Friday, July 17, 2015

Part 2: Protest and counterprotest @ July 15th Kimono Wednesday

Hokusai banners at the MFA

Please see my original post for background: Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA.
Please see Part 1: La Japonaise replica uchikake @ Kimono Wednesdays for information and photos on the replica uchikake.

I've been to the MFA twice in the past couple of weeks. Two things struck me when I arrived last week that I'd like to point out before talking about the protests. The first was seeing large banners with Hokusai's Great Wave of Kanagawa hung at the museum entrance. It was awesome. The second was noticing that Japanese was the only other language besides English on a sign behind the ticket counter. I didn't think to ask them if that sign is always there or if they've had an influx of Japanese visitors during the Hokusai exhibit.

Sign behind the ticket counter

Last night was week four of the protest against Kimono Wednesdays organized by a group of Asian Americans and week two of counterprotesting organized by Japanese teacher Timothy Nagaoka who has lived in the US for almost two decades. I should note that I don't agree with the protesters (please read my original and follow-up posts for my detailed thoughts on this) and I support Timothy (who I met last night but have corresponded with before) so I'm not an unbiased observer.

Protesters against Kimono Wednesdays
I counted 18 protesters, though there may have been more. This is up from the “about a dozen” that the Boston Globe reported were there last week. I was late and the gallery was crowded, so people may have come and gone before I arrived or without my noticing. I have tried not to speculate about the heritage of the protesters but people have asked me who was there so I'll say that my sense was that they were 2/3 Asian American (including hapa folks and one protester who has identified herself as Japanese in signage but identified herself as Japanese American on Facebook) and 1/3 white allies. I do not believe that any Japanese nationals have joined their protest at the MFA but I have seen a few supportive comments on Facebook from people identifying themselves as Japanese.

Counterprotesters who would like the original event to return
I saw seven counterprotesters but there were actually nine. Timothy, five older Japanese women, one younger Japanese woman, and two younger white Americans (an age range from 20s to seniors). Seven of them were wearing kimono or yukata. (Full disclosure: three of the protesters are my friends.) The young folks told me they had been invited by one of my friends and didn't think they would have gone to counterprotest had they not been invited by someone Japanese. As white people they said they try to be mindful of their privilege. Timothy said he had five signs from last week and made five new signs for this week so everyone had one. One of the new signs quoted from Avenue Q's "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist": "Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one's really color blind. Maybe it's a fact we all should face, everyone makes judgments based on race." See photos here. See last week's post for other signs.

Always the educator:
"I am a Japanese language teacher, and I welcome museum exhibits that share Japanese culture with the community."
"Monet's painting represents the fascination that the French had for Japan in the nineteenth century, and the "Kimono" represents the fascination that the Japanese have for the painting today. "Kimono Wednesday" joins the fascination between the two countries."

Signs that addressed the protest and the MFA's decision to curtail the try on portion of Kimono Wednesdays read:
"'La Japonaise' celebrates the West's fascination with Japan. Let us take part in the celebration by putting on the kimono."
"Wearing a kimono does not make me a Racist or an imperialist." (pictured in the Boston Globe)
"The protesters have a right to be offended, but it should not dictate the enjoyment of others.
"I am Japanese, and I am offended that non-Japanese people have hijacked a Japanese exhibit that was started in Japan and well received there." (As noted above they have some Japanese American support but none of the organizers is Japanese American.)

The woman in the black floral yukata had made her own sign with quotes from Youtubers Rachel & Jun's Can Foreigners wear Kimono? response to the Kimono Wednesdays protest. "Rachel: Let me ask you some questions about when it's okay for foreigners to wear kimono. Jun: when it's okay for foreigners to wear kimono? Okay, there is only one answer, whenever."

