Monday, July 13, 2015

Japanese American and Japanese reaction to Kimono Wednesdays

Please see my original post for background: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA.

I would like to preface this post by saying that I don't condone the public or private harassment of the protesters in the form of slurs, insults in Japanese, assumptions about their heritage, and death threats (they have written on Facebook and Twitter about receiving such harassment). I don't agree with much of what they've said, I don't approve of their tactics, and they have been very rude on their Facebook page but they are human beings and treating them this way does not help the situation and is more likely to make things worse.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around that because they are non-Japanese Asian Americans they must be working for foreign governments. My favorite one was that they are agitprop workers working for the DPRK (North Korean government). This is complete nonsense and a common charge (that we are agents/spies of a foreign government) when people feel that the motives of Asian Americans are suspect. I haven't met any of them but my impression is that they are regular Asian Americans struggling with issues of race in a country that is frequently hostile for non-whites. They have been completely dismissive of Japanese Americans, Japanese, and white residents of Japan who have tried to talk about Kimono Wednesdays in the context of Japanese cultural sharing and a dying kimono culture and industry because they feel this is about America not Japan, but I see that as being related to American arrogance not anti-Japanese views. Though I have no idea if they personally hold anti-Japanese views because of their family histories.

I would also like to point out that some of the reaction to the protesters that I've read around the Internet is based on things they have not said. When this first started to go viral the protesters didn't have much in the way of substance on their now deleted Facebook page so many people were making assumptions about what they were trying to say on the basis of their signs and what people imagined they did at the MFA. They have since posted a LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES" (preserved here by in case they delete it again - please read for yourself and decide what you think) and have two new Facebook pages (organization page here and event page here). There's been a lot of misinformation on social media and the media has done a poor job of reporting (especially in Japan from what I've heard) so some of the responses have been to things other people have attributed their beliefs and motives to be, not things they've actually stated.

I've been talking to a lot of people for the past week and a half and heard and read lots of great commentary on Kimono Wednesdays. I wanted to share some of them because I still feel like non-Japanese Asian Americans and whites are dominating the conversation. These comments are all supportive, but I have heard from some Japanese Americans who feel the MFA's actions were inappropriate and at a minimum culturally appropriative.

After I heard about the protests at the MFA, one of my first emails was to my dear friend, Izumi Noguchi, a kimono enthusiast who runs the Boston Kimono Club (sorry, no website) and is very knowledgeable about kimono. She said that her mission is for kimono to be appreciated by everyone regardless of race. Izumi has organized kimono try on events at several matsuri around the area and she also lectures on kimono and has been invited to speak at several universities.

I got her permission to share the response she sent back last week. We talked about the protests a little more this past weekend and she told me she was actually very happy to hear that the MFA had organized Kimono Wednesdays. At work, she's often in charge of organizing Asian cultural events to raise awareness and give people a better understanding of Asian cultures. Izumi loves that non-Japanese staff take an interest and help organize these events. She doesn't feel that the only people allowed to speak and share about Japanese culture are Japanese and Japanese Americans. (Note: I haven't been able to get anyone at the MFA to talk to me so I don't know the racial make up of the staff who worked on Kimono Wednesdays but most people seem to be working on the assumption they must all be white.)

First of all, I was shocked to read many angry responses from people (most of them seem Asian decent and one Japanese person) saying the MFA is a racists. I know it would have been better if there was a lecture on kimono to understand all about kimono but it seems this is just a fun event to try on kimono/uchikake. It seems this Uchikake was made in prestigious Kyoto and it's so rare to see it and let alone to put it on! Why not "white people" or any people try on kimono?

It's one of my lifetime works to spread the word that kimono is for everyone. You don't have to be Japanese or Asian. You can wear it when you have a blond hair or your skin is dark. It doesn't matter who you are. I believe they all look great in kimono. Whenever I did "kimono try-on" at the festivals or workshops, they love it and they smile. Am I a racist? Absolutely not! Last year, so many non-Asian people purchased kimono and haori at the summer festival. They ask me where they can purchase. That makes me so happy.

