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Last week was an absolute whirlwind. And as much as I tried to get this blog post down as immediately as I could after the festival was over, now, nearly a week later, the whole thing is mostly a blur – but still an extremely positive experience that I am sure will stay with me for a long time to come. I am so lucky that the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which happens only once every five years, happened to come around while I am here studying in Okinawa. Some 6000 people of Okinawan descent (=Uchinanchu) came from all around the world for a massive reunion party unlike any I have ever seen. The week included so many events it made my head spin – music and dance performances, talks & lectures, eisa, sumo, food booths, cultural lessons/workshops, all across the island (and on some of the other islands too) – but I think for most people the main thing was simply coming here with family and friends, and meeting up with other family and friends, visiting the ancestral homeland to explore or deepen one’s connections to one’s roots, but also to just go out and have a great vacation, with food and drink and partying..

A one-sheet extra edition, compiled and printed super fast, and handed out at the end of Wednesday’s participants’ parade, before the parade was even over!

For my part, both because I’m living here (and was therefore not quite in full-on mental vacation mode) and because I didn’t really have all that many people to hang out with, I’m not sure I had quite the full experience. But, still, I attended so many events, and had a really great time hanging out with the people I did know.

As of a few months ago, my friend Shari with the Hawaiʻi contingent thought it might be difficult for tiny Hawaiʻi to beat the 1100 or so registered attendees from the huge country of Brazil, but in the end, Hawaiʻi sent over 1800 people to the Taikai – and big thanks to Shari for helping me to be one of them. Groups from Peru and Argentina were big, too, and numerous groups from all different parts across the mainland US, of course. Germany, the UK, France, Australia. China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawan associations from different parts of mainland Japan, as well, of course. I think one of the surprising ones for me was New Caledonia – it makes sense, I suppose, that there’d be a lot of Okinawans there, just like in Hawaiʻi and Guam, but, still, it was a huge contingent. All of these Uchinanchu from all around the world coming together, not only were there some 6000 additional people visiting the island for the last week, but it was a majorly prominent big event, with newspapers putting out special editions reporting on the Festival, and a great many shops hanging signs and so forth. Everyone knew it was going on. It made for a really nice atmosphere – I didn’t end up talking to too many people who I just ran into on the street, but, having so many people here who you know are in a similar situation to yourself (well, not quite to myself, but I sort of adopted the identity of an Uchinanchu returning for the Festival) really creates such a wonderful open, friendly, sort of feeling.

Gov. Onaga of Okinawa, with the flags of some of the many countries & regions represented, welcoming everyone back home. I wish I had taken more photos of just generally seeing people on the street, or photos of small parties with friends. Drat.

And I think that was one of the main things that really struck me about the whole thing. It’s corny, but it’s real, that all of these people from all around the world, have come together in friendship – and more than that, really, as family – to celebrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Of course, with any such group so large, you’re going to have people acting like strangers – like the strangers they are – to a large extent; but, at the same time, while I generally try to avoid making generalizations about a whole people, I really do feel that the Okinawans are the most welcoming and inclusive people I know. Meeting fellow Uchinanchu, they share in that like they’re family. And with someone like myself, who is not Okinawan (and never can be), Okinawans here in Okinawa have been friendly as could be, and diaspora Okinawans have been just so welcoming, so accepting, inviting me into their group to go out for drinks, or whatever… Months ago, when I was first hearing about the Taikai, Shari was on Hawaiʻi Public Radio telling people about the Taikai, and about registering through the Hawaiʻi United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I sent her a message saying, basically, I’m not Okinawan, and I haven’t lived in Hawaiʻi in quite a few years, but should I register through HUOA? Is there a way to register just as a loner? And I am so glad to have registered with HUOA. Somehow, I didn’t get that same feeling this weekend as I did a few months ago in LA of feeling like I was back in Hawaiʻi, but still, it’s really something to feel a part of a community, a part of a group – to feel some connection to Hawaiian community, to Hawaiʻi as a cultural space. And I really can’t wait to go spend time in Hawaiʻi again, to maintain those connections.

