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Monet’s La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA - Part 2

Read Part 1 >>

Why I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation

Kimono try on is an established part of Japanese cultural sharing. One of my friends reminded me that in Kyoto it’s a big tourist thing to do something called “maiko for a day” (maiko are apprentice geisha) and it’s popular with both Japanese people and international tourists. Another friend reminded me that it’s common for non-Japanese to also wear kimono, yukata, and happi coats as obon festivals and other matsuris in places like Hawaii and California. Here in Boston we’ve had kimono try on events that I’ve seen that haven’t been much different than what the MFA is doing except that they’re often using yukata, not even kimono so there’s nothing at all like the level of craftsmanship of the replica uchikake or even a high quality kimono. There usually isn’t time to educate the public on the garments they’re trying on, it’s just a quick put it on, take a few pics, take it off. The lines are always long and include people of all races including non-Japanese Asian Americans and Japanese people.

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

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

For me, an important element of cultural appropriation is imitation, whether it’s meant as a homage or meant to mock and demean. I don’t see trying on the replica uchikake as imitating anyone except Camille Monet. You can argue that the French were appropriating Japanese culture in the late 19th century and that’s what’s offensive but I think it’s a stretch to say that by showcasing La Japonaise and the replica uchikake the MFA is being culturally appropriative. They’re an art museum. It’s a Monet. It’s their job to show art, whether it’s considered offensive or not. One hopes that they will provide context when they show art that is offensive to some but I don’t see the act of doing so as cultural appropriation.

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

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

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

What would have made this offensive to me


adjective Causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry:

These are things that would have made Kimono Wednesdays offensive to me:

  • If the MFA had commissioned a replica uchikake from an American costume designer.
  • If they were providing black shimada-style wigs and white make-up.
  • If the advertising had used stereotypical language à la Angry Asian Man’s “Get Your Geisha On” headline.
  • If the people planning it were a random group of white people as opposed to a museum (i.e.: a business or a block party) with no connection to Japan and no expertise in Japanese art, culture, or kimono culture who decided to stage a kimono try on event because it was exotic.

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

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

What the MFA could have done better

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10/15 Addendum

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

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

* * * * *


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


* I originally published this post on my blog on July 7; but about one hour before I posted this I received an email from someone in the MFA’s PR department that I missed letting me know that the MFA has decided to change their programming for Kimono Wednesdays will no longer be allowing the public to try on the replica uchikake

** The views above are my own and those of some of my friends and relatives. I do not know if they are representative of the majority view in either community.


Further reading

The Federalist: Boston Kimono Alarms Culture Crusaders (I found this when looking through my Google Analytics stats. Although it has a derisive title and a snarky tone, I was surprised that it was one of the better researched pieces I've read about the protests. Unlike other media outlets they provided more than one viewpoint, including mine.)

Big Red and Shiny: Demonstrators Protest Cultural Appropriation in MFA Galleries

Facebook post on protest page from Joe Hindman, Nagoya, Japan [7/9/15: Unfortunately this has been removed. I will try to get a copy of the post.]

For a recent really spectacular example of cultural appropriation, I refer you to Rachel Dolezal.


*This article was originally published on Japanese-American in Boston on July 7, 2015.


© 2015 Keiko K.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts kimono La Japonaise monet museums painting yellowface