An Arlington Resident Responds to the MFA Kimono Controversy

Responding to the MFA kimono controversy, an Arlington resident, Rieko Tanaka has written an insightful explanation of many aspects of racism with respect to Asian Americans.  Worth reading I think. Her essay starts below the line.
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I have been thinking a lot about MFA kimono controversy. When I heard about the event, I found it somewhat offensive, but many of my Japanese and American friends didn’t. They asked me why I felt that way, and to my surprise, I could not explain. Since I am usually pretty good at explaining how and why I feel about things, this has become my own assignment. I have been digging deep into my mind and soul, thinking about being a Japanese who was born and grew up in Japan but now live in the USA, my views about experiencing and respecting other cultures, and racism that exists in me and others.

Though I am still in the middle of processing it, my gut feeling hasn’t changed. I will try to write what I came up with so far, so that I could organize my thoughts and try to make sense of what I felt about the event.

Please understand that this is my deeply personal thoughts and I respect others who don’t agree. I am not angry with MFA for planning it. I am not angry with people who loves the idea. I can see their points of view and I don’t think they are wrong. I do not condemn the program. It is just that I can’t feel the same way as they do.

I respect their opinions and hope if you are one of them, please do not disrespect my feelings and opinions, either. So no need to defend the program and its ideas and reasons, which I understand already. I know there was never a conscious intent to offend.

Having said that, here’s what I have been thinking so far:

I love Monet’s La Japonaise as an art. However, European’s orientalism, which was the trend at that time, stemmed from their strong belief on their own superiority over Asians. We, and our culture were primitive and exotic to their eyes. It wasn’t so different from watching exotic animals in their zoos.

Now fast forward it to 21st Century; Things are quite different now, especially for Japanese. Compare to other Asians, we are not exposed to racism very often. Japan has become one of the richest and most advanced country, producing cool products and culture. Electronics and cars in late 20th Century, and then, now, Anime, video games, and Manga. Sushi is popular food everywhere and we often get compliments just for being Japanese.

And yet, very often, when I meet non-Japanese (mostly American in my case) and they try very hard to strike conversations, I still get very well-meant but somewhat awkward, even stupid and ignorant comments. I usually sense their good intent to be friendly and effort to find something in common, so I don’t make an issue of it and just go along. Instead of try to talking to me as one individual, they try to put me into a stereotypical mold of what they think of Japanese, and try to talk to me within that small frame.

I admit, it is hard to make a small talk and you might cling to any clue you see – OK, she is Japanese, so I will tell her that I knew one Japanese person many years ago – I am sure she knows this person, too, because she is Japanese! (Don’t ask me how this makes sense) Or I will tell her how I used to know some Japanese sentences but now don’t remember at all but she needs to know it and this must mean so much to her because she is Japanese! She should be so grateful that I made an effort to know about 5 sentences when I lived there for 3 years, which I don’t remember any of them now!

Do I get offended? No. Intention is what matters here and I usually try to steer conversation away from those topics so that we could talk about something we both are truly interested.    And then we find each other very good company with great talk. So that is fine. Anything to break ice is a sign of friendliness. But it doesn’t mean those are the best way to start conversation and I wouldn’t recommend it if you can help it, and I wouldn’t particularly enjoy it when it happens. Just talk to us like you usually do to any other (I mean Americans) people you meet.

Now, let’s come back to this MFA event. I never saw it as maliciously intended. Maybe it was a great opportunity for many non-Japanese to feel close to the painting and Japanese culture.     It has its own merit. My uncomfortable feeling didn’t come from the intent of people who planned it.

I think my problem is probably with people who innocently wear the kimono and pause for a photo without thinking the background of orientalism and think themselves as cool people who are so open-minded. OK, it is unfair. What is so wrong to want to experience the different culture and admire the beauty of it?

It is something to do with narcissism and smugness of people who think their culture is superior over others. To be brutally honest, I meant white people’s unconscious cultural narcissism and their sense of superiority. “I am so cool and open-minded that I enjoy experiencing other culture” kind of smugness. Yes, this is a very mean-spirited and cynical view.  It is unfair. You can all scream in protest. You might say “I respect other culture! I am not looking down on it!” And most of you are probably right.

