Monday, August 31, 2015

Part 1: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: media, public, critics

The replica costume that launched six weeks of protests at the MFA

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

Due to the length of this post I am publishing it in three parts. I strongly urge readers to read all three – they were written as one piece.

Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters
Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

Given the feedback I've gotten from various members of the local community as well as what I've heard from people across the country I decided that a postmortem would be helpful. I started drafting this before the final protest and debated whether or not I should post it, especially after a Blogger snafu resulted in me losing a week's worth of writing! But people keep asking me about the controversy and the media has mostly lost interest except in referencing the controversy in think pieces as an example of hypersensitivity around cultural appropriation. Most of this piece will address things that came up in response to the protesters' original identity as “Stand Against Yellow-Face” that they used for the first four weeks of the protest before rebranding to "Decolonize Our Museums" on the morning of their fifth protest.

I would like to state my bias upfront. I don't support the protest or the protesters' tactics and behavior. I think the situation our local Asian American community finds itself in now, with several deep rifts in the community, is a situation entirely of their own making. For weeks people gave them feedback and tried to explain how it seemed they were misusing Japanese culture and history to further their own agenda but they ignored everyone who tried to engage with them and doubled down by continuing to protest instead of backing down.

I've talked to and read commentary from people in Boston, across the US, in Japan, and even one man in France. I talked to Japanese Americans, other Asian Americans, Japanese nationals living in the US and Japan, and white Westerners living in Japan. The majority of the Japanese Americans and Japanese people I heard from were opposed to the protest. I did find a handful of Japanese Americans and even a few Japanese who supported the protest but they were in the minority. When I spoke with Katie Getchell, Deputy Director of the MFA, on July 22nd about the feedback they had received from the public regarding Kimono Wednesdays, she said that the ratio of positive feedback to negative was 5:1 the last time they had tallied it and judging by names there weren't too many Japanese and Japanese Americans sending negative feedback. That fit with what I've seen and heard. The groups most offended by Kimono Wednesdays appear to be non-Japanese Asian Americans and white allies. While it's possible I just didn't find the corners of the Internet where the support was, if after six weeks of protesting your Facebook group has only 124 likes (as of this writing), I think it's fair to say you do not enjoy broad support.

After The Boston Globe covered the second counterprotest, due to the photo they ran and the ages of the women they quoted, many of the public thought this was a young versus old thing. It is not. My guess on the age range of the protesters is early 20s to 50s. The counterprotesters ranged in age from early 20s to 79.

I was disappointed that no local or national Asian American community leaders or organizations wanted to get involved in the situation. I feel like their perspective would have been valuable for the public. I don’t know that it would have been helpful for the protesters since it seems like they don’t want to listen but I would have liked to have seen our elders do some educating.

I have talked with many people who are angry and feel that the protesters stirred up a shitstorm and then just left. I think most of the anger I've seen against the protesters has stemmed from a misunderstanding that the public and critics have of what the protest was about and how those who tried to engage with the protesters were treated. Rather than being transparent about misunderstandings they had and missteps they made, the protesters instead deleted their original Facebook and Tumblr pages and rebranded but still haven't done a good job of clarifying their position to the public.

I have also heard from people who thought the protest and all the interest in it was stupid and who were apathetic about the MFA's actions. Some have regarded the protest as a tempest in a teapot which in the grand scheme of things it may be, but the protesters managed to ruffle feathers all the way to Japan. To say that the protest was an insignificant local concern fails to acknowledge the outsize international social media storm that resulted. As expected, most of my traffic since I started writing about Kimono Wednesdays has come from the US, followed by Japan. I was surprised to see that the next most interested country was Germany, followed by the UK, Canada, Australia, and France. I've had traffic from over 60 countries. Interest in this controversy was widespread.

What follows are my observations and criticisms based on the research I've done over the past couple of months. The post got so long that I broke it up into three posts. I know not everyone will read the whole thing so there is some repetition. I want to make clear that my viewpoint does not represent that of all Japanese Americans, though based on the conversations I've had, I think it's representative of what many Japanese Americans think. Also, I understand that each of the protesters may have had different reasons for protesting and may not have agreed with everyone else in the group, but for the purposes of this piece I am treating them as a unified group.

