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British kimono expert Sheila Cliffe strives to keep culture alive in modern Japan

Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe is seen wearing kimono in this photo provided by the individual.

TOKYO -- While you don't see many Japanese people walking around in kimono these days, a 60-year-old kimono researcher from the U.K. is struggling to keep the culture alive.

    Sheila Cliffe was born in 1961 and came to Japan after graduating from the University of London in 1983. She became certified to teach English at Temple University's Japan Campus. After working as a part-time lecturer at Saitama University, she became a professor at Jumonji University in 2012 and professor emeritus in April 2021.

    The kimono expert, who has lived in Japan for about 35 years, told the Mainichi Shimbun how she sees the future of the nation's traditional culture.

    Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe is seen wearing kimono in this photo provided by the individual.

    "Sheila Kimono Style," a photo book published by Tokai Education Research Institute, introduces how to match up Western-style items such as colorful hats, sunglasses, shoes and earrings with kimonos, while featuring Cliffe as the model. Seemingly because the photos were taken in places like downtown areas, train station platforms and the seaside, she seems to fit in with everyday scenery even though she's wearing kimonos.

    Speaking fluently in Japanese, Cliffe explained, "I barely change the way I tie the obi, or how I wear the kimono. I'm just having fun combining various items with my outfit. I think everyone should be using what's around them more freely. You don't need to think that there's a wall between Western-style clothing and kimonos in the first place, because they're both things that you wear, and kimonos are also part of fashion."

    Since this reporter comes from Japan's ancient capital Kyoto, I had a preconceived notion of how kimonos should be worn, and was surprised by Cliffe's words.

    Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe is seen wearing kimono in this photo provided by the individual.

    Another thing in the photo book that stood out was how Cliffe wore some kimonos that were colorful and others with flashy patterns. She said, "This can also be said for Western-style clothes, but nowadays many people wear patternless clothes with plain colors such as navy blue, brown and black. There aren't many people who wear floral patterns now. People have stopped making fashion statements."

    Cliffe was fascinated by the kimono she found at an antique market in Tokyo when she first came to Japan during her summer vacation at the age of 24. At the market, she came across a bright red plain long "juban" undershirt for kimono.

    "At the time I didn't know kimonos existed, let alone the fact that juban were underwear. The color and texture were completely different from those of Western-style clothing, and I was shocked that something like this existed in the world."

    Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe is seen wearing kimono in this photo provided by the individual.

    The impact was so great that she decided to stay in Japan even after her summer vacation was over to study kimonos. She took lessons at a kimono-dressing class for two years while working as a temporary English teacher at a high school, and acquired certification as a kimono-dressing professional. She then entered university again to gain credentials to teach English, and prepared to live in Japan.

    "My parents told me to come back to the U.K. but I didn't return, because I thought I could do something interesting in Japan. I didn't think I would stay this long. It feels like I'm still on a long summer vacation," she said laughing.

    Even after she began teaching English at a university, Cliffe delved into kimono research. She has traveled all over the country to learn about the traditional culture of kimonos, and spreads their charm on social media and other platforms both domestically and internationally.

    Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe, right, is seen observing the production site of "Tango Chirimen" silk crepe, a specialty of the Tango region of Kyoto Prefecture, as part of an effort to promote the product, in this photo provided by the individual.

    She attracted attention from the kimono industry and became recognized as a kimono researcher, being asked to lecture at kimono events and to become an ambassador for an association of producers of "Tango Chirimen" silk crepe, a specialty of the Tango region in Kyoto Prefecture. At university, she taught from the podium in kimonos.

    Cliffe, who retired from teaching at university in April this year, is currently enthusiastic about the "Kimono Closet" project, which is an effort to investigate the acquisition routes and storage methods of kimonos kept in household closets in eastern Japan's Kanto area.

    "If you don't know what kind of kimonos people are using with care, manufacturers won't be able to know what customers want, or what is new. Opening wardrobes and examining items in them is the first step in that process," explained Cliffe.

    Kimono researcher Sheila Cliffe is seen wearing kimono in this photo provided by the individual.

    Cliffe also wants manufacturers to change, as there are moves among younger generations to introduce kimonos via the internet and to connect directly with consumers without going through wholesalers.

    Cliffe's eyes showed strength and earnestness as she added, "Meanwhile, older manufacturers in particular don't know what kind of kimonos people nowadays want, and what kind of style they want. ... It's important to keep traditions, but culture will die out if you're only trying to stay away from change. I want to do what I can to prevent this culture from dying."

    (Japanese original by Shinya Hamanaka, Digital News Center, Evening Edition Group)

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