My point is, attending the opening ceremonies at Onoyama Park Cellular Stadium, seeing thousands of Okinawans celebrating together, showing their pride in their individual cities or countries, but also in being Okinawan, and seeing Gov. Onaga and the prefecture of Okinawa more broadly welcoming them home in this way, it’s just so touching. Reminds me of the Olympics, in a sense, just that cheesy but nevertheless genuine heartwarming feeling of people coming together, in friendship, from all around the world, which puts tears in your eyes. Even before the official opening ceremonies on Thursday, on the day before, there was a participants’ parade in which everyone, in their respective national or regional contingents, marched down Kokusai-dôri (the main street of Naha). As Hawaiʻi was one of the first groups to walk, I got to finish walking the parade, and then turn around and become a spectator to watch all the other groups pass by – and seeing Okinawans from Texas, from Guam, from Bolivia.. even from Zambia, was just incredible. Most people had matching shirts, really “representing” their various countries or regions, and they waved flags, blasted music, performed dances. And, both at the parade and all through the week, local Okinawans would stop people, and hold their hand, and say “welcome home” (o-kaeri-nasai), often with tears in their eyes. I’m getting a little bit teary just writing about it.

Some of my friends have better photos than this; some experienced it rather directly. I, too, was greeted similarly on a number of occasions. It’s a really incredible feeling, for strangers, just anyone, people you meet on the street, to treat you like family, to welcome you home like this.

There were times during the week that I felt I wished we could all have what the Okinawans have. I mean, it comes from pain, from suffering, and I certainly do not wish that upon anyone, that anyone should have to go through what the Okinawans have. Their independent kingdom, so culturally rich and vibrant, was unilaterally abolished and annexed, and the islands’ economy allowed to flounder and collapse, leading a great many to emigrate to Hawaiʻi, the US, South America, and elsewhere right around 1900. This was followed in 1945 by Japan allowing Okinawa to become a battlefield, for a last stand for Imperial Japan, a battle which ended in the deaths of roughly 1/4 of Okinawa’s civilian population, and the utter destruction of much of the island. And indeed, that suffering or oppression is ongoing, as roughly 1/5th of Okinawa’s land continues to be occupied by US military bases today, with both Tokyo and Washington agreeing to essentially use the entire island as a strategic military position, rather than truly seeing it as an equal part of Japan, with equal rights to not have to put up with all the many repercussions of that.

But, my feeling is that through all of this, the Okinawan people have such an appreciation for one another, and for their diasporic relatives, addressing one another not as strangers who happen to have some commonality or similarity, but addressing one another as long-lost distant family. They speak of the Okinawan diaspora as being true Uchinanchu just as much, and as doing great things for Okinawa, or in the name of the Okinawan people. They speak of being linked by one heart, one soul, of being inseparably tied to this place as the homeland. We heard stories from members of the older generation, who speak of having lived overseas (in diaspora) for fifty or sixty years, but that when they dream of home, it is Okinawa they dream of. We heard from members of the younger generation, who have come here to Okinawa as exchange students in order to explore their roots. We heard from Gov. Onaga and other top people in Okinawa, who welcomed these thousands of Okinawans home, speaking of how proud Okinawa is of all of them out there in the world. Speaking of the special spirit, the strength, the power, of Uchinanchu. And at both the opening and closing ceremonies, we saw some of the real all-stars of Okinawan pop/rock/whatever music performing, not as distant, untouchable, impersonal celebrities who might happen to share some common ethnic designation, but rather, as people excited and emotional to be involved in such an event, welcoming all these people home. I wish we all could have such a strong feeling of identity, of togetherness, of ties to the land, of appreciation for our ancestors, of love for our culture, and without anyone else seeing our pride and our togetherness as a dangerous or ugly form of nationalism, or as illegitimate or inappropriate in whatever way. Maybe it’s just my perspective based on who *I* am, my own ethnic/cultural background, my own family’s history, but to me, this all feels “pure” in a way. A pure and wholly positive feeling, and display, of pride of identity, without any of the negative connotations that prevent us from demonstrating our pride in the same way in being American, Japanese, German, Jewish, or any number of other identities. I wish I could wave the Hawaiian flag and feel it was my own. I wish I could wave the Israeli flag and have people see it in that same light – as a long-oppressed minority, an indigenous people, regaining our homeland after centuries of occupation.

Ukwanshin Kabudan, performing in their own short play about the history and experiences of Okinawan immigrants to Hawaiʻi. The group is now working with an NPO called Okinawa Hands-On to produce a documentary on the importance of maintaining the Okinawan language. If you might be interested in contributing to this effort, and to the production of more plays like the one from which this photo was taken, see the Okinawa Hands-On website.