The Media

I thought the majority of English language media coverage of the protests was abysmal. Most of the early articles simply accepted the protest narrative without providing context. I spent four days researching my original post. I understand that with today's relentless 24-hour news cycle media outlets don't have the luxury of doing in-depth research for small stories, but it's disappointing when they don't even try to do the most cursory research. I complained to one prestigious international news outlet whose article failed to provide the most basic context. They defended their piece saying they were just telling the story and had provided links to other sites which isn't helpful since not everyone will follow those links.

One of the biggest things most of the media failed to do was discuss the size and composition of the protest. In the beginning the protest was comprised of only non-Japanese Asian Americans and one Latina, "all of [them] women, feminine and/or gender-queer". Over the weeks the protest branched out to include a few Japanese Americans, white and black allies, and men. I was only aware of one protester who self-identified as "JAPanese" on a sign but first generation Japanese American on Facebook and her personal website, but I've been told that they had some other Japanese American protesters. Their numbers never reached more than two dozen at a single protest (see below). Since some people showed up for multiple protests it's not clear what their total numbers were over all six weeks. They have not published this information. Their total Facebook RSVPs on their new Facebook event page is 54 but it's unlikely to be accurate. They used the same event page for all protests and just kept changing the date. Their original now deleted event page showed vastly inflated numbers of people who "went". Here are their numbers as far as I've been able to see from photos, reports around the Internet, and being at the MFA on weeks 4, 5, and 6:

Week 1 – 6/24/15: Three protesters (per the MFA and reports I saw around the Internet).
Week 2 – 7/1/15: Photos from that night appear to show five protesters. I also saw that number somewhere on the Internet but can't locate the source.
Week 3 – 7/8/15: "about a dozen" per The Boston Globe.
Week 4 – 7/15/15: "about two dozen" per The Boston Globe. My count that night was 18.
Week 5 – 7/22/15: My count was around 14 or 15 but I was only there at the beginning and the end so people may have come and gone. Their group photo from that night shows 11 people.
Week 6 – 7/29/15: I counted with one of the protesters and we counted 14. Their official count was 18.

By failing to contextualize the size of the protests, the media gave the misimpression that there were many angry Asian Americans protesting at the museum. Several media outlets also misidentified all the protesters as being Japanese or Japanese American and the protesters did little to clarify this. This was something that many Japanese and Japanese Americans who didn't support the protests found very upsetting. I sent corrections to several media outlets who did correct their articles, but some never responded. It's unclear who was at fault for some of the media reports where it seemed the protesters were speaking on behalf of Japan, Japanese people, and all Asian Americans. If the protesters didn't tell the media they were speaking for these groups they made minimal effort to correct the impression that they were.

On Facebook they continued to speak as though they could represent us and our views, even though many Japanese, Japanese Americans and some other Asian Americans stopped by their pages to say they didn't agree at all and resented the protesters for appearing to speak for us. Some of the protesters seemed to think that in expressing our opposition we were saying they weren't welcome to their own views and that we were trying to silence them. There may have been a few people who thought the protesters were wrong and not entitled to their views and feelings but I don't think that was the case for most of us. A lot of people who spoke out publicly, as I did, did so because the protesters persisted in refusing to acknowledge the validity of any view other than their own. (Note: I'm not on Facebook so the only place I expressed my opposition was on my blog and in comments on articles.)

I was surprised at how quick the public was to pick up on the fact that the protesters speaking to the media didn't appear to be Japanese or Japanese Americans. Commenters on articles that failed to provide a Japanese or Japanese American perspective pointed this out immediately and I saw the same commentary on the protest Facebook pages and many message boards. Although some people pointing this out seemed to be more familiar with Japanese/Japanese American people and culture than the average American, some didn't seem to have any special knowledge. It made me wonder to what degree the idea that Asian Americans are seen as a homogenous group is a self-imposed stereotype. 

