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Archive for the ‘Fashion’ Category

The bike I had when I lived in Yokohama. I don’t think I paid much more than $100 for it (一万円), and it was *great*. Easily the best bike I’ve ever ridden. Handled like a dream. Now, if only I could find something like it here in Okinawa…

Continuing on from my previous postThe whole day I had been thinking about trying to find somewhere to buy a bike… because I’ve been having such shit luck finding anywhere closer to campus selling used bicycles in decent condition for a reasonable price. When I lived in Kyoto for a summer, I bought a used bike from a corner shop, “used” but in excellent condition, for something like $60. If I remember right, it had baskets on front and back, a built-in wheel lock and kickstand, and rode so smoothly! By contrast, when I came upon a used bike shop in Ginowan last week, the only such shop I’ve yet come across, he laughed when I said I was looking to spend less than $100 (less than ichi-man-yen), and showed me a couple of crappy, starting-to-rust bikes, with no baskets, no extra special features at all… Fuck. All I want is a decent bike, for a reasonable price. So, yeah, I thought maybe I’d have better luck finding one in the city. But, while the bike ride back to campus was supposed to take only an hour and a half, according to Google Maps – and that’s walking speed; should be significantly quicker on a bike – for some reason I was kind of anxious all day about having to actually do that ride. I don’t know, really, what the path was going to be, if it would be right along the side of the highway, or if there’d be really intense slopes, or what. Since it’s a walking path, there might even be stairs. Fortunately (?), I didn’t end up happening upon anywhere selling bicycles. So, in the end, I didn’t have to deal with that situation. Maybe hopefully someday in the near future I’ll find a bike in Urasoe or Ginowan or somewhere. Or even meet someone on campus who’s looking to sell theirs – quick and easy. I’m actually really kind of curious (and anxious) to see what it’s like having a bike here on Okinawa. On the one hand, it could be really freeing, and allow me to get places a lot faster and more easily – it’ll certainly expand my range as to where I can go for food, for bookstores, for basic everyday things. But, while I had been thinking about using it for day-trip adventures – what’s an hour or two bike ride? Not that big of a deal, right? – especially for places not so easily accessible by public transportation – I’m for some reason anxious about the bike turning out to be something of a burden. If there are serious slopes, if it does get difficult to ride, if I end up having to leave it somewhere and catch a bus or taxi back… The whole idea of a bike is that it’s supposed to be a good thing, a freeing thing. But, somehow, I’m anxious about it. I’d also rather not get caught riding long distances and/or along the highway or the like at night if I can avoid it, whereas if I’m on foot, I can just catch a bus and it’s no big deal.

And, for example, one of the trips I have been making on foot because I don’t know of any bus that goes there, is to Nishihara “town center” – to the Town Hall, and the San-A shopping mall next door. If I had a bike, would this 45-min walk (almost entirely along the side of the highway) be easier? Or harder? I’d probably end up riding in the street, because the sidewalks aren’t super even, and then I’d be riding really really right along the side of the highway. And, most of the trip is just straight up- or downhill. Super easy (or scarily fast..) one way, and really difficult the other way, if on a bike. Probably not the best idea, actually.

Anyway. Omoromachi. I hung out at Naha Main Place – one of the big shopping malls in the city – for a bit. Got some dinner at a cute Tokyu Hands Café (above). Bought a new pair of shoes (yay! Only $40. Which is pretty much the top end of my intended/desired budget, but pretty much every other pair of shoes I saw that I liked was nearing double that price. Ugh. I bought a pair of fake Converse/Chucks at Uniqlo once for literally $10. Not even marked down on clearance or anything – that was just the normal price. (roughly like these, except purple, and even more similar to Chucks.) Where are deals like that these days? For godssakes. Checked out the Okinawan-style shirts (Kariyushi wear), and confirmed that, yes, all the best styles are upwards of $100. Ugh. I hate you people. Some of the Goresu shirts – the ones with really the best designs, truly indicative of Okinawa, and not resembling something you could get at a half-dozen shops in Waikiki – were more than $400!! O_o Are you kidding me? Look, I understand that they’re locally designed, handmade, artisanal, whatever, by a local artist and all that. But, still, come on. I want to support local arts, but I can’t when the prices are so unbelievably excessive. I’ll give you 40 bucks, fifty maybe even, just because it’s so unique, so special, and because I know I’m supporting real local art. But $120 for a shirt? (let alone two or three or four hundred) You have got to be kidding me. What the fuck.

The main WEGO, or what I think of as the main one, along Meiji-dôri in Harajuku. For all I know, the real main store could be in Osaka or Nagoya or something…

Anyway, I then also discovered they have a WEGO. Easily one of my favorite fashion shops in Japan. Even if they are getting way out of hand within Harajuku, in terms of no longer being a hole in the wall, and now being like five or six different multi-floor establishments within just a three or four block radius…. In any case, I guess they’re on their autumn collection or something, paying no attention whatsoever to the specialty location of Okinawa (which has its pros and cons – I’m glad to see the same Tokyo fashions available here, rather than being unavailable), so pretty much the entire men’s section was all sweaters. Yeah, while I stand here schvitzing nearly to death. I don’t think so. I was kind of hoping for light shirts, maybe crop pants… But, things rotate, so, maybe next time? Certainly when I get back to Tokyo in the spring, there’ll be more fashion adventures.

