La Japonaise

Over dinner last night, my son told me a funny story. It was the story of the Monet exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. La Japonaise is a painting by Claude Monet of his wife Camille ‘in Japanese costume’ and a blonde wig. The Museum commissioned an authentic replica of the kimono that appears in the painting and invited visitors to wear it and take photos in front of the painting in an event called “Kimono Wednesdays”. No sooner than the event started, a group of Asian Americans started protesting the “Orientalism” and the  event had been cancelled. The punch line of the story was, the same event was held in Japan while the famous painting was on a travelling exhibit last year and nobody in Japan was offended.

I had a hearty laugh at the story as I heard it. Can you understand why it was funny? Do you get the joke? Stories tend to lose their humor when you have to explain it line by line. I have tried it many times, struggling to translate American humor into Japanese. “You see, changing a light bulb is a representative example of a simple task…” You may still not find it funny even when you finally understand why this is a joke.

Why is this story funny? Because the protest is just as divorced from Japanese culture as the painting in question. If posing in front of an “Orientalist” painting in period costume is a mockery of Japanese culture, self-aggrandizing protests pretending to represent Japanese sentiments is equally so.

A quick search reveals that the protesters have some curious arguments such as that “ japonisme is part of the larger narrative of Orientalism within the context of places colonized by Europe and the U.S. as a means to generate iconography that reinforces stereotypes that justifies imperialist domination and enslavement”. I hate to be the one to be bringing this up, but Japan was one of the imperialist colonizers, not the colonized. The protesters are every bit as ignorant as the people they are accusing of ignorance.

Some more thoughtful bloggers have pointed out the problems of the protests. But over analyzing the issue misses the larger point. The protest is just another rendition of the California roll. It is an Americanized derivative of something Japanese created to service American needs and demands. The protesters admit as much. “Having the uchikake made in and tour around Japan does not validate the cultural appropriation specific to American history. Japanese people in Japan do not face the same under- and misrepresentation that Japanese-Americans and other AAPI do here.” Just as the California roll is a reconstruction of Japanese food to suit the preferences of the American consumer, the protest is focused on American problems that have little or nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. It may not exactly fit the term “appropriation”, or maybe it does. The bottom line is, the protesters do not care about Japan, Japanese culture, or what Japanese people think. They are “appropriating” La Japonaise to serve an American agenda.

The good news is, Monet can still offend, raise controversy and get people to think, however superficially, about the blending of cultures.

3 thoughts on “La Japonaise

  1. Strictly speaking the event was not cancelled, but modified from the original plan which even the MFA has admitted they did not think about carefully enough.
    I have not been able to find out how the MFA’s “Kimono Wednesdays” differed from the events at the three Japanese museums but I know the event was not the same because the context of the traveling exhibit, “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan,” was missing. I talked to a Japanese resident who saw the exhibit in Japan and also saw La Japonaise in Boston and he said the context was very different. In Boston, La Japonaise’s permanent home is in a gallery with other Impressionist art with no context about japonisme, but in the exhibit in Japan, it was made very clear.

    You are correct that the protesters have a very American worldview which is a little ironic. I don’t think they are uneducated but the theories they subscribe to view Japan as a victim of American/Western policies even though Japan was also a colonizer. They do not seem to know anything about how Japan views itself in the world and they seemed to be uninterested in learning because it would make their whole argument fall apart.

    You might be interested to know there are different stories about the origin of the California roll. One story says that Mashita-san, a sushi chef in Los Angeles, thought avocado would make a good substitute for toro. Avocado are plentiful and cheap in California and toro was not in season. It may have just been a creative and economical choice that had nothing to do with the American palette, but became popular because of the availability of avocadoes.


    1. I actually read an article by the chef who purportedly invented the California roll (though it seems a little different because it had sliced avocado on the outside of the roll where seaweed would normally be). He said he substituted avocado for seaweed because many Westerners had an aversion to the idea of eating seaweed. No matter. If the California roll was a bad analogy there is still the spider roll and other abominations (in my view) that are adaptations to American taste quite unthinkable in Japan.
      The bottom line is that this was a funny story to me. You can analyze it or explain it in any way you want, but there is no question that these protesters are speaking from an Americanized (not to say bastardized) view of Japan. It is as if the spider roll and the Cali roll are arguing which is the blacker kettle.


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