I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. – Kurt Vonnegut.
I do not know if it may just be the accidents of what I have and have not read – the echo chamber or confirmation bias effects – but, it has been very interesting in the last week or two to see a shift in the conversation, and I am very glad to see the conversation continuing. I hope that at least some of the protesters feel satisfied – they wanted a conversation, and they are getting one. Hopefully this can be a productive conversation, informing views on both/all sides, and representing some kind of genuine step forward, even if a very small one. I have certainly learned a lot, and further nuanced my views on such matters.
Here, I share a few of the articles and blog posts I have read in the last couple weeks, simply to share what perspectives have emerged. I attempted to inject as little as possible of my own commentary or positions, but I don’t think I was very successful at that.
One blogger, by the name of Keiko, on her blog Japanese-American in Boston, has provided by far the most detailed, informative description of the background of the “Kimono Wednesdays” activity that I have yet seen. It answers a lot of the questions I had had, beginning with who made the replica kimonos: they were commissioned by NHK, and made by traditional textile artisans in Kyoto, working for Takarazuka, a prominent and well-established theatre company in Japan which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
We are still seeing a number of posts emphasizing the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, and providing valuable insights into just how and why such things can be so hurtful to many Asian-Americans.
However, we are now also seeing many posts that stand in defense of cultural exchange, and critiquing the protestors, as well as the museum for retreating so quickly/easily. I have seen a great many really interesting FB posts and mailing list comments in the last week or so, but I will refrain from sharing them, because (1) I lost a previous draft of this comment, and simply cannot find all the relevant comments again, and (2) because most were shared in various private circumstances, and probably should not be re-shared without explicit permission from each and every one of the commenters I might seek to quote. So, there’s that. So, this addition will only include a sprinkling of some of the additional perspectives from the last week or two.
*Keiko of “Japanese-American in Boston” provides a thorough description of why she personally does not feel this is racist, “yellowface,” or cultural appropriation, and also discusses what would have needed to be different for this to be offensive to her, while also noting that there are a number of things the museum could have done better. In another, more recent post, she breaks down a number of Myths and Facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the Protests.
*Major art critic blog website Hyperallergic, in a post entitled The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been one of a number of voices recently emphasizing that the idea of getting a feel for the weight, the heft, the feel of a garment is not itself an act of “dressing up” as anyone, or any type, and that what was really key to altering the character of the event, and moving it into more problematic territory, was encouraging visitors to take photos of themselves in the kimono.
The Hyperallergic writer adds:
However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.
More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East.
Of course, it is important to remember that Japan engaged in such “cultural export” specifically within a context of desperately trying to prove their worth to Western notions of “modernity,” in order to avoid becoming colonized or otherwise exploited. I thank my friend Nick for reminding us of this; it is a point that is very much prominent in my mind when thinking of the Meiji period, in architecture, in politics, in imperialism, in court ritual, and in the World’s Fairs, as well as in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and so forth, but I am embarrassed to admit it didn’t occur to me to link that with textiles. So, the Hyperallergic commentary misses, a bit, on this point. But, still, this adds valuable nuance – not all Asian cultures are the same, and not all Asian-American experiences are the same. The kimono, Japan, Japaneseness, are particular, just like everything in the world is particular, and should not be painted with a broad brush, under umbrella notions of appropriation, racism, etc.
The Hyperallergic article concludes:
For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. …
… This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.
To be sure, the museum absolutely could have done better, in a great many ways, to contextualize the activity differently, to discuss Orientalism and its impacts and implications more explicitly. It seems well-established at this point that, in this particular case, they really didn’t think about it sufficiently before doing it. And I am still unclear as to who was involved (European art curators, Asian art curators, Education), and to what extent. But, at its core, I agree, and I have read many others – top experts, with decades of experience in Japan and in the field of Japanese art – saying essentially the same thing, that we need to work to engage with one another, to talk and exchange and learn about one another, in order to move forward with greater understanding, and not to shy away from such exchange (or encourage others to refrain from such engagement) at the slightest hint of offense; we should find ways to engage in cultural exchange and experience in respectful and productive ways, and not shut down that discussion by compartmentalizing culture away – especially when it comes to something like kimono, which is not sacred, which is not traditionally associated with only being allowed to be used by particular groups; hula and feather headdresses would be a different story.
