Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA

Claude Monet's La Japonaise (1876)

For my most recent writing on Kimono Wednesdays, please see my postmortem: 
Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics
Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters
Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

Update 7/7/15 4:37pm: It seems that about an hour before I posted this I received an email from someone in the MFA's PR department that I missed letting me know that the MFA has decided to change their programming for Kimono Wednesdays and will no longer be allowing the public to try on the replica uchikake. They will allow "visitors to touch and engage with" the replica uchikake and will host "talks [to] provide context on French Impressionism, 'japonisme,' and the historical background of the painting, as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse." I'm pleased to hear that they will be providing more education but I think it's disappointing that they will no longer be allowing people to try the uchikake on. For some of us it would have been a once in a lifetime experience.

7/9/15 7:50pm: Follow-up post: Protests continue at the MFA

7/11/15 3:20am: It seems the protesters have deleted their original Facebook page and set up new pages. Organization page here and event page here. So much for being open to dialogue with the public. There was a lot of great commentary on the original page.

7/13/15 12:50am: Counterprotest this Wednesday @ the MFA

Reader Eugenia Beh brought the controversy surrounding the Boston MFA's Kimono Wednesdays to my attention last week. I spent the past few days reading about it and talking to friends and family. Here are my thoughts.


In 2013, the MFA undertook an extensive public restoration of French impressionist painter Claude Monet's La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) (「ラ・ジャポネーズ」“La Japonezu” in Japanese) partially funded by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and NHK Promotions, their subsidiary that handles cultural projects and events. The painting has been in the MFA's collection since 1956. Monet's painting is regarded by some as a "whimsical retort" to the japonisme (the Japanese influence on fashion and art in the West in the second half of the 19th century) that was in vogue in France at the time. Monet's first wife, Camille, was the model for the painting and sported an uchikake, a type of formal kimono. Monet had his naturally dark-haired wife wear a blonde wig to emphasize that she was European. My friend just started reading Jill Liddell's The Story of the Kimono and she said that Liddell wrote that Camille's uchikake was brought to Paris for a theatrical performance during the Exposition universelle de 1867 (International Exposition of 1867). It would most likely have been a kabuki performance. These days uchikake are worn only by brides and performers, but back in the day they were a status symbol worn by "wives and daughters of high-ranked samurai".  New money merchants would have their daughters wear uchikake when they got married, a symbol of their newfound wealth (per my friend who is a kimono enthusiast).

NHK told the MFA that they knew the story depicted on Camille's uchikake (Momijigari) and knew what was on the side that can't be seen in the painting (Kijo, the demon that the warrior Taira no Koremochi kills). They asked permission to have two replicas (one adult size and one child size – close-up here) of the uchikake commissioned for a traveling exhibit titled Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan (the MFA also published a book by the same title). The exhibit was curated by Helen Burnham, Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings, who holds a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. The replica uchikake were produced by Takarazuka Stage Co., a stage management company. The MFA told me that "Skilled artisans [in the costume section] made the kimono based on the design by Takarazuka’s costume designer." The replicas took about three months to make and were made in Kyoto, home to kimono weavers and where kimono culture still survives in day-to-day life to a greater degree than in other parts of Japan.

The exhibit premiered at the The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee where it was on display from January 31, 2014 to May 11, 2014. The exhibit then traveled with the replica uchikake to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art (which opened in 1928 and is one of the oldest art museums in Japan) from September 30 2014 to November 30, 2014, the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo from August 22, 2014 to September 15, 2014, and the MFA's sister museum, Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (N/BMFA), from January 2, 2015 to May 10, 2015. Following the Japanese tour, La Japonaise returned to the MFA and NHK donated both replica uchikake to the MFA to be used at similar events to those held in Japan. Looking East is currently at the The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City, Canada through September 27, 2015.

For the Japanese tour, they used a Japanese model for publicity photos, not a blonde model or a Japanese model in a blonde wig. The replica uchikake were on display some of the time and events described as ワークショップ ("workshop") were hosted so people could try them on and take pictures. It's not clear to me if these events were structured the same way at each museum and how they differed from Kimono Wednesdays. This Setagaya City announcement indicates that the workshops may have been more extensive dress-up sessions (including make up) than the MFA is having. I have been told that Setagaya Art Museum is the only one that provided blonde wigs as seen in this photo via Setagaya City's website. Pictures around the Internet show many happy Japanese museumgoers donning the La Japonaise replica uchikake and posing for pictures most without a wig or make up. In addition to the try on workshops the N/BMFA also held a special event for the visually impaired where they were able to touch a 3D version of La Japonaise and touch the replica uchikake and fans and have the painting described to them.

Since spring, the MFA has been celebrating Japanese culture with a number of exhibits and related events. Beginning on June 24, 2015 they invited the public to try on the replica uchikake every Wednesday night through July 29th. Admission on Wednesday nights is "by voluntary contribution".

Why I don't think Kimono Wednesdays is racist

I feel like the word "racist" gets thrown around far too easily. As the daughter of an English teacher I'm always looking up words (something my mom forced me to do as a kid that I now do voluntarily!). I think definitions are important even though popular understanding of words often differs from their dictionary definitions.