The media also didn't bother to approach Japanese American or Asian American community leaders for their perspective. The Boston Globe was the only outlet that did this but it wasn't until the last piece they published on July 19th, after they had been writing about the protests for over a week. I thought it was interesting that they published commentary only from two men, Drs. Paul Watanabe and Ken Oye, both of whom I have great respect for, but did not publish comments from any female community leaders who may have had a different view. (I realize it's possible that they may have approached female community leaders who didn't want to go on the record.)

Japanese media outlets apparently failed to contextualize the protest at all, possibly because they were unable to understand it themselves. Some Japanese readers, not being able to understand why Asian Americans would be upset about Japanese kimonos being tried on by the public noted that the protesters were not of Japanese descent and jumped to the conclusion that the protest was being staged by anti-Japanese Chinese and Koreans. I don't know where they got the idea that the protesters were Korean from. Most of the protesters who were named in the English language media were non-Japanese East Asians (possibly Chinese and Taiwanese). They completely ignored the "Bengali-American" (her self-identification) and the "Chilean-born Bostonian" (her self-identification) protest organizers, perhaps not realizing they were participating or because it didn't fit their anti-Japanese narrative. Japanese people in Japan and the US also misunderstood the protest as being anti-kimono or anti-Japanese culture, possibly due to similar American misunderstandings of the protest that spread on social media.

The protests were barely covered in Japanese media. Professor Shaun O'Dwyer at Meiji University (who I should note I corresponded with), surmised in a piece for The Japan Times that "[p]erhaps for the mainstream Japanese media and for many fashion commentators such a controversy is of little concern, being just another inexplicable skirmish in America’s culture wars."

The Public

Much of the reaction that I read and heard was confusion about what the protest was about, confusion as to why non-Japanese Asian Americans feel they should have a say in how a kimono is presented at a museum, the sense that there are more important problems to be focusing on, and wondering why we can't just have fun sometimes. I think a lot of the public dismissed the protest as a joke, especially after finding out that it had very little Japanese and Japanese American support. Some found the protest ironic given Japan’s propensity to appropriate and adopt elements from other cultures.

The situation was made more complex because although the protesters claimed it was exclusively an American problem, it actually involved three nations: the US, Japan, and France, and a multitude of identities. Many whites pointed out that race is just a social construct and mistakenly thought that in using "Asian American" and "people of color" identities the protesters were being intentionally racially divisive, separating themselves from other races or from whites.

Anyone who has studied America’s racist history will know that it was actually white people who have historically assigned these outsider identities to us and continue to point out race in an effort to divide (see: Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Carly Fiorina’s recent comments on Asians). Contrary to some people's assertion that the US is post-racial, it is not. “People of color” was not an identity constructed by non-whites to separate themselves from whites but derives from white identification of non-whites, specifically slaves. Over time the term has changed to encompass all non-white people though it’s not an identity that all non-whites claim or relate to since it is frequently used as a synonym for black people and sometimes Latinos. I usually don't refer to myself as a person of color though I’ve begun to use it in some contexts because it’s often the least cumbersome way to refer to myself as part of the larger minority community in the US. 

Many whites and Japanese nationals didn't understand "Asian American" as a legitimate identity. The term is widely credited as being coined in the 1960s by Yuji Ichioka, a nisei historian and civil rights activist. He founded the Asian American Political Alliance, the first pan-Asian political group in the US. However, these days the term Asian American is widely used for academic and government purposes, even though most Asian Americans are more likely to identify as "[insert Asian country name] American," than as Asian American.

Some whites, Japanese nationals, Japanese Americans, and other Asian Americans accepted the protesters' Asian American identity but questioned their authority to speak about a Japanese cultural sharing event because Japanese culture is clearly not their culture.

There was a lot of discussion about cultural appropriation and whether or not it’s even a thing. Some felt that there is a line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation with some arguing that both Monet and the MFA were clearly appropriating Japanese culture and others saying that they were clearly appreciating it due to Monet’s deep fascination with Japanese art and the context in which the MFA received the uchikake. I did find out from Ms. Getchell that she asked NHK if they could have the uchikake, something that NHK was very enthusiastic about, but which may change how some people view the MFA’s actions.

