|Me in kimono for a family wedding|
Short answer: no, probably not.
Long answer: readers may recall the kerfuffle over the Boston Museum of Fine Art's "Kimono Wednesdays" exhibition that allowed visitors to try on a formal uchikake kimono (provided by NHK, the Japanese government's public broadcaster) mimicking Monet's painting of his wife doing similar. The exhibition enraged Asian-American social justice groups, which confused NHK and the Japanese media and art world.
The problem was, both the protesters and the Japanese behind the exhibition are hugely out of touch with each other. The exhibit, a success in Japan, was in hindsight not appropriate for politically correct America, with the racial and social justice tensions typical of a country made up largely of immigrants, a culture very foreign to the Japanese. On the other hand, the protesters took on what was seen in Japan as an issue of Japanese culture and turned it into an "Asian culture" issue. Most Japanese living in Japan are unaware of how their expats are treated in other countries when they become immigrants and minorities, but if there's anything that offends Japanese people it's being lumped in with other Asian nationalities. Naturally. The category "Asian" is much too broad and slap-dash. There's also a whole can of worms' worth of unique historical and political reasons why the Japanese don't like being put in this category along with other nationalities. This blog goes into the complications a bit, from a non-Japanese perspective. But it would seem to me as an outsider that the Japanese organizers of this event and the American protesters who tried to speak for them are worlds apart in their experiences and thinking.
However, the issue has brought up over the past year much discussion on the question "is it always cultural appropriation for a non-Japanese to wear kimono? How about when visiting Japan?" Though I'll leave the Kimono Wednesdays problem for others to discuss, here are some reasons why I think the answer is "no it's not cultural appropriation" for foreigners to wear kimono in Japan:
1. It's part of Japanese おもてなし omotenashi hospitality culture
The truth is, foreign visitors to Japan of all nationalities do often wear kimono and informal summer wear, yukata. In Kyoto, especially in the Higashiyama and Arashiyama temple areas, rental kimono shops do a booming business. I have also rented kimono with some friends and strolled around Gion in them myself. Dressing visitors in kimono is a part of the Japanese tourism industry, a part of "entertaining the guests." To put it bluntly, the whole existence and purpose of visiting foreigners to Japan is to be entertained, and in turn supply entertainment (that needs another blog post!) as per TV shows like YOUは何し日本へ.
Most Japanese people think kindly of (most) foreign tourists. They want to help visitors enjoy Japan, and are happy when such visitors do have a good time. They are also not displeased when a foreigner shows interest in or studies a Japanese traditional art or craft. People in the know will happily coach and advise you (I know, I got instructed by an old lady when I went out in kimono on a more lady-like way of reaching for something). I don't think this culture of "entertaining/teaching the foreign guest" exists much in America.
Guests don't have to be foreign to enjoy kimono in touristy areas, either. Most of the young Japanese women you will see wandering around in kimono in such places are wearing rentals as well, and it's not something they normally wear in everyday life.
2. Japanese in Japan do not see themselves as a minority or oppressed people
Most sources on cultural appropriation make references to these two things. Inherent in the misuse of another's cultural property is a power imbalance. Yes, Japan opened to foreign trade after being threatened by Matthew Perry in his black ships. Yes, it lost a war with America and yes had its constitution redrawn by the same, and a fair number of American military bases still exist on its soil. But the country was not colonized or enslaved en masse like other POC groups extant in America were. There are no bitter collective memories of oppression stirred up by seeing a white, black, or Chinese woman in a kimono. The Japanese were colonizers themselves and at the time, fought with America as an equal (though the rabid nationalism of the time of course cast Japan as America's superior, and vice versa in America). Many Japanese are now proud of their branding as a country that produces top-quality services, goods, and technology, equal if not superior in some ways to the strongest countries in the world, so I suppose they feel in control of doling out their culture as they see fit.
3. Kimono and yukata are not religious objects or a certain character
No one likes it when someone takes religious symbolism or objects used in one's worship and turns it into a fashion accessory. But kimono, literally, "thing for wearing" are just clothes. It's not like foreigners are trying to wear miko (Shinto shrine maiden) robes. Japanese hospitality does not extend to allowing foreigners to do that, and you won't find a place renting those anywhere. Since kimono and yukata are clothes, they are not a character or Halloween costume either. It's not like by wearing one, you are pretending to be Japanese or some such nonsense. In most Japanese lives, kimono are reserved for special occasions like weddings or formal family photos. Accordingly, the cosplay convention I attended in America discouraged people from simply wearing kimono or yukata to the event, because they are clothes--not a character or costume.