Racist (from the OED):
adjective Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another
noun Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience
noun The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
It is clear that the MFA's actions don't stem from a belief that American culture is superior to Japanese culture. The MFA has one of the largest collections of Japanese art outside of Japan so I think it's safe to assume that they have a genuine interest in promoting Japanese artistry and culture. There no prejudice – nothing about this event is about opinions "not based on reason" and there's no discrimination – they held similar events in Japan so we're not being treated differently here.

Why I don't think it's yellowface

One of my friends asked me if I thought there was a universal understanding among Asian Americans of what constitutes yellowface and I said I don't believe that there is, that it's a bit subjective and in the eye of the beholder. To me, yellowface involves the caricature of Asian faces, bodies, voices, movements, personalities, and aesthetics by non-Asian (typically, but not always, white) people.

Yellowface is not in the OED, but the definition of blackface is:
noun 1 The makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role. The role played is typically comedic or musical and usually is considered offensive
1.1 Used to imply patronization of blacks by whites or by institutions perceived to be insincerely or ineffectively nonracist.
Korean American blogger, Phil Yu, who blogs over at Angry Asian Man implied that what the MFA is doing is comparable to Katy Perry's infamous November 24, 2013 American Music Awards performance of her "power ballad" "Unconditionally".

Perry's costume was a mashup of a Japanese kimono and a Chinese cheongsam, Westernized/sexualized with thigh-high slits and cleavage hanging out. The make up was garish and exaggerated and they wore black wigs that were styled in what looks like a common geisha hairstyle called the shimada. The mishmash may only have been obvious to Japanese and Chinese people and students of fashion but it was clearly a caricature of some exoticized vision of how Katy Perry's stylist sees Asian women. Incredibly, her stylist said that it was "almost a tribute" and that "Katy and I both love Japan." Apparently "[a]ll of the dancers wore original geishas [dresses]." Mikko Nakatomi, the owner of a kimono store called Kimono no Kobeya, "oversaw everything we were doing and made sure that it maintained all of its authenticity." What?

I don't understand why anyone would think it's okay for non-Japanese women to dress up like geishas, complete with wigs and exaggerated make up, to represent Japanese culture. Yes, it was a performance but we've had extensive conversations in the US about how not okay blackface and yellowface (and redface, etc.) are yet a lot of people still don't get it. Part of the problem lies in the portrayal of geishas as emblematic of Japanese society and culture and the misperception in Western society that they are prostitutes and therefore sexy. (See MIT Media Lab director, Joi Ito's Are Geisha Prostitutes? for some interesting insight.) It's one thing to make Japanese-inspired costumes as we've seen in Star Wars, Star Trek, and other films and TV shows; it's another thing to take a bunch of Asian fashions and go all Project Runway on them and claim that you've made something authentically Japanese. In this case Katy Perry and her team definitely did not "make it work."

Then there was the performance and the set design. Perry and her dancers (who appeared to be white, black, and Asian) pranced around stage in tabi (Japanese split-toe socks) striking poses that I guess were her choreographer's idea of how Asian people move and pose. They waved and twirled parasols around that are probably meant to be wasaga and danced with giant fans while bowing to each other. It seemed like they might have taken elements from obon festivals since there were paper lanterns and fan dancing but it was hard for me to tell since everything was so exaggerated. Hokusai's Great Wave of Kanagawa also made an appearance as a tacky fan-like apparatus that some dancers were wearing. Meanwhile she had four muscular guys (they look white, black, and Asian) in the background pretending to play taiko. The performance ended in a flurry of large die-cut sakura blossoms falling from the rafters. I don't know how much more stereotypical you can get than that.

The performance was jam-packed with so many Japanese symbols and motifs that I would have to go frame by frame to catch them all. Even her mic had sakura blossom branches on it. What's worse, there was absolutely no reason for it. The song itself is not about Japan or Japanese-inspired and the original music video draws inspiration from the the European Middle Ages. She added strains of shamisen so we'd know this was supposed to be Japan. This kind of caricature and mashing together of cultures is pretty much the definition of yellowface. For this stunning display of cultural appropriation Perry got a standing ovation. 

Although the performance was widely criticized, even among Asian Americans there wasn't agreement that her performance was offensive. I could probably talk about this all day but I'm going to stop and get back to the MFA. Reams of stuff has been written about Perry's performance and you can find links to a lot of commentary at the bottom of Gil Asakawa's "Katy Perry’s faux-Japanese American Music Awards performance was terrible", including this statement from the Japanese American Citizens League which provides a concise explanation of the historical issues related to stereotypical portrayals of Asian Americans and how Perry's performance feeds into that history.

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. I understand that subtlety may be lost on most museumgoers but this is why I don't think it can be characterized as yellowface. 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 wigs with white face make up. Though really I don't imagine the MFA throught it through this much. I think they're just trying to allow the public to experience La Japonaise in an interactive way which is a hard task with a painting.

Why I don't think it's cultural appropriation

Kimono try on is an established part of Japanese cultural sharing. One of my friends reminded me that in Kyoto it's a big tourist thing to do something called "maiko for a day" (maiko are apprentice geisha) and it's popular with both Japanese people and international tourists. Another friend reminded me that it's common for non-Japanese to also wear kimono, yukata, and happi coats as obon festivals and other matsuris in places like Hawaii and California. 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 except that they're often using yukata, not even kimono so there's nothing at all like the level of craftsmanship of the replica uchikake or even a high quality kimono. 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.

