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Artist, Junko Sophie Kakizaki (Part 1)

Junko Sophie Kakizaki is an artist and kimono expert, who lives her life as an expression of beauty. We asked her about her unusual lifestyle, her love of kimono and her activities to promote the traditional arts of Japan.

Born and raised in a family with an 1100 year old history.

Born and raised in a traditional family with an 1100 year heritage

Junko Sophie Kakizaki was born into one of the oldest families of northern Japan. Her family traces their roots back 1100 years to Kyoto during the Heian Era. As a child she grew up in a home decorated with Japanese antiques. Her family also collected western art; due to the influence of her great uncle, Yomokichi Sawaki, a leading early 20th century Western art historian and writer who first introduced Italian and Greek classical art to Japan.

Since she was a child, Junko Sophie learned Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement and tea ceremony from her maternal grandmother. After graduating from college she was recognized as a master of Sogetsu style Ikebana. She then moved to Paris to study French flower arranging, where she obtained her diploma from the Ecole de Française de Décoration Floral and La Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France.

Junko Sophie with her flower arranging teachers in Paris
“Whenever I return to Paris, I visit my old teacher to share a cup of tea and perhaps take a flower arrangement lesson with her. One of the things she taught me is the importance of maintaining elegance no matter how chaotic life can be. The lessons I learned from her have become an important guide in my art and life.”
Reuniting years later with her flower arrangement teacher in Paris
Reuniting years later with her flower arrangement teacher in Paris.

In Paris, Junko Sophie also attended a haute couture embroidery school. This inspired her to make her own costume jewelry when she returned to Japan two years later and influenced her work with ikebana and French flower arrangement.

Junko wearing a head dress bouquet of fresh flowers
Junko Sophie wearing a headdress of fresh flowers and putting a bouquet on the table that she made.
When she visits Paris she often stays with her friend, a French fashion designer, who she enjoys talking with about the latest in art and fashion.
Junko Sophie doing haute couture embroidery
At the Ecole Lesage Paris, which makes embroidered dresses for such brands as Chanel and Christian Dior.
“My paternal grandmother was a master of haute couture embroidery, so I was familiar with the techniques from an early age. My grandmother wanted to study in Paris when she was young, so my study was a way to fulfill her dream.”
Headdress using traditional craft techniques
Junko Sophie continues to design jewelry and headdress using traditional Japanese craft materials, such as Urushi lacquer and Samurai ribbons with flower arrangement techniques.
In this photograph she is wearing a dress remade from old kimono fabric to create an early 20th century Showa era retro style fashion.

After studying in Paris, Junko Sophie travelled extensively around the world exploring many arts and crafts traditions. These experiences inspired her interest in Japanese traditional crafts and to start wearing the kimono she inherited from her grandmothers. She now presents lectures on traditional Japanese culture, tea ceremony and beauty techniques in Europe, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Presenting her "The Beauty of Kimono’ demonstration in Milano, Italy
In collaboration with the Associazione Culturale Giappone in Italia, chaired by her close friend Alberto Moro, she presented a lecture on “The Beauty of Kimono” and performed a demonstration of Japanese traditional dance. The event was attended by the Consul General of Japan in Milan.
An exhibition in Milano, Italy featuring portraits of Junko Sophie
The poster for a photo exhibition by Alberto Moro in Milano, that introduces Japanese culture.
The images were published as a photo book with a portrait of Junko Sophie on the cover.
A tea ceremony workshop in Taiwan
Junko Sophie often visits Taiwan to give lectures and to teach tea ceremony.
She is active in promoting cultural and artistic exchanges, such as inviting her Taiwanese tea master friend to teach the art of tea.
She is learning Mandarin Chinese and plans to hold regular cultural salons in Taiwan that teach Kyoto-style etiquette and customs.
Junko Sophie is also planning to teach traditional Japanese manners and beauty customs in Vietnam and India.
Preparing tea for an Olympic feature program produced by NBC Television
With the anchor and staff of NBC Television during the filming of an Olympic feature program
Junko Sophie was featured in a 2021 Olympics special program titled “Japanese women practicing traditional Japanese culture in modern times” produced by NBC television.

Junko Sophie actively collaborates with artists around the world on kimono related projects. In 2017 she worked with the photographic artist Everett Kennedy Brown to make a photo book of her kimono.
The images were photographed in many cities around the world and have been exhibited at galleries in New York, London, Milano and museums in Greece.
Junko Sophie collaborates with various artists around the world on Kimono projects.

Junko Sophie's Kimono Photo Exhibition in NY
Kimono photo exhibition at a gallery in New York.
Presenting an Ikebana performance in New York city
Junko Sophie decorated an exhibition hall with flowers in New York.
“I am interested in how people react when I wear kimono in different cities around the world. In New York City, many people remarked how delighted they were to see such fine kimono.”
A banner at the entrance to her exhibition at a museum in Greece
Junko Sophie wore a Washi paper kimono made by a Greek artist friend, Maria Papatzelou and shot by Everett Kennedy Brown in Kyoto.
This was one of the projects commemorating the 170th anniversary of the birth of the Greek Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn.
The images were exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Junko Sophie has recently directed kimono exhibitions in southern France and Greece. Exhibitions are planned for Italy, Paris, Istanbul, Taiwan and other parts of the world in the future.