So, that’s pretty much it for now. By the time I post this, Typhoon Chaba will have come and gone. Hopefully without too much incident. We shall see.

And Chaba did, indeed, thankfully, pass without too much incident. I’m not even sure it rained in the end. A day or so before it was supposed to hit, Chaba looked as though it was going to hit us quite directly, a Category 4, the strongest in several years at least. But at more or less the last minute, it turned west, like Malakas did a couple weeks earlier. Now, though, I’m worried about people on the East Coast of the US, getting hit by Hurricane Matthew. Here’s hoping they have similar luck to us here in Okinawa with this one.

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Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.

The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.

A feather helmet (mahiole) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Royal cloaks (ʻahu ʻula) in the background.

Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.

It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.

A cape (center) associated with King Kamehameha III, and two other cloaks from the Bishop Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.

I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.

Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.

The crowd there to see the exhibit created a particular energy in the gallery, that I think made for a wonderfully different experience than if I had visited at any other time.

The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.

A feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu and obtained by the Bishop Museum in 1968, from the Earl of Elgin.

Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.

And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.

We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.

Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.

The mamo, as depicted by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1900.

Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?

Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.

Tammeamea (Kamehameha I) by Louis Choris, 1816. Pen and ink, ink wash, and watercolor on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art.

A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.

All photos are my own.

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It has been far too long since I’ve written an exhibit review. After all of these book reviews, maybe this could help mix it up a little.

Right: Eagle Gala Dress (2013), by Dorothy Grant (Haida).

The Peabody-Essex is really a wonderful museum. I would love to work there someday. An amazing collection of East Asian and Pacific art, the Yin Yu Tang house, and really top-notch temporary/traveling exhibits, especially for a small town museum. Plus, Salem is a wonderful cute little town; I have only ever been there for day trips, but I have *always* had a great time. I’m actually really kind of surprised that I don’t seem to have more photos from Salem; then again, I hadn’t been in many years, so maybe I wasn’t yet in the habit of using Flickr yet.

Right now, all the way up until March 6, the Peabody-Essex is showing an exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which highlights contemporary fashion designs inspired by Native American traditions. Hyperallergic, I guess I should not be surprised, has done a very nice review of the show, so if you want a better summary/overview of what the show actually features/contains, go read that first and then come back here, and we’ll see what sort of commentary I might be able to add.

Dorothy Grant, “She-Wolf” tuxedo (2014). I’m annoyed the photo didn’t come out sharper. But hopefully you can still make out the Haida patterning on the lapels. Click through for a larger image.

I do love the dresses, and the more art fashion pieces, but there’s also something wonderful about this very sleek, simple, elegant piece, with just enough of a hint of the Native motif. I can imagine that for a Haida person wearing this, it could feel quite powerful, as an expression of one’s identity – attending a black tie affair, and still expressing their identity, wearing a motif exclusive to them.

I have blogged on here about a few exhibits I’ve been fortunate to see, of high art fashion (mostly by Westerner designers) inspired by China, and of contemporary Japanese fashion. And I find all of this terribly fascinating. Just walking around Tokyo, or Kyoto, or elsewhere in Japan, one can see a huge range of fashions, all of them quite arguably “Japanese”, or “authentically Japanese,” authentic simply by virtue of the fact that real Japanese people are indeed choosing to wear them. Basically, a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to culture. TokyoFashion.com is a great website for this sort of thing, too – though they do tend to focus on Harajuku, there’s a pretty wide variety of approaches and styles in there. Basically, the point I mean to reach in this side tangent is simply to say I do think it fascinating how Japanese (or Chinese, or people of many other cultures) employ, adapt, re-invent elements of their own cultural tradition to make a contemporary statement. That’s what a lot of Neo-Nihonga and such is, and what I find fascinating in that realm, too. And I would love to see a museum exhibit about, specifically, that sort of fashion – specifically Japanese fashion that incorporates elements of “Japanese culture” or “tradition.”

But, returning to Native Fashion Now, in a nutshell, “Native Fashion Now” beautifully exhibits how people can, and do, express their Native American identity, embrace it, perform it, display it, in thoroughly modern ways.

