Backstage at Yohji Yamamoto Femme SS14. (Photo by Elise Toïdé)

Shattering authorities, prejudices and customs: Yohji Yamamoto (1)

Wandering through a wilderness - anger and a father's regret


Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto shook the world of mode with his avant-garde clothes that make use of holes and asymmetric designs in black. Raised by his mother, who opened a dressmaking shop in Tokyo's Kabukicho, Japan's largest nightlife district, after his father was drafted and killed in World War II, he was inspired to create apparel for independent women.

This is the first of an English translation of a 29-part series and the latest installment of Nikkei's "My Personal History" ("Watashi no Rirekisho"); the Japanese series was published in September 2021.


This bitter life... I want it to end as soon as possible - I have always lived my life with this idea. Of course, I have not the slightest intention of killing myself. That would be a sad thing for my bereaved family.

Born to be a rebel.

With a bomb shining with a black luster tucked away in my heart, I have long dreamed of shattering the authorities, prejudices and customs that have run rampant in the world.

I became a fashion designer by chance, but had I not I might now be locked away in prison as a criminal.

My father's death in the war is the engine that has powered my anger.

"I think I'll be sent to the south, since they gave me summer uniforms..."

On the morning of Aug. 1, 1944, my father, Fumio Yamamoto, who was called up for military service at age 35, held my mother, Fumi's, hands, then held me, his only son, just 10 months old, in his arms and said his final farewell.

"Killed in a pitched battle in the mountains east of Baguio, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines." In the end, that was all we received - just a notice on a scrap of yellow paper that the Japanese government issued to the families of those killed in the war.

There were no remains or personal effects. My mother believed that my father was still alive, and waited for his return. It was in July 1948 that she finally gave up hope and held a formal funeral. I have hazy memories of the scene.

Why was my father drafted and killed?

Later as I read military memoirs and listened to the stories of survivors, I began to understand the tragic circumstances of those days, if only dimly.

By the time my father went to war, Japan did not have enough ships to transport soldiers so it used fishing boats. They painted the hulls green and brought aboard large logs disguised as cannons. If the enemy had discovered them, they would not have stood a chance.

It was a time when a human life was worth no more than a scrap of paper. I was furious at the stupidity of being forced to go along with the military and the government's pointless idea of ichioku gyokusai ("100 million honorable deaths"), a slogan that meant all the people of Japan should be prepared to fight to the death.

Can you imagine how hard it is for a family to get by after losing its breadwinner?

I was moved to tears when I discovered this passage in "Discourse on Decadence, Part II" by Ango Sakaguchi, a writer of the Buraiha, or "Decadent School":

"The emperor asks us to endure the unendurable, to suffer what is insufferable, and to obey orders. The people cry and say, 'It is unbearable, but we will endure and lose, for it is nothing less than an order from His Majesty.' Lie! Lie! Lie!"

Not even a sliver of a memory of my father or his touch remains in my mind. I know almost nothing about him. But as his only son, I feel that one thing I have taken on is my father's sense of regret. With this I became a "cynic" who can only view the world obliquely.

This year marks 41 years since my Paris debut, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Y's, the ready-made clothes maker. It has not been an easy path. At times I feel exhausted, both physically and mentally, and I get stuck trying to create ideas for new clothes.

"Why do I keep doing such a taxing thing?" When I look up at the heavens and agonize, it suddenly comes to me: "Is something - my father's regret - pushing me forward?"

Foreign journalists often tell me, "I understand you, Yohji."

But I always reply, "I don't want to be understood."

How can someone figure me out so easily? Musing on these thoughts, I continue to wander through an endless wilderness.

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