Thursday, July 9, 2015

Protests continue at the MFA

Timothy Nagaoka stages a one-man counterprotest at the MFA on July 8th

This is a follow-up to Monet's La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA. Please read my original post for background.


I went to the MFA last night because it was my last chance to see In the Wake before it closes this weekend. I spent most of my time at In the Wake and didn’t get over to the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery where La Japonaise is hung until nearly closing when everything was over.

When I got home I checked the protest Facebook page to see what had happened last night and I was so happy to see Timothy Nagaoka, a local Japanese teacher and organizer of Cranes on the Square @ Copley Square, sporting his yukata, and cheerfully showing his Japanese spirit in a one-man counterprotest. Timothy was born in Japan and has lived in the US since college.

He held signs that read: 
"I am Japanese, and I am not offended by Kimono Wednesday." (pictured above) 
"I am not offended by people wearing kimono in front of French paintings."

He quoted Taylor Smith:
"Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate..."

All of his signs included a plea to the MFA to "Bring Back Kimono Wednesday." This is why he went:
"As a Japanese teacher in Boston, I feel that any opportunity for the community to interact with Japanese culture is a good thing, and I was disappointed when I heard that the MFA had cancelled an opportunity for the people to put on the kimono that Monet drew in his painting. I believe that the protesters have a right to be offended, however it should not dictate the enjoyment of others to appreciate the novel interaction with the artwork."
He also made today's Boston Globe so we finally have a Japanese perspective in the media!

Asian Americans are not a homogenous group

Although Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are often seen as a homogenous group by non-Asians and treated as such we know that we are not the same. I’m very concerned that people who don’t know the difference between Japanese/Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Asian Americans will mistakenly assume that most of the protesters are Japanese/Japanese American and/or that they are speaking on our behalf. The media may be partly to blame for this but I don’t feel the protesters have done a good enough job of making it clear that their views don’t necessarily reflect the views of Japanese/Japanese Americans or even other Asian Americans. By my count they have only two Japanese/Japanese American supporters (though there could be more) so I don’t think this reflects a majority view in our communities. One identified herself as Japanese in the sign she carried at the protest but has said on Facebook that she is Japanese American. Another identified themselves as Japanese-born. Neither are using their real names so it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone to identify them as Japanese if they hadn't volunteered this information.

I admit that I don’t know if my friends are a representative sample, but so far it seems pretty clear to me that no one Japanese is offended. I’ve heard anecdotally that Japanese American reaction is mixed. This isn't surprising since some Japanese Americans may identify more with Japanese culture, as I do, where some may identify more as Asian American or American. For me, the context of the Japanese try on events and where the replica uchikake came from plays a big part in how I feel about the MFA’s actions. This may not be true for everyone but I’d like everyone to have all the facts so they can make an informed decision about how they feel.

I've been very unimpressed with the media’s failure to look beyond the protest Facebook page and present dissenting Japanese/Japanese American opinions on Kimono Wednesdays until Timothy showed up to counterprotest last night. I should note that one media outlet did reach out to me and request to publish an edited version of my original post but I declined as I’ve already submitted it for cross-posting at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Japanese diaspora online community, and would prefer that people read it in full on my blog or at DN.

Many comments on the Facebook protest page have been trying to bring the conversation back to what the Japanese people want and the protesters keep saying that it’s not about the Japanese people or cultural sharing it’s about Orientalism. I find that answer completely dismissive of the desire of the Japanese people and some Japanese Americans to share our culture with MFA visitors. I understand that the context of Kimono Wednesdays is that they're being held in a gallery with European art with a painting about japonisme but I don't see that as relevant to the question of whether or not the  artisans in the costume section at Takarazuka who worked on the replica uchikake, NHK, and the Japanese people want to share their culture. If the Japanese want to share their culture in the context of Monet, I feel like that should be their choice.

