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Archive for the ‘Orientalism’ Category

The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.

I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.

Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.

The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.

A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.

And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.

Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.

And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.

As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.

Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!

But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…

Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.

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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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Or, On Dressing as an Orientalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What with exams and everything, the links have really piled up. So, here we are, two (somewhat?) recent articles from around the Internet. I shall endeavor to keep my commentary short, but, we all know I will fail to do so.

To start off, we have a sort of masterpost by Ube Empress on “An Exploration of Orientalism & Asian Cultural Appropriation as Found in American Music (And Why Being a Non-Asian POC Doesn’t Excuse You).” In this lengthy and extensive post, Ube Empress covers everything from Geisha to Bindi – and I am so glad she does, because, surprise, not all cultures are the same! and not all appropriation is the same! – and then lists out a long list of celebrities (mainly in Western pop music), from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, who have arguably committed crimes of cultural appropriation in their music videos and performances.

There’s still a lot to be said here. But it’s a really good foundational post, from which we can springboard and ask further questions. If appropriation is all about “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” then whose permission is necessary? Who stands as representative of the culture, and arbiter of the appropriate? In some cases, it’s a bit easier, as there are traditional practitioners well-respected, well-established, or even officially licensed, as “teachers”, who can provide that permission. But, in other cases, if one group of POC friends gives permission, and another group of POC individuals say it’s offensive, are you in the right, or in the wrong, for having performed that thing? And if you are of that heritage yourself, and someone else of the same heritage says it’s inappropriate & offensive, that you should be ashamed of yourself, and/or that you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, who is in the right? Do you, as a member of that identity, have the right to perform that identity how you wish, based on what being of that heritage means to you? Or are the other people in the right? Who gets to play appropriation police?

I wish, too, that Ube Empress had gone further to say just a little more boldly, a little more explicitly, why being a Person of Color is not a transitive quality – why it’s not only whites who are horrible when they appropriate, and that being Latino or black doesn’t give you the right to appropriate elements of Asian or any other culture. Because it’s not about being a fellow minority, or sharing in having been oppressed. It’s about having proper respect for other cultures, and borrowing elements in ways that are respectful, knowledgeable, and appropriate within that culture. This is the same reason that Gananath Obeyesekere’s arguments that as a Sri Lankan he has some special insight into Hawaiian culture, as a fellow non-white/non-Westerner, are, frankly, bullshit. Every culture has different attitudes about what is sacred and what is not, what “sacred” means and how it works, what is and is not offensive, what is and is not deeply associated exclusively with particular purposes or occasions, and should not be performed outside of those contexts. A kimono is not a qipao is not a bindi is not a hula skirt, and being black or Latino does not mean you have any more intimate knowledge than the average white person as to the precise meanings and connotations of elements of particular cultures.

The comments on this article are quite interesting too (though, of course there’s also plenty of racist bullshit mixed in), as some people have expanded on the post, and even offered corrections. Nicki Minaj, of course, is not simply black, but of Trinidadian background, which is a particular thing, different from mainland US African-American background, and she’s apparently 1/4 Indian, which some argue in the comments makes her a fellow “Asian.” Yeah, no. You don’t get a free pass simply for being “Asian.” You cannot go on TV talk shows and talk about how Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation,1 and then go dress as a geisha in your music videos, followed by a sequence of a karate dojo with all (seemingly, apparently) black participants and no Japanese or Okinawans in sight, as if being 1/4 Indian gives you some special permission or authenticity in Japanese culture.

That said, though, life is complicated. Our identities, our lives, are complicated, and as I return to this post to edit it for the umpteenth time and prepare it for final “publication,” so to speak, I hesitate to even post it at all; I hesitate to contribute to a discourse that says we can (and should!) make assumptions and attack people without considering all the possibilities and asking all the right questions. Are there plenty of cases out there that are just straight-up gross examples of cultural appropriation, in which someone (and their production teams, costumers, choreographers, whomever) just blatantly took cultural elements out of context and used them just for their aesthetic, or worse, to play to certain stereotypes? YES. There absolutely, absolutely, are. And I do not mean to excuse or condone those acts one bit.

But, as I looked for additional photos with which to pepper this post, I came across the following two from Beyonce’s own Tumblr.

In the first, Beyonce is wearing a so-called “coolie hat,” and a yellow top that seems to recall elements of the aesthetic of Qing Dynasty robes. Plus, she’s making a very stereotypical gesture. Very easy to jump on this and just cry “appropriation.” I very nearly used this at the very top of this post, with a caption simply reading “Seriously, B? Really?” But, you know what, we don’t know anything about the context of this photo. Beyonce’s a world traveler – I could absolutely believe that this might have been taken in China, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, and that the local people right there could have been perfectly fine with it. We have no idea who gave her cultural “permission,” and we have no idea the context within which this took place. Maybe people did use that hand gesture with her, in that part of China, to show appreciation, and encouraged her to do the same. Maybe they didn’t.

