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Monet’s La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA - Part 1

Claude Monet's La Japonaise (1876) 

Update 7/7/15 4:37pm: I emailed and left voicemail for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA) on Friday, July 3. It seems that about an hour before I posted this on my blog, 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 and will no longer be allowing the public to try on the replica uchikake. They will allow “visitors to touch and engage with” the replica uchikake and will host “talks [to] provide context on French Impressionism, ‘japonisme,’ and the historical background of the painting, as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse.” I’m pleased to hear that they will be providing more education but I think it’s disappointing that they will no longer be allowing people to try the uchikake on. For some of us it would have been a once in a lifetime experience.

* * * * *

Reader Eugenia Beh brought the controversy surrounding the Boston MFA’s Kimono Wednesdays to my attention last week. I spent the past few days reading about it and talking to friends and family. Here are my thoughts.


In 2013, the MFA undertook an extensive public restoration< of French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) (「ラ・ジャポネーズ」“La Japonezu” in Japanese) partially funded by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, and NHK Promotions, their subsidiary that handles cultural projects and events. The painting has been in the MFA’s collection since 1956. Monet’s painting is regarded by some as a “whimsical retort” to the japonisme (the Japanese influence on fashion and art in the West in the second half of the 19th century) that was in vogue in France at the time. Monet’s first wife, Camille, was the model for the painting and sported an uchikake, a type of formal kimono. Monet had his naturally dark-haired wife wear a blonde wig to emphasize that she was European. My friend just started reading Jill Liddell’s The Story of the Kimono and she said that Liddell wrote that Camille’s uchikake was brought to Paris for a theatrical performance during the Exposition universelle de 1867 (International Exposition of 1867). It would most likely have been a kabuki performance. These daysuchikake are worn only by brides and performers, but back in the day they were a status symbol worn by “wives and daughters of high-ranked samurai.” New money merchants would have their daughters wear uchikake when they got married, a symbol of their newfound wealth (per my friend who is a kimono enthusiast).

NHK told the MFA that they knew the story depicted on Camille’s uchikake (Momijigari) and knew what was on the side that can’t be seen in the painting (Kijo, the demon that the warrior Taira no Koremochi kills). They asked permission to have two replicas (one adult size and one child size — close-up here) of the uchikake commissioned for a traveling exhibit titled Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan (the MFA also published a book by the same title). The exhibit was curated by Helen Burnham, Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings, who holds a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. The replica uchikake were produced by Takarazuka Stage Co., a stage management company. The replicas took about three months to make and were made in Kyoto, home to kimono weavers and where kimono culture still survives in day-to-day life to a greater degree than in other parts of Japan.

The exhibit premiered at the The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee where it was on display from January 31, 2014 to May 11, 2014. The exhibit then traveled with the replica uchikake to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art (which opened in 1928 and is one of the oldest art museums in Japan) from September 30 2014 to November 30, 2014, the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo from August 22, 2014 to September 15, 2014, and the MFA’s sister museum, Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (N/BMFA), from January 2, 2015 to May 10, 2015. Following the Japanese tour, La Japonaise returned to the MFA and NHK donated both replica uchikake to the MFA to be used at similar events to those held in Japan. Looking East is currently at the The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City, Canada through September 27, 2015.

For the Japanese tour, they used a Japanese model for publicity photos, not a blonde model or a Japanese model in a blonde wig. The replica uchikake were on display some of the time and events described as ワークショップ (“workshop”) were hosted so people could try them on and take pictures. It’s not clear to me if these events were structured the same way at each museum and how they differed from Kimono Wednesdays. This Setagaya City announcement indicates that the workshops may have been more extensive dress-up sessions (including make up) than the MFA is having. I have been told that Setagaya Art Museum is the only one that provided blonde wigs as seen in this photo via Setagaya City’s website. Pictures around the Internet show many happy Japanese museumgoers donning the La Japonaise replica uchikake and posing for pictures most without a wig or make up. In addition to the try on workshops the N/BMFA also held a special event for the visually impaired where they were able to touch a 3D version of La Japonaise and touch the replica uchikake and fans and have the painting described to them.

Since spring, the MFA has been celebrating Japanese culture with a number of exhibits and related events. Beginning on June 24, 2015 they invited the public to try on the replicauchikake every Wednesday night through July 29th. Admission on Wednesday nights is “by voluntary contribution.”

Why I don’t think Kimono Wednesdays is racist

I feel like the word “racist” gets thrown around far too easily. As the daughter of an English teacher I’m always looking up words (something my mom forced me to do as a kid that I now do voluntarily!). I think definitions are important even though popular understanding of words often differs from their dictionary definitions.

Racist (from the OED):

adjective Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another


noun Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience


noun The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex

It is clear that the MFA’s actions don’t stem from a belief that American culture is superior to Japanese culture. The MFA has one of the largest collections of Japanese artoutside of Japan so I think it’s safe to assume that they have a genuine interest in promoting Japanese artistry and culture. There no prejudice – nothing about this event is about opinions “not based on reason” and there’s no discrimination – they held similar events in Japan so we’re not being treated differently here.

