I have decided to express my views on the controversy surrounding the Kimono Wednesdays event held in July 2015.
I won't explain in detail the event itself and what happened after, others have already done a much better job. if you would like to catch up on what happened, I suggest you check out Keiko's blog Japanese-American In Boston's coverage. I reference this blog throughout my post not only because this blogger is incredibly well-spoken and detailed, but also it's important to recognize the opinions of those who are more directly affected than us by this event. You may also want to check out some Myths and Facts about the event before digging in.
Today I am here to do two things. First, I want to talk about the arguments presented by Decolonize Our Museums (as I understand them) and talk about my own ideas as a counter-protester and kimono enthusiast.
NB: If there are any violent or inappropriate comments posted here that harass any members of the groups involved, those comments will be deleted.
September 2015 - A panel discussion called Kimono Wednesday: What it Means for Asia America is hosted by AARW and NAPAWF at MassArt.
February 2016 - The Museum of Fine Arts hosts a panel called Kimono Wednesdays A Conversation. A video of the panel discussion has been posted by the MFA here.
Decolonize Our Museums
I have been pretty disappointed because the media has done a terrible job of representing the arguments of every side in this debate. I have been fortunate enough to attend the original counter-protests and all the subsequent panel discussions held in Boston. Consequently, I have been around the protesters a lot and have had a long time to hear and digest their arguments. For many people, it is very hard to understand the language that the protesters have been using. In an attempt to use simpler language, I think their arguments can be summarized as:
There is nothing inherently wrong with non-Japanese people wearing kimono. There is nothing inherently wrong with displaying a painting by Monet and having people try on a replica of the kimono.
DOM's greatest concern is how the museum failed to provide context and proper education about the painting and the kimono. They also take issue with the museum using terms like "flirting with the exotic" to describe the event. Due to the resulting lack of context, DOM sees the event as perpetuating and even celebrating orientalism.
During both subsequent panels, the protesters asked why the MFA would choose to have an event about trying on kimono using a French painting? Why not do something involving the Hokusai exhibit that was also going on? Or use the thousands of other Japanese works the museum has. Many saw this as a continuing trend to only display Asian culture through the lens of the Western gaze. As Japanese art historian Reiko Tomii suggested during the MFA panel, why not host a kimono try on event where they went around the museum and wore kimono that were connected to various cultures? This would be much more educational and provide a view of kimono that is not entirely through Western art.
The DOM representative refused to give a simple yes or no on if they'd be fine with this event happening if the museum did a better job of giving the painting proper context. But the general feeling was that if the MFA had done better at teaching museum visitors about what was going on during the time of the painting and how images like this can and still impact those in the Asian American community, it would not have garnered such a negative response. The museum agreed they did not handle the event well and stated that going forward, they will continue to try and make sure that those creating and reviewing events represent a diverse population.
The museum explained their idea was to have visitors step into the place of Monet's wife and see what it must have been like for her to pose for that painting wearing such a heavy garment. They often try to introduce tactile experiences with their exhibits because it is more engaging for the audience, hence trying on the kimono and taking pictures. But, this was not expressed by the museum in any of their promotions at the time, so that nuance was lost. Instead, all people saw was "dress up in this Japanese costume and take pictures, yeay!" Many saw this as a shallow attempt to garner publicity that completely threw out the entire dark history of European colonization, imperialism, etc that was happening while this painting was made and was perhaps a direct artifact of.
I offer the example that this is like dressing up as American slave owners without having any discussion on the history and continuing impact of slavery and billing the event as "Dress like a plantation owner from the south and take lots of selfies!" Of course this example is a little more extreme, but it serves to illustrate the point how any event should have proper context so as not to forget the history that art is intrinsically connected to.
The protesters argued that when exhibiting and focusing on a painting of this nature it is absolutely necessary to provide that context, otherwise people are likely to repeat the same mistakes of history (i.e. perpetuate colonialism) and wash away all context and historical meanings. Furthermore, they argued the museum failed to provide the context and sufficient education while promoting and running the event known as Kimono Wednesdays.