Hanging out with diaspora Okinawans, and studying Okinawan history and culture, has really helped me think about and understand and appreciate my own background as well. It’s all too easy to study history or culture (arts) as objects to be studied – as bodies of knowledge to simply read about, learn about, know, and then share. Names, dates, events, facts. And I do love that stuff. And I do think it’s important. But the ways in which we live our very real lives, the ways in which every individual person, every individual family, has their story, their experiences, their particular relationships with their identity; the way we struggle, as individuals, as families, as local communities, and as a people as a whole (e.g. the Okinawan people), to know the past and to keep those lessons with us, to have appreciation for our ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be here today, to hold onto some notion of our heritage while still living the more immediate, if mundane, priorities of everyday modern life… has really gotten me to think about my own Jewish identity, my relationship with my grandparents and their story, their identity, the heritage that I have inherited, what sort of life I want to live and what lessons I should want to pass down to my own children. How do we embody our ethnic or cultural identities and make that truly a part of who we are? How do we honor who our ancestors would have wanted us to be? How do we maintain traditions, and not lose them, while at the same time not preserving them in a sterile unchanging way like in a glass jar? And how do we maintain them while also dealing with the demands of regular, everyday, modern life?

Some people I would love to get to know, and who I suspect would actually be quite friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike the air or impression that I think is not uncommon within New York or Tokyo of unapproachability. You know, it’s funny, for a post all about making friends and feelings of friendship and family, I still can’t believe (still as in as I continue to write this, from however many paragraphs earlier) that I took no photos at all of new or old friends, or of hanging out with people this whole week. That’s what the whole damn thing was about (partially)!

Another thing that comes up when hanging out with Hawaiʻi folks is the sense I get that in Hawaiʻi, and in Okinawa, it’s not so much about knowing your way around the city/island, knowing cool places, in an impersonal way, nor is it about “who you know” (personal networks) in a high-powered, self-important way, but rather that it’s very much about just being friendly and making friends, and that’s something I have really grown to love and enjoy. I know my way around New York and Tokyo to a certain extent – I have my favorite restaurants, etc.; I know certain short-cuts or certain back ways or whatever. And I’d long aspired to develop that more for those two cities, and for everywhere I went. But, being knowledgeable in that sort of way can be rather impersonal – knowing the best restaurants in the city, being up on the latest trends, doesn’t mean you actually know anyone, or that they know you. And, like at that party I happened to be invited to that one time at the apartment of a curator for the Guggenheim, New York can feel like it’s all about moving in important circles. Who you know, as in who you can name drop, who you can get favors from. But in Hawaiʻi, and I think maybe in Okinawa too, it’s not about that stuff. It’s about being real, genuine friends with people who just happen to be guesthouse operators, restaurant owners, magazine editors, archivists… It’s maybe a little hard to put into words, I guess, what the difference is that I sense. But it’s about the easy, friendly, accessibility of making friends with people in all sorts of circles. Introductions go a long way here, and people are friendly and open and welcoming. They aren’t necessarily looking for what they can get out of you, or looking skeptically at this stranger wondering why should we really be friends. And I think that’s something I struggle with within myself – wanting to be on good, friendly, terms with more or less everyone in my life, but at the same time I have a hard time really accepting that someone else sees me as a friend until we’ve hung out many times and I feel a genuine sense of closeness. Anyway, I’m getting a little too personal, or self-psychoanalyzing or something. The point is, I’ve been here for all of six weeks, and by virtue of friends’ introductions, I already have connections, if not outright friendships, with quite a few grad students and professors, plus a guesthouse owner or manager, the editor of a major local magazine, an archivist… and in Hawaiʻi, through one means or another, I think I have friends or at least acquaintances, connections of some sort, with at least a few bars and restaurants, with multiple people at the Honolulu Museum of Arts, many on campus of course, but also with HUOA, the Japanese Cultural Center, the synagogue, and so on and so forth, after only three years of living there, by virtue of friendliness, aloha spirit, introductions, and the fact that it’s all in all a relatively small place. By contrast, I’ve lived in New York more or less my whole life (when I wasn’t in London or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or Okinawa or California), and while I am fortunate to have a few friends in a few “high” places here and there, for the most part, I already feel more “connected” here in Okinawa, and in Hawaiʻi, than I ever have (and perhaps ever will) in New York – and not only in the professional networking “what can I get out of you” sort of way, but even in the sense of having social circles I feel I can rely upon to invite me out.