The notion of cultural appropriation within art is especially tricky because artists have a long history of borrowing from within and across cultures. Many people feel this is how art and societies evolve and we shouldn’t be doing anything to stifle that. Others feel that there has to be sensitivity in how it’s done and that educating people on history needs to be part of that. People spend a lot of time arguing about the definition of cultural appropriation and when certain incidents, events, or pieces of art can be labeled culturally appropriative but I never see anyone asking why we’re so possessive of “our” cultures in the first place. Some people think it's a given that cultural appropriation is something that does happen but who decides? You can't stop people from having fun with Asian cultures, especially not Japanese culture. It's happening whether we like it or not and various Japanese art forms and phenomenon – origami, anime, manga, Japanese cosplay – have become worldwide phenomenon. Jean-Noël Lafargue, professor of art and new media at l'Université Paris 8, told me, "Even if I'm french, I don't feel like owning Monet's art, you know, it belongs to the whole humanity." It's a generous sentiment. What kind of world would we have if all Monets were kept in France and Impressionist techniques could only be used at the direction of the French people/government?

Some people seem to think there's a right and a wrong way to use culture but even within a culture, people aren't going to agree. I saw Japanese Americans saying that kimono should be treated with the utmost respect as almost holy objects which seems to be some sort of misunderstanding about what a kimono is – just clothing. Many in Japan are struggling to keep the kimono relevant in modern fashion and are looking to overseas markets to keep the kimono industry alive.
"...if casual yukata styles are to attract foreign consumers who are also sensitive to social justice issues, a clear message needs to be communicated to them by Japanese supporters of the industry.

That message, recently iterated to me by an employee at the Nishijin Textiles Center in Kyoto, is this: Anyone can appropriate and creatively modify kimono styles whenever and however they like. This message should be broadcast to counter those who misguidedly oppose the appropriation of Japan’s fashion traditions by “the West.” Japanese are not the West’s victims, and the kimono industry is ill-served by obsessions about Orientalism and politically correct “understanding.”

Kaori Nakano, a professor of fashion history at Meiji University put it to me this way: “Cultural appropriation is the beginning of new creativity. Even if it includes some misunderstanding, it creates something new.” It may be the key to the future of kimono fashion."
–  Shaun O'Dwyer, "Of kimono and cultural appropriation," The Japan Times, August 4, 2015
Although most Japanese responses I read or heard were supportive of Kimono Wednesdays in their original form and didn't understand what the problem was, there were some who found it offensive and culturally appropriative. Some, like Kentaro Ikegami at the National Coalition Against Censorship acknowledged the possible validity of the protesters' claims of orientalism but still thought that the MFA's self-censorship was the wrong way to go. Dr. Kei Hiruta, Research Fellow and Global Outreach Coordinator at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, had an interesting take on it – that the assertion that "‘Kimono Wednesdays’ may reasonably be considered Orientalist is not by itself sufficient to establish the wrongness of the event." Dr. Hiruta argues that even "Japanese men and women who joined the kimono revival in Tokyo in 1969" are orientalists because both they and people attending the MFA in 2015 "are moderns, who can no longer claim an unbroken cultural linage from the past." Then there's US-based kimono stylist Hiromi Asai, who wishes that people would stop seeing the kimono as exclusively Japanese fashion because she'd like it to be "recognized as a universal formal wear that is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries."

Both the protesters and some Japanese and Japanese Americans who were critical of the painting itself didn't seem to be aware that their modern interpretation of La Japonaise may be very different than what Monet intended and what his contemporaries would have understood about the painting at the time. His treatment of the uchikake and Camille's flirtatious pose have both been criticized although it isn't clear to me that the criticism is deserved. There are some who think that he borrowed that pose from Japanese art, specifically the work of Hishikawa Moronobu who popularized the backwards glance.
"The figures in Monet's Camille, The Woman in the Green Dress (1866, Kunsthalle Bremen) and La Japonaise (1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) adopt a posture that might have been derived from that of the backwards-glancing beauty in Japanese prints, a pose rarely seen in European painting before that time."
– Akiko Fukai "Japonism in Fashion," exhibition catalogue, 1996, pp. 8-9
I also think that Japanese people had difficulty understanding the protest or engaging with protesters because Japanese ideas of etiquette and comportment are so different from what's considered acceptable or tolerated under free speech in America. Although I saw Americans and other Westerners struggling with the behavior of the protesters as well, so I don't know if this can be attributed only to cultural differences.

