SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeremy Luna stood backstage wearing just a robe, trying to stay calm.

A mechanical platform was ready to carry the Sasebo sailor in front of a panel of judges and about 1,000 Japanese spectators packed inside a Tokyo auditorium April 13.

The crowd came to watch him dress. The judges carried binoculars to scrutinize every move by Luna and rate it against a group of top foreigner competitors from all over Japan.

Kimono contests are not for the faint of heart. After two seasons, Luna could not avoid some pre-contest nerves as he waited for the start of Tokyo’s national kimono dressing competition. But he was counting on his instinct. “I felt a lot more confident this year,” he said.

A year ago, he came in fourth in Tokyo and was looking to beat that mark, already an unusual achievement for a U.S. sailor.

There were 11 foreign competitors in Tokyo, all culled from regional competitions. Luna, who works at the Sasebo detachment of the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center, won a spot after placing second in the Kyushu contest in December.

Kimono competitions are based on speed and technique. Competitors wait in robes beside a stack of kimono clothing and when judges give the signal, they race side by side to dress using methods prescribed by tradition.

“All the time you are keeping your center very correct,” Luna said.

In Tokyo, it was all over in just 3:27 — Luna’s dressing time and the best among the foreign competitors. The time and his performance was good enough to win second place overall among non-Japanese in the national event.

The method he used to tie the obi, the outer kimono sash, might have given him an advantage, Luna said.

“For most foreigners, they tie it in front,” he said. “I’ve always tied it in the back so that might have given me some extra points there.”

The art of kimono is still a vibrant part of Japan’s heritage but very few Japanese wear it daily. It is usually worn only on special occasions such as weddings, funerals and tea ceremonies, said Eriko Kawahara, intercultural relations coordinator for the Sasebo Naval Base Fleet and Family Support Center.

Meanwhile, annual contests — and small groups of foreigners such as Luna — help keep the tradition alive. Men are the least likely to learn and wear kimono, Kawahara said. “It looks so handsome and cool, but if they’re not used to it, it is very difficult to walk,” she said. “[Men] choose usually the western style suits for easier moving.”

The Navy base previously offered a kimono dressing class but eventually abandoned the program due to lack of involvement, Kawahara said.

“To me, it is like going that extra mile to really say, ‘Hey, I am interested and willing to learn what this country has to offer,’” Luna said.

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