Archive for the ‘Art news’ Category

Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).


Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…


“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:


Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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A few things that have been going on lately in and around Japan.

The airstrip at Futenma Air Base on Okinawa. Photo my own.

US Pacific Command (PACOM) reports that the dismantling of Futenma Air Base on Okinawa might be delayed yet again, until at least 2025, due in large part to Okinawan opposition to the construction of its replacement at Henoko. The Japan Times quotes Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, as telling a congressional hearing on Weds March 3 explicitly:

The project has been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support by the government of Okinawa.”

Tokyo responded that they had never told Washington there would be any such delay.

The Okinawan people have been protesting for decades for Futenma to be dismantled, and for no new bases to be built in its place. But while the US finally agreed in 1996 to move towards dismantling the air base, more than 20 years on, they (we) have dragged their (our) feet, taking Okinawan protests and opposition not as impetus to actually do what the Okinawans demand – accelerating the dismantling, and at the same time not building any other bases – but rather, to delay, and to cite the protests as the reason, as our excuse. The US (and Tokyo) continue to stand firm that this new base will be built, that there is no other way, and that as soon as Henoko is complete, Futenma can be dismantled.

But, meanwhile, the Okinawans have stood firm as well, that there must not be any new bases. That the new base at Henoko is unacceptable, and that “there is no other way” other than actually dismantling bases without constructing new ones. If it’s not evident already, I side with the Okinawans, and on a moral level, I feel it is incumbent upon Washington & Tokyo – not upon Okinawa – to change their ways. But, on a practical level, if Okinawan protests (as well as criticism in newspapers, opposition through political avenues, etc.) have for the last 20+ years only succeeded in having the opposite effect – of delaying rather than accelerating the dismantling of Futenma – one has to wonder what other tactics the Okinawans could or should be using? What could they do differently to impel the decision-makers in Washington and Tokyo to change their policy?

Tokunoshima, Kagoshima prefecture. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:Opqr, courtesy Creative Commons licensing.

On a related note, the Asahi Shimbun reports that they’ve obtained a classified US government document which may have been used to help block Prime Minister Hatoyama’s efforts to get Futenma moved. Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan in 2009-2010, was probably the most vocal and explicit of all recent prime ministers about committing to getting Futenma moved; he was so committed to it, in fact, that when it failed, it contributed significantly to his getting pushed out of office.

At the time, Hatoyama had been backing a plan to relocate the base, not to Henoko (still on Okinawa Island), but to Tokunoshima, a smaller island to the north. According to the classified document the Asahi claims to have obtained, the US blocked this by citing a policy that “Marine Corps helicopter unit[s] should not be based more than 65 nautical miles, or 120 kilometers, from [their] training grounds.” This seems nonsensical on the very surface of it, because if you relocated the base to Tokushima, and declared Tokushima the training grounds, then it wouldn’t be far from itself at all. Why continue to have Okinawa considered the training grounds once you’ve moved the base X km away to another island? Regardless, what makes this all the more interesting is that US Forces Japan denies that there is any such policy, and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô) “cannot confirm the existence of such a document.” The latter may be simply because it is a classified document. But it still raises an eyebrow for me. Does this document, and the policy it cites, exist or not? Was this policy invented explicitly in order to block Hatoyama – the US Marines manipulating a foreign head of state?

I’ll admit I wasn’t following these events nearly as closely at that time, six years ago, but I was still back then aware of Hatoyama’s support for taking real action to actually get Futenma shut down, and I was in support of it. The idea of moving it to Tokunoshima, however, is complicated. Tokunoshima used to be a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, until it was taken and annexed by Satsuma domain in 1609-1611; unlike the kingdom itself, based on Okinawa, which was allowed to retain some considerable degree of autonomy, Tokunoshima and all the other islands north of Okinawa were fully absorbed into Satsuma territory, and were no longer under the authority of the kingdom. So, when the people of Tokunoshima protest against a base being built there, as they did indeed protest, this too is a Ryukyuan indigenous and anti-colonial protest, sharing considerably in the core character of the Okinawans’ protests. Moving the base from Okinawa to Tokunoshima is like moving a base from Hawaii to Guam – you’re lightening the burden on one colonized indigenous people only to increase the burden on another.

While Tokunoshima does have 1/10th the population density of Okinawa, it’s still undoubtedly sacred land in its own way, as basically all Ryukyuan land is. And, there are arguments to be made that the smaller the island, the smaller the population, while yes you may be placing the burden on a far smaller group of people (and thus benefiting a greater number, whose burden is lightened), the burden on that smaller group is all the heavier. Which logic, or morality, is to win out? The notion that the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the few? Or the notion that the tyranny of the majority is tyranny and is to be avoided/opposed?

If the bases were to be moved to the Japanese mainland, e.g. Kyushu or Honshu, I think there is still an argument to be made for the disruption of sacred and/or historical land. Almost anywhere you put it, you’re going to be building on top of a sacred Shinto space, and/or a historically significant location. Even as rural Japan continues to become woefully depopulated – a major societal concern that’s a whole other topic unto itself – those abandoned villages still have history, going back hundreds of years, and to erase them from the face of the earth to build a military base should be undesirable. But, at least, the indigenous and colonial issue is not present, and that’s something I think the Japanese government needs to learn to recognize and acknowledge – that the Okinawans, and those of islands such as Tokunoshima, are not simply Japanese citizens like any others with all the same obligations to the Nation, but that they are colonized, occupied people, and deserve a little more consideration.

