Sunday, July 19, 2015

Myths and facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the protests

11/3/15: Please note that the information on this page may not be fully accurate. Much of it was written after I had attended only one protest. I have tried to add updates when I learned more but I may have missed something. For a look at the protests after they were over, please see Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics

I have been frustrated by all the misinformation (or lack of information) about Kimono Wednesdays and the protests in both the media and on social media, so I put together this handy guide for anyone who has questions or whose friends are spreading incorrect information. I really encourage anyone who wants to know what the debate is about to read my original post but I understand it's very long. My answers on this page are brief. If you want more detail, please see my previous posts which are listed at the bottom of this post. You can also review the protest materials on their Tumblr and Facebook pages.

I apologize to Japanese readers that I am not able to translate these posts into Japanese. I am illiterate. ごめんなさい。(with help from Google Translate!)

La Japonaise replica uchikake

Kimono Wednesdays

Fiction: Kimono Wednesdays have been cancelled due to the protest.

Reality: The MFA modified the event known as Kimono Wednesday which used to allow museumgoers the opportunity to try on the La Japonaise replica uchikake. In response to "concerns from some members of our community" visitors may no longer try on the uchikake, but there are still Spotlight Talks (15 minute talks) and museumgoers may touch and photograph the uchikake. Time Out Tokyo reported that the MFA "pulled Kimono Wednesdays off their calendar" but I'm not sure it was ever listed as such on their calendar. The Spotlight Talks are still on the calendar as "Claude Monet: La Japonaise" but the description doesn't mention that the uchikake will be on display. The protesters have demanded that Kimono Wednesday be closed altogether but the MFA has given no indication that they will give in to this demand.

Fiction: Kimono Wednesdays is an event conceived of by white MFA staff.

Reality: I have not been able to get the full story behind the idea of events like Kimono Wednesdays, but we do know that the idea for this type of event – where museumgoers get to try on the replica uchikake – originated in Japan. I do not know if it was conceived of by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, or the museums where La Japonaise was exhibited as part of the Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan traveling exhibit. We do not know the ethnicity of all of the MFA staff who worked on Kimono Wednesdays. The protesters have implied that the MFA had a choice in which painting to use for these events and must have chosen this one because of their white bias but that is not the case. The event came about because NHK contacted the MFA asking to create replica uchikake specifically for La Japonaise's tour.

Fiction: Kimono Wednesdays were happening in the context of the exhibit Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan.

Reality: Uchikake try on events similar to Kimono Wednesdays were staged in Japan in the context of Looking East. Looking East was never displayed at the MFA. The exhibit was at The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City, Canada during Kimono Wednesdays. The context at the MFA was to celebrate the return of La Japonaise following its restoration and tour of Japan and as part of farewell events for outgoing MFA director Malcolm Rogers called Cheers to Malcolm!. 11/3/15: This claim was made in the New Statesman and I pointed out the error on Twitter and via email but it has not been corrected.

Claim: Kimono Wednesdays were happening in the context of the Hokusai exhibit.

My Thoughts: Kimono Wednesdays were held in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery (Gallery 255 on the second floor in Art of Europe wing) which displays part of the MFA's collection of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in France. The Hokusai exhibit was three floors away in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31), where special exhibitions are displayed. While they were happening at the same time I don't think it's fair to say that the Hokusai exhibit was the backdrop for Kimono Wednesdays. It would be entirely possibly to leave the MFA without seeing the Hokusai exhibit (the museum is vast), though that would be the visitor's choice as there was no way to miss that it was happening. There were signs for the exhibit all over the place, including banners hung at the main entrance.

Claim: The MFA appropriated Japanese kimonos to be props in their La Japonaise Spotlight Talks.

My Thoughts: The uchikake were commissioned by NHK with the MFA's permission and subsequently donated to the MFA for the purpose of allowing MFA visitors to have the same experience that Japanese museumgoers had of trying on the uchikake and taking a photo in front of La Japonaise. The MFA may also use the uchikake in the future in whatever way they would like to use them. NHK made no stipulations in the giving of the gift. Since the uchikake were a gift and the event put on was essentially the same as those in Japan, I do not feel this meets the definition of appropriation. Additionally, I don't agree with the protesters' characterization of the "Orientalist underpinnings of its commission." However, not everyone agrees that this was not an example of cultural appropriation, even some Japanese and Japanese Americans.