Here's a handy chart describing how to know when what you're doing is culturally appropriative. The MFA passes. They know what the uchikake means and know what japonisme is. I would say that they are using the replica uchikake correctly in their role as art educators.

Some think a lack of permission is an important element of cultural appropriation. As I mentioned above, Japanese people were involved in the making of the replica uchikake and the events were staged in Japan so I would say that permission has been given by Japanese people to the MFA to share their culture with these events. The Japanese friends I talked to ranged from happy to thrilled to hear about Kimono Wednesdays.

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. They're an art museum. It's a Monet. It's their job to show art, whether it's considered offensive or not. One hopes that they will provide context when they show art that is offensive to some but I don't see the act of doing so as cultural appropriation.

Some might argue that it's different if it's Japanese people hosting the kimono try on events, but why? So you can say you were dressed by a real live Japanese person? People are often uncomfortable when non-Asian people are sharing/teaching about Asian culture, but I've never heard of anyone protesting a lecture at the MFA at which a non-Asian art historian is talking about Asian art. I find it problematic that some people might have found these events more acceptable if Japanese people had been visibly involved. It's like insisting that your Japanese food be cooked only by Japanese chefs. That's not necessarily going to make the experience more authentic. Museums exist to allow people access to art and artifacts from around the world to help them gain an appreciation for other cultures. The MFA is hosting these events in that role. Could the events have been better planned? From what I've heard about them, I think so, but I don't think the fact that the MFA is not an Asian-run museum means they shouldn't be permitted to share Asian cultures. If only Asian museums were able to display Asian art and have events like this, very few Americans would get exposure to Asian art and culture because we don't have that many exclusively Asian museums in the US.

Now whether it's cultural appropriation for individuals who choose to try on the replica uchikake and pose for pictures is another question. If they don't understand what an uchikake is, what japonisme is, what Monet was trying to say when he painted La Japonaise then it's arguable that it is culturally appropriative for a museumgoer to try on the replica uchikake. I don't think that's a good enough reason to shut the event down. There seems to be an assumption that all the people wanting to try on the replica uchikake on are going to be non-Japanese people but the MFA is actually very popular among Japanese people. I am certain that at least some of the people who show up will be Japanese or Japanese American. Most Japanese will not have had an opportunity to examine an uchikake of this quality much less try one on and I'm sure that's the case for even more Japanese Americans since many of us are descended from poor laborers who wouldn't have owned uchikake. There are also non-Japanese students and fans of kimono culture and fine art students in Boston who will understand what an uchikake is or understand the context of La Japonaise. Even if you go in with no understanding of these things perhaps you'll be inspired to go home and educate yourself.

Also, I'm not so sure the Japanese take La Japonaise that seriously. San-X produced a dango-wielding La Japonaise Rilakkuma stuffed animal with a duck warrior on the kimono to sell at the museums in Japan where Looking East was exhibited (via RilakkumaLifestyle). It's sort of an absurd art mirroring life mirroring art – the French borrowing from the Japanese who have borrowed it back and made it something kawaii.

What would have made this offensive to me

adjective  Causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry:
These are things that would have made Kimono Wednesdays offensive to me:
  • If the MFA had commissioned a replica uchikake from an American costume designer.
  • If they were providing black shimada-style wigs and white make-up.
  • If the advertising had used stereotypical language à la Angry Asian Man's "Get Your Geisha On" headline.
  • If the people planning it were a random group of white people (as opposed to a museum i.e.: a business or a block party) with no connection to Japan and no expertise in Japanese art, culture, or kimono culture who decided to stage a kimono try on event because it was exotic.

All but one of the Japanese and JAs I talked to said they didn't feel the MFA's events were offensive or racist. The one JA who was offended said he couldn't get worked up about it and is far more concerned with things like the film Aloha's white-washed casting (yet another example of a white artist saying how much he loves Asian/Native culture so it's okay that his film, set in Hawaii, had no major roles for APIs). Someone else pointed out to me that the thing most JAs are upset about right now is Justice Clarence Thomas's assertion in his Obergefell v. Hodges dissent (see page 94 of the pdf which is page 17 of Justice Thomas's dissent) that, "Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them." (I'll be writing more about the later.)

Whether or not you find Kimono Wednesdays offensive probably depends on whether you find La Japonaise and japonisme offensive. Japanese pop and traditional culture have been influencing people in other cultures for centuries and I think it's often difficult to find the line between inspiration, homage, and cultural appropriation. These influences aren't a one way street though. If you look at products in Japan there's a pretty significant European influence on everything from bread and pastries (shokupan and castella from the Portuguese) to French-themed office supplies

What the MFA could have done better

The thing I’m least impressed with is the MFA’s response to criticism. They were contacted by concerned Asian Americans and in response produced this handout (update: The Boston Globe reports this was actually an internal memo that was given to protesters). I used to work in the arts and I’ve done a lot of event planning so I understand that at this late date it might have been difficult if not impossible to partner with Japanese/Japanese American groups to add events to the MFA’s already packed schedule. However, I didn’t think the handout is enough.

