The Kimono, The traditional Japanese garment, will experience a glamorous launch next year. With the Kimono Project, the organization Imagine OneWorld is using traditional kimono arts to build international connections by creating new works of art with a global influence. The project is racing to create 206 kimonos, one for each country participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

A fine kimono is a work of great labor and art, requiring the efforts of many skilled artisans. Traditionally, a bolt of silk many meters long is decorated by hand, using heritage dyeing and embroidery techniques. In addition to the robe itself, the obi, or sash, is a separate work of art, often hand woven in elaborate detail. The finished product is a sumptuous garment, balanced in color and design: intricate, complex, textured, the result of countless hours of work by many dexterous hands. It’s not unusual for a superior kimono to cost upwards of USD 20,000. 

So the project of producing over 200 artisan-made kimonos, each inspired by a different country of the world, each with a unique design, in time for the 2020 Olympics, is no small undertaking. Yet, the challenge does not send the Imagine Oneworld Kimono Project off its course. 

The ambitious venture is the brainchild of Yoshimasa Takakura, the owner of a kimono shop in the small city of Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture, in southern Japan. In the 1964 Olympic Games, the last time the summer games were held in Japan, kimono-clad women bestowed medals on winning Olympians. When Tokyo was chosen for the 2020 games, Takakura, inspired by the message of peace and cooperation of the Olympic Games, envisioned a scene where the traditional art of kimono is shared with the world.

“For 2020, when the world’s attention will be on Japan, we are creating kimonos with motifs from 206 of the world’s nations, in a project to welcome the world to Japan,” says Shōta Yamamoto, secretariat of the Kimono Project, a non-profit, non-governmental organization. “The garments are being produced using traditional techniques by Japanese artisans, with more than 200 artisans and companies from all over the country participating.”

Many of the kimonos are being produced in consultation with the embassies of each country. Colors and designs might be based on the flag’s colors, like Finland’s: the flowing blue and white design brings to mind Finland’s flag, its icy landscape, and the aurora borealis. Other kimonos may incorporate floral symbols, such as with Paraguay, which displays a spray of reddish pink flowers of Paraguay’s national lapacho tree. 

Some of the creations stem from a personal connection. For example, the kimono representing Indonesia is a collaboration between a Japanese Kyo-Yuzen (a traditional dye-resist technique from Kyoto using glue to paint patterns on the fabric) master and an Indonesian batik (a traditional dye-resist technique using wax) master, and the breathtaking result is truly a melding of cultures and a testament to the friendship between the two men, and the two countries. The vibrant red top half and white bottom half are reminiscent of the Indonesian flag, but upon close inspection, detailed hand-painted patterns emerge.

The kimono representing Turkey, too, represents the long friendship between the two countries. On a striking red background that depicts important monuments and natural sites such as the Blue Mosque and Cappadocia, the designers also include an incident in the countries’ shared history: the shipwreck of the Ottoman Frigate Ertuğrul in Kii Ōshima Island, Wakayama Prefecture, in 1890, in which islanders came to the aid of distressed sailors and later helped them to sail back home. The obi was woven in the Hakata-ori style, which is a thick, tightly-woven, glossy textile from the Fukuoka area, and features wreaths of tulips, Turkey’s national flower. 

The project is a new challenge for the artisans, many of whom are used to working within the conventions of their craft. In working with motifs from each country, the designers are faced with unfamiliar aesthetics, and are pushed to think outside the box with new patterns, designs, and colors. The Kimono Project hopes that this will not only sput visitors’ interest in kimonos but might also spark renewed interest in the domestic market. Kimono sales have declined in recent years as fewer people wear kimonos daily, and this, in turn, means that the kimono arts are being lost as artisans age without younger trainees learning the trade. 

The kimono is still a living art available for all to enjoy. As the kimonos are finished, the Kimono Project releases progress updates on social media and exhibits the completed garments in galleries and shows. In May, some of the pieces are on display at the Tokyo Kimono Show. Yamamoto hopes that visitors to Japan will have a chance to experience the beauty of kimonos, and that new bridges will be built as a result. “Like sports, I believe that the art world has the power to transcend borders.”

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