Claim: The MFA is not providing education on the context of La Japonaise or about the uchikake.
My Thoughts: Kimono Wednesday has been running since June 24, 2015. I did not attend until July 15th. The protesters have stated that in previous weeks little to no education was provided to the public. I was told by Timothy Nagaoka, the counterprotest organizer, that the July 15th talk was better than the previous week's talk. Since I haven't been there every week I can't speak to what level of education has been provided and how that has changed week to week. The talks are only 15 minutes long so you can't teach much in 15 minutes. Update 2/18/16: I have since spoken to two people who attended the very first Kimono Wednesdays in June 24, 2015. There was a Spotlight Talk that night and a Japanese American I spoke to thought the context provided was fine.

Myth: Kimono Wednesdays was sponsored by NHK/the Japanese government as part of their Cool Japan efforts.
Reality: Although the replica uchikake were provided by the NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, neither NHK nor the Japanese government officially sponsored or worked on Kimono Wednesdays. The event was worked on only by MFA staff and volunteers.

Myth: The replica uchikake were made by kimono artisans in Japan for the express purpose of allowing Americans to experience kimono support the declining kimono industry.
Reality: The replicas were commissioned by NHK for a Japanese audience. They were designed and produced by the costume section of Takarazuka, a stage management company. The only reason they made it to the US is because the MFA requested they be donated after seeing the success of similar events at the three Japanese museums where Looking East and La Japonaise were exhibited. I do not know if NHK agreed to the donation because they believed it would help the kimono industry.

The Protesters

Fiction: All of the protesters are non-Japanese Asian Americans.

Reality: They have at least one Japanese American protester (see 9/1 update below - there was more than one). There may be more but I did not take a census on Wednesday. They appeared to have about six white allies. There are a wider range of people supporting them on Facebook including Japanese and Japanese Americans. (Update 11/3/15: Although I spoke with many Japanese and Japanese Americans who were upset that the protest leadership did not include any people of Japanese heritage I should note that not all Japanese Americans had a problem with this. Sansei Professors Paul Watanabe and Elena Creef had no problem with the protest being led by non-Japanese Asian Americans and nisei artist Akiko Ichikawa thanked two of the leaders of Decolonize Our Museums when they were all on the Hyperallergic ArtTalk panel in October. Decolonize Our Museums was invited after demanding to be included.)

Fiction: All of the protesters are Japanese American.

Reality: Some media outlets are peddling this fiction (like the National Review: "Almost immediately Japanese-American activists raised a ruckus..." screenshot). None of the protest organizers are Japanese American. None of the protesters who have given media interviews have been Japanese American. As stated below they have some Japanese American support but it would not be accurate to say that the protest is the work of "Japanese-American activists." I have emailed the National Review asking them to correct the story. (7/23/15: The National Review emailed me to let me know they corrected the story.)

Fiction: There is a fake Japanese/Japanese American protester.

Reality: This is something going around on social media. It is not true. Please stop saying this. The protesters have one Japanese American protester that I'm aware of who has identified herself as "Japanese" on signs. (9/1/15: I have been informed that there was more than one Japanese American protester.) She can speak Japanese and I accept that she is Japanese American. (I can confirm that she speaks Japanese because two of my friends spoke with her in Japanese and English.) I do think it's unfair for her to represent herself as Japanese because being Japanese and Japanese American are two very different identities and telling the world you are Japanese gives a very different impression of who is protesting. However, she is ethnically Japanese so I wish people would stop questioning her heritage by saying things like if she can't speak Japanese she's not Japanese. I can barely speak Japanese but I identify as both Japanese and American. There are some ways in which my habits and mindset are distinctly Japanese and other areas in which my habits and mindset are very American. Asian American identities are often very complex. I wrote in more depth about having a dual identity here.

Fiction: The protesters have no Japanese support.

Reality: I have seen comments in support of the protesters from around three people identifying themselves as Japanese. I have looked some of them up and found them on LinkedIn so I believe they are real Japanese people. It seems that the overwhelming majority of Japanese nationals do not support the protest, but it is not correct to say they have no Japanese support. They have some Japanese support, though they have not stated how much. They have said that when they have communicated with people in Japan privately to explain the protest, people tend to agree.

Claim: The protesters are claiming to speak for all Japanese/Japanese Americans/Asian Americans.

My Thoughts: The media has not helped with this. Several articles I read implied that the protesters were speaking for all Asian Americans and I don't feel that the protesters have done a good job of proactively clarifying that their views do not represent the views of all Japanese people, Japanese Americans, or Asian Americans. Some read their materials as appearing to speak on behalf of Japanese Americans. The five signatories to their "LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES" do not appear to be Japanese American and many (but not all) Japanese Americans are offended by the presumption they took when they purported to speak for us. However, they do state in their FAQ that it is not their intention to speak for all Asian Americans.