Why I don’t think it’s yellowface

One of my friends asked me if I thought there was a universal understanding among Asian Americans of what constitutes yellowface and I said I don’t believe that there is, that it’s a bit subjective and in the eye of the beholder. To me, yellowface involves the caricature of Asian faces, bodies, voices, movements, personalities, and aesthetics by non-Asian (typically, but not always, white) people.

Yellowface is not in the OED, but the definition of blackface is:

noun 1 The makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role. The role played is typically comedic or musical and usually is considered offensive
1.1 Used to imply patronization of blacks by whites or by institutions perceived to be insincerely or ineffectively nonracist.

Korean American blogger, Phil Yu, who blogs over at Angry Asian Man implied that what the MFA is doing is comparable to Katy Perry’s infamous November 24, 2013 American Music Awards performance of her “power ballad” “Unconditionally”.

Perry’s costume was a mashup of a Japanese kimono and a Chinese cheongsam, Westernized/sexualized with thigh-high slits and cleavage hanging out. The make up was garish and exaggerated and they wore black wigs that were styled in what looks like a common geisha hairstyle called the shimada. The mishmash may only have been obvious to Japanese and Chinese people and students of fashion but it was clearly a caricature of some exoticized vision of how Katy Perry’s stylist sees Asian women. Incredibly, her stylist said that it was “almost a tribute” and that “Katy and I both love Japan.” Apparently “[a]ll of the dancers wore original geishas [dresses].” Mikko Nakatomi, the owner of a kimono store called Kimono no Kobeya, “oversaw everything we were doing and made sure that it maintained all of its authenticity.” What?

I don’t understand why anyone would think it’s okay for non-Japanese women to dress up like geishas, complete with wigs and exaggerated make up, to represent Japanese culture. Yes, it was a performance but we’ve had extensive conversations in the US about how not okay blackface and yellowface (and redface, etc.) are yet a lot of people still don’t get it. Part of the problem lies in the portrayal of geishas as emblematic of Japanese society and culture and the misperception in Western society that they are prostitutes and therefore sexy. (See MIT Media Lab director, Joi Ito’s Are Geisha Prostitutes? for some interesting insight.) It’s one thing to make Japanese-inspired costumes as we’ve seen in Star Wars, Star Trek, and other films and TV shows; it’s another thing to take a bunch of Asian fashions and go all Project Runway on them and claim that you’ve made something authentically Japanese. In this case Katy Perry and her team definitely did not “make it work.”

Then there was the performance and the set design. Perry and her dancers (who appeared to be white, black, and Asian) pranced around stage in tabi (Japanese split-toe socks) striking poses that I guess were her choreographer’s idea of how Asian people move and pose. They waved and twirled parasols around that are probably meant to be wasaga and danced with giant fans while bowing to each other. It seemed like they might have taken elements from obon festivals since there were paper lanterns and fan dancing but it was hard for me to tell since everything was so exaggerated. Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa also made an appearance as a tacky fan-like apparatus that some dancers were wearing. Meanwhile she had four muscular guys (they look white, black, and Asian) in the background pretending to play taiko. The performance ended in a flurry of large die-cut sakura blossoms falling from the rafters. I don’t know how much more stereotypical you can get than that.

The performance was jam-packed with so many Japanese symbols and motifs that I would have to go frame by frame to catch them all. Even her mic had sakura blossom branches on it. What’s worse, there was absolutely no reason for it. The song itself is not about Japan or Japanese-inspired and the original music video draws inspiration from the the European Middle Ages. She added strains of shamisen so we’d know this was supposed to be Japan. This kind of caricature and mashing together of cultures is pretty much the definition of yellowface . For this stunning display of cultural appropriation Perry got a standing ovation.

Although the performance was widely criticized, even among Asian Americans there wasn’t agreement that her performance was offensive. I could probably talk about this all day but I’m going to stop and get back to the MFA. Reams of stuff has been written about Perry’s performance and you can find links to a lot of commentary at the bottom of Gil Asakawa’s “Katy Perry’s faux-Japanese American Music Awards performance was terrible,” including this statement from the Japanese American Citizens League which provides a concise explanation of the historical issues related to stereotypical portrayals of Asian Americans and how Perry’s performance feeds into that history.

If you accept that La Japonaise was Monet’s commentary on japonisme it would seem that what the MFA is actually inviting the public to do is to pretend to be a white woman who is obsessed with Japanese culture which I find ironic. They are not inviting the public to pretend to be Japanese. I understand that subtlety may be lost on most museumgoers but this is why I don’t think it can be characterized as yellowface. Non-Japanese people trying on a traditional Japanese garment for five minutes is not my idea of yellowface. I haven’t seen any photos of Americans in wigs with white face make up. Though really I don’t imagine the MFA throught it through this much. I think they’re just trying to allow the public to experience La Japonaise in an interactive way which is a hard task with a painting. 

Part 2 >>


* 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.


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


Editor's note: Upon the author's request, the entire article was updated on July 17, 2015. 


© 2015 Keiko K.

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