4. You'll be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person who finds foreigners in their national clothes to be racist or offensive
This video showcases reactions to a question posed an American girl, "is it rude to wear a yukata to a festival in Japan?" though the comments are not all from Japanese people, there is not a single one that denounces the kimono as cultural appropriation. This Japanese Yahoo answers question about a foreign friend wearing kimono to a tea ceremony is also similar. No one says the very act of donning a kimono is wrong, but overwhelmingly in both cases people do point out the context and appropriateness of the kimono. "If everyone else is wearing kimono, then it's much more proper for the situation than Western clothes" "Make sure she wears proper tabi and zori." "A festival is a great place to wear yukata!" "It might not look good on a fat broad-shouldered person or someone with corn rows or dyed hair." This last is something that comes up every now and again. For all the dressing-the-foreigner rental shops, outside of the touristy old towns not many people are used to seeing bodies other than Japanese ones in kimono. And the ideal woman who looks best in kimono is rectangular and small, with pale skin and proper straight black hair, no tattoos or piercings visible. It is interesting to me that the aesthetics of how one looks in kimono is an important factor in whether it's appropriate to wear one or not. I know both links are not the best sources of information, but if even the dregs of the Japanese Internet are not offended, I'm pretty sure it's safe to say wearing a kimono is not considered racist.
5. Context is key
Continuing from above, most Japanese comments on the issue of foreigners in kimono seem more concerned with appropriateness than appropriation. Like a tuxedo or a bikini, there is a time and a place for kimono and yukata, and times where socially they would not be appropriate. It would be better to show up to the formal tea ceremony in a pantsuit than in a yukata, for example. On the other hand, no one wears a formal kimono to a summer festival. Kimono are actually encouraged in touristy places in Kyoto, and some cafes and events will give discounts to guests in kimono. More people walking around in kimono=a more interesting, special atmosphere that fits well with the cobbled streets, rickshaws, and the five-storied pagoda silhouetted in the sky.
On the occasion of my sister-in-law's wedding, I'd at first said I'd wear a dress. But then the wedding was going to be held at a shrine, where a dress would stand out oddly in a traditional Japanese ceremony. "All the women of the families are going to wear kimono, so you will too," said my mother-in-law. So I did. More important than my improper broad shoulders and blonde hair was the nature of the situation that made my wearing a kimono the most socially acceptable choice (did you notice? There is another interesting aspect of modern Japanese culture: in the most formal occasions, women wear kimono but men may wear Western-style suits).
6. No one here sees themselves as the cultural gate-keeper
Also interesting to note in the above link are the comments comparing foreigners and the way they wear kimono to "young people these days" and their disregard for the old traditions: "I wish young Japanese people would care as much about how they wear kimono!" laments one comment. For every Chinese girl clod-hopping in wide steps in her kimono, there's a group of
Japanese girls stretching their arms out of their kimono sleeves to take a group photo with a selfie-stick. For every tattooed white girl who puts on a yukata, there's a bleach-blonde Japanese chick with her obi tied backwards and her collar pulled down to her shoulders at the same festival. The Japanese are always in a state of becoming, while some are intentionally rebelling. There is always more to learn, a more correct way to be, a more graceful way to use a cellphone or get yourself into a taxi while wearing kimono (I spent an afternoon watching Youtube videos on these subjects in preparation for my sister-in-law's wedding). I don't think many Japanese people would say they have it all together. Yes, the older ones laugh at and judge the foreigners and young people who get it wrong. But it would seem they take less umbrage at the fact that a foreigner is wearing a yukata than that he is wearing it the wrong way, or at the wrong place and time.
In conclusion, given all that I know about foreigners in Japan and wearing kimono, if you want to wear kimono or yukata here, why not? Pay someone to dress you (either at a kimono rental shop or a beauty salon) and help keep alive knowledge, skills, and traditions that have sadly lost footing over the years. Wear the garment the way the dresser recommends. Ask questions. Learn. There are many people here who will be happy to teach you. Make sure you know what you're doing, whether your choice is appropriate for the situation/place you're going into or not. There will always be someone--foreign or Japanese--who'll think "it looks funny on you" due to your body or hair-type, but that's part of the deal, isn't it? Foreigners in kimono in Japan is a time-honored tradition in touristy areas, and in some occasions in Japanese daily life it's the most fitting garment, funny-looking or not. Foreigners wearing kimono in Japan may be a lot of things, but I think it's going a bit too far to say it's cultural appropriation.