“Nuclear Power, the Energy of a Bright Future,” a sign in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, within the exclusion zone. Image from the Asahi Shimbun.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Japan, a town in the Fukushima exclusion zone is taking down signs promising “nuclear power, the energy of a bright future.” And the signmaker is not happy. He argues that taking the signs down “could be perceived as an attempt to “cover up” the shameful past,” whereas leaving them up is a reminder of the arrogance and mistakes of the past.

Robert Jacobs, professor at Hiroshima City University, has an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal this month on a closely related topic: “Forgetting Fukushima.”


Ainu traditional robes on display at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

The Japan Times reports that a new book on Ainu history has won a prestigious award. Prof. Segawa Takurô’s new book “Ainu Gaku Nyûmon” (“Introduction to the Study of the Ainu”) challenges long-held stereotypical views about indigenous peoples, that they were quite politically and culturally isolated in their villages, not engaging with the outside world. To the contrary, Segawa emphasizes that the Ainu – the indigenous people of northern Japan – were historically (going back quite a few centuries) quite actively engaged in (political) contact, trade, and cultural exchange with a considerable number of other cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and numerous various indigenous peoples – across a large geographical area.

For those of us with a certain extent of formal background in Japanese Studies, and especially those of us who have studied indigenous issues in general or Ainu Studies in particular, this is not exactly new. Still, from what little the Japan Times article is saying, Segawa seems to be suggesting an even greater degree of interaction than I’d have thought. And, more importantly, he is introducing this to a popular Japanese audience, and hopefully contributing to an eventual sea change in how people see the Ainu – as possessing a great history, never so isolated, and today as fully modern people, their culture and traditions no more “backward” than Japanese traditions or those of any other culture.

For this book, Segawa won grand prize at the third Ancient History and Culture Awards 古代歴史文化賞, and also received an invitation to speak before the Ainu Association of Hokkaido 北海道アイヌ協会 (the most major Ainu Association there is), alleviating his concerns about how the Ainu community might receive his arguments.

Grey Area (Brown Version) by Fred Wilson, 1993. Not actually a direct replica of the Berlin Nefertiti, but obviously based upon it. Seen at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo my own.

Finally, one more thing that doesn’t have to do specifically or exclusively with Japan. As the New York Times reports,

Two German artists walked into the Neues Museum in central Berlin in October and used a mobile device to secretly scan the 19-inch-tall bust of Queen Nefertiti, a limestone-and-stucco sculpture more than 3,000 years old that is one of Germany’s most visited attractions. … Then last December, in the tradition of Internet activism, they released the data to the world, allowing anyone to download the information for free and create their own copies with 3-D printers.

Now, there’s a whole side to this that has to do with whether or not the Nefertiti was “stolen,” whether it should be returned to Egypt, and so forth. And I’m not going to comment on that today.

But, here’s the thing – regardless of whether the bust legally belongs to Germany, or to Egypt, either way, it really belongs to the world. That’s what museums are for, to conserve and share art and artifacts for the benefit of the whole world. Yes, there is plenty to be said (books and books of Museum Studies commentary) about museums for constructing a sense of national identity, and so forth, and that’s something too. But, no one living made or painted this bust. According to the underlying values and spirit of copyright law (in the US, at least, but I imagine to a large extent internationally as well), copyright expires and things fall into the public domain. How much more so things made thousands of years ago. In short, my point is, the museum may own the object, but do they really – morally, ethically – own the rights to the image? So, if you forbid museum visitors to take photos of one of your most famous and iconic objects, is it really your right to do so? Sure, I guess any institution can make whatever rules they want within their own building, and if you don’t like it you can leave. But is it right? Mike Weinberg discusses the basic details of this in a post on the 3D printing blog Shapeways.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know this is one of my main pet peeves, one of my main sticking points. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it again. Today’s post isn’t a particularly coordinated logical argument, and I’m okay with that. For now, in short, let me just say that, the “stolen artifact” “Egyptian repatriation” issue aside, I think “stealing” into the museum and taking totally non-invasive photos or scans of one of the most iconic pieces in the world, and sharing it with the Internet, is a great victory for art, culture, heritage, world community. These things belong to the world, and the museum is merely its steward – it is your job as a museum to share these things, to make them available to the public, to learn from, to be inspired by. If you are being stingy and protectionist about these things, that’s just wrong. And all the more so in our current internet age – the Nefertiti and its scan being 3D objects makes it a bit different, but when it comes to 2D images, I think we are in desperate need of new laws and understandings, both within our various countries and worldwide, as to whether sharing images online counts as “publishing” (and thus subject to the same stringent permission requirements) and what should be the bounds of the rights of museums, libraries, archives, which own the objects but not the copyrights, to tell us what we can and cannot do with those images (and the rights of such institutions to block us from access to the objects, and/or from taking photos to begin with).

EDIT: Blogsite ArsTechnica is now reporting that the scan was likely not, in fact, covertly done in the gallery but rather is likely an official scan commissioned by the museum and then “stolen” in some fashion by the two German artists – either through direct hacking of the museum’s systems in some fashion, or through having someone at the museum, or the contracted-out scanning company, give them the information.
This certainly changes the character of the situation a shade. I’m not sure whether it actually changes the copyright situation – in the US, the question of whether a highly accurate photographic record of something truly introduces “creativity” and thus qualifies as a new copyright (owned by the photographer) has some degree of legal precedent. I have no idea the case in German or EU law.

But, perhaps what’s most pertinent is conveyed in this quote from the ArsTechnica article, from Cosmo Wenman, an artist who has done his own covert scans of museum objects:

I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

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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.

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Or, On Dressing as an Orientalist

Right: “La Japonaise,” Claude Monet, 1876, MFA collection, 56.147. Image from MFA online catalog.