From what I've heard, Japanese American responses are a bit more mixed than Japanese responses and I don't have a good sense of how the group splits. Based on what I've heard and read it seems that the majority do not support the protest but I could be mistaken. Other than Barbara Hayashida's letter and Jan Morrill's blog posts (here and here) I haven't seen any other in-depth commentary from Japanese Americans. 

A few observers found the MFA's actions problematic, not due to racism, but because they felt that it is beneath a museum to engage the public in this way. One artist commented that "it was just a bunch of grownups playing dress up." So what? I don't believe that adult ways of interacting with art are necessarily better than how children interact with art. These viewpoints indicate a bit of snobbery or perhaps an inability to comprehend that people don't engage with art or learn in the same way. I have to confess to finding art museums a bit boring, which is funny because I'm an artist. The art just sits there and all you can do is look at it and sometimes photograph it. I thought Kimono Wednesdays were an interesting way to literally step into history. It is completely natural to want to touch art. I see this all the time when I knit, crochet, and fold origami in public. Not everyone learns the same way and for some, making the art tangible makes it a completely different experience.

The Critics

After my original post got picked up by The Federalist (which, in spite of the snark, was one of the better media articles I read because it didn't just accept the protest narrative) and some of the "chan" imageboard sites I ended up in some dark corners of the Internet. Everyone from Japanese nationalists to white supremacists were talking about the protests. The story make the rounds on all major social media in the US (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit) as well as many niche message boards and blogs. Most of the criticism I saw came from white Americans but there were Japanese, white Westerners living in Japan, Japanese American, and other Asian American critics along with a few others.

The critics made a lot of incorrect assumptions about the protesters, perhaps in an effort to discredit them – that they were young college students (protest organizers ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-30s and I think the range of protesters was early 20s to 50s), they don't work due to welfare or trust funds (they work), they had nothing better to do with their time (looking at LinkedIn and other pages they appear to be busy, accomplished people), they don't understand art (most of them are artists, though it did seem that from everything I've read they did not have a strong understanding of orientalism and japonisme), they were stupid (many of them have been educated at elite schools).

One of the criticisms I heard and saw frequently was that the protest must be performance art because what else could it be? I thought this criticism was lazy and dismissive – if you don’t understand the protest it’s easier to dismiss it as a performance than try to understand it. Of course this doesn't take into account the fact that there's a history of artists using performance to protest so this may have been intentional. A number of the protesters have performing arts backgrounds and are visual artists. One of the organizers described the week 3 protest as “a tad performative”. I think they’re sincere in their “outrage” but they seemed more focused on the performance of the six protests than they were on actually crafting a message that could be understood by the public.

There was a lot of policing of race and ethnic/national identity on both sides – people telling others what their identity is or how they should identify or questioning their stated identity. [A lot has been written about gender policing but I couldn't find a good source explaining ethnic identity policing.] Some of the critics wanted to characterize the protesters as Asians, specifically Chinese and Korean (since they thought those were the homelands of many of the protesters), erasing their American identity. Others wanted to characterize them as just Americans, erasing their Asian identity, because they felt this was some sort of America versus Japan fight. Asian American identity is much more complex than that. Most of us identify with our country of origin or the country our ancestors came from and will describe ourselves as "[insert Asian country name] American", while a small percentage identify as Asian American or Asian and an even smaller percentage identify as American as most Americans descended from Europeans do.

The protesters felt it was their place to tell white people living in Japan that they were not Japanese and could not be accepted by their communities, which struck me as hypocritical given that the protesters are struggling to be seen as American, not foreign. They also used a racial slur against a hapa Asian and black man, questioning his blackness (more on this in "The Protesters"). There was even some infighting among critics who questioned whether other critics were "real" Asians.