Here’s part of where the difference comes in: in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa, I never felt like I was walking with an elite crowd. I never felt like we were calling up a place to make a reservation and saying “do you know who I am?” “Oh, yes, of course, anything for you, Mr. so-and-so.” No. It was more like calling up and saying “Hey, [insert name]! How’s it going? Thanks again for such-and-such the other night. It was a really fun time. Listen, I have some friends coming into town. You think you have space?” “Oh, yeah, of course! It’s always great to see you! I can’t wait to meet your friends!” After the Taikai was over, just a few days ago, I went over to the guesthouse where one of my friends had been staying, to inquire about making a reservation myself. And, not only did the manager/owner immediately say,

“Travis! Yes, she told me you’d be coming. Great to meet you!”

and then talk to me excitedly about how wonderful that mutual friend is, a nice, fun, generous, warm, person, but then even in the middle of showing me around the guesthouse, she saw someone walking past on the street (a friend? a regular guest?) and called out to him “Oh! Takeo! I didn’t know you were back!” And then interrupted our little “tour” to go chat with him. I just love the idea of this kind of not-so-strictly-professional, friendly, attitude. Like I might also become not only a regular guest, but actually a friend, and might even get introduced to other friends, and, I dunno, just, feel happy and welcomed and feel a part of a real network of actual friends here, more so than just being an experienced, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, visitor.

This weekend was incredible. So much fun, so exciting, but also emotional at times, very moving. It’s also given me a lot to think about; it’s refreshed my feeling of membership in a Hawaiʻi community, for which I could not be more grateful; and it’s helped me make some new friends and contacts here in Okinawa, which is sure to be fruitful going forward.

The above is all just one version of one attempt at organizing my thoughts and feelings on all of this… I still barely know how I think about all of this. My identity, my relationship to all of these things, remain a work in progress. I may at some point come back and write more about the Taikai, specifically about some of the many events I attended over the course of the Festival, which I barely touched upon at all in this post. But, feeling already so far behind (posting this so many days after the Taikai ended), I’m not sure I will get around to it. In the meantime, for those interested, please do feel free to check out my documentation of my experience of the Taikai, on Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube.

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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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Let’s move on, and continue with my responses/reviews of some readings on Hawaiian history. In this post, I look at three journal articles on somewhat unrelated but complementary topics.

*DeSoto Brown, “Beautiful, Romantic Hawaii: How the Fantasy Image Came to Be.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 20 (1994): 253–71.

*Lori Pierce, “The Whites Have Created Modern Honolulu”: Ethnicity, Racial Stratification, and the Discourse of Aloha.” In Paul Spickard (ed.) Racial Thinking in the United States, 124–54, 2004.

*John P. Rosa “Beyond the Plantation: Teaching about Hawai’i before 1900.” Journal of Asian American Studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 223–40.

University of Hawaii students sit together to show the ethnic differences of Hawaii’s population in 1948. Image from NPR.

These three articles address somewhat different topics, but overlap in interesting ways. All three seek to address aspects of Hawaiian history outside of the standard stereotypical understandings, complicating or challenging those stereotypical views.

Lori Pierce’s essay “The Whites Have Created Modern Honolulu” discusses the ways in which haole businessmen & other haole community leaders in the 1910s-1930s constructed and deployed discourses of ethnic harmony in order to promote their own interests, including protecting (maintaining) their own superior political, economic, and social position in Hawaiʻi. This aligns well with DeSoto Brown’s article “Beautiful, Romanic Hawaii,” which explains how films, travel advertising, aloha shirts, popular/folk music and other elements of popular media discourse combined to construct idyllic or otherwise romantic impressions of Hawaiʻi among American mainlanders – impressions which do not accurately, or “truthfully,” match what life in Hawaiʻi was ever actually like, and impressions which continue to fundamentally inform stereotypes of Hawaiʻi today, even as the golden age of popularity of a particular cultural concurrence (aloha shirts, fake luaus & hula, tiki bars, etc.) has become largely a thing of the past. Pierce’s article also aligns with John Rosa’s essay “Beyond the Plantation,” in a different way, insofar as both address ethnic relations in the islands. Rosa addresses the emphasis on plantation life in Asian-American Studies approaches to Hawaiian history, suggesting that a greater focus on Native Hawaiian demographic & economic history, and on the history of haole political and economic activity, would better inform a fuller understanding of the history.