While it may be relatively easy to see the contemporary and the traditional as two parts of Japanese culture, neither less authentic or real than the other, Native American cultures (or perhaps, indigenous cultures, more broadly) tend not to be seen that way, in the mainstream imagination. Conventional mainstream attitudes view, or imagine, Native American culture and identity in a unique way, notably dissimilar from how we understand Jewish, Arab/Muslim, East Asian, or African identities and cultures. Or, if not unique to the Native American experience, perhaps it is something particular to how we approach indigenous cultures, as a category. There are few who would look twice, or protest, if they saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Africans adapting their traditional styles and motifs into modern fashions. Cultures change and evolve, and few (I should hope) would have much difficulty imagining, and accepting, that all of these cultures exist in a modern form, and that these people lead fully modern lives. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. “perform” their ethnic/national identities in thoroughly contemporary ways, adapting and innovating. But, because of the particular discursive constructions surrounding Indigenous Peoples – that is, because of the way 18th-20th century people conceived of indigenous peoples as primitive, as un-modern, as being in need of education & civilizing – mainstream attitudes have a problem with conceiving of how one could be Native American, and also modern. Native American and also “regular” American. In the mainstream discourse, in the mainstream mind, being indigenous means being traditional, and if living a typical modern life means being less traditional, then it means being less Native American, too, right? Wrong. If living a modern life doesn’t make you any less Jewish(-American) or Chinese(-American), just because the traditions have changed or evolved or diluted (weakened, arguably), then why should anyone be seen as being less Native American, less truly or authentically Native American, just because their lifestyle doesn’t match that of their ancestors?

Louis Vuitton Quiver (2007), Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman plays off of the expectations, the demands of mainstream stereotypes that associate Native Americans so closely with archery, and with feathers. What, as if they all wear feathers and carry a bow all the time? But then he combines this with Louis Vuitton patterning, a parody of sorts of what indigenous modernity should look like. Does being a Native American in the modern world mean having a Louis Vuitton quiver? Or maybe it means not having a quiver at all. I may be totally off-base, but I imagine that perhaps the artist seeks to shock with this very basic concept – what do you mean Native Americans are just like the rest of us, in t-shirts and jeans, or in suits and slacks? How can you be Native American without feathers and bows & arrows?

Maybe it’s just my own experience, growing up where and how I did, not being exposed very much to any Native American presence in my life growing up, that I had come to hold these stereotyped views about Native Americans. But I do get the sense – both from my own experience, and from serious classroom lectures, readings, etc. – that this is a widespread and extensive discourse, growing out of colonialism and racism and so forth of (especially) the 19th century. I would be curious what experiences or impressions those who grew up in other parts of the country – or in other countries – might have had. For those of you who grew up in areas, or communities, where Native American or First Nation culture was much more present, did you grow up having the same ideas about Native American culture & identity, as traditional, as being opposed to modernity? Similar ideas about people being somehow less authentic if they didn’t lead more wholly traditional lives?

Of course, talking about Native American fashions, and adapting them creatively, one can’t easily avoid the question, or issue, of cultural appropriation. After all, Native American culture – like other indigenous cultures around the world – has faced particularly severe assaults, such that traditions and identity, and in some cases entire peoples, have severely diminished or disappeared entirely; so these cultures, as understood and practiced and cherished by Native people, and not as appropriated and re-invented by others, ought to be approached with an extra degree of respect. Further, unlike many elements of many cultures, which have no real sacred or taboo power to them (*achem* like the kimono *cough*), in many Native American cultures, many garments, accessories, motifs, and so forth are very strictly associated only with particular events or rituals, or can only be worn by particular people, or have to be earned; and for anyone else to wear it, use it, or even touch it – let alone to appropriate it – is sacrilegious, a violation. It is taboo in the truest, original sense of the word.

I quite liked the way the exhibit addressed these issues, when it came to designs by non-Native designers. As one gallery label reads:

Totem-pole designs of the Pacific Northwest Coast captivated the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, inspiring him to create this masterfully embroidered dress. … And yet Mizrahi is not Native – so what to think of his appropriation of these motifs?

Cultural borrowing is complex. Fashion designers are renowned remixers – voracious consumers of images and ideas. Mizrahi makes reference to totem poles, but he does not replicate one exactly. He emulates, yet he also produces a new style.

I am by no means saying this is perfect, or that there is (or should be) any one, singular, way that is the only way these things should be addressed. I’m not putting my foot down and taking a stand behind this approach. But, I like it. It acknowledges that appropriation is problematic, but also acknowledges that cultural borrowing is complex (oh my god thank you. yes. nuance and complexity, people. come on, get it together.), and it encourages visitors to think about the complexities for themselves. Artists and designers, and indeed all people, are inspired by all the things around them. And a great many of those things are from other cultures, that are not one’s own, but they are present in one’s life, one’s experiences, and they are inspiring nonetheless. What kinds of derivative works – that is, what kinds of “inspired by” – are okay, and which are not? Who has the right to produce inspired or derivative works? As the label states, all the designers in this show, including both Mizrahi and the Native American designers, are borrowers, are remixers. And, as the Hyperallergic article says, let us not forget that many of these designers “have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.” So, what kind of borrowing and remixing is okay, and by whom, and which is not? And as much as many blog posts, academic journal articles, and the like assert that there is a single definitive answer to that question, I’m not sure that’s really the case.