Well, if you haven’t heard about it already, there’s been some controversy this week over the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) offering an interactive gallery activity in which museum visitors can try on a replica of a costume kimono worn by Monet’s wife in one of the artist’s most iconic artworks. I have sat on this blog post for days, through upwards of 25 revisions, believe it or not, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not even sure what I think about it. I wrote pages and pages trying to cover every different side of this – and mainly, to cover my ass, in case anyone were to say “Oh, sure, you addressed X, but what about Y?” But, here, let me see if I can try to whittle it down to a more manageable size.

Here’s the basics of it, best as I understand it. I’ve read a whole bunch of blog posts & news articles on it, but it did very quickly get to the point where I just couldn’t keep up anymore. So, please do forgive me if I miss something. First, the MFA loaned the painting, Monet’s “La Japonaise,” to its own branch/sister museum in Japan, the Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The painting then traveled around to a few other museums in Japan. The Japanese staff of the Nagoya museum, or perhaps one of the other museums, created this replica kimono, and this in-gallery activity where museum visitors could try it on. Then the painting, and the kimono, returned to Boston. I’m not sure how long the exhibit, or this kimono-dressing activity, have been going on, but sometime within the last week or two, controversy erupted over it. There have been quite a few blog posts, Tumblr threads, and most recently threads on a professional mailing list for scholars of Japanese art, while some small number of people have begun protesting within the museum gallery itself.

Many (including the protestors protesting in person at the museum, judging from their protest signs – this is why I’ve never liked protest signs; no room for a properly nuanced argument when you make it all about slogans) have leapt to simply accuse that any wearing of kimono is blatantly Orientalist and racist, pointing to the long history of yellowface, of inappropriate Halloween costumes, of “Yellow Peril” political cartoons, Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan films, erasure of Asian & Asian-American presence by casting white people as Asian + relegating Asian(-American) actors to stereotypical roles, racist jokes, slanty-eyed thick-accented racist impressions, and so forth and so on. Some went so far as to tag their tweets #whitesupremacyskills, because obviously wearing a kimono for a few minutes is exactly the same as believing that all non-white people should be exterminated from this earth. Others labeled their one-way accusations of racism a “dialogue.” There has, indeed, been a long history of racism, appropriation, stereotype, and discrimination against those of East Asian descent in this country, and it absolutely does continue to go on, even among groups who really should know better. And the innumerable instances of this continuing to go on do, absolutely, continue to contribute to the Othering of those of Asian descent, to the perpetuation of truly harmful misunderstandings about their culture and identity. There is a lot out there in the world, in our society, to be very rightfully upset about. But not all Orientalism = imperialism = racism = appropriation = white supremacy. These are all very broad-ranging, complex, intertwining, overlapping things; they are not synonyms.

I think there is definitely an argument to be made that this is Orientalist and problematic. Yet, here’s the trick – a general hand-wavey “it’s about power structures” backed up by impenetrable post-colonial theory jargon doesn’t actually explain specifically how and why this might be offensive, or inappropriate. And a blunt assertion that “it’s racist, period, because, obviously,” certainly doesn’t.

Because not all racism, Orientalism, appropriation, is the same. All of it may be harmful, or damaging, but is it not the case that what’s important is the reasons why, and the ways in which it is problematic? I do not mean to veer into the over-wrought territory of saying that it’s the responsibility of the offended or the oppressed to have to educate the oppressor, because it certainly is not. It is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves about other cultures, about racism and sexism and imperialism, by seeking out teachers, readings, and cultural experiences. It is everyone’s responsibility because if we, all of us, whites, blacks, Asians, all of us, do not work to better understand precisely why and how things are harmful, or offensive, then we will only continue to say and do hurtful things.

The unnuanced accusation – I won’t even call it an “argument” – is that wearing a kimono is instantly, automatically, the same thing as the classic example of the geisha Halloween costume, or its ilk. To wear a kimono is to pretend to be a Japanese person, or a geisha or courtesan, and to thus be appropriating that identity, and perhaps most importantly appropriating it within the context of performing it incorrectly, according to insufficient or incorrect understandings of the culture. To wear a kimono is automatically wrong because it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck – a duck that is wearing bad red and white face makeup and saying stereotypical things in a racist accent.

This goes back to what I was saying (and I think Ube Empress would agree, though I shouldn’t speak for her) in my earlier post, that every culture is different, and every case is different. And part of what makes this particular case so interesting is how it differs from the standard case. Frankly, I’m surprised that so few of the commentaries and conversations about this “Kimono Wednesdays” seem to acknowledge what I saw pretty quickly. (I will not take full credit for this – I believe I may have read this insight initially on a Tumblr post, which I cannot seem to find again. My thanks to whomever that was, for pointing it out.)

In Japan, where this “dress up as Camille Monet” thing began, it was just that – it was dressing up, not as a Japanese, but as a French woman, as Camille Monet – to dress up not as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist. In the context of this taking place in Japan, with an audience of museumgoers who are presumably overwhelmingly native Japanese, the issue isn’t really one of Orientalism, because Japanese people own the rights to their own culture, to be Japanese, to perform Japaneseness, however they choose. If permission is the key thing to avoiding inappropriate cultural appropriation,1 they, as Japanese, have the power to give themselves permission. In Japan, rather, the issue here is one of Occidentalism – of the Japanese romanticization of the West, and of Impressionism and late 19th / early 20th century Paris in particular. This is what causes Paris syndrome.

