Interview Series: “The woman with a mission”

This is part two of the two-part interview of Jotaki Ren on fashion, design and changing times. 

  1. Patterns of love and the kimono
  2. On patterns, principles and timeless fashion
  3. On kimonos, functionality and (dis)abilities (this article)

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We will talk about your vision for the kimono for a while. Could you tell us more about the kimono? What makes it unique?

What makes the kimono beautiful is its linear design. The only parts that have slight curves are the edge of the sleeves and the neck. When seen from the back, it looks like a circle, but when it’s folded, it becomes a straight line. Kimono is always kept folded, so there are always creases. Kimono is designed so that its lining is slightly visible from the outside. In Western design, you make the lining 3cm shorter than the outer part. The kimono deliberately displays the lining – it’s called hakkake (八掛). The word hakkake comes from the expression “ha ga kakeru” (a tooth goes missing), meaning it prevents the lack of something important. You don’t want to lose your tooth, right? Hakkake is a design where the lining prevents the outer side from getting damaged. But if you hang your kimono on a hanger, the hakkake goes down and down and becomes too visible. That’s why you should always keep your kimono folded. In other words, hakkake is a mouthpiece protecting your teeth. The outer side of the kimono is your teeth, and hakkake is the mouthpiece. It is an interesting expression, right?

a picture of two women wearing orange kimonos facing away from the camera

Yes, it is!

Japanese women look beautiful in kimono. They have round faces and round bodies, and the kimono makes them look sharper and beautiful. People of other races with more sculptural figures do not need to wear kimonos. Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, we have a round face and give off a “cute” impression. That’s the reason why, for example, the Chinese dress doesn’t have an A-line but rather, has a straight or a V-line. Only the neck has a round design. They also use cotton. Chinese women tend to have tiny breasts, so, by covering a great deal of their body, their breasts look bigger than they actually are. The neck shouldn’t be open. It looks better when it’s covered. Covering the pigeon chest makes the breasts look bigger. So it’s better to fasten all the buttons. This is an optical illusion turned into beauty.

A woman in a green kimono with flowers in her hair

You had mentioned that you wanted to redesign kimono in a more modern, functional way.

“What kind of clothes would make me look good?” My idea for the kimono is the same.

Here, the principle is functionality. We should adopt 100% functionality in combatting heatstroke and in order not to let our Japanese traditional culture die out. If you keep on doing what your predecessors were doing, it will eventually die out. Eventually, those customs prove to be no longer fit for the demands of the times. Unless you adapt yourself to the change, the traditional culture will die out. It goes extinct. The same goes with the kimono.

Kimono is made up of so many layers, which prevents it from being used on an everyday basis. But if you take any of them out, it’s not the kimono anymore. This is why it is difficult to execute my vision of a more functional kimono.

You also spoke about inclusivity in design, especially regarding the differently-abled people.

The basic market sense is that if you design a product for the “weak”, the product becomes a big hit. The reason is simple – it’s easy to use. People design products for those without disabilities. As such these products are exclusive and alienating. That’s the reason these products are not always a hit. If you design a product that is functional, by making it for those with disabilities, it becomes a hit because it’s easy to use. My mission to sell my products made me aware of these ideas. Some people think this is disgraceful and say that I look at people as if they were things. But my standpoint is that I earn money only when my products sell.

The reason why I came to have this idea is because my older brother is disabled. This is the reason and not because I studied design. My career as a designer was only for three years until I got married. It was for a short period. But, all my life I have seen the relations between the abled and the weak. My brother is six years older than I. Both of his hands were paralyzed. He was born without disabilities, but his hands became paralyzed after one injection. It was during the war, and my father was in Siberia as a captive. So, there were my sister, three years old at the time, and my baby brother left in Japan with my mother. There was nothing to eat. There was no income. My mother did not do anything for them, and three years later, my brother became able to move his left hand. If you leave a young plant be, it absorbs water from the soil, soaks itself in the sun, feels the wind, and the tree grows. On the contrary, if you do too much to the soil and give too much water to the plant, the root will rot. So, if you leave them be, they develop viability and the ability to survive. That’s what I came to think growing up with my brother.

A picture of a woman holding another person who is seated in a wheel chair

I don’t like the word “kenjosha” (a person without disabilities). How do you define the opposite? And, who decides what abilities and disabilities are? Blind people have a much purer and sharper mind or instinct. So, I wonder what disability is. I have never regarded my brother as disabled. That’s because my mother never treated him as a disabled person. She never applied for his physical disability certificate. When my brother turned 50 and quit his job to start his own business, he went to the city office himself to get one. What I want to say is, for me there is no border between the “abled” and “disabled”.

a blind woman and a blind man walking side by side

My biggest role model is a blind person. Adapting this view to the current times has led me to the issue of posture. Blind people walk straighter because they are never distracted by visual influences. Now, my goal is to promote the posture and manners of those who are blind. It seems completely irrelevant to design, right? It is completely irrelevant but I’m taking into account the demands of the times.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights on fashion and design in changing times. It was a very enriching conversation. Do you have any last words for our readers?

Artists always give priority to what they want to say, but the audience doesn’t always understand. The artists already understand the topic, so they seem to not care about how it is delivered. Any art that aims to dispense knowledge are for those who don’t have the knowledge. The writers/creators should put themselves in the shoes of those who have a much lower comprehension level.

I had said I was a designer at the very beginning, but ultimately I am a planner. What I always think about is how to help people who don’t understand, understand. You shouldn’t say what you want to say. You should put yourself in the shoes of the ones that are listening to you. This is applicable to anything and everything. Ultimately, my work is to make my clients better. I call that a planner.


The articles feature no pictures of Jotaki Ren respecting her wish not to be photographed. The interviews were conducted in Japanese by Rena Takiguchi. Transcribing was done by Rena Takiguchi and Chandrica Barua. The final write-ups in English are by Chandrica Barua.

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