Left: Kimono and Obi (2011), Toni Williams (Northern Arapaho)

This brings us to another interesting item in the exhibit. A kimono – very clearly patterned after the Japanese garment – adapted with a Native American design. The artist, Toni Williams, is Arapaho, but she’s not Japanese (as far as we are told, on the gallery labels). Is this not cultural appropriation? For those screaming bloody murder about the thing at the MFA, is this not just as offensive? If not, why not? Is it perfectly okay because the Native American designer is a person of color? Can only white people perform cultural appropriation? Are all people of color, from Latinos to Native Americans to Asians to Arabs incapable of racism, even when it concerns a culture vastly different from their own? If the main objection to the kimono at the MFA was that using the kimono as merely a costume, merely an accessory, is offensive because it relates to a notion of simply taking anything you want from any other culture, willy-nilly, then isn’t this the same? Are all Native American cultures or identities one big group, and are they allowed to borrow from one another’s cultures? If a Diné were to appropriate elements of Haida culture for their designs, where does that fall on a spectrum of offensiveness, compared to a Japanese artist, or a Jewish artist, appropriating those Haida designs?

Did the Native American designer Toni Williams get special permission from a professional kimono designer to do this? And even if she did get permission from a professional kimono-maker in Kyoto, well, so did the MFA, so does it matter? After all, the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Japanese one (in Asia), and so how could a Japanese understand how Asian-Americans feel about this? Anyway.. I think it’s worth thinking about, and discussing. Is this okay? If it is, why? What makes it different? What makes this inoffensive, and how can we (others, everyone) seek to emulate that, in order to avoid offense?

Right: Carla Hemlock (Mohawk), Treaty Cloth Shirt (2012). Features the 1794 Treaty between the US and the Iroquois Confederation. I’m a bit surprised that the artist would choose a Treaty that’s actually been consistently honored, rather than the more political art message of choosing one the US has trampled on. I’m also surprised there are any Native American treaties the US has actually consistently honored.

Apologies to have allowed the cultural appropriation talk to dominate this post. It’s really not that central or prominent a theme within the exhibit. Rather, the theme I most took away was one of “indigenous modernity,” though I doubt that term would have appeared verbatim anywhere on the labels. Native American culture is living, and it is contemporary. Native Americans are no more obligated to be traditional in order to be “true” Native Americans than Jews or Chinese or Dutchmen or anyone else is. They are not less Native American for being less traditional – just as I am myself no less Jewish for not observing the same traditions and leading the same lifestyle as my ancestors. And once you “get” this concept, boy, contemporary Native American culture can be really cool.

Native Fashion Now is showing at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. until March 6, 2016. It is included with regular museum admission – no extra charge. A huge thank you to the PEM for that, and for allowing photos!

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That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.

I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?

Fashions by the Chinese designer Guo Pei (right), the House of Chanel (French), and other French designers, inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.

I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.

To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.

Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying

‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’

Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:

The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.

Qing Dynasty Imperal robes, and European fashions inspired by them.

“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.

As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.

the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)

(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)

The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.

As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).

Robe for the 18th c. Qianlong Emperor, and a 2011 fashion design by Chinese designer Laurence Xu.

Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.

I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.

They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.

Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):

Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.

The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.

But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.

Left: Pieces from Craig Green’s 2015 Ensemble.

I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?

Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION

In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.

As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.

The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.

What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?

If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.

Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.

But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.

I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.

Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.

All photos my own.

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(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.

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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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Well, here’s something. I don’t typically wear makeup, have almost never worn makeup, do not self-identify as female, and am generally (but not always) not identified by others as female, so, I can’t pretend or presume to know how others feel about makeup. (Well, I can’t presume to know how others feel about anything, really, seeing as how I am not them.) But, this brief John Green video makes some really interesting points about why some people enjoy wearing makeup.

I was going to summarize / write down those points, but, I think the video speaks for itself, so I’ll just leave it to you to watch it.

PS, the professor I’m TAing for this summer has been showing some clips from John Green’s Crash Course video series. I have to admit I wasn’t too taken with the series at first, given his mangling of Japanese pronunciation. But, actually, a lot of these videos are really quite good, and I’ve been learning a lot about random topics like the Kievan Rus, the Seven Years War, and Indian Ocean Trade. When my professor showed a Crash Course video for the first time, I was like “omg, you know of and like John Green!? I’ve been watching so much VlogBrothers lately, and I was even thinking of going to VidCon (more like simply sitting at home and fantasizing about having gone),” and she didn’t really know anything about him but had just found the videos when searching for good videos to show in class. Which is great too. I’ve kind of fallen down the rabbit hole of YouTube vlogs and such the last year or so… but, that’s me, and I’m weird. So, yeah, makeup and feminism and stuff.

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I’m staying with friends in Tokyo for a few weeks – it’s amazing to be back in Japan, and I’ve certainly gone through numerous emotions and trains of thought about being here again, but rather than ramble through all of that, I’ll try to put that aside and talk about just one or two things, for the moment. My friends live in a pretty quiet, out of the way neighborhood, so even though I’ve been here a few days already, today was my first real trip into the city, in a sense. I was thinking of checking out Shimokita or Jiyûgaoka or something, and maybe another day soon I will. But today, I’m glad I decided to go to Harajuku and Shibuya – in a sense, it really doesn’t feel like you’re in Tokyo, or like you’ve come to Tokyo, done Tokyo, had the Tokyo experience, until you’ve gone to one of these major areas (e.g. Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Akihabara) and felt the energy.