Due to the success of these events in Japan, the museum staff may not understand why the events are not being universally well-received here. I feel that in their role as educators they have a responsibility to be aware of the history of racism in the US and how an event like this might be perceived by some Asian Americans. I don't know the racial make up of the staff who worked on this event and I don't know if they had conversations about this possibility, but I'm not surprised that they seem unaware of the issues that could come up.

The MFA's response is problematic because it's part of a long history of white people telling people of color that we are being difficult, crazy, unreasonable, or overly-sensitive when we express our outrage, discomfort, anger, sadness, and frustration with white people's actions about or towards people of color. See: Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism. The MFA had a real opportunity to address the concerns of the protesters in a serious manner but instead they appear to have only put together a handout defending their actions which minimizes the concerns of the protesters. It's not clear to me if the MFA isn't taking the protesters more seriously because they're not Japanese, because they don't have the backing of any prominent Japanese, Japanese American, or Asian American organizations, or for some other reason. Even if the MFA disagrees with the protesters, the criticisms the protesters have raised are valid as it relates to Asian American experience and should be addressed in a less dismissive manner.

In general I think this was a missed opportunity to have more educational events along with the kimono try on. This would not have been necessary at the three Japanese museums but is clearly necessary here. UMass's Institute for Asian American Studies is just up the road. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts is affiliated with Tufts where they have a 30+ year old Asian American Center. Both of these organizations are directed by Japanese Americans and I'm sure that either one of them could have referred experts to give talks providing context to the history of japonisme and Orientalism and how that relates to current American obsessions with Japanese culture. I see the current anime, cosplay, and ramen phenomenons as analogous to what was going in Europe in the late 1800s. It would have been a great opportunity to provide historical context and cultural commentary on any nation’s obsession with “all things Japanese.” We have so many schools in Boston – it would have been nice to see the MFA bring in art historians and pop culture anthropologists to talk about the similarities between 1840s Paris and 2010s Boston. According to the organizers of this year’s Japan Festival in Boston 30,000 people attended. The obsession with "all things Japanese" is not a centuries old dead fad, it's alive and well today.

I also think this was a missed opportunity for some cultural exchange between Americans and Japanese people living in Boston. Cultural exchange is something the Children's Museum of Boston seems to have down. I haven't been there in years but I found out a few years ago they have a Japanese House exhibit that was built by Japanese craftsmen. They often have Japanese people on hand for special events related to Japanese culture around New Year's (which is a very important holiday in Japanese culture), 3.11, and at other times of the year. Showa Boston frequently has their students engage in volunteer work. They participated in the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival in May where one of the most popular tables was the kimono try on table. (I should note that I don't know if the MFA made any effort to organize events like this. Showa Boston is not currently in session.)

Perceptions of racism and what constitutes yellowface have a lot to do with an individual’s life experience and the sorts of microaggressions we face on a day-to-day basis living in a country where we are the minority. While I do have firsthand experience with this, in this case I feel that the larger context of the MFA’s role as an art museum and caretaker of art from around the world, the history of Monet’s painting, and how Japanese and Japanese American people feel about it, all have to be taken into consideration. If Asian Americans want to protest they should ensure they are doing so on behalf of themselves, not on behalf of the Japanese or Japanese American communities.

7/10/15 Addendum


Screenshot of deleted page on the MFA website

I had seen some mentions that the MFA was marketing Kimono Wednesdays as "Flirting with the exotic" but I hadn't come across any proof that they had done this so I didn't comment on it earlier. Tonight I found a cached page of a page that has since been removed from their website that shows they advertised the Spotlight Talks as "Claude Monet: Flirting with the Exotic." I do find this language offensive though completely unsurprising. The exoticizing of Japanese and other Asian cultures has been a long-standing problem in the West. The dictionary definition seems pretty straightforward, "Originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country," but the popular understanding of "exotic" as it relates to Asia and Asians/Asian Americans is much more loaded than that. Many people see it as a pejorative term that seeks to remind Asians/Asian Americans that we are foreign (ie: strange and unfamiliar). Some people would characterize this as racist but I feel that in this context it's more likely borne of a lack of cultural sensitivity that is pretty common among white people and largely white-run institutions. However, I haven't spoken to the MFA so I have no confirmation of the ethnicity of the person who wrote this. As far as I can tell they have scrubbed this language from all of their publicity. If the MFA doesn't provide cultural sensitivity training to their employees that might be something they should consider.

Kimono Wednesdays are scheduled to continue through the rest of the month on Wednesdays with Spotlight Talks at 6:00pm - 6:15pm, 6:45pm - 7:00pm, and 7:15pm - 7:30pm. The protesters have stated in the past that they intend to be there every Wednesday.


Sometimes I find the current American obsession with Japanese food and pop culture frustrating (though it does mean I get to eat more Japanese and have access to more Japanese products) but it's probably for the best. Japan's birth rate is low and Japanese American intermarriage rates are really high so who knows what will happen to Japanese culture in the long run. At some point Japanese and Japanese American people as we know them today may cease to exist and the artifacts and cultural appreciation may be all that's left.