Rosa touches briefly upon ancient Polynesian voyaging traditions and origins, the role of the sandalwood, whaling, and other industries in the economic “development” and political changes in early 19th century Hawaiʻi, and the political events surrounding the overthrow in the 1880s-1890s, with a particular focus on population decline and decline of political power for Native Hawaiians. I can imagine that for an Asian-American Studies audience (given that this was published in the Journal of Asian American Studies), it might be of particular importance to press such an audience to remember to think about these events & their surrounding issues; however, even as a novice historian of Hawaiʻi & the Pacific, I feel that there is little of Rosa’s argument that is new for me; little of it is anything I did not already believe was important – central, even – to the basic historical narrative of Hawaiʻi’s history. Still, this article serves as a useful basic primer to these issues, and to some key sources for learning more about certain issues and events. When I come to putting together a syllabus for a survey of Hawaiian or Pacific history, I will look back to this article, among others.

“Hawaii welcomes you as you’ve never been welcomed before…” Come enjoy our harmonious paradise, where everything is perfect, because if you knew it wasn’t, it would harm the tourist industry, and never mind the ethnic resentments seething just below the surface :) Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user Don O’Brien.

The two articles by DeSoto Brown and Lori Pierce are quite interesting and informative for thinking about my own experience moving to, and living in Hawaiʻi, negotiating between preconceptions and reality, as well as for engaging with how to think about, or teach, the construction of stereotypes and misconceptions. The “discourse of aloha” that Pierce describes, a belief in the harmonious relations between ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi, remains a constant refrain today in Hawaiʻi, despite serious ethnic issues and divisions. It is interesting to see how this was constructed in order to promote American travel to the islands, and general positive attitudes towards the “project” of Americanization assimilation efforts in the islands, as part of broader discursive efforts to justify and normalize haole political, social, and economic dominance. Haoles have never been an ethnic majority in the islands, and in the early 20th century feared the growing influence of those of Asian descent; many, Pierce relates, feared that such a small number of haoles would not be able to exert sufficient cultural force to properly or fully Americanize these non-whites, and viewed labor strikes on the plantations not through a lens of morality of labor practices, but rather as a matter of insufficient Americanization – that is, insufficient loyalty on the part of these Asian workers to American businesses & American national / patriotic interests. And this sort of attitude hasn’t ended. Look at how Native Hawaiian protest against the TMT telescope project on Mauna Kea is viewed. This sort of attitude seems all the stronger in Japan, where just about any protest, especially those by Okinawans, is inevitably described by at least some source, some contingent, as being financed by China or Korea to make Japan look bad – in other words, they are viewing the protest as an attack on the Japanese nation, as a sign of insufficient loyalty, and not considering the protest for its own words, its own meaning, as is being expressed.

Rose C. Davidson, leading the Floral Parade in Waikiki, 1911. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Returning to Pierce’s article, parades, pageants, and the like organized by haole community leaders celebrated Hawaiʻi’s ethnic diversity at the same time that they emphasized Americanness and patriotism – in fact, some of the organizers explicitly intended these events to educate children in Hawaiʻi in American history and American viewpoints, instilling in them a sense of American patriotism. Yet, despite this haole origin for the “discourse of aloha,” it seems to have been wholeheartedly adopted by the “local” Asian-Pacific Islander-American population, cited time and again today. It would be interesting to learn how and why this came to be the case – whether this discourse can be said to have been appropriated and re-conceived, or adopted wholesale – but this seems to fall outside of Pierce’s intentions.