Harajuku certainly doesn’t feel the subculture hotspot it once was, and I don’t think that’s an accident of the time or day that I went, or the weather. Compared to ten years ago (when I first came to Japan as a study abroad student), there are markedly fewer people in goth-loli, punk, or other fashions that stand out dramatically, and fewer shops specializing in such things. And that’s certainly unfortunate in various ways. But, on the plus side, the area is still very vibrant, very active, and which one short strip along Meiji-dôri is now dominated by utterly mainstream Western chains such as GAP, Forever 21, and H&M, the smaller, Japanese, shops along Takeshita-dôri and in the adjoining backstreets are still selling Japanese street fashion sort of things – meaning, the sorts of things that the average hip, stylish, young Japanese guy or girl would wear; not ordinary blah t-shirts and jeans, but something with style. And, while we’ve certainly lost (or are losing) something in terms of the spectacle and the experience of Harajuku in that sense of the decline of the area as a punk/goth-loli hotspot (I wonder where they’ve all gone), it’s actually become an excellent spot for me to do clothes shopping, as much of what’s on sale is now a lot tamer, more wearable (for me, in that sense of it not being so out there, so boldly punk or goth or whatever), and more affordable, while still being distinctly fashionable – these are things that not only fit me well and look good on me (I hope), but which I can feel special about owning and wearing, that when people back home ask, and even if they don’t, I’ll know that I bought them in Tokyo, and that I am in whatever little way connected to the Tokyo fashion scene, or whatever. Plus, things just fit me better here; the average target customer is shorter/smaller, and the style is slimmer.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was glad that I decided to go to Harajuku & Shibuya today, because you can really feel the energy of the city. Not just that it’s busy, or crowded, but there’s a cultural energy, a feeling of the experience of this place, this very central, happening, place, a place you’ve heard of or thought of or imagined, and now you’re experiencing it – and, a place that is very much a center of activity, of the latest trends, of events, etc. Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most happening cities in the world. It’s a city of neon lights, crazy crowds, fashion, art, electronics, incredible design, excellent food… and especially in contrast to the experience of other parts of Japan, it’s in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, moreso than in a quiet, out of the way residential neighborhood, that one really feels that.

Today, in the course of just one day, I saw the grave of a famous major Japanese historical figure, visited several Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, poked around a whole bunch of Japanese fashion stores, enjoyed a genuine authentic Harajuku crepe (with matcha ice cream. yum.), discovered an entire two-story store devoted just to Evangelion goods (and I’m assuming this is here for just a limited time, making the experience of the shop itself, as well as all the goods, though I didn’t buy any, an even more special experience), saw a couple of young guys playing music outside Shibuya Station, heard/saw a couple of giant soundtrucks pass by advertising the Les Mis movie and blasting “Do You Hear the People Sing?“, heard and saw a political soundtruck, with candidates shaking hands and shouting slogans, rode the Yamanote, and poked around the giant Tsutaya at Shibuya Crossing, getting a brief glimpse at what music & movies are cutting-edge new and popular in Japan.

Yappari, it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, it doesn’t feel that one has truly returned, until one goes to these big-name, vibrant, active, and, yes, obnoxiously crowded, areas. But, therein lies the energy, the beat of the city, that I have missed so.

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Show the stereotypical/average American these pictures and videos, and they’ll likely make fun of how girly these young men look. Even while the likes of Justin Bieber and One Direction enjoy incredible popularity, there is also (among their non-fans) a very prominent and prevalent discourse about how girly they are. Soft, weak, effeminate, whatever words might be used. For all of our claims of openness, of diversity, and freedom, there are a myriad things a young man in the US (and, likely, in many other parts of the Western world) cannot do, cannot be, cannot wear, cannot look like or act like if he wants to be accepted as “masculine,” and if he wants to avoid being called sissy, pussy, wuss, or faggot.

And yet, in K-pop (and in S. Korean and Japanese popular culture & youth fashion more broadly), we see young men dressing, looking, moving, being, the kind of men that the dominant normative US discourse would deem decidedly effeminate, or even “gay.” But this look, this “type,” is not only tolerated or accepted in South Korea – in fact, these K-pop “idols” are considered, more or less, the epitome of masculine attractiveness. Yes, they’re quite strong and tough in some of their videos, drawing upon elements of gangsta/hip-hop/rap aesthetics. And, yes, most if not all of these idols are totally ripped under those clothes, with what they call in Korea “chocolate abs.” But, they are at the same time, in the same videos, or in other videos, looking young and boyish, cute and innocent, and terribly fashionable, perfectly put together. They’re slick and chic, have their hair done up just so, and feature a beautiful baby-face, with perfect blemish-free skin and captivating eyes (it’s makeup – and no one criticizes them or laughs at them for using it). Sometimes they dye their hair cotton-candy pink, wear boyish shorts, or even cross-dress entirely. They’re about as far from the square-jawed, meat-headed macho masculinity we seem to idolize, in which all too often, there seems a pressure to not even indicate any interest or awareness of fashion at all, let alone doing anything with hair and makeup.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that Korea has its share of gender equality problems. And there are actually quite a few very well-written blogs, as well as more scholarly writings, discussing and analyzing gender issues specifically in Korean media & pop culture. But, speaking purely in terms of the embrace of this alternate masculinity, the freedom to be fashionable, to wear makeup (or even just BB cream), to do all sorts of things with your hair, and indeed the freedom to be cute, innocent, pretty, and to not have to act the mature, macho man – the ability to be whatever kind of man you want to be, without fear of being called wuss, or girly, or fag – is fascinating and wonderfully appealing to me. I wish that we in the US could take a page from this book, and cultivate a new normativity that embraces a greater diversity of gender expressions.