I’m absolutely not okay with the impression the protesters are giving that they are speaking on behalf of all Asian Americans. This is not something I personally need or want. I don't give my permission for them to speak for me. They may be paternalistically trying to speak on my behalf because they think Asian Americans who are not outraged by Kimono Wednesdays are uneducated about these issues and in my case that's incorrect. I’m aware of the issues, I'm just not able to make the same connections and draw the same conclusions as the protesters. I don’t accept the premise that because La Japonaise is related to Orientalism that this should cancel out the Japanese cultural sharing aspect of trying on the replica uchikake. I’ve experienced racism and race and sexual orientation-based sexualization as a result of being the ultimate exotic sex symbol – a bisexual Asian woman. I’ve even played it up at times, which was my right as a woman in charge of my own body. To say that I, and others, don't understand the issues at hand because we don't draw the same conclusions is condescending.

I would encourage any Japanese and Japanese Americans on Facebook to head over to their Facebook pages here and here and add your voice to the conversation so it’s not just a bunch of Asian Americans facing off against white people talking about us like we’re not even in the room.

I noticed last night that there are increasingly more photos on the (now deleted) protest page from white people in kimono, many of whom have Japanese spouses and children and live in Japan. Who knew that posting a photo of yourself in kimono would become a political statement?

Protest Rhetoric

An anonymous Japanese-American commenter to my original post asked why I hadn't included a "What the protesters could have done better" section. I tried not to speculate too much in my original post. Before the media caught wind of the story there was very little verified information available, although now that the media has the story they haven’t really provided answers to most of the questions I have. I'm not on Facebook so I can't see the names of the 200+ people who RSVPed for the protest and although my sense was that in the first couple of weeks none of the people posting on the protest Facebook page seemed to be Japanese or Japanese American I didn't want to make assumptions about their ethnicity because I know that hapa Japanese and Japanese Americans can have non-Japanese names. Any criticism I would have made at that point would have been based mostly on speculation and assumptions.

I've been trying to keep up with the conversation on the protest Facebook page and I feel like a clearer picture has emerged. There’s certainly been some trolling and extremely unhelpful comments from non-Asian Americans (even some Asian Americans) but I’ve seen a lot of great questions and commentary from the critics. There’s also been a lot of condescension in all directions. Unfortunately, it often seems like the protesters and critics are not having the same conversation so are talking at cross purposes.

One of the things people keep asking is what precisely the protesters are upset about. One of the big criticisms has been that they are disorganized and unprofessional and haven't made their objections and objectives clear which has led to a lot of speculating and conspiracy theories. The protesters didn't post their "LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES" (preserved here by in case they delete it again) to Tumblr and Facebook until yesterday.

There have been some comments from protesters that part of the problem is there’s no Japanese art in the gallery but that argument doesn’t hold water. The MFA is currently full of Japanese art from Hokusai to photographers who responded to 3.11 as well as stuff from their regular Japanese art collection. There’s no Asian art in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery because they organize art by region unless it’s a special exhibit. If you leave the MFA without seeing any Japanese art that’s entirely your own fault. The Hokusai exhibit is the main exhibit right now and there are signs for it everywhere. If anything, I think it's great that in displaying the replica uchikake they are bringing Japanese artistry into the Rabb Gallery where you normally wouldn't have any.

The protest organizers have been saying they want dialogue but their actions don’t seem to be backing that up. Someone posted Timothy's photo to the protest page and called him a "troll." During a confrontation in the hallway outside the gallery (I had linked to the video but it was removed when the protest organizers deleted their original page), a protester said to Timothy, "Well, this doesn't affect you. So that's why I understand you don't care," then insulted him by saying, "Your thinking is very elementary," and telling him, "you don't understand the larger effect." She denied that they were speaking on behalf of the Japanese community but that they've said, "This affects the Asian American community at large." A couple of white guys who tried to jump in (their comments were inaudible) were told, "You need to check your privilege at the door." One protester asked Timothy if he would still want to try on the kimono if he knew it was at the expense of the Asian American community and he replied, "Why is it at the expense? Where is the loss?" If he was given a response, it wasn't recorded.