  • I emailed and left voicemail for the MFA on Friday, July 3rd, but have not heard back. Please see the update at the top of the post.
  • The views above are my own and those of some of my friends and relatives. I do not know if they are representative of the majority view in either the Japanese American community or Japanese expat community.

Related posts

Further reading

  • 7/7/15 9:50pm: Updated to reflect that NHK commissioned the replica uchikake (per The Boston Globe) and fixed some spelling errors.
  • 7/8/15 2:15am: Updated to reflect that The Boston Globe is reporting that the handout the protesters received was an internal memo. 
  • 7/9/15 3:00am: Added link to Joe Hindman's Facebook post. 
  • 7/9/15 3:35am: Corrected reference to duck on Rilakkuma's kimono to warrior, not oni. h/t Marië Abe (on now deleted protest Facebook page)
  • 7/10/15 2:30am: Added Addendum re: "Flirting with the exotic"  
  • 7/10/15 4:45pm: Added link to The Federalist under Further Reading.
  • 7/13/15 2:30am: Added Kimono Wednesdays Spotlight Talks details. 
  • 7/13/15 10:10pm: Changed "kimono expert" to "kimono enthusiast". Added details on the origins of Camille Monet's uchikake.
  • 7/15/15 2:40pm: Added Discover Nikkei crosspost links.
  • 7/16/15 8:50pm: Added information on NHK's support for the restoration of La Japonaise, NHK's donation of the replica uchikake to the MFA, and name of company that produced the replica uchikake
  • 7/17/15 9:10pm: Added link to Hyperallergic under Further Reading. 
  • 7/19/15 3:20am: Added link to The Boston Globe Counter-protesters join kimono fray at MFA under Further Reading.
  • 7/19/15 4:40am: Added link to The Japan Times Underneath the ‘Orientalist’ kimono under Further Reading. 
  • 7/22/15 12:50pm: Updated link to MFA internal memo. Protesters have removed their original Tumblr (see here at archive.org) and rebranded as "Decolonize Our Museums." MFA memo also available here in case they delete their second Tumblr.
  • 7/28/15 4:20am: Added link to Voyages Extraordinaires under Further Reading.
  • 8/4/15 11:15pm: Added link to The Japan Times Of kimono and cultural appropriation under Further Reading.
  • 8/10/15 2:45am: Added link to Kaori Nakano's blog.
  • 10/5/15: Added clarification on who made the replica uchikake
  • 2/20/16: Added clarifying language to the note about the opinions in this post which had previously read "The views above are my own and those of some of my friends and relatives. I do not know if they are representative of the majority view in either community".

This post has been crossposted at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Nikkei online community. Part 1, Part 2.

From their website: "Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history." Discover Nikkei is coordinated by the Japanese American National Museum and supported by The Nippon Foundation.


  1. You managed to state what I was thinking about this quasi-controversy better than I could! I think your insights into the parallels between Monet's time and now are excellent. Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix, the popularity of ramen, and the insane amount of attendees at Anime Expo are 2015's japonisme. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Hi Miss Mochi! Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to hear this resonated with you too. I was wondering if you might have a different perspective on it as a hapa JA. I had some theories about how opinion would split among Japanese/JAs that haven't quite panned out but my sample size is still too small to draw any conclusions.

      I think it's interesting that we're very critical of the Orientalism we see as being a relic of the past but we don't look at modern fads for "all things Japanese" with an especially critical eye except when it's really glaring like Katy Perry's AMA performance. I hope I can make it to some of the MFA's educational events.

  2. I only learned about this recently, but I am really thankful that other Asian Americans decided to protest. I think that the MFA should have done a better job of educating people about the background. However, they just invited people to come try on the uchikake without providing context.

    I personally do think that it is/was cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, just because an institution has a large collection of Asian artifacts and has experts on staff doesn't mean they are always culturally sensitive.

    I hope that institutions like the MFA will do better to consider people and communities rather than art in isolation. Thanks for posting this and sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Go! I was wondering if you might be willing to expand on why you feel it was cultural appropriation even though NHK commission the uchikake and they held similar events in Japan?

      I didn't want to make assumptions about the ethnicity of the staff who worked on this event for the MFA because I know that the MFA has Japanese staff. The only thing we know is that the curator of Looking East (the exhibit that the uchikake traveled with in Japan) is a white American woman. We don’t know if she was involved in the planning of Kimono Wednesdays, nor do we know the racial make up of the staff who worked on this event. I was hoping to be able to talk to the MFA to find out but they only responded with a link to their statement.

    2. Hello Keiko! Thanks for keeping this conversation going. I think it is cultural appropriation because even though the MFA has a large collection of Asian artifacts, has experts on Japanese Art, and even though the uchikake was commissioned by NHK, the context of the event here and in Japan is different.

      In Japan even though the vast majority of people wear western clothes all the time, there is at least a background of understanding and education about Japanese clothes and culture.
      Here in Boston there would be many people wearing the uchikake because it’s fun, interesting, new, or exotic. Because the MFA was not explicitly providing education and context along with the uchikake, they are causing cultural appropriation to happen.