Many have pointed out that the protesters themselves have almost no members who self-identify as Japanese. But as DOM argues, while the opinion of Japanese Nationals and Japanese Americans is important, this event also affects all Americans of Asian identity due to the fact that many Americans do not differentiate Japanese from other Asian ethnicities. From their tumblr, "This exhibit activity reaffirms the notion that Asian-identified folk are the Other, that they do not exist here, and that their cultures’ histories with oppressive imperialist practices are mere entertainment fodder." Therefore, they do not claim to speak for the Japanese, but only for themselves and the effect Kimono Wednesdays has on all Asian Americans.
Views of a Counter-Protester
At the panel discussion held at MassArt, one panelist made an important comment: that we were creating a false dichotomy of protester and counter-protester. This is something I strongly agree with. I see both sides as having a common goal, cultural exchange and human equality. We disagree on how to achieve this and on the implications of the event held at the MFA. I actually agree with most of the statements I have presented above. I am very happy to see the museum taking responsibility for what they've done, holding a panel to discuss it, and giving a direct apology to the community. Of course there is still a lot more that must be done. That being said, there are some opinions expressed by DOM that I disagree with which will be detailed below.
Why I Wrote This Post
To my knowledge, there was next to no direct dialogue between the protesters and counter-protesters beyond some small ineffective arguments during the initial day with counter-protesters present at the museum. I think I am the only counter-protester to continue to talk extensively with the protesters. It is through this direct dialogue that I have come to agree with the protesters on so many points, So clearly this dialogue is incredibly important. Unfortunately, it does not seem like any of the other counter-protesters are seeking out direct dialogue or at least this has not happened in a more public environment. As a white American I have chosen not to express my own views as a counter-protester (until now) because I believe it's more important for me to listen and support the ideas and opinions of those this event more directly affects (Japanese Nationals, Asian Americans, etc).
But since I have seen almost no dialogue happening between the groups, I thought I would break the silence and express my views here on the internet where hopefully I will not be contributing to the silencing of minority voices by those with privilege.
In addition, I see the protests themselves as very potentially damaging to the kimono industry and the public's perception of what a kimono is and what it represents. As anyone involved in the world of kimono will tell you, the kimono industry is in dramatic and possibly irreversible decline. It is an important issue close to my heart (read more in my About section), and I am always looking for opportunities to educate people on kimono and spread the passion for this amazing art form.
Many of the protesters of course have more authority than me on racism and the effects of this event on the Asian American community. But I also feel that neither the MFA nor the protesters referenced any experts on kimono itself, and I think this has resulted in many of the misunderstandings and misinformation on kimono, its meaning, and its cultural significance. Therefore, I feel this event affects me as a student of kitsuke and as someone dedicated to preserving the traditions of kimono.
And so, I have chosen to write this post now to express my reasons for counter-protesting at the Kimono Wednesdays event.
As a result of the protests blossoming from the original three protesters to a much larger group, there was a resulting mishmash of messages presented at each protest. Many people within the protesters had completely different opinions of the event, on wearing kimono, and of the painting. Some people when questioned said they were here to protest how the museum presented the event, others said non-Japanese people shouldn't be wearing kimono, and others said that they thought the painting itself was so inherently racist that it should not be displayed in museums at all.
Let’s look at some contradictions in message among the protesters. Xtina Huilan Wang, the representative for the protesters at the MassArt panel said, “Should white people get to wear kimono? Absolutely! But with an understanding or with a full participation in the culture, from which it comes from, right. Not in the sort of consumable, disposable way that it very much felt like the MFA.”
But now let’s look at what actually happened during the protest. A sign held by a protester read "White America does not deserve to touch kimonos on display racks until they stop treating me like a kimono on a display rack. Who told you you can touch me?” I believe this sign is trying to bring up a very valid issue of violence against Asian Americans, especially women. But, it also makes it clear that white Americans should not be wearing kimono (until some time in the future). When you really sit and think about the implications of this sign, it really hits home how white America has the luxury to “flirt” with other cultures, while people from those cultures are still fighting for basic human rights. Unfortunately, it seems this sign was instead interpreted by visitors and the media to mean “white Americans not only don’t deserve to wear kimono, but they shouldn’t even be touching it either.”