Here’s another question. Plenty of tourist sites around the world give tourists the opportunity to “dress up” in traditional clothing. I’ve certainly done it once or twice, but I’ve also declined to walk around in public in kimono, outside of cosplay conventions + traditional festivals (when everyone else was also wearing yukata). If Beyonce were wearing something culturally authentic, as part of taking part in a demonstration or workshop, or even just as a touristy “dress up” thing, but totally authorized by the local tourist site, and with the clothes provided by the tourist site, would that be okay? Would it not? Given that the clothes she’s wearing in this picture are terribly inauthentic, but are clearly only inspired by Qing fashions, does that excuse it (how can it be appropriation if it’s not even all that close to the real thing)? Or does it make it worse? I don’t really know…

In the second picture, she’s wearing a hula skirt, and seemingly dancing the hula, or at least trying to. First thing I did was look on her biography on Wikipedia to see if she has any Polynesian ethnic background, or if she lived in the islands for any amount of time. Teen Vogue recently got chewed out on Twitter for using a light-skinned model with dreads, and talking to her about dreads. Well, surprise, the girl is half-Fijian, coming from a culture that has been wearing dreads for centuries. So, it pays to ask questions, and to not just jump to conclusions. In the second half of this post, I return to the point that a “black/white” dichotomy conception of race excludes, erases, the great diversity of other racial/ethnic identities that exist in the world, such as Fijian.

Returning to Beyonce’s photo, the leis, aloha shirts, and white slacks on the musicians in the background lead me to believe this is not just some backyard party, but that this is likely taking place in Hawaii (or another Pacific Island), and that these gentlemen are hired professional musicians. Thus, there is the possibility that there is an authentic kumu hula (hula instructor) present. Again, Beyonce is a professional musician & dancer, and a world traveler, and I really don’t think it out of the realm of possibility that she’s receiving proper formal hula lessons, even if only for a one-time workshop, and that she at least tried to be respectful, best as she knew how. Granted, she’s also extremely wealthy and I wouldn’t put it past her to have all kinds of lavish expensive parties (e.g. renting a beachhouse on Maui and then having a “Hawaiian” party). So, it could go either way. We don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue against Ube Empress at all. Quite the contrary, I’m sharing her post in order to promote it. She does a really good job of explaining out the intricacies and complexities of cultural appropriation – what it is, why it’s wrong, how it varies from case to case, because not every cultural element is equally sensitive, sacred, or meaningful – and calling out a long list of very prominent celebrities who I think are almost unquestionably guilty. Perhaps most importantly, she holds non-white celebrities to the same standards. Being black or Latina or 1/4 Asian Indian does not give you any extra claim, or rights, to other cultures, any more so than being white.

When cultural appropriation is taking place in an offensive way, it is offensive. Period. And it should be stopped. But, all I mean to say with these Beyonce pictures, and with the Teen Vogue Twitter link, is that culture and identity are complicated. Really complicated. Cultural appropriation is not as simple as “if it looks like a duck.” We need to ask questions, before we condemn someone. Who is the person doing it? What potential cultural authority or rightful claims might they have to these cultural elements? What is the context? Who might have given them permission? And then, if the answers to these questions are that the person does not have rightful claims to authority, and do not have permission, and if the act is offensive to the culture in question, because of the way the cultural element is used or because of the stereotypes it perpetuates, then it is cultural appropriation, and should be lambasted with all due piss and vinegar.

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Okay. So, let’s move on. On a somewhat related topic, we have an article from the Good Men Project by Warren Blumenfeld, on the In-Between “Racialized” Category of European-Heritage Jews. In this excerpt from a longer essay, published in the book Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, he discusses something I have touched upon before, when I asked Are Ashkenazi Jews White?.

I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what Blumenfeld has to say, except to quote some choice bits from his article, and invite you to read more if you are so inclined.

…the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. … As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either.

I think this speaks to a lot more than just the Jewish experience alone. Our society is incredibly diverse, ranging from Irish-, Italian-, and Anglo-Americans to blacks of slave ancestry, both from the mainland US and the very different circumstances of the Caribbean; blacks with no slave ancestry, coming more recently from Africa, and from very different parts of that massive continent; Arabs; Turks; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews; Persians; Tamils, Sinhalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi; Mexican, Guatemalan, Chilean; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Samoan, Chamorro, and Hawaiian; Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese; Haida, Lakota, and Muscogee; and so on and so forth. And yet, our discourse on race in this country, all too often, is very black and white (plus Latinos). Where do all of these people fit? Are all People of Color, in all their diversity, all essentially the same, a single category situated oppositionally against Whites?

Blumenfeld suggests a different model:

As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.

I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.

All of this, of course, is an ongoing conversation. I hope I have spurred some thought, or at least just provided some interesting articles. None of this is my complete or definitive word on the subject… and my own thoughts and attitudes on these exceptionally complex and touchy subjects are constantly shifting, too, as I read and think and learn more. Let us all give one another the benefit of the doubt, yes?

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(1) Okay, I admit, I’m stretching it a bit. I can’t seem to find a clip of Minaj really talking at any length about appropriation. But, still, the point remains the same. We could instead cite Azealia Banks, who has been quite vocal about appropriation of black music, of twerking, and so forth, and who then goes and wears bindis and the like all over the place.

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Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

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Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.

I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?

This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.

Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that

It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1

Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.

Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?

A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”

The Ryukyu Islands, on a map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.

Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.

But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.

Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.

For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.

But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.

1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.

2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.

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