Indeed, in fact, today as well there are a great many people in Japan and in the US – traditional textile makers, traditional dance experts, and so forth – for whom the kimono is the centerpiece of cultural outreach, encouraging foreigners to try on kimono and to engage in Japanese culture. And some of them have begun appearing in the gallery, staging small, quiet, counter-protests. It simply goes to show that neither Japanese nor Japanese-Americans are a monolith. One Japanese-American wrote in an op-ed piece recently, which I touched upon and linked to in my previous discussion, “To consider that the OK of one Japanese friend who likes your kimono doesn’t mean wholesale approval from all Japanese people, let alone Asian-Americans.” This is extremely valid and important, and indeed her entire op-ed piece is extremely thought-provoking, and sympathetic, and I encourage you to read it. However, these counter-protests, both in person, and on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere, clearly show that the reverse is true as well – just because one, or fifty, or a hundred Asian-Americans are offended, doesn’t mean that all Asian-Americans find it offensive.
As a friend pointed out, one of the really key elements of offensive, inappropriate, cultural appropriation is when someone is practicing something incorrectly, and mistakenly believing they are learning or experiencing the authentic. This is highly problematic, as it perpetuates misinformation and misunderstandings; it perpetuates a skewed, incorrect Western imagination or understanding of “the East,” of Asian cultures, and worst of all it perpetuates Westerners believing themselves to be correct when they are not – and then acting upon, or passing along, that mistaken knowledge. But, not all cultural exchange is incorrect cultural exchange. Here are experts in traditional dance, in traditional kimono-making and kimono-wearing, encouraging people to engage in this, to learn about it.
As Japanese sources – newspapers, blogs, individual commenters – continue to express their confusion at Asian-American protestors’ reactions, many protestors and critics have dismissed the Japanese viewpoint as deriving from ignorance of the Asian-American experience, and of the politics of race/ethnicity/identity in the United States. To be sure, there is that to a certain extent. I saw it myself, as Japanese newspapers reported that protestors were describing the kimono-wearing event as “racial discrimination” (人類差別) or as “imperialist” (帝国主義), which many protestors were, but which misses the point entirely. One wonders what the popular Japanese conceptions of “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation” are, if they mistake these accusations for being the same thing as “discrimination” or “imperialism.” No wonder they were confused – this is very clearly not a case of discrimination, or imperialism. Then again, one wonders what these protestors are thinking, to themselves also confuse Orientalist perpetuation of stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, with every brand of oppression under the sun, from imperialism to white supremacy. I have even seen some Tweets tagged with “#whitesupremacykills” or something to that effect, as if white people trying on a kimono for five minutes was actively killing anyone; as if this was problematic in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the Confederate flag, police violence against blacks, church burnings, and so forth.
Now, I would like to reiterate, as I did in my previous post on the subject, my sympathy for the protestors’ views and positions. These are extremely valid attitudes and emotions, stemming from as genuine/authentic a lived experience as could be, and I think these perspectives absolutely need to be considered in the conversation as it continues. However, what continues to annoy and frustrate me about the attitudes many are expressing is the complete disregard, and dismissal, of the authenticity and authority of cultural experts. A tenth-generation kimono maker from Kyoto may not have the lived experience of the particular ethnic/racial environment of the United States, but she’s not an idiot. She has grown up her entire life surrounded by the people who have been the center of kimono production in the world, for centuries, people who have centuries of inherited experience in thinking about cultural issues – how to make and wear kimono, how to respect traditions, how to maintain them, and also how to allow them to change, and how to encourage others to engage in that cultural experience respectfully and appropriately. If they can’t be said to have authenticity and authority to say that it’s okay for foreigners to wear kimono – that it’s not offensive to the tradition, that it’s not a violation of cultural context – then who can?
As a recent Japan Times piece indicates,
The reaction… from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono. … In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival.
Meanwhile, both in Japan and in the West, many people of Japanese descent, from fashion designers to everyday sartorialists on the street, wear kimono in all kinds of ways, mixing it up, bringing it very much into the postmodern contemporary world. Kimono are, quite simply, *not* exclusive to particular traditional contexts. Manami Okazaki, Yohji Yamamoto, and Hiromi Asai are among those fashion designers seeking to bring the kimono out of its culturally-specific context into being “a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”” This is a considerable step further, beyond what traditional arts practitioners, cultural exchange workshops, and the like are trying to do, and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about this. But, this too is a valid, genuine position, coming from a place of authenticity and authority, and should not be lightly dismissed. Speaking of Okazaki’s book Kimono Now, as well as interviews with Yamamoto, Asai, and others, the Japan Times goes on to say that
those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. … Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist. … “Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”
So, this is a complex issue, and I am glad to see the conversation continuing.