Her discussion, however, of the multiple visions that haoles had at that time for America, and for an Americanized Hawaiʻi, are particularly informative for our broader understandings of the ethnic or cultural character or nature of the United States today. As she explains, some believed in assimilation into a standard, established, Anglo-American culture, seeing assimilation into this culture as uplifting, civilizing, and moralizing. In this view, all people regardless of their ethnic or cultural origins are entitled to the equal opportunity to become (Anglo-)American. A similar notion is often cited, stereotypically or popularly, as being the dominant notion of equality in France today – everyone is equally welcome to “become” “French.” A second vision articulated by Pierce is that of an American identity born out of the “melting pot” combination of diverse ethnicities and cultures, resulting in a new and distinctive American identity that takes the best of all these diverse influences, becoming something (ever) better and greater. Some promoted Hawaiʻi as a living example of this mode, as an ever-increasing proportion of the population in Hawaiʻi were not solely haole, Asian, or Pacific Islander, but rather were (are) hapa, a mixture of Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, and/or haole ethnic and cultural backgrounds. A third vision celebrates cultural diversity that remains distinct – the salad bowl model, perhaps, rather than the melting pot. All three of these visions are still prevalent in the United States today, remaining powerfully fundamental to citizens’ understandings or beliefs of what the United States is, or should be, and it is not hard to imagine the profound and powerful role these conflicting visions play, on a fundamental level, in contributing to our broader, ongoing, political debates on a variety of issues, and to a deep sense of cultural divides.

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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.

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(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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Hyperallergic has a short but inciteful blog post today about the inclusion and absence of Asian-American artists in the Whitney Biennial. Since it is so short, I’ll just cite a few of the more biting quotes, and leave you to read the rest on Hyperallergic.

John Yau writes, “When the ubiquitous term “people of color” is used, does the speaker or writer also mean Asian Americans – … Or should Asian Americans simply check the box labeled “Other” and quietly and politely go – like all well-behaved Asian Americans – into the room marked INVISIBLE,” and further,

… if you are part of the art world, you live in a segregated society full of little ghettoes, with one of them being “people of color who make abstract art” and another being “Asian-American women who deal with identity.” … Is it true that if you are a person of color (black, brown, yellow or red), the only way to get into the Biennial is to make work that deals with racial identity in a way that is acceptable? Who determines that agenda? If you go by the Whitney’s curatorial choices, the answer is obvious. You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible.

I guess I’m guilty of it too, as I always have a particular fondness for Asian-American art that deals with identity, or otherwise with explicitly Asian themes… Not really sure, what’s the way out? All curators have their tastes, their preferences, the themes or styles they want to show – that’s what it means to curate. Maybe we just need to get more different curators in there, with more different interests, including more Asian-American curators.

“Come Play With Us + the War Scene” (2011), Wai Fu Lui (Kenny), BFA University of Hawaii; charcoal, pastel, plastic toy army men, hot glue on paper.

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The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II in DC, which I visited a few years ago. Not precisely related to this exhibit in NYC, but…

*Up through October 11, an exhibit of works relating to the Japanese-American internment, entitled “The Japanese American Internment Project, If They Came for Me Today: East Coast Stories, is showing at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr, in New York City. The show was supposed to open on Sept 9, and I went on Sept 10, but it wasn’t yet open, unfortunately. So, I have not seen the show myself, and can’t really say much at all about what it contains. Still, it sounds like an important and powerful event – growing up white & Jewish on the East Coast, the Japanese-American internment was something I barely learned or heard anything about. Since moving to Hawaii, and then to the West Coast, I’ve seen how it has so much more of a presence here, and rightfully so.

*While in Okinawa last month, to my surprise, I came across the Battle of Okinawa / Holocaust Photo Exhibition Hall, in Naha’s Nishi neighborhood. Sadly, they were closed by the time I got there (around 6pm, though still plenty of hours of daylight left), so I didn’t get to visit inside. I wish I might have made sure to go back later in the week. But their website is quite extensive (though, mostly in Japanese), so one of these days I might read through some more of it.

I won’t pretend like I really know, deeply, about the full depth of Okinawan(-American) identity; I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist, or expert in contemporary Asian-American diaspora studies or anything like that. But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, based on my own upbringing and identity, and having heard and seen what I have of Okinawan & Okinawan-American identity, I feel that there are some powerful similarities, in terms of the role of past tragedies, past atrocities, in our cultural memory, that are quite central to our contemporary identity. The incredible losses of the 1940s for both our peoples, not only in terms of the number of human lives so tragically, so horrifically, terminated, but also in terms of the great losses of culture, and land, at that time, I think we share a lot in terms of our struggles, today, as a Jewish community, and as Okinawan and Okinawan-American communities, to retain or revive cultural traditions and identity. Since I began studying Okinawan history, I’ve begun to see parallels, and to feel a connection; to see this idea, this connection, validated by the existence of this institution is quite encouraging.

