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Zenkaikon 2017: An Interview with Rev. Kuniko Kanawa

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zenkaikon logoRare is the opportunity to meet a person whose aura of grace and respect is so immense that it is almost tangible, as palpable as the chairs we sit on or the air we breathe. On Sunday, April 30, 2017, I had the incredible opportunity to meet and interview just such a person. Shinto priestess and certified Kimono Consultant KunikoKonawa, one of the featured guests at Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Zenkaikon, joined me for a few minutes to discuss kimono culture and how Shintoism is accepted throughout her travels to various conventions around the United States. Between accomplishments such as founding the Washington D.C. Kimono Club in 2013 to becoming a certified Shinto priestess through Ama-no-Iwakura-Jingu in October 2015, Kuniko Kanawa has become one of the foremost experts in Japanese culture that the USA–not to mention the convention circuit–has to offer.

Adorned in a beautiful red and white kimono (which I would later learn is imbued with history and spiritual meaning), Ms. Kanawa’s choice in clothing was a perfect representation of the two major tenants of Kimono: beauty in both physical and spiritual representation. Kimono, as a way of dress, is incredible not only in its complexity but also its ability to harmonize what would otherwise be contrasting colors. This is achieved in part through the unique way in which the Japanese personify colors; what is “red” or “pink” to us is “deep plum” and “cherry blossom” to them. This gives each color a special meaning and dimension that we may never have considered in clothing choice before. Though not worn as commonly today due to various factors including increased westernization of Japan, Kimono still have a special place in modern day Japan. Ms. Kanawa has made it one of her life goals to not only teach the proper way to wear this clothing but to instill the spiritual values of each piece as well.

Cain: Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me for a few minutes today. You look fantastic. During my research, I’ve learned that plenty of thought and spirituality goes into the selection of a kimono, from color and pattern to other factors such as what occasion it is. How many kimonos would a typical woman in the 1800s own?

Rev. Kanawa: Thank you very much. Well, Kimono has two meanings; the simple being “ki” which means “wearing” and “mono” which means “thing.” So, “thing to wear.” The kimono at that point in time was the common article of clothing, so considering social standing, the family’s profession be it farmer, business person, artisan, and so on, and not counting the common, everyday kimono, a woman had perhaps anywhere from 10-30 in stock.

Some of the documents Rev. Kanawa uses to illustrate her profession.
Some of the documents Rev. Kanawa uses to illustrate her profession.

Cain: Wow, that is quite the wardrobe. In today’s modern fashion, especially here in the USA, styles and fits tend to change as one grows older. For example, clothing intended for older people tends to be slightly more muted in color and conservative in the fits while younger people’s clothing tends to be fitted and more boisterous in color and pattern. Do Kimonos also share this dynamic?

Rev. Kanawa: Good question! What I am wearing today is a Miko Shrine Maiden’s outfit. As you can see the sleeves are very wide, while modern kimono sleeves are about wrist-length. Historically, the kimono had much longer and wider sleeves, which shrank as time as passed. The fit on the body has also grown slenderer throughout the eras across all type of kimono, from children to adults. This can be attributed to many factors such as growing physical activity rates in Japan and the shrinking of the aristocracy making simple kimonos more accessible to common people.

Cain: The act of putting on a kimono can be a rather complicated process that must be learned in order to properly dress oneself. Is this something historically taught by a person’s family? Or classes in a school?

Rev. Kanawa: Back before WWII, the proper techniques to wear kimono was taught by your family, more specifically the grandparents and mothers. As Japan opened its borders culturally and globalization, as well as Americanization, hit the country, the art of wearing kimonos fell out of popularity. Now schools are being opened to preserve this aspect of our culture and people like me learn not only the physical act of dressing in kimono but also the spiritual factors involved as well, which we then teach to students all around the world.

Cain: How much time do you normally invest in teaching a student to properly dress in a kimono, given the complication involved?

Rev. Kanawa: As we know, everybody learns at different speeds and skill levels but typically teaching a student to wear a Yukata, the standard summer kimono, takes about four 2-hour classes to firmly grasp the basics. The foundation. This only covers the physical act of wearing a kimono, not the spiritual aspects which can take just as long to grasp.

Cain: That is incredible, especially considering how simple typical American formal dress is, where we men take 20 minutes to learn how to knot a tie and the rest is self-explanatory. Moving on to your experience as a Shinto priestess, which you achieved in October 2015, how difficult was this process?

Rev. Kanawa: Truly, it took me about two years of almost constant hard work, traveling between the US and Japan, after saving money to achieve this. Some people may find that to be a hard life, but it was not difficult to me. Thankfully, I was able to make it work as I was guided and lead by my true nature, Kami, and my ancestors; I was already passionate about deeply learning Shinto, so this desire felt like my calling. I am also a very determined person, accomplishing what I want to do no matter how hard it is if I believe the effort to be worth it.


Cain: Considering Shintoism has a few different sects or types, such as rural and Imperial Shinto, did you have to pick a specialization of sorts? Or did you learn about all the types?

Rev. Kanawa: In Shinto there are 6 major types. First is Imperial Shinto, which is only practiced in Imperial families so I am humbly not in a position to learn this. The next major type is Jinja Shinto of today’s shrines, including the Ise Grand Shrine. Third, considering you said sects earlier, you may have been referring to Kyoha Shinto, which is split into 13 different sects. In this third category, there is also Shuugou (syncretism), and Gakuha (academic theory studied mostly by scholars) Shinto. Then the fourth type is Shin-kyouhakei-Shinto, meaning new sect Shinto including the independent sects post-World War II. The last few types are Minzoku/Shuuzoku Shinto, which is folklore Shinto like you mentioned before, and Ryuukyuu-Shito (Okinawan) or “Utaki-Shinkou” as it’s officially titled. To become a certified priestess, I needed to educate myself in as many of these as I could.

Cain: How welcoming of Shinto’s ideals do you find the attendees of conventions that you travel to? Are they receptive to learning about the different ceremonies and aspects?

Rev. Kanawa: It is amazing how respectful and passionate the people I have met at conventions are to Shinto. Starting with my first ceremony at Katsucon two years ago, I have been really surprised, in a good way, with how many people are coming to learn. My panel just this afternoon was packed, and at Otakon last year people had to be unfortunately turned away as the room could not fit everybody who had been standing in line.

Cain: I think one of the driving factors behind Shintoism being tolerated here at conventions like Zenkaikon is the relatability to the major tenets of respect for nature, ancestry, and animism (attributing souls to plants and other inanimate objects) are to our everyday lives.

Rev. Kanawa: Exactly! These three tenets are the major subjects to have faith in for Ko-Shinto (ancient Shinto) and are all universally relatable. Many indigenous religions hold these same basic principles, so it isn’t as if Shinto is teaching anything that is not already respected by many. What’s most encouraging is how quiet and respectful everyone is during the ceremonies and lectures.

Cain: I hope the respect you receive and the success you have been having not only at anime conventions like Zenkaikon but around the country continues for as long as you are willing to teach us here. I look forward to seeing your lectures and ceremonies at Otakon this year. Once again, I appreciate your time very much.

Rev. Kanawa: Thank you, I plan to offer more new materials this year, such as purification practices in depth including introducing Misogi basics which cleanse both physical body and soul by water, Shinto portrayal lecture seen in Anime, death and life concepts in Shinto, Kojiki Japanese mythology, types of countless Kami, Youkai monsters, history of Miko shrine maidens and so on.

Rev. Kanawa’s next convention appearance will be at Otakon 2017 in Washington D.C. where she will be hosting several panels and lectures. She also recommends to anyone interested in movies or shows that illustrate the basic principles of Shinto to watch Wood Job, a Japanese film about lumberjacks and their relationship with nature, their ancestors, and the spirits that are part of their everyday lives.