Japan Personal Portrait

My Mother’s Yukata

August 7, 2016

In honor of Obon (Buddhist custom honoring the spirits of ancestors…usually observed in mid-July or mid-August, depending on where you are in Japan), I decided I should finally dig up an old post I attempted to put up here a year ago.

Last summer, I was browsing Uniqlo’s website and got excited when I saw they started selling Japanese Yukata (cotton casual kimonos) on their U.S. site. I briefly thought about buying one but…money. Plus, I really have no occasion to wear one in the U.S.

Not long after, my mom and I were going through boxes of tons of old photographs. The pictures reminded me that long ago, I was forced to wear a yukata as a child–and I hated it. I remember one time, my mom dressed my sister and me up for church in coordinating yukata. I absolutely deplored walking into the quiet chapel with my obnoxiously loud geta sandals–the kind with bells attached to them. With every step I took, the bells on the sandals uncontrollably screamed “LOOK AT ME!!! LOOOOOK AAAT MEEEE!!! I’M JAPANEEESE!”

Walking past the pews, I could feel every pair of eyes on me as my face grew hot with embarrassment, and all I wanted to do was go back home and hide. Everyone commended my mother saying things like, “They’re sooo adorable! It’s so great that you’re honoring your tradition like this!” But I was seething inside. How could my mom put me through something so horrible? I just wanted to wear normal white people dresses and not feel like a zoo animal.

The old photos prompted me to ask my mom if we still had any old yukata in the house. She then pulled out some boxes from the garage and let me try on the two she used to wear in her twenties. One of them was hand-sewn by my grandmother 40 years ago. Apparently my mom had called home while she was in college saying she needed a yukata for a party at her school. Rather than buying one, my grandma ended up making one for her.

Seeing the beautiful print of the material and the love and care my late grandmother put into making it, I had a strong urge to try and do a photo project of sorts with me wearing my mother’s yukata. However, I knew that trying to show her how to use my camera would be rather difficult, so I decided I would force my friend Elizabeth to help take the pictures during my visit to San Francisco. And what better background for a Japanese photo shoot than the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park?

In my mind, the photo shoot was going to be painless. We’d find some secluded area and everything would be easy breezy. However, once we got to the location, I realized I set myself up for a torture session, forgetting the minor detail that I would be the subject of these photos.

The garden was packed with visitors, and after somehow finding a semi-enclosed space off one of the paths, I hastily changed into my yukata without even looking in a mirror.

When the moment came for us to actually walk around and find suitable backgrounds. I could feel my temperature rising and suddenly all those feelings of extreme embarrassment from my childhood cropped up again. Tons of people were walking by, and they all slowed down to stare at me. I felt like a museum exhibit.

I wanted to just throw on a hoodie and run away. But I knew there was no turning back because for once, I had actually taken the time to do my hair and makeup. On top of that, it took so much effort (and money for our Uber) just to get to the location and scrounge up the courage to change into my yukata.

It took me probably an hour to finally get over my embarrassment and get on with taking pictures (poor Elizabeth didn’t know she was signing up for hours of talking me through my insecurities). It helped that we came across a couple of Chinese ladies dressed in beautiful Cheongsam, carrying parasols. They apparently had the same idea as me and were doing a photo shoot of their own. But unlike me, they didn’t seem to be phased at all by the other people. I really need to learn their secret to not giving AF.

Eventually, I got over it…mostly. Several other people asked if they could take pictures of/with me. One even asked if I worked at the gardens. What was I so afraid of anyway? No one knew who I was, and people are just intrinsically curious about a culture they’re not familiar with. Still, I very much like my place behind the camera.

In the end, I was glad we got a few decent pictures and that I was able to honor my culture and family. But I was more glad that I could wear my western clothes again and (in true Japanese fashion) go back to being unnoticed and unmemorable.


Special thanks to the talented Elizabeth Mayborne for her incredible patience and willingness to help me capture these images!

Japanese Tea Garden Yukata_0232-1Japanese Tea Garden Yukata_0237-6Japanese Tea Garden Yukata_0338Japanese Tea Garden Yukata_0629-rsJapanese Tea Garden Yukata_0437-3 Japanese Tea Garden Yukata_0562-diptychJapanese Tea Garden Yukata_0143-5

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  • Reply Wayne Fagg August 7, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    You”re a gorgeous young lady Jackie and your rep Japanese pride well! Kudos for overcoming some fears and creating a lasting memory…

    • Reply Jackie Watanabe August 7, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      Thanks so much for the kind words! Hope you and your family are doing well!

  • Reply Alison McNeill August 8, 2016 at 4:25 am

    Lovely. I am so happy you took time and effort to recreate something “an American” would never see ordinarily.

    Thank you.

    It’s lovely, you are so lovely and I am hoping that the discomfort of being different was a small price to pay for the ability to create a memory of a lost and dying part of your rich and noble culture.

    I know that your grandmother is proud of you and I know you do your family proud.

    • Reply Jackie Watanabe August 8, 2016 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you! Glad I could share, and so grateful for Elizabeth to be there with me through the process!

  • Reply Daphne grabovoi August 8, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Thank you for sharing this. You look beautiful and your words are a perfect addition to the moment….

    • Reply Jackie Watanabe August 8, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, Grab! It means a lot coming from one of my favorites.

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