise innovations that differentiate clothing while keeping costs low.

Western-style clothing has mainly responded to this need through sewing itself as well as the designs and devices related to clothing patterns. In contrast, Japanese-style clothing has addressed the problem through different materials and methods for making the cloth and decorative patterns. The history of the kimono industry itself can be summed up as the quest to satisfy a large number of customers at low cost by creating the illusion of “unique” garments through the use of a wide variety of patterned fabrics. While this has led to remarkable materials and methods for modifying fabric, the quest for low-cost ways to dye cloth and “mass produce” kimonos while retaining an individualized feel has remained a challenge for people in the kimono industry. To translate the problem into more modern terms, manufacturers and distributors of kimonos have continuously worked together in pursuit of high-mix, low-volume production at a low-cost. In that sense, today’s hi-tech industry arrived comparatively late on the scene, and a study of the history of the first movers in the kimono industry could prove valuable.

This would mean looking at the history of marketing activities aimed tirelessly at innovation, to use a more modern expression. At the heart of all this is the development of the dyeing technology that placed countless unique patterns on kimono fabrics. These traditional devices may seem low-tech in comparison to today’s high-tech methods, but they managed to reduce costs while retaining a hand-crafted feel. Of particular note is a dyeing method using Ise-katagami (paper stencils).

In Ise-katagami, pieces of Mino washi paper—a specially-treated stiff type of washi (Japanese-style paper)—are used as stencils (katagami). Various patterns are drawn onto the washi paper and excised to create the Ise-katagami. The cloth is laid out under the katagami, and dyes are applied from above, creating various patterns on the cloth. As an example, suppose you only have a thousand different types of katagami with small basic patterns. By changing the color and intensity of the dye, and the areas that are dyed along with the arrangement of the stencils, you can use them to produce a virtually countless variety of textiles at a moderate cost. By adding new patterns incorporating current trends to the conventional ones, the industry provided a constant supply of kimonos with a mix of fresh and traditional designs. It also appears to have kept kimono customers satisfied by appealing to time, place and occasion.

Thanks to these and other devices representing the untiring managerial efforts of people in the kimono industry over hundreds of years, a virtually inexhaustible supply of kimonos, or kimono textiles, remains with us today. Of course, this is also due in large part to the sentiment of enthusiasts, who have taken good care of kimonos using appropriate storage methods.

The kimono industry has looked to culture and technology, pursing an optimal mix in line with the times. Culture has become a major supporter of industry. In the past, the kimono industry was a leading cutting-edge industry. Within its history, we can find clues for ascertaining the future development of the high-tech industry. If we consign the kimono industry to an obscure corner of history, we will waste the prophetic wisdom and experience it has to offer.

In recent years, there has been a move at some tourist attractions to set up rental kimono businesses that rent out unused kimonos found in the surrounding area. While some of the items are third-rate, the rental stock sometimes can include an assortment of business-level kimonos and even kimonos with aesthetic value. If this new business model is now refined a bit and spread across Japan and all age groups, it may increase the likelihood of Japanese people rediscovering kimono textiles. It appears that kimono textile enthusiasts are already emerging among western people, who quickly perceive the inherent value of things and forged their own path. Despite the traditional status of the kimono, it may be in the process of becoming a modern form of clothing once again.

Photo 1: An example of Ise-katagami actually used for dyeing
A small katagami sample the author found at a small antique shop he frequents in Komoro, Shinshu (Nagano). It was used as a teaching material in a lecture on kimonos during the 2013 academic year. The total size is about 1 meter square. The photo shows what the stencil looks like once the pattern for each small line is cut out of the washi paper. Around the pattern, you can see traces of the white dye that was painted over it.

Photo 2: Pictorial representation on Mino washi paper, the material for Ise-katagami
Another teaching material I purchased in Komoro, Shinshu—a pictorial application of the Ise-katagami concept. When the size and density of the minute perforations in the Mino washi paper are skillfully arranged, a light-colored sheet of paper placed under the stencil will pop out visually through the holes, producing a sense of gradation that makes it look like an ink painting directly painted onto a canvas. When dye is applied to the washi paper from above, it can be used like a lithograph to make many prints.

Toshihiro Horiuchi
Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Professor Horiuchi graduated from the Faculty of Engineering, Kyoto University in 1971 and attended the corresponding graduate school at the same university. After working as a management consultant, he studied economics as a graduate student at Osaka University. After finishing his graduate studies, he worked on economic analysis as a researcher at the Japan Center for Economic Research. Then, after working at Kyoto University and Kyoto Sangyo University, he became a professor of Industrial Organization at the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University in 1996. His major publications include “Main Bank” Competition and the Lending Market [Mein Banku Kyōsō to Kashidashi Shijō], How Do You Change the World Economy? [Sekai Keizai o Dō Kaeru ka], The Honda Venture: Principles of Success [Benchā Honda: Seikō no Hōsoku], Industrial Organization [Sangyō Soshiki-ron], and Venture Economics [Benchā Kigyō Keizairon]. He publishes papers on the textile industry in major journals.