*Moving on to the world of contemporary art, I’ve come across a site recently called ART PAPERS. It features, as you might expect, various essays on contemporary art. To be honest, I can’t quite make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, haha. But, I eagerly look forward to other posts in the future, to see what insights or ideas they might present.

*One of two contemporary Japanese artists I’ve learned about recently, Morita Rieko produces stunning, brightly boldly colorful images of birds & flowers, and of beautiful women (bijinga), in a neo-traditional, Nihonga style. Sadly, I don’t see anything on her website explicitly describing what media she uses – whether it’s ink & mineral colors in the truly traditional manner, or whether it’s oils or acrylics or digital or something – but, in any case, the works are truly beautiful.

*Gajin Fujita is a rather different kind of neo-traditional artist, not recreating or maintaining the tradition, but remixing it into graffiti / hip-hop / street art styles. I don’t normally go for the graffiti/hip-hop aesthetics, but the way he incorporates ukiyo-e figures, kabuki characters, in the style of ukiyo-e imagery, into these contexts, is really wonderful. You can see more about Fujita at LA Louver gallery’s website.

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I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about this exhibit, especially since I said so much already before even seeing the exhibition. But, since the review I posted yesterday ended up being so long, I broke it off and am now writing a Part Two, focusing on prominent Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura is, of course, one of the real stars of the show. Or, at least, it is to me, as I’ve heard of him before and really like his work. Much of the media for this show focuses on his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, and I have already discussed it myself, too, so I’ll keep it limited. But, just two things about it that make that piece even more incredible than I thought originally – one, that the silhouette of the original piece (George Washington and friends, in their boat) can be seen in the background, a seemingly minor detail, perhaps, which actually alters the narrative of the piece fairly dramatically. Shimomura is not replacing Washington, after all, but only upstaging him. Throughout American history, Asian-Americans have been, essentially, also-rans, or footnotes. Here, Shimomura places himself in the forefront and in the spotlight, implying something about a narrative of American history in which Washington and his ilk are still present, and still play out their important and influential historical roles, but in which Asian-Americans are shown to be Americans as well, to be present in the narrative. On a second note, I really like that Shimomura made his piece on roughly the same scale as the original now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. It gives his piece grandeur, power, and impact, and also, if we want to read into it, says something about his piece, himself, and Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans in general, not being smaller or lesser.


In some of the other pieces included in the exhibition, Shimomura addresses American stereotypes of Japanese, along two different lines. In American Hello Kitty and American Pikachu, Shimomura incorporates a self-portrait into the iconic cartoon characters, commenting, I guess, on American associations of Japan with anime (above all else). Frankly, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s going for here. Is it meant to be a criticism? Is it a bad thing to associate Japan primarily/chiefly with anime? The Japanese government has been actively pushing quote-unquote “Cool Japan” for the last several years, as part of a concerted effort to expand Japanese soft power, and to thereby increase pro-Japan sentiments. Would Shimomura prefer that we associate Japan instead with negative things? That is, unless Shimomura’s whole point is not about Japan, but is instead about how we associate Japanese-Americans with Japanese culture rather than with American identity. If that’s it, that makes a lot more sense… especially in consideration of the themes of his other works.


Another set of works, titled American vs Japs and American vs Japs 2 depict Shimomura, painted relatively realistically, punching and kicking cartoonish stereotypical “Japs” drawn in the style of 1940s American propaganda. My kneejerk reaction is to see this as a terribly outdated battle. It’s not the 1940s anymore, and depictions of Japan in US mass media today doesn’t resemble this propaganda at all. Yet, on second thought, I realize that there are far too many in this country who, sadly, have not gotten the memo, and still hold onto completely outdated notions of anti-Japanese hatred. Comments of “that was for Pearl Harbor” and the like, as well as much worse vitriol, have appeared in disgustingly vast numbers on Internet forums and the like during US-Japan sporting events, and, perhaps most upsettingly of all, during the 3/11 disaster. Is this what Shimomura is fighting against? Actually, I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he’s more fighting that he (and other Americans) be the target of these attitudes, moreso than actually fighting against those attitudes existing. This is just my guess, based on his personal history of having been imprisoned in the WWII-era Internment Camps, and all the surrounding issues of Japanese-Americans as loyal Americans, being continually seen as not American enough, or as still foreign. I don’t know how much Shimomura has any real connections with Japan… from what little I know about him and his work, he’s much more focused on Japanese-American issues.

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