      The MFA did not make education and cultural appreciation the focus of their event. They were just offering an experience. This experience let people wear Japanese trappings, without it being attached to an understanding of culture or people. I looked at your link, and people without a background in Japanese culture/history would fail the cultural appropriation test. By providing this experience without education, the MFA fails as well.

      I have seen La Japonaise in the MFA, and they do provide some context, so although it turns my stomach, I consider it okay to display.

    3. I know that some people would fail the cultural appropriation test that I linked to but I felt that it was unfair of the protesters to assume that if museumgoers are white they automatically fail. I've met a lot of white people who have traveled more extensively in Japan that I have, speak better Japanese than I do, and know more about various things Japanese (cuisine, art, business, etc.) than I do. I also know Japanese Americans who know almost nothing about traditional Japanese dress and other aspects of Japanese culture because it’s been lost in their families over the years. I’ve met Japanese people who have never worn traditional dress. So I think it’s unfair to make assumptions about cultural knowledge and appropriation based solely on race.

      That said, it is safe to assume that at least some people would be there to try on the uchikake because it’s “fun, interesting, new, or exotic” as you said and would fail the test so I see your point that the MFA may also fail by extension.

      I have mixed feelings about it though because I see the same thing happen at Japanese kimono try on events - they’re often just a photo op where little to no education is provided so I’m not sure it’s fair to charge the MFA with cultural appropriation for failing to provide education when Japanese people often do the same thing. Maybe the MFA should have known better but I don’t get the sense that Japanese people think too much about whether or not white people know the difference between a formal kimono a yutaka and a happi coat or that they care. I haven’t been able to get anyone at the MFA to talk to me so I haven’t been able to find out if all the US staff who worked on the event were non-Japanese but I’m honestly not sure the event would have been any different if it had been planned by Japanese people so I’m not comfortable holding MFA staff responsible for the failure due to their whiteness.

  3. Thanks! That was a great entry. My husband is Japanese American (his American-born grandmother was interned during WWII). He agrees with all your points and didn't think the MFA Wednesday event was racist. In fact, we loved the MFA's Hokusai exhibit and as Bostonians, we're grateful to be able to see their impressive Japanese collection regularly.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that your husband's grandmother was interned during WWII. Thank you for sharing your husband's thoughts. I ran through the Hokusai exhibit tonight (I had limited time and spent most of it at In the Wake because it's closing this weekend). It was much larger than the Hokusai exhibit I'd seen at the Honolulu Museum of Art a few years back.

  4. Thanks for this very thoughtful posting. Frankly I found the protest itself rather offensive -- much moreso than the MFA's behavior (or the kimono makers who seem to have intended the use they were being put to).

    FWIW -- Japanese artisans are actively trying to encourage Americans to buy (and wear) kimonos. See:


    1. Thanks for the link, Michael! I had seen the Kickstarter campaign but hadn't looked at the Facebook page.

      May I ask what specifically you found offensive about the protest?

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Another Japanese-American chiming in:

    Your last paragraph before the Postscript ought to have been expanded into a "What the protesters could have done better." It's only fair.

    I get that there are prejudices that Asian Americans face as a group and cultural appropriation of any one of the cultures reinforces them. But they've failed to feature a Japanese American prominently in the discussion. I don't know if any of the protesters actually were, but those named in the Globe article certainly didn't claim to be. All the while slamming the presence of "non-Japanese staff" and the insult to the "identities of Asian Americans." They've effectively perpetuated the myth of the Asian monoculture, that all Asians are interchangeable. One can readily observe this by the anti-Japanese rhetoric that's spawned out of this news. Presumably, that's the sort of misrepresentation that they're aiming to eliminate?

    I took a look at some of the discussion on the Facebook group for the protesters and one comment argued that the view of this matter in Japan is irrelevant because at issue is the discrimination of Asian Americans that results. I disagree. Even if it's ultimately about the impact it has on Asian Americans, you're still asserting how a culture that is at least two steps removed from you (as an American, and as a non-Japanese-American) ought to be handled. As Michael mentions above, how should the Japanese selling kimonos to Americans be treated? The balance between "Asians are not a monoculture" and "American prejudices cause us to be affected by neighboring cultures so we have a cohesive identity" is a far more subtle matter than that dismissive, us-against-them-and-nobody-else response lets on.

    In summary, I was struck by your point that you'd be offended with the event if the organizers had "no connection to Japan and no expertise in Japanese art, culture, or kimono culture who decided to stage a kimono try on event because it was exotic." I personally found the protesters offensive for pretty much the same reasons; just replace "stage" with "protest."

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment! Would it be okay if I quoted parts of this in a follow up post?

      At the time I was working on on my post there wasn't much of substance on the protest Facebook or Tumblr and I also hadn’t been at their protests so I didn’t really feel like I could offer a critique on what they could have done better.

      I'm also not on Facebook so although it appeared to me that there weren't any Japanese/Japanese Americans in the group, I couldn't be sure since I couldn't see who had RSVPed and who was liking stuff (beyond the first few likes). Also, just because someone doesn't have a Japanese name, doesn't mean they're not Japanese. I have several hapa cousins who don't have Japanese names if you have an Anglo first name and get married to a non-Japanese person then you'll end up with a non-Japanese name. I didn't want to be making assumptions about their ethnicities.