After the initial protest, DOM also released a list of demands. One demand states “Stop Kimono Wednesdays - We [demand] that the MFA stop inviting people to try on the uchikake.” Note that this demand was met on July 7th. All of the other demands focus on demanding an apology and changing the language and information presented along with the exhibit. But it is difficult to interpret this demand in any other way than it is inappropriate for museum visitors to try on kimono, even if all the other demands are met. Nowhere in the list of demands does it state that trying on a kimono would be acceptable if framed properly by the museum.
Unfortunately, the majority of people who have heard of this event were NOT able to attend the subsequent panel discussions about the events. Therefore, they are MUCH more likely to have heard the message "white people can't wear kimono, ever." This is clearly demonstrated by the vast quantity of news articles that seemed to have interpreted the protests in this way. See this one, this one, this one, and this blog post.
As for the opinions expressed about the painting itself, I am uncomfortable expressing my own opinion on that as I am not an art historian and not well versed on the issues surrounding it.
I think this kind of mixed message is hard to avoid when organizing any protest. I think the online persona of Decolonize Our Museums and their subsequent representation in the following panels really helped to clarify and express the true opinions of the protest organizers. Unfortunately, as previously stated, most people have not encountered these nuanced representations of DOM's ideas.
Attitude of the Protesters
I will not try to propose how one should protest or what is the best and most effective way to protest. Clearly this protest was very successful, and I'm very glad to live in a time when small protests like this can have an effect. I also believe that a protest does not need to be peaceful, protesters do not need to be calm, and one should never expect an oppressed minority to just calmly fight for their rights. This does not reflect the reality of what people experience, which is a violent and abusive system of oppression built to keep a certain group of people in power. But I do think that many of the protesters in this group went beyond the line of acceptability and were aggressive for no purpose or reason.
When I went to the event for the first time just to try on the kimono, I witnessed protesters walking directly up to visitors and engaging them in aggressive language. Many of the visitors to the museum did not intend to participate in the Kimono Wednesdays event and had just wandered into the room. Many did not understand the controversy surrounding the event or had not even heard of it yet. Many did not speak English as a first language and could not read the signs or understand the protesters very well. And yet, I saw many museum visitors being condemned just for being in the same room as the painting. Many people did not seem to understand the intricacies of the protest and walked away confused and afraid to ever engage in wearing kimono or visiting the museum. This has been echoed by reporters who interviewed museum visitors. There was a lot of anger directed at complete strangers without any attempt to first engage and converse with visitors to find out their reasons for being present. I do not believe it is right to judge someone before you take the chance to speak to them and understand where they’re coming from.
The impression I got from all this was that the original protesters were genuinely interested in dialogue and changing minds, while many of the people who joined later through a call on social media had very different intentions.
For more on the attitude of the protesters, read here for an account by someone else who was also present at the protests.
I saw various signs that called the event yellowface, and in fact the group that organized the protest was originally named Stand Against Yellow Face and their website states "the MFA has allowed its visitors to participate in a horrific display of minstrelsy."
I personally do not believe this event constitutes yellowface, and I agree with Keiko's blog post about the topic.
“To me, yellowface involves the caricature of Asian faces, bodies, voices, movements, personalities, and aesthetics by non-Asian (typically, but not always, white) people… If you accept that La Japonaise was Monet's commentary on japonisme it would seem that what the MFA is actually inviting the public to do is to pretend to be a white woman who is obsessed with Japanese culture which I find ironic. They are not inviting the public to pretend to be Japanese… Non-Japanese people trying on a traditional Japanese garment for five minutes is not my idea of yellowface. I haven't seen any photos of Americans in [black] wigs with white face make up.”
Another sign read “The MFA is all about cultural experiences. Try on the kimono, learn what it's like to be a racist imperialist today!"
This sign can easily be interpreted as meaning that by trying on a kimono in any situation, one becomes a racist imperialist. As opposed to what I hope it means is that in the context of this event specifically, participating in the event Kimono Wednesdays supports racism and imperialism. In fact, the protester who made this sign commented on the contradictory nature of the signs at the protest and this sign in particular during the MassArt panel.