On Facebook in the comments I've read the protesters and their supporters have been dismissing nearly all of their critics as “racists,” “trolls,” and “apologists" or telling them that their stories as white people living in Japan are irrelevant or that as white people their opinions don't count. They keep telling people to “check your privilege” which is a great way to shut down conversation not facilitate it. There’s also been mention that moderators of the page are deleting comments critical of the protest. I’ve been able to read plenty of critical comments so I don’t know what’s being deleted but if they are deleting criticism that doesn’t seem like it’s in a spirit of willingness to dialogue so much as a desire to censor people who don't agree with them.

Comments around the Internet from people claiming to have been present at the MFA when protesters were there have described them as aggressive and unwilling to listen. I wondered if some of the perception of the protesters might be rooted in white privilege until I saw the video with Timothy.

I was talking with a friend who teaches political science about the protesters encouraging people to use the hashtag #whitesupremacykills. We're assuming this is in reference to the June 17, 2015, allegedly white supremacist motivated shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. She said that trying to equate a kimono dress up event with what happened in Charleston really minimizes the shooting.

The protesters may have some good points but their rhetoric has been more inflammatory than educational. It also didn’t appear that they made any attempt to research the background of Kimono Wednesdays and see it in the context of Japanese cultural sharing which is why I provided that information in my original post. Most of the protesters don't appear to know much about Japanese culture and I find their refusal to discuss Kimono Wednesdays in that context frustrating. I'm fine with calling out the MFA on what I see as their poor execution of Kimono Wednesdays (which I did in my original post) but I cannot get behind anyone calling the MFA and white museumgoers racist, white supremacist cultural appropriators because they want to try on a kimono in front of a Monet.

While the MFA is ultimately responsible for giving in to pressure, the protesters are celebrating shutting down the try on portion of the events and that seems to have fueled their fire. (I should note that the first two weeks it appeared from their photos that they had no more than three protesters. I saw one report that said it was no more than five. The Boston Globe reports that there were “about a dozen” last night.) To me it seems apparent from that behavior that their goal was never to dialogue. So now it's turned into an even bigger missed opportunity for many museumgoers including those of us who are Japanese and Japanese American plus other Asians/Asian Americans, international visitors from other parts of the world, and other American people of color.

What the protesters could have done better

Many critics called them out for the group’s offensive name, "Stand Against Yellow-Face". They might have garnered more support if they hadn't started off by insulting Asian Americans with their name. I saw a few comments from Asian Americans who were offended by it.

If you're going to protest an event that's ostensibly about sharing Japanese culture, then you should try to understand it within that context even if you feel there's a larger context. I don't know if the protesters tried to contact any Japanese/Japanese American groups but my guess would be no. (I spoke with one organization and I was the first person to bring the controversy to their attention.) However, based on the feedback I’ve received I don’t think any local Japanese/Japanese American organization would have been interested in partnering with them.

Perhaps they could have found an Asian American organization to provide them with guidance on how to organize a protest. After the first week, their signs appeared hastily made and were hard to read. Even if they felt their message was clear, based on other people's comments it wasn't clear to the public. Partnering with an organization may also have resulted in the MFA taking them more seriously.

If there isn't agreement within the community or communities you're trying to represent it's important to make it clear that you don't speak for everyone.

In posts from the first couple of weeks I didn't see any concrete, constructive suggestions about what the MFA could be doing differently. It's not enough to criticize and make vague suggestions about education and dialogue.

I’ve observed interactions in which LGBT people and allies think the best way to have a conversation with a person opposed to same sex marriage (typically conservative Christians, though other conservative religions also object) is to open by calling them a bigot and demeaning their religious/personal beliefs. I've said that if you're actually interested in educating those folks you can't open by insulting them. Similarly if you want to educate white people on Orientalism, Western imperialism, and white privilege, the right way to do that is not by opening the conversation accusing all of them of being racists and white supremacists (even if it's only on a sign). To educate people they have to be willing to hear you out. If you're saying you're open to dialogue, then you have to be willing to check your own biases, anger, and pain at the door. I know this is a hard thing to do, but no one will listen after you say "racist."