A few days ago someone posted on the protest Facebook page a draft of a letter to the MFA in support of Kimono Wednesdays from a sansei West Coast Japanese American, Barbara Hayashida. I reached out to Barbara and she told me that she heard about the controversy through a Facebook group called "You know you're Japanese-American when..." She expressed disagreement with the protesters that the event was promoting orientalism and someone said if she wrote a letter, they would sign. She posted the draft and within 24 hours had 68 signatures in addition to her own (we are not sharing the names of the other signatories to respect their privacy). I think if she had collected signatures through the weekend she would have gotten many more. Most of the signatories don't know each other and they're not trying to start a counterprotest group, they just wanted to express their concerns to the MFA and let Japanese American and Japanese voices be heard (most signatories were Japanese American). Barbara shared the final draft of their letter with me.

Today someone posted a Facebook group to the protest page called the Japanese-Global Alliance to Support Kimono Wednesday at Boston MFA. The group's description: "This is a community to let people know that most Japanese don`t even think the "Kimono Wednesday" is racist and we want MFA to start the event again." Some of the information being posted to the group is not accurate (ie: you should not call 911 to report the protesters unless they have become violent or are destroying property - though really I'd leave that up to the MFA security to handle) but it's a place to find like-minded people who support Kimono Wednesdays.

I'm told there are two other Facebook groups that support Kimono Wednesdays but neither group is public so I haven't been able to look at their pages and won't be sharing the links.

I hope that Japanese Americans and Japanese people will continue to make their voices heard on social media and to the MFA. If you would like to contact the MFA you can use the webform on their contact page.

Thank you to Izumi and Barbara for sharing their thoughts!

Update 7/17/15: I found another Japanese American writing about the protests! I've been corresponding with sansei author, Jan Morrill, who signed Barbara Hayashida's letter. You can read her thoughts at her blog: Outrage Over a Red Kimono? Update 7/24/15: Jan has written a follow-up post: Mind Your Own Business.

Update 7/19/15: More Japanese and Japanese American reaction in Sunday edition of The Boston Globe: Counter-protesters join kimono fray at MFA including quotes from my friend, Etsuko Yashiro, who counterprotested, Dr. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, and Dr. Ken Oye, who teaches political science and engineering at MIT and is co-president of the New England Japanese American Citizens League. Finally, a journalist who is asking the opinions of prominent Japanese and Japanese Americans!

Also, for more Japanese perspective on kimono see The Japan TimesUnderneath the ‘Orientalist’ kimono.

Update 7/21/15: Japanese artist and arts activist, Kentaro Ikegami, sent a letter to the MFA in his role as the Arts Advocacy Program Manager for the National Coalition Against Censorship. He was critical of the self-censorship and referred the MFA to NCAC's Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy.

Update 8/2/15: Dr. Kei Hiruta, Research Fellow and Global Outreach Coordinator at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, published "Stop Orientalism?: On Boston MFA’s ‘Kimono Wednesdays’" in the University of Oxford's Practical Ethics blog arguing that although the event may have been orientalist, that doesn't necessarily make it wrong.
"It is a curious fact about our contemporary culture that, in places like Boston at least, the wrongness of Orientalism is considered so self-evident that those commenting on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ have largely focused on whether the event is Orientalist, sidestepping harder questions as to specifically what is wrong if the event is Orientalist and (assuming, for the moment, that it is indeed Orientalist) whether the wrongness of Orientalism should override other considerations. But the latter set of questions demand greater attention not least because, as I have argued, the pervasiveness of Orientalism today might not be separable from the moral progress we have made in the past couple of centuries. Addressing the relevant moral and historical issues fully is a challenging task; for starters, we should recognise the triviality of the oft-made assertions about the MFA event: ‘This is Orientalist!’ ‘No, it is NOT Orientalist!’"

 Related posts

  • 7/22/15 12:50pm: Updated link to "LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES". Protesters have removed their original Tumblr and rebranded as "Decolonize Our Museums."
  • 7/26/15 3:15pm: Updated "preserved here" link to point to


  1. Thank you for continuing to update us so thoroughly about this.

  2. You're welcome! Thank you for reading. :)

  3. Thank you for your message. (I could not figure out Youtube messaging, oops!) I will do what I can from the westcoast. I hope that racial tensions and insult to Japan's goodwill can be eased. They are beyond recognizing their hatred, resentment, and ignorance regarding a culture they do not understand.

  4. The thing is though... there is a whole industry in Japan itself that depends on dressing Western tourists up in kimono... if Western tourists stop doing that, these people will literally be out of a livelihood...

    1. I really doubt that any Western tourist who is motivated enough to go to Japan and interested in doing the whole tourist kimono thing will stop as a result of this protest. Doing basic research will tell those people that they will be welcome to do so.