I was fortunate, growing up, to have never been explicitly called horrible slurs such as “faggot,” and to never be physically attacked by bullies, but I certainly feel the pressure all the same. A pressure to avoid dressing or acting or looking a certain way, in order to better fit in, and to avoid ridicule. And a lot of people are not so lucky. And for what? Gay, straight, or anything in between, young men should be free to dress and act however they want, to do their hair however they want, even to use makeup – to be free to explore a wider range of self-expressions and identities – without feeling that societal pressure to have to “be a man” according to a particular macho conception of what “being a man” entails. I was lucky to never really be verbally or physically attacked, but, then, that’s also because I gave into the pressure to conform, and I’ve regretted it ever since. If I’m not already too old to be dyeing my hair or dressing punk or goth or whathaveyou, if I’m not too old yet, I’m mighty close to it, and I wish I’d had the confidence to experiment with those sorts of things a lot more when I was younger. But it’s precisely because of those societal pressures that I didn’t have the self-confidence – that I scarcely had any self-confidence in my appearance, in my body, in my fashion, at all, until I was 27 or 28. So, I guess I live vicariously through these videos.

People laugh and joke about the “hipster” trend. But, from skinny jeans to bright colors to wacky, colorful sneakers, to all sorts of expressions, I see in these developments the beginnings of a shift towards a softer, less macho, but widely accepted “alternate” masculinity – a masculinity that’s allowed to pay attention to fashion, and to be colorful, and to be thin and soft, rather than big and tough. And while many people may see these trends, e.g. skinny jeans, as silly, or whatever they may say, I don’t think I hear too many voices saying that hipster fashion is effeminate, or sissy, or “gay.” And that’s very much a step in the right direction.

Superheroes as hipsters, by David Buisan

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To the extent that I know my way around New York City, it’s mainly that I know my way around Japan-related places, from the Buddhist temple up near Columbia, to the many Japanese restaurants on & around St. Mark’s, to Japan Society, Japanese groceries, Kinokuniya, and Book-Off.

I journeyed into the city yesterday to check out the Japan Block Fair for the first time, and after that, took some time to check in on a few of these Japan-related places, both old and new.

I’d been to Japan Day at Central Park once, but never to Japan Block Fair. The latter feels like a much smaller event, but only because it’s packed into a much smaller space. Yesterday’s block fair squeezed twenty or so booths into the space of one city block – between 39th and 40th streets, on just one side of Park Avenue. A couple hundred people were in attendance, recreating the feel of the crush of maneuvering your way through Shibuya, or along Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Booths included a few selling tenugui, second-hand kimono, and the like, as well as a travel agency handing out flyers, one booth selling delicious iced green tea, a rummage sale booth, and numerous stands selling takoyaki, yakisoba and the like. I had hoped to find new zori (sandals), but no such luck. Many of the booths were collecting donations for tsunami relief. A few booths represented specific regions – the Aomori kenjinkai had a booth, and were selling food, though to my disappointment weren’t really advertising Aomori with pictures or books, videos of tsugaru shamisen performances, or any kind of flyers (but that’s okay); Shikoku was well-represented, with a Sanuki Udon booth selling freshly handmade noodles, and a “Home Island Project” booth from Tokushima.


The Home Island Project describes itself as “aim[ing] at raising awareness about our “Home Island” SHIKOKU and turning the island into [a] magnet for people around the world.” Their banners and outfits were impressively designed and cohesive, with a clean, sleek design in a beautiful shade of blue; members associated with the project performed Awa Odori, a festival dance for which Tokushima prefecture is particularly famous. I’ve never yet myself been to Shikoku, but I really would love to go. Lots to see and do, from the many still-intact original Edo-period castles, to Dôgo Onsen (inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away), to seeing kabuki at the Kanamaru-za, the oldest still-operating kabuki theater in the country, to the contemporary art goings-on on Inland Sea islands Shôdoshima and Naoshima.

The Fair also included the NY Street Ramen Contest, in which eight or so restaurants and other organizations prepared different types of ramen dishes, and guests taste-tested and judged their favorites. For most of the day the line was way too long for me to even think about getting involved, but just at the very end, suddenly there was no line at all, so I squeezed in and tried a few of the ramen dishes. The cold (hiyashi ramen) dish with shaved ice and sesame dressing from Hôryû Ramen was quite good, as was the tonkotsu shio ramen from Nobu Chan, but of the three I tried, my favorite was Ramen Misoya’s Hokkaido-style miso ramen with corn and a french fry.