Counterprotesters in kimono and yukata

All of Timothy's signs included a plea to the MFA to "Bring Back Kimono Wednesday," although at this point I don't think any of the counterprotesters believe the MFA will reinstate that part of the event this month. I think they all felt that it was important to be there to express to the MFA and the public that they don't see anything wrong with the event in its original form. There's also a lot of frustration among Japanese people that the protesters have hijacked a Japanese cultural event to their own ends (per Timothy's sign above - though I don't know if if all the counterprotesters share that view). The fact that NHK gave the uchikake as a gift to the MFA and they (the uchikake) are being treated in this manner seems quite embarrassing to some. Japanese and other Asian media outlets have not done a good job of framing the protests leading many Japanese people to conclude that the protest is anti-Japanese. Some feel that the charges leveled against the MFA are by extension leveled against all of Japan because this was a gift from Japan and the event originated there. The protesters have not made any anti-Japanese statements and have said the charges are only against the MFA, however they have continued to be dismissive of dissenting Japanese and Japanese American opinions saying that Japanese opinions are irrelevant because they don't live here (responding to opinion from Japan, not from Japanese nationals living here) and that Japanese and other Asian Americans who live here don't have the capacity to understand their protest and are defending the white power structure.

I saw a comment from a white supporter of the protesters that the counterprotest only responds to the kimono-wearing aspect thereby missing the point the protesters are trying to make, but I see it as Japanese people and non-Japanese kimono lovers wanting to make it clear that they do not believe it's racist to try on or wear a kimono and that they don't agree with the protesters linking their issues around racism and sexism to Kimono Wednesdays. That isn't missing the point of the protest it's saying they don't agree with the false equivalence between Kimono Wednesdays and racism, imperialism, white supremacy, rape of QTWOC (queer trans women of color), and the deaths of people of color at the hands of white Americans. It doesn't address what any of the counterprotesters think about those issues separate from Kimono Wednesdays.

I think to some degree the protest and counterprotest highlight cultural differences between Japanese nationals living in both Japan and the US and Asian Americans (including some Japanese Americans), although all the Japanese women who joined Timothy's counterprotest are also long-time residents of the US so I'm sure that as Asian women living in this country they've faced some of the same racist, sexist, culturally ignorant, and just plain awkward behavior that all Asian and Asian American women I know have had to deal with. I don't think they are unfamiliar with some of the issues the protesters have raised. Japanese people living in Japan are also not unaware of the fact that life in America can be dangerous for foreigners. The October 1992 murder of 16-year-old Yoshihiro Hattori, an exchange student from Nagoya who was staying in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was a huge deal in Japan and the fact that it was followed by three more murders of Japanese students in less than a year an a half made headlines in Japan. Less than a year after Hattori's murder, 25-year-old exchange student, Masakazu Kuriyama, died after being shot in Concord, California in August 1993. Police suggested it might have been an attempted robbery but said they were not ruling out a hate crime. Seven months later two Marymount College students, 19-year-olds Takuma Ito (Japanese national) and Go Matsuura (US national who grew up in Japan), died following an attempted carjacking in San Pedro, California. However, the Japanese seem to see these murders as a symptom of America's lax gun control rather than a problem related to racism. Hattori's shooter was white, Ito and Matsuura's carjacker was mixed race ("white, Mexican, and black descent"), and Kuriyama's assailant was never found. (I should note that these murders happened so long ago that young Japanese people may not be aware of them.)

I saw two protesters holding the same sign that I absolutely don't agree with: "Japanese Americans don't have the option to experience white culture just for fun." It was unclear to me if they both identify as Japanese American. If they do, I'm not sure how they go about experiencing "white culture" but I enjoy "white culture" "just for fun" all the time. (There is no such thing as "white culture" but for the sake of this argument I'll define it as anything related to "American culture" or the culture of an ancestral home of white people who live in America.) Some examples: I go out to dinner at white-owned restaurants and enjoy “white” cuisine with white friends. I attend musical concerts put on by white musicians who play music written and composed by white people. I once attended a pirate-themed party (throw by some white friends, of course) dressed as a wench. I also attended the coronation of a friend in the SCA ("an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe") when she was crowned Queen of the East Kingdom. Under her tutelage I made Viking garb for myself and a male friend who didn't have the sewing skills to make his own garb. None of the many white people in attendance accosted me and demanded to know why I as an Asian American was wearing the garb of their ancestors. I have some Italian Americans in my extended family. No one asks me if I understand the cultural significance of meatballs and pasta before they allow me to dig in. I don't understand how any Asian American can not experience "white culture" "just for fun". How else would you experience it?