Junko Sophie is currently working on a photo book that explores her vision of Japanese culture and art as expressed through the fashion of the kimono.

In the images of her wearing kimono from her family’s collection she seeks to embody the essence of Japanese femininity.
The images in the book reveal an aura of mystery that lead the viewer into a dreamlike space and inspire questions about what inspires her unusual depth of interest in kimono fashion.

Japanese Washi paper kimono made by Greek artist Maria Papatzelou
Japan has a tradition of Washi paper kimonos that were popular among the cultured classes.This image expressed a fusion of Greek and Japanese mythology.

Junko Sophie inherited from her grandmother not only a sense of beauty, but also a mission to express beauty in her life.

Enjoying the autumn season at Kyoto's Hakuryuen garden
Hakuryu-en garden is one of Junko Sophie’s favorite places in Kyoto.

For our interview with Junko Sophie, she wore a kimono and Obi sash loved by her grandmother.

“The subtle gradation color in this kimono is spectacular. It may be difficult to see at first glance, but there is a pattern in the kimono called Omodaka trifolia. There is also a black underlying pattern in the kimono that is very subtle. I am researching these patterns all the time. This is a dyed kimono, but if you look at it carefully you can see a watermark pattern created by further weaving.”

The traditional handmade kimono materials and dyeing techniques are often elaborate and rare to see nowadays with machine made fabrics. These fine kimonos are very well made and keep such a good condition that they seem not to age.

“My grandmother was very fashionable. There are many kimonos in her collection that she had made only for special occasions. She didn’t wear them often. These kimono are now worn by me for the first time in decades. Some have never been worn before. This Obi sash is probably made by artisans in Nishijin, Kyoto. It must have been made by a long-established Obi sash workshop. It has a modern weave, with a Persian-Tang flower pattern.”

Junko Sophie talks about her kimono with a special love, but there was a time when she wanted to be free of her family’s kimono collection.

A kimono and obi sash from Junko Sophie's collection

“My family’s history dates back more than 1100 years to Kyoto. I was born in Akita prefecture, in the north of Japan, where my samurai family had been large landowners for 500 years. I was an only child, and my mother raised me in a very proper and traditional way. My friends often said, “Junko’s house is so different.” They were referring to how strict my mother was; she was more like a disciplinarian than a mother. I don’t remember ever being spoiled or pampered by her.”

“As a child I wore a kimono when practicing Ikebana flower arrangement and tea ceremony. After returning from living abroad I inherited two large Paulownia chest of drawers filled with my family’s kimono collection, but I had no interest in them.”

“I was more interested in culture outside of Japan, especially Taiwan. I fell in love with Taiwan and made plans to move there. This was partly because I felt the burden of my family upbringing and history. I wanted to be free and discover a new way of living.”

“Taiwan is a hot and humid place, and I knew it would not be practical to bring the kimono collection with me. So I thought of selling the collection.”

“One summer afternoon, I opened one of the large chest of drawers my grandmother had left me. Inside was her collection of over one hundred fine kimonos. In one of the drawers I found a beautifully crafted lacquer accessory case. When I opened the black lacquer lid, the distinct, nostalgic fragrance of Christian Dior perfume wafted into the humid air. The perfume must have been a gift from my grandfather. He worked for a leading Japanese trading company and spent many years living abroad. When I smelled the aroma of that perfume, time stopped.”

“For the first time in my life I could understand what these prized kimono meant for my grandmother. I started unwrapping each one, carefully wrapped in handmade Washi paper with our family crest.”

“It took many months, sometimes years, to make each finely crafted kimono that my grandmother cherished. Looking at each kimono, I was in tears. I could feel her presence, as if she was looking down from heaven. I realized I could not sell them.”

Junko Sophie's grandparents in Nara Park
Junko Sophie’s grandparents in Nara Park in the 1930s.
Her grandfather developed a taste for Western culture during his many years abroad working for a leading Japanese trading company.

“For the first time I could appreciate their delicate embroidery, the time-consuming weaving, the impeccable color matching, the perfect finish of solid color dyeing; every detail of breathtaking craftsmanship. My grandmother’s family were also prominent kimono fabric merchants and actively trading with Mitsui, a conglomerate still in existence, and originally one of the major Gofukuya in Japan. That was the reason she had an eye to assemble this collection of the finest kimono. I knew how important it was for her that I inherit her chest of drawers.”

“I had already made appointments with several kimono appraisers to see the collection and I was curious about their value. When I saw the very low bids offered because of the weak market demand for used kimonos, I was shocked! These kimono are handmade masterpieces by the great early 20th century kimono masters using techniques that are now forgotten! They should be in museums because of their cultural and historical value, I thought. This experience inspired a sense of mission inside of me to promote kimono culture.”

Becoming a Cultural Ambassador and Muse

From the Junko Sophie Kimono Collection Album

Junko Sophie was working on a cultural project with Japan’s Commissioner of Culture to restore traditional Japanese heirlooms that had been brought to Europe in the 19th century. That is where she met the photographer and writer, Everett Kennedy Brown who was a member on the project team.