      Now that they’ve put up a list of demands and done some media I think I have a somewhat better sense of what they’re doing but it still isn’t all that clear. They appear to be pushing an anti-white agenda and speaking on behalf of Japanese and Japanese Americans which I find offensive (though I should note they were joined by a Japanese American protester today who identified herself as “Japanese” in her sign - she posted on their Facebook page that she was born here). If the non-Japanese protesters were only speaking for themselves as Asian Americans or [insert ethnicity here] Americans that would be fine, but it’s not okay that they are presenting themselves as representing Japanese and Japanese Americans. I haven’t talked to enough people to know if I have a representative sample but so far only one JA I know personally was offended by the event. I have seen a few comments from JAs around the Internet and above from Go that they found the event offensive but none from Japanese (though to be fair, I can't read Japanese any more so can only read if they're posting in English). Reports on the protest page indicate that Japanese in Japan are baffled.

    2. You're welcome to quote it.

      > I didn't want to be making assumptions about their ethnicities.

      The reality is that people will do so, and if you're going to initiate a public protest, you'd be acting in good faith if the Japanese Americans were brought into the fold prominently from the very beginning. It's just gauche in a metropolitan city with a fair number of Japanese residents, businesses, and organizations, as your blog well demonstrates. Moreover, it's always dubious whether the media will cover the activists' message with any detail in its follow-up articles; today's edition of the Boston Globe focuses on the counter-protester, while the protesters' mention has already devolved into generic mentions of calls to "check your privilege."

      The Japanese in Japan response will be colored by the fact that the article on Yahoo! Japan is sparse on details and came through as a translation from a Chinese news site. (If only the protesters had someone on board who could translate their own message...) In any event, the top responses here: http://headlines.yahoo.co.jp/cm/main?d=20150709-00000011-rcdc-cn are questioning why the event is imperalist and calling out the Chinese and Koreans.

    3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 125LD.

      I think that it’s natural for different people to have different responses to the event, and that it would be natural for Japanese nationals and Asian Americans to have a different response. I don’t think that either side should be invalid, should they choose to express their views.

      As you said I do think that Asian Americans as a group are affected by cultural appropriation and prejudice. I personally don’t have a problem with the organizers of the protests organizing people and protesting. If people are negatively affected by stereotypes and prejudice, and if these negative experiences are connected to this event, why not protest? Based on the Facebook event, it seems that there are many people who feel that the event is wrong. I support the organizers whole-heartedly, but did not make it to the protest this past Wednesday. I also have not seen any non-Japanese or non-Japanese American claim to be Japanese or Japanese American. Please let me know if I am mistaken.

      On the other hand, Japanese nationals would likely have a very different response. Most Japanese nationals I know would likely support the event. If they showed up and had signs, the signs might say something like, ”和服をぜひ体験して下さい!” or “Please try to experience Japanese culture!” Japanese nationals and Asian Americans (and Japanese Americans too) have very different cultural backgrounds, and come from societies with very different racial/ethnic power structures, and will read an event like this differently.

      Personally, I don’t identify as Japanese, even though I am 100% Japanese by blood. I am Japanese American (anywhere between shin-nisei to yonsei because of my family’s complicated immigration history). I was/am, as I said, feeling insulted by this event due to the lack of context provided. In addition to identifying as Japanese American, I identify as Asian American because even though the country of my ancestors is different from Vietnamese Americans or Cambodian Americans, we face many similar obstacles here in America.

      Often when we use the phrase Asian American, we mean Americans of Asian descent. But there is another definition that the organizers may be using. In California in the 1960s and 1970’s, Americans of Asian descent started to use Asian American to refer to themselves, as opposed to the prevailing term, “Oriental.” During that time Asian American meant Americans with backgrounds from varying Asian countries choosing to identify as a group united by shared experiences of oppression and prejudice. I can’t speak for the organizers, but it is possible that the organizers mean Asian American in the activist, political sense.

      I want to fight for other Asian Americans and to have them fight for me. Jeremy Lin faces/faced Anti-Asian prejudices breaking into the NBA, and gets racially heckled in many of his games. He isn’t Japanese American, but what he experiences is not isolated to Taiwanese Americans. Vincent Chin wasn’t Japanese, but was murdered because the laid-off auto workers saw no difference between a Chinese American and a Japanese national. I stand up for my Vietnamese American students who get heckled in fake Chinese in school, not only because that kind of teasing is not right, but also because I experienced the same when I was growing up. Unfortunately, in my experience, often Asian cultures and backgrounds are lumped together and confused (Just look at Katy Perry’s dress from her infamous performance). Also, my friends of Asian descent and I, regardless of generation, are too-often seen as foreign, rather than bona-fide Americans.

    4. I looked at the article you cited 125LD, and I am confused how the article talks about the event as invoking Japanese imperialism. I haven’t delved too deeply into the wide range of articles and comments about the event, but I haven’t seen anything associating this event with Japanese imperialism, except for people saying something to the effect of, “So I hear you complaining that you are feeling oppressed by this event and by white supremacy in general. Japan oppressed people, so your complaint is invalid.”