Someone else had a sign that read
"La Japonaise: 
~@ it's finest~
Pay $ to the MFA to
devalue the experiences of
people of color & exercise your
I imagine this is referring to the MFA's exhorbitant $24 admission fee but as I keep pointing out, admission on Wednesdays during the time that Kimono Wednesdays are scheduled for is "by voluntary contribution" so the MFA is not making money off of Kimono Wednesdays and this is how the protesters have been able to go every week. Some people feel that Kimono Wednesdays were meant to be a viral marketing stunt because people would post their photos to social media but even if that's the case I still don't have a problem with it. Maintaining an art museum like this is not cheap and unlike the Smithsonian and art museums in other countries the MFA is not funded by taxpayer dollars. If people don't show up, they can't exist.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the protesters this week after reports I'd read and a video "conversation" they posted with Timothy last week on their now deleted Facebook page (which I wrote about last week). I did hear some heated conversations but for the most part I would say that the protest and counterprotest were peaceful. MFA staff told me at the end of the evening that the protesters behaved better this week than they had last week, although the counterprotesters who had attended the first Kimono Wednesday and spoken to protesters that night said they have become much more aggressive. It was my impression that contrary to what the protesters have said about it being their rule not to approach people they did approach the counterprotesters and initiate discussion. One of them told me she's never been treated more rudely in her entire life by most of the protesters she talked to. Only one conversed with her respectfully. Given the sort of rhetoric I've seen on their Facebook page I'm not surprised. I have not heard if they treated the older Japanese women with more respect than they afforded the white counterprotesters.

I asked MFA staff a question that has been asked by many Japanese people – why are the protesters permitted to be in the gallery? They said that ordinarily large protests are not permitted in the building or even on MFA grounds. They must stay on the sidewalk off MFA property. However in this case, the protest started really small (3 people the first week according to the staff) and they didn't feel protesters were being disruptive. As a museum they want people to talk about the art and since the protest sparked dialogue they decided to let them stay. It has been suggested that you should call the police or 911 if you get into a confrontation with protesters in the next two weeks. It is illegal to waste police time on things that are not a crime, accident, or medical emergency. It is not illegal to protest or to argue with people. Update 7/26/15: I found out last week that the MFA didn't have a policy to handle a situation like this since it had never happened before. I forgot to ask if they're working on a policy in case something like this this happens in the future.

Kimono Wednesdays are scheduled to continue through the end of July on Wednesdays with Spotlight Talks at 6:00pm - 6:15pm, 6:45pm - 7:00pm, and 7:15pm - 7:30pm. Admission on Wednesdays after 4pm is "by voluntary contribution" so it can be free if you want it to be. Please note that the protesters have stated in the past that they intend to be there every Wednesday. There are no plans for counterprotests for the remainder of the month but perhaps some individuals will show up to counterprotest.

Note: I have chosen not to show the faces of the protesters. I know they're posting their own photos on social media but I'm also aware that they are being harassed so I didn't feel it would be right to show their faces. I'm also not using their group's name because I find it offensive.

See also

Related posts

  • 7/17/15 4:10pm: Fixed some spelling and punctuation errors. Added some sentences with more detail on Japanese reaction to the protests.
  • 7/18/15 5:00pm: Updated the number of counterprotesters. This post originally said there were seven counterprotesters, six in kimono and yukata. 
  • 7/18/15 8:00pm: Added second photo of counterprotesters courtesy of Timothy Nagaoka. 
  • 7/19/15: 3:25am: Added link to The Boston Globe counterprotest article. 
  • 7/19/15: 3:10pm: Added age range because some people seem to think the counterprotesters were all older.
  • 7/22/15 12:55pm: Updated link to protest Tumblr. Protesters have removed their original Tumblr (see here at and rebranded as "Decolonize Our Museums."   
  • 7/26/15 2:55pm: Added/clarified information from MFA staff about the size of the protest and why they were permitted to stay.
  • 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!

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