In Boston, too, it’s the same painting, the same kimono, the same gallery activity. Fundamentally, the wearing of the kimono in and of itself is therefore not an act of dressing up as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist, as the Frenchwoman Camille Monet. And, not only that, but, I don’t think that Madame Monet herself is dressing up as an “Oriental” either – she’s got a blonde wig on. She is either simply being herself, in a kimono, or, as some have suggested, it may be a satire, a critique, in fact, of Orientalism, in which case, she too, is dressing as an “Orientalist.” So, just to be clear, it’s not even the case that the museum visitor is dressing as Mme. Monet dressing as an “Oriental.” They’re not. But, still, here in Boston, dressing as an Orientalist has a different meaning than in Japan. Here, it is a reenactment and perpetuation of the Orientalism of the late 19th / early 20th century, something that is problematic in its own ways, but that is, I would argue, decidedly different from the flat-out racist thing that these protesters are claiming it is.

As I see it, really, the key problem with dressing up as an Orientalist (as Madame Monet) is that it connects us to – rather than distancing us from – the Orientalist attitudes of the past, and the rampant cultural appropriation and questionable collection practices which resulted. To be sure, the MFA, and indeed the field of Japanese art history, owe a lot to late 19th / early 20th century Orientalist types like Edward Sylvester Morse, William Sturgis Bigelow, John LaFarge, Denman Waldo Ross, and Ernest Fenollosa, who started the MFA’s collection – and those of the Freer, the Metropolitan, the Gardner, and so forth – bringing back shiploads of Asian art, and introducing it to the American audience as something to be appreciated.2 But, as some of the protestors and critical commentators have said, the museum needs to be doing a lot more to engage critically with that history, not sweeping it under the rug, and certainly not celebrating or perpetuating it.

Here’s a radical idea: how about, for once, a major art museum turns the attention away from strictly aesthetic or stylistic concerns (the beauty of the artworks), and actually uses the artworks to talk about complex cultural and historical issues? I’m not even saying the museum has to be hostile towards itself, towards its own history – though I’m sure that’s what some of the social justice protestors are looking for. There are absolutely ways to talk about Orientalism, in general, as a historical phenomenon, without it having to be a violent tear-down of your own institution. In fact, I was about to link to photos from the Met’s current exhibit, on the history of its own Asian art collections, as an example of how to talk about these things, but, I am disappointed to see (again) that they really don’t address the issue at all, and to the contrary are fairly self-congratulatory. One would think the 100th anniversary of their Asian Art Department might be a fine time to acknowledge how far we have come – not just in amassing a larger collection, which is what the labels mostly focus on – but in terms of changing attitudes, and increasing sophistication of cultural understanding and appreciation. But, no, apparently not so much. At least they have a Timeline of Art History article on Orientalism in Nineteenth–Century Art, but this, too, doesn’t quite cut to the quick, and paints over it in not-quite-negative terms. But, then, that’s a whole other topic unto itself – whether the detached, removed, reserved, academic voice should or should not be, instead, a more impassioned, boldly scathingly critical voice.

*Sigh*. In any case, this is my key point for the post. Museumgoers at the MFA are (or were) not dressing up as a Japanese person, not as a geisha, not as an “Oriental.” They were dressing up as Camille Monet, as an Orientalist. And that’s problematic, but in different ways, for different reasons, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

Let us be critical of the museum, let us be critical of the decision to do this, but let us be critical for the right reasons, pressuring the museum to work harder to properly contextualize things, to more directly address the history of Orientalism as intimately intertwined with the institution of the museum itself, to more clearly distance the museum today from that history – to make a real change and not paper it over. Let us be critical in a way that addresses the issue at hand, and does not confuse the issue, or distract from the issue, with over-generalizing, unnuanced, all-inclusive accusations of “racism.” Let us be critical in such a way that all involved gain a better understanding of what is harmful, and what is not, and for what reasons, and in what ways, so that we all can move forward towards making real change, not only in how we behave, but in how we think about it, so that we understand on a deeper level what to recognize as racist, and what to recognize as not racist, in order to have a deeper, better understanding of what to do, and what not to do, in future.

Any institution, and all the more so in our PR-driven society, will succumb to pressure, to efforts to shame them. The Museum quickly stopped the kimono activity, and Walmart and numerous other retailers pulled the Confederate flag from their stores. But do they really know why? Have they genuinely changed their attitudes, and their understandings? Or are they liable to just commit similar offenses again?

The front facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jan 2007. Photo my own.

I would also like to point out that this is not simply a matter of the museum, as a monolith, being woefully disconnected from the community, elitist, or whathaveyou. I have no inside knowledge of conversations or politics within the MFA, specifically, but, as a curator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum wrote, relating to a similar controversy,

museums are more concerned than ever with numbers
of visitors and revenue generated from exhibitions
(increasing “the gate” of a show), and that this
impacts the work of curators in complicated ways:
As public museums, we have a dual duty to
encourage our public, woefully underinformed
in their education about Asia, to look
at unfamiliar works of art from foreign cultures,
and simultaneously to advance the
field of art history. As you can imagine,
these priorities sometimes clash. The Asian
Art Museum’s marketing department apparently
got the reins on promoting the gate,
calling the exhibition, “Lords of the Samurai”
(too close to “Lords of the Dance”), and
putting a Darth Vadar-like image on the
poster. The promotional video was cute and
silly, and fairly insulting to the whole idea of
the samurai.3

So, for whatever it is worth, let us not simply shame the museum, either as an individual institution (the MFA) or as an institution in general (all museums, the very concept of the museum). Let us have a conversation about the problems within the museum industry, about how and why the messages and presentations created by curators’ scholarly expertise – challenging harmful stereotypes and standard narratives, introducing nuance, and above all, being sensitive to complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. – so often get compromised by Education, by Marketing, by Trustees & Donors, and what steps can be taken to fix this. Maybe it’s just my own bias, based on where I come from, but I generally prefer the sympathetic approach to the antagonistic one, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to work with them to make it better, rather than working against them to tear them down, an approach which generally only creates further tensions and rifts.