Claim: The protesters are anti-Japanese.

My Thoughts: I have not seen any explicitly anti-Japanese statements from the protesters. I do not believe the protest is anti-Japanese, though I have no idea if any of them personally hold anti-Japanese views because of their family histories. Update 7/23/15 4:30pm: One of my JA friends pointed out that one of the protest signs from last night could be viewed as anti-Japanese or anti-Abe (Japan's current Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe). I will note that this sign was carried by a JA protester, not a non-Japanese Asian American. The sign mischaracterizes the June 24th protest in Japan which according to Al Jazeera America was only about some recently passed bills that some feel are an unconstitutional expansion of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The other issues on the sign are criticism that Prime Minister Abe has received since entering office. When Americans who live at home and abroad are critical of the US government that doesn't necessarily mean they are anti-American. Sometimes it means they're against a particular politician or a particular political party. I don't personally read this sign as necessarily anti-Japanese but I don't know what the protester's intent was.

Claim: The protesters are agitators working for a foreign government.

My Thoughts: As I have said before, although I have no proof that they are not, I don't believe this is true. My impression of the protesters is that they are regular Asian Americans struggling with issues of race in a country that is frequently hostile for non-whites. I think these suggestions have been made by people who do not understand the complexities of Asian American identity and life and therefore cannot understand why a non-Japanese Asian American person feels like a kimono event relates to their history. This is a complicated topic that would require its own post but you can read the Wikipedia entry on Asian America for some background. It is not uncommon for white people to assume that Asian Americans are agents of a foreign government and cannot be trusted because we are not Real Americans, although in this case I am also seeing this charge from Japanese people. Some people may think it's funny to joke about it, but it's not. This is a racist assertion. This kind of thinking is what got 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans rounded up and incarcerated during WWII.

Claim: The protesters think it is racist for all white people to wear kimono at any time.

My Thoughts: The protesters have said they think it's okay for white people to wear kimono that they purchased or received as a gift. They have a problem with the way Kimono Wednesdays were/are structured and marketed and have protested with signs that make it appear they think any white person who tries on the uchikake is racist for doing so, however I am not clear on whether or not that was the statement they were trying to make. They have said that the protest is primarily directed at the MFA, but at times it has seemed like the protest is also directed at white museumgoers.
Please see sansei Japanese American author, Jan Morrill's, blog for more commentary on this.

Claim: The protesters are anti-white and engaging in reverse racism.

My Thoughts: The protesters have said reverse racism doesn't exist due to the white power structure. On Facebook they have used racial slurs against white people, made discriminatory and hateful statements, and generally discounted everything white people have said (even those with Japanese spouses and children) because they are white. However, they obviously have white friends and supporters so clearly they don't behave this way towards all white people. I encourage you to read their Tumblr and Facebook pages and draw your own conclusions. (I should note that there have also been slurs, ugly language, trolling, and harassment from some of their critics both white and Japanese.)

Fiction: The protesters are for racial segregation.
Reality: The protesters have never said this.

Claim: The protesters want to ban art.

My Thoughts: They have never said this, though as I said above, they have demanded that Kimono Wednesdays close completely. The protesters have said they are for better education, though the demand to stop Kimono Wednesdays (see item 2 on their LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES) seems contradictory to this. Japanese and many Japanese Americans firmly believe that the way to educate people about our culture is through sharing things like our beautiful kimonos. This cannot be accomplished if an event like Kimono Wednesdays if forced to close because some people think it doesn't provide a deep enough history lesson on colonialism, Western imperialism, orientalism, the Kanagawa Treaty and how that relates to racism faced by people of color in the US today. I don't believe that most Japanese and Japanese Americans would want that lesson to be what accompanies an event that is aimed at art appreciation of a French painting and a replica of a theatrical kimono.

Claim: The protesters are aggressive.