    5. Here's the follow-up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  7. Thank you for posting this defense! I'm white, and have a Master's in Fine Arts, and I didn't find the exhibit racist- for the same reasons you gave. But, as one of the protesters was quoted in the Boston Globe:

    '“It’s white person after white person after white person saying this is not racist.”'

    Being a white person, this comment is disheartening. I am an artist, an academic, and a perpetual student of art history, but my defense of this exhibit is nullified because I'm white? I'm glad that at least some people from the Japanese-American community share the same viewpoint. I agree that partnering with an organization would have helped the MFA's intentions. Although, it seems like these protesters were not open to discussion- they had an agenda, and the museum caved under pressure. It's sad that an institution that encourages intellectual and cultural debate could not negotiate a compromise.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ponsonby_Britt. Please don't be disheartened! I agree the protesters don't seem to be interested in compromise. If I had been advising the MFA I definitely would have gotten other Japanese organizations/people involved in Kimono Wednesdays because I think it would have added to the experience and benefited everyone (the MFA, museumgoers, and Japanese people). I think the MFA made a mistake but it definitely doesn't rise to the level of racist hate the protesters seem to be making it out to be. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it in the past week (mostly Japanese, Japanese American, and white) and I don’t believe the protesters represent a majority opinion among Japanese/Japanese Americans. It may be different for other Asian Americans. I’ve only been able to talk to a few so it’s hard for me to get a sense of whether there’s any consensus among non-Japanese American Asian Americans. I have no idea if the MFA considered moving forward in a different way but it wouldn’t surprise me if they cancelled the try on because they were afraid of the negative publicity.

      I don’t know if you were among the white folks who posted on the protest Facebook page before it was removed or locked but my sense from reading commentary from whites and the responses they got was that the protesters and their supporters didn’t feel that some of the questions/issues being raised by white people were relevant to what they were saying (many white people living in Japan with Japanese families brought up their own personal experiences wearing traditional Japanese dress). I think they did a poor job of telling people they were missing the point since they’re talking about the US not Japan and they continue to insist that this has nothing to do with Japanese cultural sharing when clearly it does.

      I don’t agree with their characterization that all white people are racist, but in my experience many white people don’t understand what white privilege is, deny having it, and will belittle people of color when we try to point out instances of microaggressions and bias against things/people Asian that we see as being the result of thinking that America/the West is the arbiter of what is normal and right. I got into it with a couple of folks recently one of whom called my mental health into question because of anti-Japanese bias I pointed out in an article written by a Western journalist. So I’d imagine that’s where a comment like that is coming from. I was extremely angry but I understand that white people are individuals. I also tend to think that a lot of microaggressions Asian Americans experience come from a place of ignorance, not necessarily racism (though that probably depends on where you live).

      A white friend commented to the people that I was arguing with that if their non-white friends aren’t talking to them about this kind of stuff already they should worry because usually that means they’ve given up on them. When she said that I realized that in my case I often censor myself in white spaces and don’t say what I’m really thinking because I’ve learned over the years that there’s a certain way to behave around white people (ie: don’t bring up questions/issues of race that will make them uncomfortable). Many of my white friends expressed surprise when I started writing this blog because, “I don’t think of you as Japanese.” If your friends aren’t talking to you about stuff like this it may be because they think you’re not interested or won’t understand. If you have Asian/Asian American (or other minority) friends I’d encourage you to talk to them about their experiences and learn from them. It may be eye-opening.

  8. I had read Phil's post about this event about a week ago and just sort of dismissed it. His blog brings together a lot of Asian American news I would otherwise miss, but I do find that on certain issues his leftwing politics grate against my more traditional liberal views.

    I was shocked to see a BBC blog post on the Boston MFA actually altering the exhibit in the face of protests, protests greatly exaggerated in terms of participation I’d say. I noticed pretty quickly the ironic fact that all the protester surnames in media articles were non-Japanese, so I wanted to find some actual Japanese and/or Japanese-Americans views. I think you did a great job of comprehensively analyzing the issue from your socio-political perspective, especially teasing out the nuances in how individual Asians/Asian Americans react to these issues. I tend to draw the yellowface line at stuff that is just stereotyping, even if not meant to be disparaging.

    Personally I think the notion of cultural appropriation is dubious between the dominant cultures of developed nations, or even nations like China and Turkey with imperialistic pasts. You can’t claim some sacrosanct authenticity when you’ve gone out in world and become a global player. I mean Japan is one one of the wealthiest nations in the world, certainly with an imperialist past, and its own pop culture is teeming with elements of other cultures used in whatever way the Japanese artist sees fit. Coming down on white people for doing the same smacks of a double-standard.

    And South Korea has moved itself into the same territory, so if Katy Perry had mashed up Hanbok in the mix, well honestly I’d almost be flattered to see Korean culture included. I remember seeing women on the street in Japan saying they liked Katy Perry’s performance, so there’s a lot of different views out there. Asian Americans just ultimately have a dozen and one better things for us to be worrying about As Americans than the cultural purity of our ancestral homelands.

  9. Hello. I took the liberty of linking my blogpost to your blog. I hope you don't mind. It is a viewpoint from a Japanese person living in Japan. https://samurainovelist.wordpress.com/2015/08/16/la-japonaise/

    1. Hello Noguchi-san, Thank you for linking my post and sharing your thoughts!