“I think that the comment, particularly about the signage being different, is a totally valid one… And I’ll take responsibility for that. I made that sign… And the thing is that in this amount of space, there’s not really a lot of ability to have the full discussion that I wanted to have. And this is not by any means a sort of exoneration of that choice. But I do think it’s worth focusing on the responsibility of the MFA and its mischaracterization of the event. I think that we can, we can disagree about tactics, we can disagree about the ways of which it was protested, but it seems that there is common ground in that the contextualization was not there. And so it’s – I think that’s a fair comment to make and I’ll accept it as such.”
I have to agree with this statement, and I think it’s understandable where the protester is coming from. Unfortunately, it seems this nuance of understanding was lost on those visiting the museum.
One sign read "Japanese Americans don't have the option to experience white culture just for fun." But after I spoke with various Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, it seems they would argue that they do in fact engage with white culture just for fun on a daily basis. Keiko suggests that she in fact enjoys white culture all the time.
“I go out to dinner at white-owned restaurants and enjoy “white” cuisine with white friends. I attend musical concerts put on by white musicians who play music written and composed by white people. I once attended a pirate-themed party (throw by some white friends, of course) dressed as a wench. I also attended the coronation of a friend in the SCA… Under her tutelage I made Viking garb for myself and a male friend... None of the many white people in attendance accosted me and demanded to know why I as an Asian American was wearing the garb of their ancestors. I have some Italian Americans in my extended family. No one asks me if I understand the cultural significance of meatballs and pasta before they allow me to dig in. I don't understand how any Asian American can not experience "white culture" "just for fun". How else would you experience it?”
In addition, one more sign read "This is racist, this is appropriation, this is orientalism." I am more on the fence about whether this event was appropriation. In one sense, I agree the museum did not properly contextualize the event, and proper context is important to avoid appropriating culture. On the other hand, Japan has been doing their best to market and push kimono on the rest of the world. And in fact this event was originally hosted in Japan and the kimono replica was commissioned by the NHK from Takarazuka, a Japanese stage management company. In essence, the MFA was given permission to host this event, including the trying on of kimono, from all the Japanese organizations involved in the Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan exhibits in Japan.
As Keiko reminds us, “Kimono try on is an established part of Japanese cultural sharing... in Kyoto it's a big tourist thing to [dress up as apprentice geisha] and it's popular with both Japanese people and international tourists… Here in Boston we've had kimono try on events that I've seen that haven't been much different than what the MFA is doing… there usually isn't time to educate the public on the garments they're trying on, it's just a quick put it on, take a few pics, take it off. The lines are always long and include people of all races including non-Japanese Asian Americans and Japanese people.”
Later on she also says, “For me, an important element of cultural appropriation is imitation, whether it's meant as a homage or meant to mock and demean. I don't see trying on the replica uchikake as imitating anyone except Camille Monet. You can argue that the French were appropriating Japanese culture in the late 19th century and that's what's offensive but I think it's a stretch to say that by showcasing La Japonaise and the replica uchikake the MFA is being culturally appropriative.” See "Why I don't think it's cultural appropriation" for further discussion on the topic.
In addition to the signs I disagree with, there were many signs that brought up valid and factual statements, but that seemingly held no relevance to this particular event. I believe this only confused visitors as to the true intention of the protests. This is reflected in news reports that interviewed visitors, such as this piece by the Boston Globe.
“But if the protesters were certain of their message, their meaning was lost on some visitors. ‘They’re obviously here to make a point,’ said Katelin Hardy, who arrived at the MFA last week intending to try on a kimono. After speaking at length with the protesters, however, she decided to forgo the opportunity, even if she wasn’t “quite sure” about their objections. ‘They said everyone was racist,’ said Hardy. ‘Maybe there needs to be a little more context to it, but by the time I was done, we were leaving, and I just couldn’t.’“
Lack of Expertise
I believe the protesters lacked expertise in kimono, something that is very important when talking about an event revolving around a kimono. On the museum's part, they also did not seem to provide much information in the spotlight talks about the kimono. It seemed to be their intention to focus on the painting itself. Although if the idea is to engage visitors with a physical object, an expert on that object should probably be involved to give information to guests. This should be true for the painting and the kimono.
In the same vein, the protesters didn't appear to have any knowledge of kimono either. For example I saw and heard many complaints that the museum referenced the kimono as a "costume" and that this was offensive. An uchikake can be worn for a wedding or used in kabuki as a costume. The kimono in La Japonaise is in fact the latter of the two, a kabuki costume. And as previously mentioned, the kimono replicas used at the exhibit were even created by a Japanese stage management company. And the MFA was very aware of this fact, as the staff member who gave the Spotlight Talks confirmed over email.