Reality: I think this depends on how you define aggressive. I have only been present at one of their four (to date) protests. I did not witness any behavior there that I would call aggressive though I did hear several heated exchanges. The only aggressive behavior I have seen was in a video on their now deleted Facebook page in which they had surrounded Timothy Nagaoka on the day he was counterprotesting alone and videoed the "conversation" (I wrote about it here). It looked more like a confrontation to me but Timothy told me he wasn't that bothered by it. I guess as a teacher he's used to dealing with disagreements. On the other hand I spoke to two counterprotesters who said the majority of protesters had been rude and disrespectful when engaging with them on July 15th which was a marked change from the conversations they had with the protesters on June 24th. The museum staff I spoke with said the protesters' behavior was fine on July 15th and better than they had on July 8th, but they didn't go into detail about the protesters' behavior on that or any other date. (Update 11/3/15: Forgot to update this with a link to a later aggressive incident I witnessed.)

Fiction: The protest is illegal.

Reality: Actually, the protest is legal. It is permitted under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which guarantees Americans the right to freedom of speech even if other people don't like their ideas. The First Amendment also guarantees the right to peaceably assemble, although this right does not always apply on private property. The MFA is private property, but staff told me they have decided to allow the protesters to be present in the gallery because the protest started off very small. Larger protests are not permitted in the building or on MFA property and must remain on the sidewalk which is city property and therefore a public place where they may legally assemble. Via the ACLU: "As a rule, the First Amendment doesn't give you the right to engage in free-speech activities on private property unless... the owner has given you permission to use the property for speech."

Fiction: The protesters are committing a "hate crime."

Reality: In order to commit a hate crime, you must commit a crime. As I said above, the protest is not illegal. If you would like to learn more about hate crimes which are a very serious problem that people of color face in the United States, please see the FBI's overview of what a hate crime is.

Claim: The protest is ridiculous. There are more important problems in the US/world that we should be talking about.

My thoughts: The protesters have responded to this in their FAQ:
"g. Putting on a kimono is not real racism. There are more important problems.
White supremacy is a major problem in the world. This kind of programming fuels and propagates it."

I've been discussing what's going on at the MFA with a West Coast Japanese American friend who has worked abroad for the Peace Corps and World Vision in some very harrowing conditions. This is an abridged version of what he said to me:
"People all over the world are dying from lack of food and access to clean drinking water. They don't have the luxury of visiting an air conditioned art museum to view fine art by Monet or to touch a real uchikake modeled on the one in the painting. Only by seeing how much of the world struggles day-to-day can one fully appreciate life in America."
I think this is a perspective shared by many people. Which isn't to say that Asian Americans don't have problems. We have problems, some of us more so than others. Japanese Americans, for whom the model minority myth was created, who as a group have a nearly 150 year history in the US, are in a much more stable position than other Asian Americans (ie: recent Southeast Asian refugees). The MFA controversy clearly falls into the category of #firstworldproblems. I've continued to write about it because the protesters have continued to minimize and dismiss dissenting Japanese and Japanese American viewpoints which is not something I can accept. It does seem that our energy would be better spent helping people in countries who could only dream of having problems such as ours.

The Counterprotesters

Fiction: The counterprotest was organized by a Japanese American.

Reality: The counterprotest was organized by Timothy Nagaoka, who identifies himself as Japanese. He has lived in the US for almost two decades and is a teacher of Japanese language in Boston. This misidentification was made by at least one media outlet (I sent a correction and they updated their post). I think people on social media may make that assumption because he has an Anglo first name.

Fiction: All counterprotesters are Japanese/Japanese American.

Reality: The counterprotest included two white Americans. I didn't speak to all the counterprotesters with Japanese heritage but because they were raised in Japan, they most likely identify as Japanese, not Japanese American, even if they have US citizenship. Nikkei identities tend to be quite different from Japanese born and/or raised in Japan. Many Japanese people I have met who spent their formative years in Japan don't feel comfortable identifying as Japanese American even if they've lived in the US for longer than they lived in Japan.

Claim: The counterprotesters don't understand what the protest is about.

My Thoughts: I can't speak for the counterprotesters but my sense was that they had three main messages: 1: let the MFA know they support Kimono Wednesdays in their original form, 2: ask the MFA to bring back the original Kimono Wednesdays, and 3: let the public know that as Japanese people they don't think it's offensive or racist for non-Japanese people to wear kimono at any time or in any way as demonstrated by the white counterprotesters. Beyond that Timothy very clearly believes that sharing Japanese culture is important, a view that my friends who counterprotested also share. One of my friends went because she wanted to share the beauty of kimono with museumgoers. I don't think most Japanese people feel there is a right and wrong way to share Japanese culture unless your goal is to insult them so I don't think they agree with the protesters' assertion that the museum went about sharing Japanese culture in the wrong way. All the Japanese counterprotesters are long-time residents (one has lived here more years than some of the protesters have been alive) and some even have US citizenship. I think they are aware of the issues but can't connect the dots the way the protesters do.

