Review – Kimono by John Paris.

By Austin Smith.
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Title – Kimono

Author – John Paris (Frank Ashton-Gwatkin)

First published – 1921

Frank Ashton-Gwatkin drafted Kimono between 1913 and 1919, during his time working for the Japan Consular Service. In 1921, the year Kimono was published, he accompanied Hirohito during his visit to Britain.

The story told in this book is used as a medium to bring his observations and impressions of early 20th century Japan to a wider audience.

The book follows a year in the life of newly-weds Captain Geoffrey Barrington and Asako Fujinami – a Japanese woman raised in Europe.

The reaction to this inter-racial marriage among London’s higher social circles is played out in the opening chapters, the couple’s first impressions of each other and the courtship is also outlined in some detail.

An extended honeymoon allows Geoffrey and Asako to return to the country of her birth. On arrival, their marriage is tested by their reaction to Japan, its people and its customs. Differing views of gender roles and strong racial stereotypes further threaten the relationship.

Geoffrey’s initial perception of his wife – exotic, yet Europeanised by her upbringing in London and Paris – is shattered as he observes her in a native setting – particularly as she is re-introduced to her extended family and subsequently re-assimilated.

Asako’s ties to Europe and her bond with her husband are challenged by the life her late father left behind. Her family, the nouveau riche Fujinamis, see her as having a vital role in extending the family lineage and maintaining its wealth and social influence.

The story allows the author to show how the British and Japanese perceived each other at a time when Oriental stereotypes had been overturned, to an extent, by Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The notion that Japan could soon be on a par with Britain, or even surpass it, is a constant concern.

Meanwhile, Asako is viewed as an important symbol of Anglo-Japanese relations, torn between tradition and progress.

The language used to describe the Japanese people is unabashedly racist throughout and this can be difficult reading for the modern audience.

However, this aspect is countered by the introduction of Japanese terms used to describe foreigners (and those who interact with foreigners) which have fallen out of general use in modern Japan.

These included rashyamen – ‘goat-face’ a term used to describe a foreigner’s Japanese mistress and ketoujin – ‘hairy-rascal’ a derogatory term for a foreigner.

While this derogatory language is no longer deemed socially acceptable it can provide an insight into attitudes of the period.

A number of observations made in this novel will resonate with those familiar with modern Japan. However, a darker side of old Japan, which has disappeared over the past century, recurs throughout the novel – The Yoshiwara pleasure districts. The Chonkina, a dance performed by the geisha of Nagasaki is described in graphic detail as is the workings of the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo.  Barrington’s moral dilemma over the sex industry in Japan adds a darker dimension to the tale.

At the time it was first published, Kimono provided a refreshing take on Anglo-Japanese relations to an audience whose impression of Japan had been formed by Mikado and Madame Butterfly.

The post-World War II Penguin publication (1947), which I possess, is no less significant. Kimono would have reinforced negative racial stereotypes and a sense of un-breachable cultural difference while noting a prior desire, on behalf of the Japanese, to demonstrate strength to Western powers.

For the modern reader the book provides an insight into the challenges faced by the pioneers who seeked to open Japan to the outside world and the bigotry encountered by those who chose to marry outside their own race.

Other works by John Paris include – Sayonara, Banzai, The Island Beyond Japan, Matsu and A Japanese Don Juan.