Also, as became clear to me while counter-protesting, none of the protesters who engaged me in conversation had any idea the cultural significance of kimono and the meaning behind it. They did not know what kind of kimono was on display or what its uses were. Their adopting of the term uchikake appears to have been added to their material later.
That being said, I think the overall importance of the protest still stands and that expert knowledge of kimono is not necessary to understand the potential ramifications of Kimono Wednesdays. Still, I believe that the protesters would have been bettered if they had engaged and had a kimono expert involved. In the same line of thought, I think the counter-protester side would also have greatly benefited from having more members with a greater understanding of social justice issues. We are not born with the technical language or grasp of concepts necessary to understand these issues, and that only comes from lived experiences and intensive education.
Description of the first MassArt Panel
The events of the MassArt panel were detailed here by Keiko and the audio recording and transcript has been posted here.
This event was originally marketed as a POC only event, and this language was only changed once MassArt informed the organizers that this was strictly against the school's nondiscrimination policy. I quote from Keiko's blog post:
"Although the event description on the event page did not include any language limiting who could attend, the NAPAWF post stated "This event is POC only" and Christina (as Xtina Huilan Wang) had posted on the event page: "I'm going to be a panelist for this discussion. This will be a POC space only, so if you're not please reach out and pass it along to folks you know who are and would be interested in attending this...but the fact is that the original plan that the panel organizers had to have a POC only event was both illegal (due to the venue) and discriminatory. They may not have had ill intent and they may not see it that way but when you organize a talk and bar a group of people from attending based solely on their race/the color of their skin, that's discrimination. Some would argue that POC safe spaces are needed and while I do see their merit, I don't agree that it was warranted for this event."
I agree with this statement and am glad the event was later changed to allow non-POC to attend because I found the event very helpful and educational for me. I think it's especially important as a white person for me to take advantage of every opportunity to be educated on issues like this. I was still able to attend the event and the organizers were successfully able to prioritize Asian voices by implementing a note card system for asking questions. This proved that an event could create safe spaces for minorities to speak out without banning people from attending based on race.
As I previously mentioned, DOM believes Kimono Wednesdays constitutes yellowface, and I do not.
DOM has also challenged the ethnicity of the MFA curator staff on multiple occasions. Their tumblr states "Even after the first week there was no attempt by the museum to diversify the curatorial staff, which begs the question, does the MFA have any Asian-identified staff?"
I believe this is an unfair characterization and is wildly presumptive. The curatorial staff is made public on their website here, and if you read down the list of names, there appear to be individuals of various ethnicities (if you choose to judge people based on appearances or name). I am not trying to argue that the MFA staff would not benefit from more diversity, but to suggest that they don't have any Asian-identified staff shows a lack of research and many false assumptions on the part of DOM.
In addition, DOM focuses on the idea that the exhibit perpetuates orientalism and colonialism. But, it is a popular historical opinion that Japan was never colonized by Western powers. In fact, Japan was a colonizing nation itself and has an extensive history of colonizing surrounding East Asian and South East Asian countries. See this article in the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. Indeed Japan was forced to end its diplomacy of self-isolation due to Western military influence, but Japan does not historically consider itself a victim of colonization by anyone.
So I hope my post has helped to clear up some misunderstandings on both sides of the debate. And I hope that in the future our institutions do a better job of organizing events like this, our protests (and counter-protests) are more effectively run, and that there is better dialogue between protesters and counter-protesters.
And I want to thank everyone who I referenced in this post for their hard work, and making my job a little easier.
And of course I have to thank my friends in the kimono community who dragged me into all of this seven months ago.
Links and Further Reading
Japanese American and Japanese reaction to Kimono Wednesdays
MFA's Kimono Controversy Should Spark Deeper Conversation
Reddit discussion on should foreigners wear kimono
Seeing Beyond "Kimono Wednesdays": On Asian American Protest
The Kimono Controversy Continues
Underneath the Orientalist Kimono
Unraveling of the Kimono Industry