K.F. owns a black crepe kimono inherited from a friend whose dad collected it in Japan for his wife in 1930. The only identifying mark is a white embroidered circular shape, a stylized chrysanthemum, called a “kiku,” with a depth of meaning to Japanese culture. In the Kamakura period (1199-1333) the flower, exported from China, was believed to prolong life, becoming the symbol of the royal family. The Imperial House of Japan officially adopted the symbol in 1869, stylized, with 16-petals. This crest is located on the back between the shoulder blades.
K.F., you have a Kuro Tomesode, an all black kimono with one crest (Mon) on the back: the more crests, the more formal the garment. This might have been worn as Mofuku (a funeral kimono) during the early stages of mourning, with black Obi and accessories. As mourning progressed, the wearer would reduce the amount of black she wore. The lining of patterned silk indicates it was worn in the fall or winter. The long swinging sleeves, called Furisode, indicate an unmarried woman at that funeral wore this kimono. (Once married, a woman would not wear those long deep sleeves.)
Despite its severe look, this is not a man’s kimono, because a woman’s kimono sleeves swing free from the body to allow her to wear a wide Obi (sash) which sits up high on her torso. Man’s sleeves are attached to the kimono body, and men’s Obis are worn low on the stomach.
The more solid the embroidery of the crest (nui-mon), the more formal the kimono. K.F.’s is picked out in “Mid-Shadow,” indicating a moderately formal kimono. Since a maiden wore this kimono, this Mon represents her family (onnomon).
This kimono is part of the process of mourning. It may have been first worn at a semi-formal funeral, and, then worn afterwards, through other rites involved in remembering the dead, as the tradition of mourning moves slowly with dignity and ritual. Japanese funerals are Buddhist, honoring the severing of the deceased spirit’s ties to the earthly plane, assisting in that spirit’s movement to “The Pure Land.” The living help the dead in this process. The goal at “The Pure Land” is to refine oneself, away from the distraction of earthly life. Thus, the spirit moves away with the family’s help over time.
Although the mourners would have worn black kimonos, and might have worn them for a while after the funeral, the deceased would have worn white in the coffin, but folded upon the body in reverse; many funeral traditions are the reverse of traditions acted out in life. The coffin would be laden with small objects of meaning to the deceased, along with six coins for the crossing of the Sanzu River (River of Three Crossings), upon which the dead will stand on the seventh day after death.
If the deceased led a good life, he will have the easiest of the three places at which to begin the crossing. But if a ‘bad sort,’ the deceased will have to cross facing a snake. If the deceased hears their name after death, they might look back, so Buddhist priests give the dead a new name; a ‘good’ name can be purchased at a premium.
The wearer of your kimono would have had to sit with the deceased and her living family members all night (in the tradition of Buddha’s followers sitting with his body overnight), attending the wake the next day, and the funeral two days afterwards. Japanese funerals are expensive so mourners are expected to help with envelopes of the appropriate amount of money for their standing with the deceased. The first coffin nail is driven by the priest, the rest of the family finish, and the deceased is cremated.
After cremation, the wearer of your kimono would have used special chopsticks held by all family members to help each other separate out the bones from the ashes of the deceased. Now the spirit is free to leave on a 49-day journey, moving farther away from his earthly family. On the 49th day, the family celebrates. Yet the spirit is not completely free until its 49th year after death, and the family returns to the grave marker to clean it during the Oban holidays, one of the biggest in the Japanese yearly calendar.
What a story your kimono tells, of a young maiden woman attending a family member’s funeral ritual, in the first years of the 20th C., one early winter. The value of your semi-formal kimono is $250.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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