Critics and conspiracy theory nuts thought the protesters were paid agitators or foreign agents. I don't have any proof that they are not but as I've said several times before, I don't believe this to be true. The protesters were also compared with a host of dictators, totalitarian regimes, and hates groups because of the belief that they wanted to dictate what people could do (i.e.: trying on kimono or not), censor art and culture, and for their apparent hatred of white people (a claim that was made based on their own words and behavior on social media and due to the language of some of their signs).

Some critics called for apologies to NHK and Japanese taxpayers, thinking that's who paid for the uchikake. NHK is actually funded by jushinryō seido which is similar to a license fee. Households in Japan that receive NHK pay these fees annually. However, NHK is a large corporation with many subsidiaries. According to the MFA, the conservation of La Japonaise was paid for by NHK and NHK Promotions, a subsidiary that handles cultural projects and events. Presumably NHK Promotions also paid for the uchikake. I couldn't figure out where they get their funding from.

There were also calls for apologies to the artisans at Takarazuka Stage Co. who made the replica uchikake, the MFA, the dissenting Asian Americans and Japanese nationals whose voices the protesters trampled on, and anyone they personally insulted. Most Japanese nationals and some Japanese Americans took great offense to the group's disrupting a Japanese cultural sharing event for their own agenda. I saw calls for apologies from both Japanese nationals and Americans and other Westerners though it isn't clear if they were asking for the same thing. Apologies play a very different role in Japanese and American culture. In the US "apologies are fundamentally used to assign and assume blame for an event, with responsibility usually attributed to individual actors" whereas "Japanese tend to understand apologies as a way to alleviate interpersonal stress associated with damaged relationships, and to acknowledge interconnectedness and indebtedness to others." (Maddux, Kim, Okumura & Brett, 2011)

Some of the critics behaved appallingly. The protesters were subject to racial slurs (even from other Asians), harassment, sea-lioning, trolling, misogynistic behavior, and death threats (I didn't see any public death threats so they must have been made privately – this is a common problem for female activists). The protesters did not maintain the moral high ground, however, and participated in much of the same behavior (minus the death threats as far as I know). I do want to point out that not all of the protesters engaged in this kind of behavior but I hold the whole group responsible because if you're speaking on the group's Facebook page as a representative of the group and no one in the group is expecting you to behave to the same standards as the rest of the public, then your behavior is a reflection on the whole group. Protest organizers are responsible for setting and maintaining the tone of a protest. It's not clear to me whether the tone of the MFA protests and social media conversation was what the organizers wanted or if they failed to set or maintain a less confrontational tone.

I should note that I think many of the trolls came out of the Gamergate controversy which I barely followed so can't say much about. I haven't quite figured out what it was that piqued their interest about Kimono Wednesdays but it appears to be general hate for SJWs who they feel were active participants in Gamergate. I think this crossover may have been partly responsible for the level of vitriol and amount of harassment the protesters received. Within one day of setting up their new Twitter account,  they tweeted, "Gamergate is automatically blocked."

However, the protesters clearly made things worse by slinging mud themselves. They should have taken a page from Anne Wheaton's book. In April, when she got a lot of hate from some Gamergate folks she used it as an opportunity to do something positive by announcing that she would donate money to nonprofits for every hateful tweet she received. Others matched her pledge. This is a much better way of handling trolling rather than responding in kind.

That said, although I agreed with and empathized with a lot of the critics, I can’t get behind any who attempted to discredit the protesters by attacking their racial, ethnic, or national identity, personality, life choices, etc. I think it should be enough to question their faulty logic, the lack of any concrete data, and their inability to present a clear message and stick with it. It was not necessary to demean the protesters personally.


Part 2: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: protesters
Part 3: Kimono Wednesdays protest postmortem: MFA, my role, final thoughts, further reading

Further Reading

  • I decided early on that I would not name the protesters, post photos of their faces, or link directly to their personal social media accounts or specific posts they made on Facebook. I know that the protesters have chosen to put their names and faces out there, but as I became aware of the level of harassment they were facing I tried to balance my desire to continue writing about the protest without contributing to the harassment. I talked with one of the protest organizers on July 22nd and explained my policy and they thanked me.
  • You may have noticed a lot of links for terminology and idioms in this post. I added those to help non-native English speakers and people unfamiliar with those terms.

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