Kimono hanging up on a clothes rack, in a folding screen painting of a conventional Japanese theme known as Tagasode, or “Whose Sleeves?”. Is it ever okay to wear kimono? Why or why not? Object owned by Metropolitan Museum; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the kimono itself, and why it is (or isn’t) problematic. If trying on the kimono is an Orientalist act, or, worse, racist, then in precisely what ways is it harmful? What stereotypes is it perpetuating?

(1) Because it’s being taken out of its proper cultural contexts.

Okay, so, in what ways is the kimono sacred, or reserved for only particular occasions or uses? In many cultures, there are particular garments which are to be worn only in religious contexts and not secular ones, or the other way around, or only for this festival or that occasion, only at certain times of the year, and wearing them outside of that context is at best odd, and at worst, culturally or religiously offensive. Or, they are to be worn only by men, or only by women, or only by people of a certain class or caste, because of beliefs about spiritual power, spiritual purity & pollution, or because of belonging or association with that particular group. This is a serious concern for museums like the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and indeed for all museums with extensive collections of objects from indigenous cultures from around the world, in particular. Museums like NMAI in Washington, and Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, store sacred and profane objects in separate places, have only female staffers handle certain objects, and only male staffers handle others; certain objects should only be handled by members of a particular tribe or nation. And conservators work closely with Native specialists to allow the objects to be rubbed with oil, consecrated with ash, or whatever the Native practice may be, while also looking to conserving the object’s physical integrity, to prevent physical damage, so that it can be kept for posterity, for study, and for sharing with museum audiences. When the Bishop Museum held an exhibition welcoming back to Hawaiʻi two statues of the god Kū which had not been seen in the islands since the 1820s, they worked with Native Hawaiian elders to have the proper ceremonies performed, to have the statues treated appropriately, and, during the course of that exhibition, photography was not allowed in the gallery, out of respect for the gods.

The Lakota feather headdress is another such item, of powerful cultural specificity and sacredness. As Jennifer Weston writes, “While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather.” A gallery label at the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Plains Indians exhibit explains that it is a mark of bravery, leadership, and political rank, with each feather representing a distinct honor earned in war, an honor not earned by Pharrell. Similar beliefs hold for Tahitian maro ura and Hawaiian feather cloaks and headdresses, which are believed to be imbued with the mana of their previous wearers, and of major events they have seen, and are not only restricted to the use of the elites (chiefs or monarchs), but are in some cases believed to be quite dangerous – the mana of the chiefs of the past is quite powerful, and could kill you.

Then there are things like a priest’s collar, which are not (so far as I know – I’m not Christian) really sacred in and of themselves, but are symbols of a rank or position, and should not be worn willy-nilly by anyone who hasn’t earned that position. Māori tattoostā moko – “tell the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations, and their place in these social structures. A moko’s message also portrays the wearer’s genealogy, knowledge and social standing.” And so, someone from outside the culture, for whom the moko does not have that meaning, and who does not possess a Maori genealogy or social standing to represent, should not be wearing moko. In Ming and Qing China, the wearing of dragon robes featuring dragons with five-clawed feet were reserved for the Emperor alone. I don’t know what goes on in China today, but, historically, within the culture, that would have been a major no-no.

But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean the garment is “sacred.” It doesn’t mean that having the wrong person handle it or wear it is spiritually polluting or destructive, just that it’s associated with a particular group, with the perquisites of that office or lineage. Each of these things has particular meanings, particular contexts outside of which they should not be worn. I am sure there are plenty of cases, too, of certain garments that should not be worn outside of a funeral, or outside of a wedding, not to mention special foods, things that should never be placed on the floor, things that should always be placed vertically, things that you can put on the floor but should always step around and not step over – the cultures of the world are incredibly diverse.

So, in what ways is the kimono (as a garment type in general), or this kimono in particular (its design invented by Monet), like a religious or sacred garment, or an object deeply traditionally associated with only particular contexts or only particular classes or clans of wearers?

It’s not. The word kimono means, literally, “something you wear,” and historically just about everything that Japanese wore in every context was kimono. Today, of course, kimono are not nearly as common as they once were, and outside of traditional performing arts and certain other specific occasions – graduation and weddings, for example – it is quite rare to see men wearing kimono. But, Japanese women (and sometime men) do sometimes wear kimono as part of regular youth fashion on the streets of Harajuku, or as part of their everyday wardrobe in Kyoto. Men and women both wear yukata to visit Tokyo DisneySea, as well. Now, admittedly, Madame Monet’s kimono is much more lavish, reminding me of that of a geisha or courtesan, or just a wealthy samurai or merchant wife – it’s not a summer festival yukata. But, in what contexts is a kimono not only out of place, but offensively so?4

As this post on Tumblr so informedly explains, this is actually not a geisha’s kimono, nor that of a courtesan, nor that of a commoner/merchant or samurai. It is a costume kimono, one made explicitly, originally, to be a costume. So, that, first of all, eliminates any considerations about it being offensive because it’s taken out of context – this is not, for example, a bridal kimono being worn inappropriately outside of a wedding, or a Shinto robe being worn in a secular context, by someone who is not a proper Shinto priest – and it also complicates the issue of whether or not this constitutes dressing up as a geisha, or as a courtesan. When the kimono itself doesn’t even belong directly, properly, to the culture, but is an Orientalist invention, does that make the whole thing better – because it’s not being taken out of context, and not used incorrectly or inappropriately – or worse, because it’s perpetuating misrepresentation of the culture? Both? Neither? I don’t know.