The main attraction for me – the main reason I made sure not to miss the Fair – was that a group called Ryû-kaji was performing. My father always says you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough (or wait and happen to come across it), and once again, I guess he was proven right, because while I was beginning to get kind of skeptical that I’d ever find an Okinawan sanshin group, or teacher, here in NY, yesterday I came across Ryûkaji, and their sensei Taguchi Saki. The group played a bunch of Okinawan songs, some more traditional, some folk songs (e.g. Asadoya Yunta), and some more modern pop songs (e.g. Ojii jiman no Orion Beer). They looked great in black (for the girls) and purple kasuri kimono (for the guys), with sensei in full-on yellow and red bingata, her hair up in a bun Okinawan style. Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the students, and to sensei, about the possibility of taking lessons, and I am looking forward to doing so. One-on-one lessons will hopefully get me seeing some improvement, even though it’s only for a few months, before I leave New York for new adventures.

All in all, the Block Fair was great. I thought it a little funny that I didn’t see any people, or organizations or groups that I was familiar with, and it remains a mystery to me as to who exactly is behind this, since it’s not Japan Society or Asia Society or any organization with a recognizable name. But, then, I guess that’s a function of it being New York. The vastness of the city and its communities, the incredible number of Japanese restaurants and organizations, bringing a degree of impersonality. I think that, with time, I could get to know some of the movers and shakers, get to know the people behind some of the restaurants, but I think it would take a lot longer than it did in Hawaii, where the community is much smaller, and many of the same people are involved (or at least attending) in the many different events.

I left the Block Fair eventually, and made my way to Kinokuniya, just because it was nearby. Nothing’s changed over there – still an amazing selection, still all of it quite overpriced. It’s a shame we can’t magically meld Kinokuniya’s (brand-new, imported) selection with BookOff’s far more reasonable (second-hand) prices. Seventy bucks for a kabuki DVD!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d be better off if you didn’t carry it at all – as is, you’re just taunting me.

The final stop for the day was to check out the new Uniqlo flagship store, on Fifth Ave at 53rd St. The largest retail store on Fifth Ave at 89,000 square feet, the store is really something. And, despite my best intentions not to buy anything, I couldn’t resist the half-off T-shirt sale, and ended up with a few from their large selection of One Piece designs. The t-shirts on offer also included a bunch of Japanese corporate logo designs, from Marukame udon to Vermont Curry to Kewpie mayonnaise, as well as Gundam, Evangelion, Mickey Mouse, and Coca-Cola designs. A recent blog post or article I saw talked about how Uniqlo has become sort of anti-fashionable in Japan lately, stigmatized I guess chiefly because it’s so cheap, and because no matter how good you may look, what’s really important (apparently) is that you spent a lot of money on it. Conspicuous consumption. I guess. But, whether New York is just behind the curve (which I’m sure it is, along with myself), or whether the Japanese are just being over-commercialist and crazy, Uniqlo’s offerings are actually pretty nice. A lot of the stuff is just super basic, and I’ve complained before (although perhaps not on this blog; I don’t remember) that I go to a Japanese store for Japanese fashion, not for plain ordinary shirts and jeans like I can get at any American store (e.g. Gap, Old Navy).

But Uniqlo keeps up with fashion, and while they may not have anything too radical, they do have slim fit shirts and slacks, three-quarter length pants (read: capris) for guys, and the like, as well as their own branded and supposedly revolutionary AIRism and Heattech materials, meant to be super thin and light, while keeping you plenty cool or warm (respectively). Now if they took that one further step, and started carrying (a) the same things that they offer in their Japan stores, and (b) a few more things with slightly Asian-fashion touches, like the high collars we see on hoodies and jackets on Asian fashion sites like YesStyle.com, and presumably (I haven’t been there in a while) on the streets of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Also – neckties, bowties, suspenders, and cooler belts. The mannequins looked very cool in slim neckties and bowties, or in neon-colored suspenders, but there were absolutely zero of these goods for sale; the belts were all brown leather, pretty standard and boring. Uniqlo has definitely kicked it up a notch, making things we want – like cardigans, slim pants, and t-shirts with Japanese designs – affordable and available all in one place. They just need to tweak that dial a tiny bit further, and then it could become my absolute #1 go-to store…

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Through RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, email, we’re exposed to more about our world everyday than ever before. Not just the stuff the local paper feels worthy of printing, but news on a whole myriad of topics, curated by ourselves to match our interests. And, so, every now and then, I find myself with more tabs open, more things I want to share, than I really have time or energy to devote full posts to. So, it’s time for another Quick Links.

*Science Daily reports on a new way to date silk. Rather than using carbon dating techniques, which apparently require the destruction of more material than we are usually willing to spare from, for example, a priceless ancient Chinese ink painting, the new technique dates silks based on the deterioration rate of the amino acids, or proteins, which form the silk. Scientists used the technique on a number of already-dated objects ranging from a Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) Chinese textile to a 19th century Mexican War flag, to establish baselines for the rate of deterioration, against which newly tested objects can be compared.