Many Japanese attacked those who protested this event, saying this is their way of Japanese bashing because many of them were Asian Americans, but not of Japanese heritage. But I don’t agree. Not only that, I understand why many of those who protested this event were non-Japanese Asians. They are much more sensitive to racism against Asians in US because they have been exposed to it much more than we Japanese have. So they sensed that kind of smugness, whether it was true or not. In that regards, they are much better educated about this issue so they could recognize the potential harm of this event.They might have been paranoid, but they had very good reasons and experiences to be concerned.

Just look at any Hollywood movies which featured China or Japan – how we and our culture have been portrayed with ignorance and arrogance. How many times have we been offended? Have you read Dan Brown’s novel and noticed how Japanese characters are portrayed? Have you seen Karate Kid 3 and noticed how 1990 Okinawa was depicted in that movie, and stopped watching because you could not stand it? Have you seen Last Samurai and how those wonderfully talented (and very well established) Japanese actors made so much effort to portray the real Japan, but the director failed miserably? I would rather watch Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. He genuinely respects our culture a lot more than those other Hollywood movie people. His research was through and his parody was impeccable. I could sit back and enjoy his caricatured version of “Japan”. And it was a very rare occasion, indeed.

So that leads me to my next thought, though it pains me to say it:

Japanese are extremely insensitive to bigotry. We are totally ignorant of our own prejudice and bigotry even though it is rampant in our culture. We tend to think we have no racism, but our bigotry towards certain ethnic groups, or gender, or sexual orientation or even people with certain social status is often much more blatant than US and it is rampant on internet. And we are also blissfully unaware of racism towards us, because if you live in the east coast or west coast urban area of US, being Japanese is often a merit, compare to other Asians. We tend to think ourselves as a member of white people’s community rather than identifying ourselves with other Asian ethnic groups. But I think it is a delusion. There are so many non-Asian people who can’t distinguish Japanese from Chinese or Korean or other Asian. Some even think Japan is a province of China. Yup, I’ve met too many grown-up Americans who actually believe that in my life. For them, it doesn’t make difference. We are all Asians and that’s all they need to know. And we are definitely not a member of the white race, no matter how much we like to think otherwise.

I have experienced some racism towards Japanese, if not often. Once it was directed towards the students of our sister city in Japan. Someone casually mentioned in our town’s mailing list, “So the little Geishas from Japan are arriving?” The guy never understood why this was offensive even after I protested publicly. Not only that, I received many offline responses from other men (yes, only men) in the mailing list to defend him and insist that it was wrong of ME to be offended. Arlington is one of the most liberal and open-minded communities in Massachusetts, and that means probably one of the most liberal in open-minded communities in the entire US. Yet, there are still enough people who say those things publicly and are not be ashamed of it. They wouldn’t admit that was racism.

That is the reality.

In Japan, anything from American or European culture is cool.  For an example, many Japanese wear a cross as a accessory just because it looks cool. They are not Christian. They are not interested in the religion or the meaning of the cross. If you are a deeply religious Christian, wouldn’t you feel at least bit offended?

On the other hand, I am a Buddhist and it offends me to see many Americans using Buddha statues as decorations for their home and gardens. It saddens me to see all those Buddha statues at MFA. For me, they are the sacred images and should be treated with utmost respect. But that’s ok, it is my problem, not theirs. So I usually don’t say anything to spoil their pleasure. And we can live happily together in this world.

So you see, we do things to each other and usually it is complimentary. Sometimes, it is offensive to some, but not everybody receive the message the same way. I am OK with that. I wouldn’t have joined the protest against MFA even if I didn’t like this event. I would just have made choice to say no if my American friends invited me to participate the event, but I wouldn’t tell them my real reasons. I would have made some other excuse and wished them a happy, fun experience. I would neither be angry with them for participating, nor think of them any less.

But these issues are very complicated. It is not black and white. So I felt more closer to those non-Japanese Asian Americans who saw more harm in this event than good. It doesn’t mean I am absolutely right, but it could have been a slippery slope. I am glad the issue was raised. This gave me a lot to think about, and I hope you won’t dismiss it as mere paranoid of some Asian Americans or a anti-Japanese conspiracy or jealousy. Look deep into your soul before making a quick judgment. What do you see in there?

Rieko Tanaka is a classically trained pianist and 
currently lives in Arlington, MA. As a founding member of the 
highly acclaimed international cabaret/jazz group, the Follen 
Angels, she released four CDs with them and performed widely 
in New England area and New York, including WGBH and Scullers 
Jazz Club during her . She is a faculty member at University 
of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Winchester Community Music School.
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