It does sound like the MFA may have treated the protesters dismissively in the first few weeks but I don't see how getting the try on portion of Kimono Wednesdays shut down promotes education. Timothy and I are both disappointed that we won’t be able to try on the uchikake ourselves and that other Bostonians and visitors have been denied this chance as well. For me it would have been a once in a lifetime experience because I don’t have any heirloom kimonos in my family and I’m not able to travel so I can’t go to Japan. [May 2016: I should note that although the replica uchikake are not of heirloom quality, they're still far more elaborate than any kimono I would be likely to be able to try on in the US.]

I’m very thankful to Timothy for counterprotesting last night and hope that if the protests continue through the rest of the month that other Japanese and Japanese Americans who feel the protesters don’t represent their views will also show up to support the MFA.

The replica uchikake is scheduled to be on display every Wednesday for the rest of the month with Spotlight Talks at 6:00pm - 6:15pm, 6:45pm - 7:00pm, and 7:15pm - 7:30pm. The last update I saw on the protest Facebook page a few days ago said that they would be protesting for the remainder of the month.

Many thanks to Timothy Nagaoka for providing photos and sharing his thoughts.

Timothy Nagaoka and Monet's La Japonaise

Photo credit: courtesy of Timothy Nagaoka

Update: While I was writing this post it appears that the protest Facebook page has been taken down by Facebook or locked or removed by protest organizers. I wish I'd gotten some screenshots. I'm going to leave the links in this post in case their page comes back online. Their Tumblr is still up as of this writing. 7/22/15: Their Tumblr has moved.

Related posts

  • 7/9/15 7:55pm: Protest Facebook page is back up. At least one post has been removed.
  • 7/10/15 1:25am: Clarified some language and fixed some typos. 
  • 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.
  • 7/11/15 3:30am: Removed broken links due to deleted protest Facebook page. 
  • 7/22/15 12:50pm: Updated link to "LIST OF DEMANDS AND CHARGES". Protesters have removed their original Tumblr (see here at and rebranded as "Decolonize Our Museums."
  • 7/26/15 3:15pm: Updated "preserved here" link to point to
  • 9/16/15 5:35pm: Added link to @mcfeeters' photo of confrontation in hallway.
  • 5/1/16: In a previous version of this post I referred to the people who made the replica uchikake as "kimono artisans". I have updated the post to more accurately reflect who made the replicas: "artisans in the costume section at Takarazuka".


  1. I was wondering if you were aware of the MFA's original title for the spotlight talk? It was not "Kimono Wednesdays" but it was actually first called:

    "Claude Monet: Flirting with the Exotic."

    It has since been taken off the mfa website, but the cached version is still available. The title is pretty unfortunate, and I see why the mfa appears to have kind of swept it under the rug, but I also could see how the people who saw this original title could be concerned about the MFA's quality of execution of what could have been a really interesting event. I checked out the facebook page, and I did see in the event photos another Japanese American protester there besides the one you picture here. I think her sign read: "I'm Japanese, Orientalism is dangerous." Her sign makes more sense when in the context of the mfa's original title "Flirting with the Exotic."

    On the facebook site, one person who attended last wednesdays event wrote that the mfa presenter did not know the answer to basic questions like what material the uchikake is made of. It seems like a simple enough question, so I wonder if the mfa could do better to offer a more in depth and fruitful exhibit worthy of such a garment of master craftsmanship, and painting by a master artist, especially in the light of people protesting, and in the spirit of their mission to bridge cultures in a meaningful way.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Katherine. I actually just posted an addendum about the "Flirting with the exotic" on my original post late last night. I hadn't been able to find any proof the MFA had used that line so hadn't wanted to comment on it (I try not to speculate too much).

      I agree that it's offensive but I still wouldn't put it in the category of "racist" or "white supremacist". To me it falls under “culturally insensitive.”