“He took an interest in my family’s kimono collection, suggesting that it was not only my legacy to honor my grandmother, but this was an opportunity to do something for the kimono craftsmanship tradition of Japan. Everett suggested we do a series of photographs of me wearing my grandmother’s kimono in settings that had a special meaning for her.”

“Everett stressed that the history of my ancestors could be rediscovered by wearing the kimono, and that I was now their chosen heir. I was in a position to share the beauty of kimono culture with the world and future generations of Japanese people.”

“This is how our project of photographing kimono began. We started meeting in different beautiful places around Japan. I would choose a kimono to wear, based on the season, and the location. It was a wonderfully creative year of travel for the both of us. This is how I developed my skills for choosing the kimono and Obi sash; matching them according to their delicate patterns and the seasons. I was able to tap into my childhood memories and re-encounter Japanese traditional culture from a fresh perspective.”

Junko Sophie wearing a kimono in a location used for the film classic "Tokyo Story," by film director Yasujiro Ozu.
We choose settings with a traditional Japanese atmosphere to make the images.
This kimono was dyed with wax and decorated with roses.
Wearing this kimono I could feel my grandmother’s unfulfilled longing to study in Europe.
The kimono were chosen based on photo shoot location.
From a series of images taken at the home of Alex Kerr, the renowned researcher of Oriental culture.

Junko Sophie and Everett worked on their kimono photo project in various cities around the world. Through the lens of Everett Kennedy Brown’s camera, she became a muse that embodied many elements of Japanese beauty. Plans are underway to publish their book of images in late 2021.

“While doing this project I began to feel the memories of my grandmother in the kimono that I inherited from her. My family history was no longer a private burden. It was like my grandmother was guiding me through her love into new realms of beauty that our family have honored and cherished for many generations.”

The Elegance of Japanese Women Revealed through the Kimono

At the former residence of the 19th century writer, Lafcadio Hearn
Photographing at the residence of the 19th century writer, Lafcadio Hearn in Matsue.
I felt the presence of Hearn’s spirit, and his passion for articulating the soul of Japan.

For international audiences the kimono is often seen as something exotic and even erotic.
What is the image of the kimono that Junko Sophie wants to convey?

“Foreign celebrities wear kimono and even use kimono fabrics for tops that they wear with jeans. This is all very fashionable and nice. It’s a fashion that goes beyond kimono.

This got me thinking how there are few good examples of kimono worn in a classical way. For my grandmother’s generation, they naturally wore kimono with an ease and grace. I began to realize that wearing kimono in a classical way can open our senses to be more receptive to the subtleties of Japanese culture. This is something that I inherited from the women in my family and that I wish to now share in my work.”

In addition to her cultural and artistic projects in Kyoto, Junko Sophie is now active in introducing Japanese culture overseas. She and Everett established the Kyoto Kaisho Foundation to share her experiences and sensibility with people, not only in Japan but throughout the world.

“When I lived in Paris in my twenties I was already beginning to realize that Japanese women look their most beautiful when wearing kimono. Western clothes are made for Western sensibilities, whereas the kimono is not just a piece of clothing, it is a deep expression of feminine sensibility. The way we tie the silk chords to secure the kimono changes our mood and naturally awakens an aura of elegance. Wearing a kimono brings out a woman’s inner beauty.”

Sharing ideas with leaders in various cultural fields.
Junko Sophie sharing ideas on Japanese cuisine with the chef Jerome Banctel, at his 2 Michelin star restaurant in Paris.
Eating healthy and creative cuisine is key to living a life of beauty.
“Whenever I visit my chef friends in Paris I like to bring them traditional Japanese ingredients and unusual foods for them to try and experiment with.
I think it’s in my DNA, my thoughts about food.
My grandparents loved fine food and my mother continues to work as a well known culinary expert.”

Wearing Kimono Opens New Doors of Opportunity

Wearing kimono opens one to new ways of appreciating life

“Wearing a kimono is not just a fashion statement, it is an expression of my mood, my way of living and aesthetic sensibility.
In this way, I see myself as an artist. Quite often I have the most enjoyable encounters with people when I wear a kimono. For example, on the way back from a reception party for an international conference of museum directors, I stepped into a noodle restaurant with my friends for a bite to eat.
A few minutes later the female director of one of Europe’s leading museums came in and walked up to me. She said she was planning a kimono exhibition and asked me to help her organize the exhibition!”

“During a meeting with the CEO of a film production company in Istanbul the discussions turned to the culture of the kimono. The executives suggested we do a film together featuring the kimono. We will explore the aesthetic influences from the Silk Road that arrived in Japan.
Many of the kimono designs come from the same traditions you find in Islamic architecture. I imagine it would be wonderful to wear a color coordinated silk veil over my kimono. I love exploring such cultural collaborations and it is something I look forward to doing more in the future.”

Wearing a kimono chosen for a meeting in Istanbul
“On a visit to Istanbul to discuss plans for a movie project Junko Sophie carefully chose a kimono and Obi sash inspired by Ottoman design motifs.