Junior Writers Reporting

Peace Seeds: Teens in Hiroshima Sow Seeds of Peace (Part 3)

Part 3: Monpe work pants, the wartime “uniform” of Japanese women and girls

During World War II, the vast majority of women wore monpe, traditional Japanese work pants. Women were encouraged to wear these baggy pants by the national government to support the war effort. It is believed that the government sought to save fabric while strengthening the unity of the public.

In 1942, female students started wearing monpe trousers, instead of the skirt that had been part of their school uniform. They wore them when they went to school, or when they engaged in volunteer labor, such as helping to dismantle buildings to create fire lanes.

Monpe trousers were functional and allowed the wearer to move more freely. At the same time, this “wartime uniform” deprived students of their freedom. When the atomic bomb exploded above the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, many women, including high school girls, were wearing monpe.

With the help of the Hiroshima Fashion Specialty College, we made a pair of monpe for ourselves. And we imagined how girls of around our age felt at the time and explored the historical background of the period when monpe was the norm in fashion.

No freedom to dress up

I choose the clothes I like

And wear them when I want to

What a convenient world

I live in

I felt monpe were loose and easy to move in. But I heard that, during the war, people just wore the same pair of monpe as a matter of course, at home, when they went out, or when they were working. On top, girls usually wore the tops of their sailor-style uniform or shirts or blouses in subdued colors. Washing their clothes only once a week was normal.

During that time, when most of the essential goods for daily living were rationed, school girls couldn’t afford to dress up. Now I can choose whatever clothes I like and wear them whenever I like. I can’t imagine wearing the same clothes all day, every day, for a whole week.

I was surprised to learn that all the clothes were sewn by hand, without the use of a sewing machine. We made a pair of monpe, but in those days, mothers, working alone, generally made all the clothes for the members of their family.

I realized that we live in a very convenient world. I want to appreciate the happy life that I have, and I’ll try not to rely on other people or machines. I’ll do what I can to solve my own problems. (Nako Yoshimoto, 15)

How to make monpe

1. Prepare four pieces of cloth. We used navy blue cotton cloth with kasuri (splashed) patterns.

2. Pin the pattern to the cloth. Draw a line which allows a margin of a few centimeters around the pattern.

3. Cut the cloth along the line with fabric scissors.

4. Join two pieces of cloth by stitching them together.

5. Sew the two tubular parts together.

6. Fold the cloth about 1.5 centimeters at the waist and ankles for elastic bands. Put a tag at the waist with the name and address of the wearer.

7. Add elastic bands at the waist and the ankles.

It wasn’t easy putting the pieces of cloth together because they slipped out of place. A handmade monpe is nice, but I realized that sewing clothes is a lot of work. (Takeshi Iwata, 17)

Stitching the curve required a lot of patience. I was impressed when Ms. Todani told us that people devoted a great deal of time and energy into making clothes when sewing machines weren’t widely available. (Satoko Hirata, 17, and Ayumi Uehara, 16)

Before stitching the parts for the elastic bands, it took a long time to temporarily put the cloth together with marking pins. It wasn’t easy to run the elastic bands through the tubular parts, either. People in the past were really skillful. (Hinako Saeki, 16, and Kaito Tani, 12)

Yuriko Tsushima, university lecturer on the history of fashion: If you didn’t wear monpe, you were considered a traitor

Why did people wear monpe during the war? We interviewed Yuriko Tsushima, 67, a specialist in the history of fashion and a part-time lecturer at Yasuda Women’s University and other institutions.

Monpe, traditional Japanese work pants, were pushed as a kind of “uniform” for women during the war.

In the Meiji and Taisho periods (1868-1912 and 1912-1926, respectively), most women wore kimonos or hakama (pleated skirt-like trousers). But as the times turned to war, their clothes became simpler. In 1940, the Great Empire of Japan issued an ordinance, which introduced the wartime uniform for men. In 1942, a notice from the Welfare Ministry encouraged women to wear monpe trousers and a top, and the use of monpe then became widespread. According to Ms. Tsushima, this was imposed on the public.

Men’s uniforms were made of wool or cotton, and they wore gaiters on their legs. Women turned their cotton kimonos into monpe, as there was not enough fabric during the war. Some wore tops with kimono-like sleeves to make them a little more stylish. But later they could only wear tops with tubular sleeves.