*Japanese fashion/textile artist Izukura Akihiko will be enjoying a show at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and simultaneously at the Linekona Art Center downtown, in January-Feburary 2012. I’ll admit, I’d never heard of him before, was not at all familiar with his work. But, local Hawaii-based fashion critic Paula Rath has put together a beautiful blog post giving us a glimpse at what we can look forward to.

*The Asahi Shinbun reports that the 1570 Battle of Anegawa fought between a combined Oda-Tokugawa army and the allied Asai and Asakura clans, may have been much smaller in scope than previously believed. The battle features several giants of Japanese history – namely Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu – or, at least, their troops (I’m not clear on whether Ieyasu and Nobunaga were there in person; such fine details of Sengoku battles are not among my strong points), and has been, like most major battles, romanticized and fictionalized and retold numerous times over. Some sources give army size numbers in the 15-20,000 range. Whether this is realistic, I don’t know. But, at some point soon I hope to actually read the article, and see what it has to say.

*The Honolulu Academy of Arts has just announced on its Facebook page that from now on the museum will be allowing photography! This is a wonderful turn of events. Now I can go and record the images that I find most beautiful or interesting, and be able to come back to them again, to remind myself what I saw, remind myself which artists to look into… Take photos of gallery labels and save myself the time copying them down by hand in the gallery.

The museum does specify, however, that “No photographs or videotapes may be reproduced, distributed, or sold without written permission from the museum,” which seems a pretty standard disclaimer. Except that I remain unclear as to whether a blog such as this one – or uploading photos to Flickr – counts as “personal use” or “fair use” in some other way, e.g. “educational use”, or whether, on the contrary, it counts as “reproduction and distribution” and is thus not allowed. Having photos for my own study and such will be wonderful, and I look forward to being able to take some photos for that purpose. However, being able to freely share those photos in a context such as a blog, or on Flickr, without worrying whether it counts as fair use, that’s the next important step.

*UK newspaper The Independent reports on analysis of skeletons of people who committed suicide after the 1333 siege of Kamakura. Thanks to further discussion of this article on the Samurai-Archives forums, I am reminded and able to put it together that this is talking about the Hôjô clan “harakiri yagura” or “suicide cave” which I’ve actually seen, in Kamakura. Check out the article, and the discussion thread on the Samurai-Archives forums for more.

*The building housing Japan Society, built by Junzo Yoshimura in 1971, the first building in NYC to be designed by a Japanese architect, has just been officially named a “landmark” by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

I love that the article acknowledges that some might call it a “modernist box.” This is more or less the same terminology I use to criticize countless buildings I see, the style of which I just have no interest in whatsoever. But the appealing thing about the Japan Society building is that it’s not purely that; it’s not purely a modernist box, but it’s a modernist box with enough touches of hints of traditional Japanese architecture that it’s actually interesting and (somewhat) attractive, and not simply just another of more of the same. Personally, I would prefer to see more buildings that much more closely resemble truly traditional-style machiya, rather than just recalling it in an otherwise very modernist form. But, unattractive though it may be, at least on a conceptual level, the Japan Society building, as it is, represents the fusion of traditional and ultra-modern that is contemporary Japan.

*I’ve just come across an old blog post from a blog called Edwardian Promenade, discussing the modern history of women’s dress in Meiji Japan, more specifically, the adoption of yôfuku (Western garments – dresses, corsets, bustles, hats etc.) and the transformation of the furisode, kosode, and various other kinds of traditional Japanese garments into “the kimono”, a newly defined “national costume” for a newly defined Nation.

The post is wonderfully detailed, including lots of dates and such, and describing ways in which the kimono, or the way it is worn, changed in this period. I bet you didn’t even know the kimono changed at all – it’s so traditional, after all, right? Unchanged? Hardly. Like so many things held up as symbols of “traditional Japan” today, the kimono, like tea ceremony, underwent dramatic changes in the Meiji period. Evangeline, the author of the blog, goes into great detail about the way the kimono, and Western Victorian fashions, created different silhouettes, and their relationship to ideas of ideal beauty.

*Finally, there’s apparently an ongoing controversy about the relocation of a writing hut where Roald Dahl did a lot of his writing. The hut, in the garden of his home in Buckinghamshire, is in desperate need of repair, or it might not last another year. There is a plan, therefore, to move its contents – pens, pictures, balls of yarn, his La-Z-Boy, all kinds of things, to the Roald Dahl Museum. However, the museum claims that it will cost £500,000 to move, and more importantly, conserve, all of these objects. I think, if I’m not misunderstanding, the £500,000 also includes the costs of designing and building new museum displays to construct an exhibition around the objects.

Yet, there is apparently some public outrage over the idea that the museum, and Dahl’s family, should be asking for help raising the £500,000 when many allege that Dahl’s widow could (and should) just pay for it entirely herself, out of pocket, from the vast riches she earns off royalties and book sales and such.

Well, that’s it for now (phew!). Sometimes those links just really add up. I look forward to your thoughts, comments, and feedback. Sayonara for now!

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