If you have any question about Kimono Wednesdays, the protest, or the counterprotest that I did not address please leave a comment below and I will answer your question if I can.

7/23/15 4:30pm: Please note that I've decided to make it my policy not to name any of the protesters, publish photos of their faces, or link directly to any of their personal websites or Twitter accounts. I know that they are being harassed and at least one of them has received death threats. Several of them have chosen to make their names and faces public but I just don't feel right contributing to an environment that makes it easier to harass them. If you want to do that you're on your own. I communicated this to one of the protest organizers last night and she said that she appreciated it.

Related posts

  • 7/19/15 2:55pm: Added link to MFA announcement on the changes to Kimono Wednesday.
  • 7/19/15 6:05pm: Fixed some grammar and confusing language.
  • 7/20/15 3:00pm: Added information about how Kimono Wednesday Spotlight Talks appears on the MFA's calendar.
  • 7/21/15: 12:00am: Added "The protest is ridiculous" claim.
  • 7/22/15 12:55pm: Updated links to protest Tumblr. Protesters have removed their original Tumblr (see here at and rebranded as "Decolonize Our Museums." 
  • 7/23/15 4:55am: Added "All of the protesters are Japanese American" fiction.
  • 7/23/15 4:10pm: Updated links to new protest Tumblr. Missed most of the broken links yesterday.
  • 7/23/15 4:30pm: Added to "The protesters are anti-Japanese" claim to include a sign from last night's protest. 
  • 7/24/15 3:30am: Added link to Jan Morrill's follow-up post under "The protesters think it is racist for all white people to wear kimono at any time."
  • 7/25/15 2:25am: Added links to Al Jazeera America articles under "The protesters are anti-Japanese".
  • 7/26/15 3:35am: Changed "Japan's military" to "the Japan Self-Defense Forces" and added link to Wikipedia. 
  • 7/16/15 5:40pm: Added link to demand to stop Kimono Wednesdays under "The protesters want to ban art" claim. 
  • 7/28/15 8:25pm: Added clarifying language that Timothy Nagaoka identifies himself as Japanese. This was not my classification.
  • 7/30/15 4:00pm: Reader pointed out that "it would not be accurate to say that the protest is the work of "Japanese-American activists."" was missing the word "not".
  • 8/4/15 2:00am: Added link to the ACLU of Northern California's "Know Your Rights: Free Speech, Protests & Demonstrations".
  • 9/1/15: Added clarification about Japanese American protesters. Updated broken links to protest Tumblr. 
  • 11/3/15: Added clarification about identity of counterprotesters. Added link to protest postmortem description of incident on 7/29/15. Clarified that some Japanese Americans didn't have a problem with the protest being led by non-Japanese Asian Americans. Added sections on the context in which Kimono Wednesdays were held.
  • 2/10/16: It has come to my attention that one of the white counterprotesters identifies as genderqueer. This post has been updated to correct the misgendering. I apologize for the error!  
  • 2/18/16: Added "Kimono Wednesdays was sponsored by NHK/the Japanese government as part of their Cool Japan efforts." and "The replica uchikake were made by kimono artisans in Japan for the express purpose of allowing Americans to experience kimono."


  1. Thank you for this detailed post, and for your previous lengthy one on the same subject. So much nuance, and detailed accuracy, has been lost in the media / social media whirlwind of this event, it was great to come across your posts.

    1. You're welcome, chaari. Glad you found them helpful. Most of the media coverage has been very one dimensional and social media is like a game of telephone amplified. I've been doing what I can to combat that so people have all the information they need to figure out what they think about the controversy.

  2. Thank you for providing this post in this format of "Fiction vs. Reality," Keiko. It was a very easy means of catching up without having to filter through all the side issues that have sprung from this controversy.

    1. You're very welcome, Jan! And thank you for writing about Kimono Wednesdays on your blog. I'm glad that I'm not the only JA writing about it!

  3. looks like the tumblr is taken down? some of your links are no longer working --

    1. They moved Tumblr's yesterday. I thought I had had fixed all the links but I'll go through and check. Their new Tumblr is here:

    2. It seems that I somehow updated only one of the links that needing updating. I think they should all be fixed now.

  4. Tried to say thank you before for this thoughtful commentary -- but it didn't take... So, now, arigatou!

  5. This is very comprehensive. Thanks for taking the time!