Monpe were referred to as “clothing for the decisive battle” to boost fighting spirit. People may have felt that monpe weren’t stylish, or they didn’t want to wear them, but they would have been seen as traitors if they didn’t. During this time, when freedom was restricted, monpe became a uniform for Japanese women. (Maiko Hanaoka, 16, and Miki Meguro, 12)

Kiyoko Todani, president of Hiroshima Fashion Specialty College: Monpe helped identify A-bomb victims

Kiyoko Todani, 85, the president of Hiroshima Fashion Specialty College, shared her memories of wearing monpe as a student at a girls’ high school.

When I entered the Second Hiroshima Prefectural Girls’ High School in 1942, our uniform consisted of pleated skirts. But as the war intensified, our skirts were replaced by monpe. In 1945, when I was a fourth-year student in high school, we attended classes only one day a week. Students were mobilized to work the rest of the week, except Sundays. I was assigned to help process tobacco at the Hiroshima District Monopoly Bureau, located in today’s Minami Ward.

I wore a khaki top that was provided. The color was called a “national defense color.” I wore that top and a pair of monpe made by my mother.

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb exploded at 8:15 a.m., just after we started working. Everything around me was surrounded in a white flash of light, and out the window I saw something the color of flames. “Has the factory exploded?” I wondered, then I was blown off my feet by the A-bomb blast. I was knocked between the machines and suffered injuries to my hands, but fortunately, they weren’t serious.

The second-year students from our high school were helping with the demolition work of buildings in Zakoba-cho (now part of Naka Ward), and they were badly burned. Many of them died. Their faces were swollen, and their skin was inflamed. I helped with the relief efforts, but I couldn’t identify one person from the other.

It was their monpe, the patterns and the names tags, that enabled us to identify the victims. Even now, it’s hard to hold back my tears when I think how monpe were useful in that way. What a sad memory. (Interviewed by Nozomi Mizoue, 15)

Comments from the junior writers Thanks to Ms. Todani’s kind guidance, we enjoyed making a pair of monpe. Thinking about the days when people’s freedom was restricted in every way, I sewed the monpe stitch by stitch, feeling the importance of each one. (Miki Meguro)

People couldn’t dress up in those days, and they must have been cold wearing cotton monpe in winter. It must have been hard. (Kaito Tani)

Ms. Todani was very kind when we interviewed her for Peace Seeds. I learned firsthand that making monpe by hand without using a sewing machine is hard work. But people in the past had to do it. When Ms. Todani told us about her experience of the atomic bombing, she said, “I want people to remember the event forever. The A-bomb survivors are dying, and we must convey our accounts to younger generations before they’re forgotten.” Her words impressed me. They were a message from a hibakusha’s heart. I will always remember her words as I pursue my activities in the future. (Nozomi Mizoue)

This was the first time I heard a story about wartime fashion. By making a pair of monpe by hand from a piece of cloth, I learned that it’s important to work things out on our own and not to seek convenience in everything, even if it seems a roundabout way. (Nako Yoshimoto)

Ms. Todani said that students were told to take off their white ribbons on the tops of their sailor suits, because the ribbons stood out. I think ribbons are what make sailor uniforms cute. But girls were deprived of such simple pleasures. They weren’t allowed to express individuality through the clothes they wore. I would never want to live in such a time. (Hinako Saeki)

I had a hard time sewing the monpe by hand. These days, wearing the same unwashed clothes for a week is unthinkable. People couldn’t afford to dress up, and their lives were always surrounded by danger. I realized the preciousness of living in today’s world. (Maiko Hanaoka)

This was the first time for me to sew something without using a sewing machine. I learned how hard it is to make clothes by hand. I imagine mothers put their hearts into making monpe trousers for their daughters during that time, when materials were in short supply. (Ayumi Uehara)

In my reporting activities, I had never paid attention to the clothing customs at the time of the bombing. As we interviewed people on the theme of monpe, and actually made one, I found it interesting and, in the future, I plan to pay more attention to the clothes people wore during the war. I want to try on a man’s uniform from that time. (Takeshi Iwata)

I’m not good at sewing, but it was a good experience. I learned about the hard work people did back then, too. Making things by hand takes a lot of effort, but at the same time, people can put their hearts into the things they produce. So handmade things are different from those made by using a sewing machine or ready-made products, and are attractive in their own way. (Satoko Hirata)

What is Peace Seeds?

Peace Seeds are the seeds of smiles which can be spread around the world by thinking about peace and the preciousness of life from various viewpoints. To fill this world with flowering smiles, 44 junior writers, from the sixth grade of elementary school to the last year of high school, choose themes, gather information, and write articles.

(Originally published on February 12, 2015)