(2) What stereotypes is this perpetuating? How does this (mis)represent the Japanese people, or their culture, as being [insert stereotype here]?

Since the museum is not encouraging people to dress up as a geisha, or a courtesan, or as a Japanese person at all, but rather to dress up as Camille Monet, or, to dress up simply as themselves (the museumgoer him or herself) in a kimono, I think it’s fair to say that the museum activity is not, innately, one of perpetuating any stereotype at all. If a museum visitor chooses to behave in a certain way while in the kimono, making slanty eyes or saying racist things in a stereotypical accent, that’s their fault. And maybe the museum staff should have seen that coming, and maybe they should have headed it off at the pass. But, inherently, I don’t think that’s what this gallery activity is, or is meant to be, at its core. Remember, this activity was invented at the Japanese museum. For the Japanese people, wearing kimono is not a special occasion or a special opportunity – to have simply trying on kimono in the museum as a special activity is not something they would ever do. But, wearing Mme. Monet’s kimono? That’s a different story. Try on Mme. Monet’s kimono, and pretend to be an elite 19th century Parisian lady.

(3) Okay, but it’s still appropriation, right?

Yes, it is still appropriation, and it is still problematic. One person I spoke to about it emphasized the idea that this “Kimono Wednesdays” dress-up photo-op contributes to, or encourages, the idea of kimono, and of Japan/Japaneseness more broadly, as accessory. I had not thought of this, and I think it’s a really important and valid point. This is why I don’t wear kimono, or Chinese scholars’ robes (cool as that would be), out in public, outside of any particular context in which it might be more appropriate – because I would feel awkward, because it’s not my culture to claim, and perhaps more so than that, because it’s evocative or reminiscent of the Orientalists of time past. But, this I guess is the key point – if I did dress in kimono, just out in public, I still would not be pretending to be Japanese, perpetuating stereotypes about the Japanese, or using something (the kimono) in a sacrilegiously inappropriate cultural context. But, I would be evoking an association with *Westerners* of the past with whom I should not want to associate myself, because of the appropriation they committed, and the racist, Orientalist, and/or paternalist attitudes that go along with that.

In a sense, this is perhaps the dictionary definition of “cultural appropriation” – we are a culture, not a costume, and our culture is not yours to pick and choose from, like a cultural grab-bag, to just use whichever elements you want purely for aesthetic purposes, as decoration. This type of appropriation is, essentially, what Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and the like are guilty of in their appropriations of kimono and so forth. They are not dressing as geisha, or as some stereotype of a Japanese person, and then misrepresenting that identity, or perpetuating that stereotype. They are not slanting their eyes and speaking in a bad accent. They are not dressing as a Japanese woman and then, as that Japanese woman, being passive or subordinate, seductive & exotically mysterious. They are merely dressing as themselves, in cultural elements appropriated without proper permission or authority.1 And that is wrong enough, problematic and offensive enough, in itself.

Come get your picture taken with Mr. Freer, and pretend to be an Orientalist just like him, traveling the world, romanticizing and exoticizing foreign cultures, buying up their cultural treasures. Fun, and adventure! Photo my own.

So. Finally, finally, to wrap up. I trust Mia Nakaji Monnier when she writes that “when I tell you that I’m offended, as protesters told the Museum of Fine Arts, that’s not a superficial, knee-jerk reaction, but one that comes from that deep, raw place within me where all those intangibles about culture live.” I have no doubt she is being honest, that her pain is genuine. I quite liked her piece in the Boston Globe, which gives her personal perspective as a mixed-race Asian-American, and I encourage you to read it. It really made me think. I sympathize with her terribly, and I think she is right, that as the title of her piece says, this controversy should “spark deeper conversation.”

I am ashamed, horrified even, at some of the things I used to believe, and used to do, within this vein. But, that’s what education, and experience, especially international and intercultural experience, are all about. We learn, and we grow. We learn to understand that the world is an immensely diverse, complex, nuanced place, that things can have a multitude of connotations and associations, many of them innocuous, and many of them harmful, and that extreme views on either side, which form massive umbrella categories, accusing everything of being racist, or defending everything as not – not to mention the inevitable ad hominem attacks – stifle that conversation, and prevent anyone, on either side, from learning, from growing. We need to have a conversation, therefore, that spurs thought, consideration, for these complexities, so that we can, all of us, learn better what offends us and why, what offends others and why. We need to talk about precisely why and how a given thing is damaging, or hurtful, so that we can learn to understand one another better, so that we can understand why what we do is sometimes hurtful, so that we can try to do better in the future.

We all need to work to improve our own.understandings of why and how these things are hurtful and damaging in a variety of different ways, in order to better understand one another, to feel sympathy, to understand what not to do, and perhaps most importantly in order to understand what we can do – what forms or modes of cultural engagement are appropriate, are comparatively unproblematic. To do otherwise, to seek to expunge anything and everything that even vaguely resembles racism, to some people, even if not to others, is terribly stifling, in this increasingly globalized world, where intercultural understanding, and not compartmentalization, is so needed.

And despite the fact that I’m being hypocritical with this long blog post here, I think we need to have this conversation in person. Sit down with someone else, and work it out. Discuss it in person. Hear them out, line by line, not page by page, post by post, and talk about it. How about this? What about that? The conversation will be constituted not in rants by one side, and rants by another side, but by a mutual exploration of the various aspects and multiple permutations of this complex topic. And through such a conversation, one’s ideas, one’s perspectives, can change – and you can change others’ attitudes too – so much more than by simply laying out your thoughts as I am hypocritically doing here, and just sending it out to the Internet, inviting excoriation in return.