      I saw the criticism on the protest Facebook page that the speaker this week wasn't able to answer basic questions about the uchikake. That was disappointing and a bit surprising to me since I would have thought that NHK would have provided them with some information when they passed the uchikake along but either they didn't or that information wasn't given to her. If she thought her talk was meant to be about the Monet I could see how she would have been unprepared. I also don’t see how deeply you can get into any subject with the Spotlight Talks which are only 15 minutes long.

      It doesn't seem like the protesters are doing anything to help though. They talk about wanting education but I haven't seen them make any suggestions about where the MFA could draw knowledgeable speakers from. It doesn’t really seem to me that they are interested in working with the MFA in a productive manner. I thought their list of demands was unreasonable and unrealistic.

      I reached out to the MFA today and asked if they needed help being put in touch with people in the Japanese community who could talk about kimono more generally, though in order to know the specifics about the replica uchikake they would have to get that information from NHK.

  2. I think I forgot to mention in my previous comment my thanks for your insightful writing. I think a lot of people are interested in how this exhibit will move forward. The MFA is an amazing organization and with some time and effort perhaps the event can be the fun, educational, meaningful bridge between cultures that was originally intended.

    1. Oh, thank you! One of my frustrations with the protesters is that they've provided very little education for the public. Even though my initial reaction was not in line with theirs I took the time to research it because I wanted to be sure of my own position and also give people the information to make an informed decision about where they fall on what the MFA did. Social media makes it so easy to have a kneejerk reaction to things you read/see without knowing all the facts. I’ve been glad to hear that people have found my writing helpful.

      There’s much I feel the MFA could have done better here but I admit I hadn’t been there in years until I went to see In the Wake this week and I’ve never attended an event related to Japanese art. I’m sure they must do events like this all the time that fly under the radar because not that many people attend or hear about it. I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on this because I know they do a lot to promote Japanese art and culture and they do have Japanese people on staff. Unlike the protesters I haven’t been willing to assume that the only people who worked on these events in the US were white and since I wasn’t there the first two weeks I don’t know if all the museumgoers who tried on the uchikake were white (though the only pictures I’ve seen were of white people). No one I talked to in the Japanese community after I heard about it was aware of the events which may account for their absence the first couple of weeks. It’s possible that more Japanese and other non-white would have showed up after the first two weeks though now that they’ve cancelled the try on portion people may be less inclined to make the trip.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses to my comments!

    That was a wonderful idea to reach out to the MFA about connecting with the Japanese community. One woman on that now taken down FB page attended the event in Nagoya. She posted photos, and said there were informative flyers at that event - I'm not sure if the flyers had info about the uchikake, but it seems like possibly something the MFA could translate and distribute in the US exhibit.

    I'm ready for institutions like the MFA to provide good examples of cultural appreciation that the rest of the US can follow. It's time.

    It's cool that the replica uchikake adds a component to the exhibit that is from a Japanese point of view. I hope we see more and more stories, voices, and faces from Asian American communities in the spotlight.

    Thank you for being one of those voices. :)

  4. Hi Keiko, Tim is going to be there again this Wednesday. It would be wonderful if you could come by!

    1. Hi Robbie, Thanks! I've been talking with Timothy and just posted the details:

  5. Great article Keiko, I totally agree that both parties handled it totally wrong and I'm not even surprised they didn't even contact an Japanese American organization to help/dive them. Its much easier to be offended for people who aren't even in your culture by using the social justice warrior label.

    White supremacists keep white American culture pure by segregating and attacking other cultures.

    SJW's keep white American culture pure by segregating white people from learning/appreciating said culture by calling it appropriation. Makes one wonder how these two are supposed to be opposites lol

    1. Thanks, Kelleth. I've seen a lot of commentary likening them to repressive regimes and hate groups. I think they haven't done a great job of articulating what they're after so people have done a lot of speculating and assuming and attributed motives and beliefs to them that I'm not sure they have (or in some cases I'm pretty sure they don't have - I don't believe they're working for a foreign government). You might find this piece helpful: