Iki, Modernity and Shibui

I won an auction for a book a few months ago, “Women of Japan” by Keiichi Takasawa, published in 1955.

While the book borders on being sexist to a degree based on modern day beliefs, it had some very enlightening articles about various aspects of kimono. The one I chose to share with you all is about “”Iki””, as it is a topic that often comes up frequently on the Immortal Geisha forums and is hard to describe or realize fully. It also discusses the term “Shibui/Shibusa”. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.


“Iki” And Modernity by Keiichi Takasawa

“Iki” and “modernity,” as applied to the Kimono, are difficult to explain – but as long as the difference between the two terms definitely exists in the world of Kimono, these two terms must be understood if one is to speak about the Kimono or to know about it.

“Iki” in the case of the Kimono does not mean quite the same thing as a “chic person” or being “smart looking.” Among women who wear the Kimono, the terms “Iki” and “Shibui” and “modern” are often used. Aside from “modern,” these are terms not generally applied to Western style clothing. A strict interpretation of these terms would seem to make them the antithesis of “modern,” but this is not so since such terms can be applied to up-to-date Kimono.

“Iki” is by no means something old. In every age, “Iki” exists in a manner suitable to that age. Thus, “Iki” is something that enables an up-to-date woman who can be very “modern” to give life cleverly to a feeling that might at times be considered old.

From this we can say that “Iki” is by no means something to be considered apart from fashions. On the contrary, what is in the fashion can be “Iki.” Otherwise, “Iki” would merely become aged and outmoded.

Such an example as this can be seen elsewhere than in the Japanese Kimono, I believe. I would say that it exists among both men and women the whole world over. The American vamp actress Mae West is an “Iki” actress. The slouching pistol and tight pants of an American cowboy, the expression of a Parisienne’s hands, the walk of an Englishman – all these are close to what the term “Iki” conveys.

Among Japanese women, there are some with red painted fingernails who wear a black-necked Kimono. Or those who wear a thin-striped Kimono of an old design in a modern manner. These are the women who achieve an effect by a touch of the old in the midst of regularity or the prevailing fashion.

One other term applied to the Japanese Kimono is “Shibui.”

“Shibui” or “Shibusa” is a feeling typically Japanese. There is that famous Haiku poem:

“Furuike ya Kawazu tobikomu Mizu no oto.”

Literally translated, it means, “Into an old lake a frog jumps in – the sound of the water.”

Unless the meaning of this short poem can really be understood, foreigners may find it difficcult to appreciate the sense of “Shibusa.”

As applied to the Kimono, this term “Shibusa” can be best explained by a high-grade Kimono cloth known as “Tsumugi.” At first glance, this is a dull looking textile. To attain the color and design, however, each individual thread is selected and woven by hand. Both the feeling and texture have depth. Without being showy, it is truly “Shibui”.

Why, then, do we consider the Haiku, “Into an old lake a frog jumps in – the sound of the water” as “Shibui”? It is because a world of profundity has been discovered in a scene that most people would consider ordinary and commonplace, and perhaps even ignore, and because it has been crystallized into a poem that is the ultimate in art.

Nevertheless, merely giving form to the commonplace is not necessarily “Shibui.”

“Shibui” is actually a luxurious taste. It is opposed to an attempt to make one’s self appear better in order to draw attention. It is the unexpected value of something that does not off-hand draw attention, something that appears splendid only when it is taken in hand for a close inspection. Instead of outer smartness, it is an inner smartness.

From the standpoint of clothing, “Shibusa” is perhaps more British in feeling than American.

It is only natural that something like the Kimono which has long years of tradition behind it has both “Shibusa” and “Iki.” And these are to be found not only in the design and color, but in the manner of wearing to make the Kimono unusual among the clothing styles of the world.

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