There is a whole complex of things I have not addressed here. That does not mean they are unimportant, or irrelevant, or that I am intentionally ignoring them. I have tried, in this rather lengthy post, to focus in on one aspect, one set of points, simply so as to not make the post even lengthier than it already is. One could write entire books on this subject and still never cover all the nuanced different aspects. And that, in a way, is essentially my point. So, here is one opinion, on one aspect, one view of the controversy. There is certainly a lot more to be said, on other implications, other sides of this massive issue, and I hope you won’t take this as my final definitive word. These are just some thoughts I had, as of this week, and I may in fact think differently, based on reading more. I hope you, too, might think differently after reading other perspectives, too. Thank you for your understanding.

(1) Going back to Prof. Susan Scafidi’s definition, quoted by Ube Empress: “Cultural appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
(2) Incidentally, it’s kind of irrelevant to this argument, but let’s not forget that there were plenty of Japanese engaged in this too, both at the national level, and as private art dealers, who were quite eager to promote Japanese art to Western audiences – from export art and the World’s Fairs, to figures like Okakura Kakuzô and Hayashi Tadamasa.
(3) Hollis Goodall, “A museum curator’s response,” weblog entry, quoted in Morgan Pitelka, “Should Museums Welcome Parody? Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family,” Early Modern Japan, 2011.
(4) Can I ask also, and I mean this sincerely, not trolling, when cultural outings on field trips for study abroad groups, in Japan, involve dressing up in kimono explicitly as an act of cultural engagement explicitly, specifically, for foreigners, how is that different from doing it in the United States? What makes the cultural authority of the Asian art curators of the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, some of them of Japanese descent, and with extensive experience both in Japan and in studying Japanese art, who have quite literally dedicated their careers, their lives, to studying Asian art and sharing it with the public, so much lower, so much less authorized to authorize such dress-up, than, say, a Lions Club in Japan? I’m not saying there are specific right or wrong answers, but I am saying this is the conversation that needs to be had.

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In my last post, I shared this same picture of the construction at the original site of Nakagusuku udun, the mansion of the Crown Prince of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and wrote that I don’t know what kind of construction they may be doing, but that sadly, I doubt that it’s archaeological excavation or reconstruction of the site. Well, I still don’t know what’s going on at that site, but as it turns out, there may be plans to reconstruct the mansion at its later historical site, where it was relocated in the Meiji Period, following the fall of the kingdom. While the original, pre-Meiji, site where I took that above photograph is immediately adjacent to Shuri High School, and for all I know, they may be expanding the high school, or they may be building condominiums, the Meiji era site of the Nakagusuku Palace, which was for many years in the postwar period the site of the Prefectural Museum, is just a few blocks away, directly north of the Ryûtan Pond, and very much within the range of where a tourist who’s come to see the castle is likely to walk, and to see. If all of this does come to fruition, I really can’t wait to see the reconstructed mansion myself.

According to a 2012 article in the Ryukyu Shimpo, the prefectural government made a basic plan in 2012, with the intention of in 2013 beginning further investigations and considerations of the possibilities, and the hope of possibly beginning construction as soon as 2015. There was discussion as well of the possibility of including a local community center, and small archive/museum (shiryôkan) on the site.

The Meiji era blueprints, which still survive, show that the mansion had two parts: a front section (表御殿), where men’s activity was centered, and a rear section (御内原, O-uchibaru) which was the women’s area. The reconstruction planning document divides these into three sections: the entire palace will be reconstructed back to its historical appearance on the outside, but while the eastern half of the “front palace” will also be restored on the inside, as a “historical house” much like sections of Shuri Castle have been, the western half of the “front palace” will house a community center, such as local people have been requesting, and the women’s quarters, the rear half, will house the archive/museum/gallery.

Personally, this sounds great to me. Depending on exactly how they do it, it could be that the whole thing, the entire city block, will look just like it did historically (more or less), really contributing to the restoration of the historical / cultural / aesthetic feel of the neighborhood, a neighborhood which only 150 years ago was the home of Ryukyu’s scholar-aristocracy, the very center of Ryukyuan high culture. And, while having that appearance on the outside, the reconstructed mansion will have a nice balance of restored historical architectural areas, where you can to one extent or another really experience the site as if it had survived straight through from the pre-war era, combined with areas where those running it can hold other sorts of exhibits and displays.

Takara Kurayoshi, a very prominent scholar of Okinawan history and as of 2013 (and I think still today) Vice Governor of Okinawa prefecture, is quoted in the 2012 Ryukyu Shimpo article as saying (in my own rough translation),

This representative building of Shuri’s distinctive appearance, as a city lined with udun and dunchi, the mansions of the elite, is being resurrected. This is one piece of the long process of resurrecting what was lost in the Battle of Okinawa.


I have not come across any newer articles indicating anything about the progress of this project, but at least we can say that this summer, when I visited, the site looked much as it did when I saw it for the first time in 2008. Pretty much empty space, surrounded by nice traditional-looking stone walls. So, whether the plan is going forward or not, at least they haven’t build condominiums or anything. Here’s hoping.

The outer walls of the Nakagusuku udun site as they appeared in 2013, and as they still do as of summer 2014.

All color photos my own. Public domain pre-war black & white photographs by Kamakura Yoshitarô courtesy Japanese Wikipedia.

