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Kim Kardashian's ‘Kimono’ clothing line causes consternation in Japan and around the world

Kim Kardashian's Kimono Causes Consternation in Japan

Women wearing kimono in Kyoto, Japan. Photo by Flickr user 2benny. Image license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

On June 25, American entertainment personality Kim Kardashian announced a new line of clothing and fashion accessories called “Kimono”. Kardashian's plan to market her new products using a word that is both common and iconic in Japan quickly generated headlines and social media buzz⁠—and outrage.

While the direct translation of “kimono” (着物) could literally mean “something one wears”, the word actually refers to a traditional garment still worn in Japan, usually for formal or special occasions.

While Kardashian plans to launch an entire suite of products under the “Kimono” trademark, including luggage, perfume and deodorant, the American celebrity and reality TV star announced her new brand by unveiling a new line of undergarments for women.

Many commentators pointed out that Kardashian's line of lingerie looks nothing like its namesake garment from Japan:

The story was quickly reported as a controversy by many prominent English-language news outlets including CNN, the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times. The BBC translated its own reporting on the story into Japanese.

Not everyone was convinced the story was controversial in Japan. Stephen Stapczynski, a longtime Asia correspondent for Bloomberg noted:

As of Thursday, June 27, the story had not been reported in the digital editions of any of Japan's largest newspapers, including the Yomiuri, the Asahi or the Mainichi. Rather than reporting on the launch of “Kimono”, the Sankei newspaper republished a press release promoting the August edition of Vogue Japan magazine devoted to the rise of influencers in marketing, Kim Kardashian among them.

So far, Buzzfeed is the only major Japan-based news outlet that is reporting on how Japanese people are reacting to Kardashian's new brand.

Buzzfeed reporter Sumireko Tomita did need to explain cultural appropriation to her audience in Japan, where there generally is little awareness of the concept:

「文化の盗用」とは、本人の出身や所属とは違う国・地域の文化や伝統を、自己流に利用したり、盗用したりすることを意味する。

米国などでは、著名人が他国の民族衣装を模した衣装を舞台などで着用し問題となっているが、著名人だけでなく、ハロウィンイベントで海外の伝統衣装を模したデザインのコスチュームを着ることなども問題視されている。

“Cultural appropriation” is when one plagiarizes or makes use of the culture or traditions of a country or region different from one's own origin or affiliation.

In the United States and other countries, celebrities are often criticized for appearing on stage in the costumes that imitate the national dress of other countries and cultures. The criticism is not just reserved for celebrities, as it is regarded as a problem when traditional designs and clothing is used as Halloween costumes as well.

In her Buzzfeed article, Tomita also reported that Kardashian's initiative had indeed sparked immediate and significant online discussion online in Japan, with the conversation coalescing around the Twitter hashtag, #KimOhNo.

People inside and outside of Japan used the hashtag to criticize Kardashian's planned business venture, and also shared photos of what a kimono should look like using the phrase “this is a kimono.”

Some of the strongest reactions came from the Japanese-American community, such as this comment by the Densho Project, which documents the experiences of Japanese-American internees in the United States during the Second World War:

While outrage both inside and outside Japan has focused so far on Kardashian's appropriation of the term “kimono” to sell undergarments, other observers noted she is attempting to trademark the word itself.

As reported by U.S. entertainment news site TMZ, Kardashian's U.S. trademark application for KIMONO INTIMATES can be viewed in various places online.

Popular Twitter account Tokyo Fashion subsequently reported that, “Kim Kardashian filed for a bunch of trademarks on the word “kimono” (even for actual kimono), which, if granted, would allow her to ban Japanese companies from using the word “kimono” in America […]”

In a series of tweets, Tokyo Fashion noted that Kardashian is not the first U.S. celebrity entrepreneur to attempt to trademark a Japanese word to gain exclusive commercial rights in the United States:

Writing for Yahoo! Japan News, Japan's most popular online news aggregator and publisher, Kurihara Kiyoshi, a specialist in Japanese intellectual property law and patents, notes that Kardashian may likely be ultimately successful in trademarking certain aspects of the Kimono brand:

日本でも、指定商品に対して普通名詞化している言葉は商標登録できませんが、それは米国も同様でgenericな言葉(一般名詞)は登録できません。

ただ、普通名詞(一般名詞)か否かの判断はあくまでも指定商品に対してであり、たとえば、KIMONOをコンピューター・ソフトウェアや文房具を指定商品として商標登録することは可能です(実際、米国でもそのような登録例があります)。APPLEを、果物を指定商品にして商標登録することはできませんが、コンピューターが指定商品なら商標登録できることを考えるとわかりやすいと思います。

Just as in the United States, in Japan common or generic words [such as “kimono”] cannot be trademarked for commercial purposes. However, judging whether or not a word is common or generic depends on the product or good being trademarked.

For example, it would be possible to trademark Kimono for computer software or stationary supplies (in fact this already occurs in the United States). While APPLE can not be trademarked as a brand of fruit, it's well-known that APPLE is a trademark of a line of computer products.

In his article Kurihara suggests that while that it's difficult to predict if Kardashian will be successful in her efforts to trademark “Kimono” for her line of undergarments, she may ultimately be able trademark the term for her planned line of luggage, accessories, and deodorant.

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