…prayer exists at the core of the Japanese people’s hearts.
Decades before establishing his own brand Yuzen Marusho in 2010, Akira Akiyama was already devoted to the art of designing wedding kimono of exceptional quality. Today, because of his meticulous attention to detail, only a fortunate few brides-to-be have the opportunity to don his yuzen kimono resplendent with highlights of gold leaf and mother-of-pearl.
In this interview, we talk with Mr. Akiyama about the spiritual meaning of the traditional Japanese wedding ceremony, the challenges of creating yuzen kimono, and his pursuit of expressing beauty within traditional form. (This interview has been translated and lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Spirituality in Ceremony
A happy couple should be very thankful for the fate that put them together — a bride and groom from seemingly infinite possibilities.
How is spirituality shown in Japan?
On New Year’s Eve and the following day, many people in Japan who do not have either a Buddhist or Shinto altar in their home go to pray at community temples and shrines. I think this is one proof that a prayer exists at the core of the Japanese people’s hearts. Likewise, I feel it is important to keep that connection to spirituality alive in Japanese-style weddings, since without it, the ceremony becomes merely an event or party.
As a designer of wedding kimono, what is the importance of Japanese tradition for you?
My core belief is that for Japanese brides, it is important that the wedding takes place beneath the Japanese sky, in the land of Japan, and that vows are made before the Japanese gods. That is central to my philosophy about Japanese weddings. Today, there are almost 8 billion people on earth, 4 billion women and 4 billion men. A happy couple should be very thankful for the fate that put them together — a bride and groom from seemingly infinite possibilities. This gratitude for fate should be at the core of the wedding ceremony. One must understand and be thankful of the fate brought by the gods above.
Fate is not simply a random result; it is meant to be. It is a precious mystery of life that brings two people together and one must appreciate this fact. Living together with someone raised in a different environment and with a different history can be quite hard. Prayer keeps us together in times of hardship. That is why a truly traditional-style wedding with prayers should be held.
Japanese wedding ceremonies have changed over the past few decades. What are your thoughts?
For me, the biggest change and issue is the lack of ceremony. In a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony, there are four important stages: praying, drinking the sacred sake, uniting the two families, and the reception. Ceremonies held without those four stages lack the spirituality of Shintoism and simply become an event. The way I see it, such weddings are essentially a party for the bride and groom who wish to be the center of attention.
The Japanese traditional wedding includes an arranger of the marriage ceremony called the nakodo as well as a guest of honor for each the groom and bride — each playing an important role in the ceremony. The nakodo introduces the members of both families to each other, and then the bride and groom to the guests. This is followed by an introduction speech from the two guests of honor. This is the traditional process of a wedding reception in the Japanese style.
As a yuzen kimono designer, these traditions are very important to me. This is why I always explain to my clients who wish to have a Japanese-style wedding how a traditional Shinto ceremony unfolds. They are happy to discover the origin of these wedding traditions and the true meaning of the ceremony.
Perfecting the Art of Kimono Design
I think I am the only one in this industry crazy enough to spend such a long time perfecting one kimono.
Why do your handmade yuzen kimono take up to three years to make?
If I were to simply be designing commercial clothing, I wouldn’t take nearly this long for one piece. It is not profitable nor does it make sense to spend two or three years designing one kimono. But when I consider my simple lifestyle, that I only need three meals a day, I look for no luxury but peace in life. I do not wish for profit but rather to sustain a humble life, which is why I decided to dedicate myself to the pursuit of artistic perfection.
I think I am the only one in this industry crazy enough to spend such a long time perfecting one kimono and disregarding the profit.
While your process is almost purely artistic, you have a restriction in the way of traditional form. How do you approach design?
It has been 67 years since I started in this industry, and I have designed countless kimono so far, but the shape and measurement of the kimono has never changed. I must design within the kimono’s traditional form to express the beauty I have in my mind. I must try new ideas and designs but within the limitation of the kimono’s form. I work hard to design works that encompass elegance, class, and luxury.
It has been 67 years since I started in this industry, and I have designed countless kimono so far
Why don’t you accept orders or custom requests?
Because It takes me up to three years to create a single kimono. That is why I don’t design kimono based on the latest fashion trends, for a special occasion, or for a particular cause. Sometimes the occasion or request matches with what I am creating by chance, but I never make a kimono by request.
Where does your inspiration come from?
The ideas for my designs come to me as if from an angel visiting my studio, but it is very challenging to express the heavenly ideas within my work. It is tormenting at times to not have even a single idea or inspiration for weeks on end. I can’t remember the number of times I have sat in my studio from morning to night, day after day without a single idea. However, there are times when my mind becomes flooded with ideas and inspiration.
What is the final stage of creating your kimonos?
To help make my clients’ wedding as perfect as possible, I personally take each kimono to be purified at a shrine before delivering it to the bride-to-be. When I visit the shrine, I request the shrine’s official stamp and that the kimono be given a name. The purpose of doing this is to wish for the wearer’s happiness through my kimono. Each kimono holds a prayer within it that brings good fortune in people, property, and life.