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A young musician, reentering the country with the violin she has had since she was young, returning home after performing a gig overseas. A Smithsonian staff member escorting paintings on loan from Tokyo. A man moving across the country with his family heirlooms, including his grandmother’s antique silverware and his grandfather’s old revolver. Pretty soon, all of these people, and many more in a myriad of individual situations, may find it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to do such basic things.

A Department of the Interior crackdown aims to deal a killing blow to poaching by making it more difficult than ever to bring ivory in or out of the US, or to even transport ivory objects domestically, across state boundaries. The target of this policy is, of course, the black market in ivory from animals poached recently, and in the future. The administration’s intention is clearly admirable, as we all wish to do what we can to help save endangered species from extinction. However, it seems clear that either policymakers have no concept of the wide-ranging consequences of such a policy, the collateral damage if you will, or that they simply do not care.

Under the international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), drafted in 1973, it is illegal to bring into signatory countries objects made from ivory, certain kinds of snakeskins, rhino horn, or any of a long list of other endangered species’ furs, skins, or body parts, with the exception of anything made before 1976. By placing a contemporary date on the policy, those drafting the wording of the treaty made sure it would be targeted at cutting down on contemporary poaching currently ongoing. While there are valid concerns relating to the issues of forgers & smugglers intentionally aging new objects in order to pass them off as antiques, and the difficulties of discriminating between objects from the years or decades immediately before and after 1976, the policymakers at that time recognized that blocking the movement of objects far older – including artifacts of great artistic or historical value, such as a 12th century chess set from the British Museum, which drew great crowds when loaned to the Metropolitan Museum just two years ago, and under this policy might never be seen in the US again – does nothing to curb poaching going on today, and indeed serves no purpose at all other than to provide great difficulties for the arts and other particular sectors of our society.

It has been suggested that any ivory out there, allowed legally into the country, encourages continued poaching by demonstrating a continued demand for ivory. An article in Forbes quotes a representative from Fish and Wildlife as claiming: “we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild.” In fact, quite to the contrary, it seems clear that having older ivory out there provides a source, a supply, of ivory for those seeking to produce or obtain ivory objects without supporting contemporary poaching.

When we think of ivory, we tend to think of knickknacks and scrimshaws, and/or of wealthy art collectors who move in circles quite foreign to the rest of us. But we are all ourselves collectors too; we go on vacation, we buy souvenirs. How many things do you own that might have ivory on it, possibly without you even knowing it? What’s that inlay on the body of your guitar made of? How about the buttons on that vintage aloha shirt you bought the last time you were in Honolulu (or Bali)? Or the wristwatch your grandfather gave you when you were a kid? When you bought that knickknack in that quaint little shop in Llangollen during your honeymoon forty years ago, did you get a certificate of authenticity and proof of antique provenance?

Under this policy, we can say goodbye to the idea of ever selling our family heirlooms to retire comfortably, or inheriting those heirlooms from relatives living out-of-state or overseas. Forget about ever hearing a concert from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, or any of the world’s great Philharmonic Orchestras (not to mention countless other musical artists and groups) who might not be able to travel to or within the US, for fear of having their instruments seized for the tiny bit of ivory on the tip of their violin, viola, and cello bows. Likewise, we can forget about ever again seeing any of the greatest treasures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting. It has already become increasingly difficult in recent years to get loans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artworks to show in our museums, for a variety of reasons; if museums around the world are required, for example, to replace the ivory toggles used to help tie scrolls closed with plastic ones just to accommodate US law, it could have seriously deleterious effects on relationships between US museums and museums the world over, forcing us to say goodbye not only to American audiences getting the opportunity to see and enjoy those particular types of East Asian artworks, but potentially making it far more difficult for our museums to borrow and show any artworks from overseas at all. And if the great crowds lining up outside the Frick Gallery in New York last summer to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” are any indication, there is a great interest in continuing to be able to borrow works from overseas. Tiny though these sectors of the economy, or of society, may be, I do think it terribly undesirable. And it shows a disregard on the part of the administration for considerations of our great cultural institutions and experiences.

Returning to the matter of the unintended consequences this policy could have for all of us – collectors, dealers, and typical private citizens alike – the Department of the Interior’s official press release does briefly mention that some classes of objects, including “bona fide antiques [and] certain noncommercial items” would be exempt, so long as the owner/seller/shipper provides proper documentation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that information about the applicable law is confusing and contradictory. The New York Times and Washington Post note that exemptions are made for those who can prove that the ivory was legally acquired before 1976, while the Dept of the Interior’s press release says that one must prove that “an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.” Cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, meanwhile, on his blog, gives 1989 as the cut-off date. Yet, “antiques” are defined as being at least 100 years old; so, are objects made less than 100 years ago, but before the 1970s, antiques, and legal to own and trade, or are they not?

In any case, as an astute commenter on the Washington Post’s article online notes, it doesn’t really matter what the precise technicalities of the law may be. Any individual customs officer, on any given day, might be less familiar with the permits, or have a different personal understanding of the regulations, or might make a different determination as to the veracity of a traveler’s claims, or as to the age or identification of his objects. Customs officers are not experts in the appraisal of antique ivory, snakeskin, and every single other potential type of contraband – and case in point, neither is the average tourist souvenir-buyer. I myself have a set of mahjongg tiles I bought at a flea market in Tokyo which I imagine are plastic but which may well be ivory. Beats me. And, as the young musician in the Washington Post article notes, he too only suspects that the tip of his bow might be made of ivory, and doesn’t himself even know whether it’s antique ivory, or might have been replaced relatively recently before he bought it, or whether it’s even ivory at all.

Ironically, the one group not targeted by this crackdown on ivory trafficking? Sport game hunters, who are permitted two African elephant sport-hunted trophies per year.

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NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

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