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Tradition and innovation in textile production and design in contemporary Japan: a sensory ethnographic approach

posted on 26.02.2017, 23:34 by Hall, Jenny Meredith
Many Japanese people, including those in the government, the media and the artisans themselves, believe that the Japanese traditional textile industry is in decline. This thesis examines the contemporary Kyoto textile industry, focusing on the region where most of Japan’s kimonos and obis are made, to discover how young designers are incorporating traditional techniques and processes into their products. It argues that Japanese designers and consumers are redefining Japanese clothing while retaining its ‘traditional’ image. This is important because the reinvention of Japanese clothing demonstrates the embodiment of fashion concepts as well as the process by which tradition and modernity complement each other. The study draws upon ethnographic data collected in Kyoto via interviews, participant observation, textual analysis of advertising material, and statistical analysis of government and textile associations’ production data. Formal interviews were conducted in Japanese with 25 artisans, designers and manufacturers from 20 companies, and informal interviews conducted with another 30 individuals involved in the industry, including industry associations, wholesalers, weavers, dyers, finishers and retailers. The thesis utilises a sensory ethnographic approach to investigate the active use of the kimono, including the way that kimono is worn on the body, how garments are experienced as well as interpreted, and how this experience in turn affects production and consumption, including all of the senses in data collection methods and writing. This study found that the Japanese concept of ‘tradition’, which includes ideas of revitalization and change, means that Japanese artisans view innovations such as ‘digital yūzen’ and digital weaving as part of their traditional cultural heritage. Technological development is changing the system of production and distribution, allowing kimono to be made more quickly and in a more cost efficient way. There is also evidence of a renewed interpretation of wafuku (Japanese clothing) and new contexts for wearing wafuku occurring in the industry. The study established that Kyoto designers and consumers are both redefining wafuku while retaining its traditional image and working to disconnect kimono from classical conventions and settings. Ultimately, this thesis argues that the decline in ‘traditional’ kimono is being compensated for by a rise in new forms of revitalised Japanese clothing. Through this discussion, the thesis expands our knowledge of Japanese conceptualisations of tradition and fashion. It also contributes to the field of social anthropology by addressing the lack of sensory information in social anthropological discourse, ethnographic data collection methodology and anthropological literature.


Principal supervisor

Carolyn Stevens

Additional supervisor 1

Jeremy Breaden

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Social and Political Inquiry


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts