Kei Hiruta’s Posts

Stop Orientalism?: On Boston MFA’s ‘Kimono Wednesdays’

By Kei Hiruta256px-Monet_Japonaise

‘STOP ORIENTALISM’. So says the banner of the protest group, ‘Stand Against Yellow Face’ (SAYF), campaigning against a weekly event at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. The event, called ‘Kimono Wednesdays’, originally encouraged museum visitors to ‘interact’ with Claude Monet’s ‘La Japonaise’ by trying on a replica of the kimono that the artist’s French wife wears in the painting. Immediately after the opening on 24 June, however, the event attracted the charges of Orientalism, racism, cultural appropriation and so on, resulting in MFA’s announcement that visitors would no longer be able to put on the replicated kimono, though the display would continue until the end of July (See, e.g. here, here and here). Unsatisfied, SAYF demands a formal apology and the complete closure of the event itself. The group has also been channelling the protest into a larger advocacy, mobilising familiar online tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

The outcry provoked a considerable backlash, yielding impassioned mutual accusations between protestors and counter-protestors. To break the stalemate, this post aims to challenge the presumption that both sides – those asserting ‘This is Orientalist!’, and those insisting ‘This is NOT Orientalist!’ – appear to share. I would like to show that the fact that ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ may reasonably be considered Orientalist is not by itself sufficient to establish the wrongness of the event.

Let me begin with an uncontroversial observation. In Japan today, we wear kimono only on special occasions such as weddings and seijin-shiki (celebrating the 20th year of birth). We wear lighter traditional clothes, for example, yukata, more frequently; but we do so, again, on special occasions such as a weekend trip to onsen (hot spring) and an evening out for a summer festival. In our daily lives we wear something less exciting, depending on our preferences and income levels: Prada, Paul Smith, Uniqlo and Primark. An average businessperson in Japan may have the opportunity to wear kimono every decade or two, but he or she wears a suit from Monday to Friday. If culture is a sum of the lived experiences of its participants, wearing kimono is not exactly a part of our culture any longer – not, at any rate, as Uniqlo and Primark are.

Yukio Mishima, best known for his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, if not for his act of seppuku suicide in 1970, was one of the most perceptive writers to comment on this issue. In his column ‘On Clothing’, published in 1969, he observed that wearing kimono was no longer a part of the Japanese way of living. He saw something superficial and inauthentic to the kimono revival occurring in the country in the 1960s. He wrote: ‘recently […] kimono seems to be adopted in terms of a new fashion, in terms of a renewed interest in something exotic. It is not a part of the rooted, ancient custom that it once was. […] Women no longer remember as part of their general education how to wear kimono by themselves […]. Men, too, have lost their natural, customary familiarity with kimono; they now wear it pretentiously, as it were, as a gesture to resist or surpass the convention of the age’.[i]

Mishima’s insight deserves the attention of those commenting on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’. On his account, which I share, even in the Japan of the late 1960s, kimono could not be worn without a doze of what we today call Orientalist fantasy. If those taking selfies in front of Monet’s ‘La Japonaise’ in Boston in 2015 are orientalists, so were the Japanese men and women who joined the kimono revival in Tokyo in 1969. The difference is one of degree, not kind. And the degree is not great, either, because both groups of people are moderns, who can no longer claim an unbroken cultural linage from the past. One could of course argue that modernity itself was imposed on Japan by Western imperialists beginning with Commodore Perry with his proto-neo-liberal gunships. This ostensibly anti-imperialist view, however, disguises a historically inaccurate and morally condescending paternalism, implying that the nation modernised itself without an exercise of collective agency. The truth is that the nation has, sometimes reluctantly and yet at other times enthusiastically, embraced modernity. If we no longer remember how to wear kimono, it is in no small measure due to the decisions that the Japanese themselves have made at least since 1868.

The decline of the habit of kimono dressing, as Mishima also noted, was not and could not be a standalone loss. It entailed a loss of other, organically connected cultural ingredients, including the traditional class division and sexual hierarchy. In this respect, the disappearance of kimono dressers from the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, etc. is comparable to the disappearance of non-human creatures from modernised areas of the country. As significant decrease in the population of butterflies indicates a loss of their entire habitat, the disappearance of kimono dressers indicates a loss of the old Japan and its way of life that inspired nineteenth-century Japonisme.

As is well known, Mishima himself considered the modern Japanese society in which he found himself absurd, ugly and even grotesque, and half-seriously fancied a return to a pre-Meiji world of yesterday. Yet he had the candidacy to acknowledge the moral gain accompanying the aesthetic loss, though the artist, always willing to subordinate non-aesthetic values to aesthetic ones, denied that the former outweighed the latter. He thus said, in his characteristically dark, mocking and aphoristic tone: ‘I think the time when women were always crying was wonderful!’ Those of us who do not share his aestheticism are entitled to weigh moral and aesthetic values differently. We ought to be glad that we no longer live in a time when women in exquisitely beautiful kimono ‘were quietly weeping, always, somewhere in the house’.[ii] Perhaps, we should be glad that kimono can no longer be worn anywhere without a dose of Orientalist fantasy.

It is a curious fact about our contemporary culture that, in places like Boston at least, the wrongness of Orientalism is considered so self-evident that those commenting on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ have largely focused on whether the event is Orientalist, sidestepping harder questions as to specifically what is wrong if the event is Orientalist and (assuming, for the moment, that it is indeed Orientalist) whether the wrongness of Orientalism should override other considerations. But the latter set of questions demand greater attention not least because, as I have argued, the pervasiveness of Orientalism today might not be separable from the moral progress we have made in the past couple of centuries. Addressing the relevant moral and historical issues fully is a challenging task; for starters, we should recognise the triviality of the oft-made assertions about the MFA event: ‘This is Orientalist!’ ‘No, it is NOT Orientalist!’

 

 

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Photo Attribution: ‘La Japonaise’, by Claude Monet, 1876, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

[i] Yukio Mishima, ‘Fukusō ni tsuite’ [1969], in Mishima yukio zenshū [‘On Clothing’, in Collected Works of Yukio Mishima] (Tokyo: Shinchō-sha, 1976), vol. 33, pp. 338–39. My translation.

[ii] Yukio Mishima, ‘Poppukōn no shinrei-jutsu: Yokoo Tadanori-ron’ [posthumous publication], in Mishima yukio zenshū [Popcorn Spiritualism: On Tadanori Yokoo, in Collected Works of Yukio Mishima], vol. 35, p. 228. My translation.

Historical Reconciliation in East Asia: How Optimistic Should We Be?

By Kei Hiruta

In the latest episode of the Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel invites young men and women from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss national guilt and historical reconciliation. The conversation begins with factual questions concerning, for example, the nature of Japan’s past imperial expansion and the sincerity of the Japanese government’s post-war apologies. It then moves on to issues of philosophical nature, such as whether the present generation is responsible for a wrong committed by a past generation. Listening to the programme, one gets the impression that the conversation was overall a fruitful one; it did not result in an important agreement, but some elementary misunderstanding and prejudices were removed, and the participants treated each other respectfully throughout. The host himself concluded by expressing the ‘hope that one day, soon, you will be able to draw upon the spirit of honesty and reflectiveness [….] to build a deeper mutual understanding among these three countries and by doing so help make this world a better place’.

This is a nice way to bring the forty-minute conversation to a close, but I doubt Sandel is as optimistic as he portrayed himself. The reason for saying this is that he (like myself) must have taken part in similar discussions in the past to see how repetitive they tend to be. One can be fairly optimistic if one sees one single time people with conflicting convictions talking to each other to move towards reconciliation. But one cannot be so optimistic if one repeatedly sees similar conversations to realise that the small progress made on each occasion hardly amounts to a cumulative difference on a larger scale. Considering the target audience of the programme, the host is wise to present the episode as a one-time event and conclude it with a corresponding, optimistic note. Having observed and occasionally participated in similar discussions over the past dozen years, however, I cannot share the Harvard professor’s hope for an imminent mutual understanding among the Chinese, the Japanese and the South Koreas. Nor do I believe that Sandel, a frequent visitor to the region as well as a learned scholar, literally meant what he said to conclude the episode.

The repetitiveness, however, does not need to disappoint. On the contrary, it is remarkable that the 2014 conversation scarcely differs from those in the recent past in terms of both mood and substance, while the tension in East Asia has significantly increased. Here, it may be worth recalling the Newsnight episode earlier this year, in which China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to the UK could not even sit in the same room and ended up in blaming each other from behind a wall. Contrast this to the ordinary young men and women that appeared on the Public Philosopher; unlike the ambassadors, they engaged with each other respectfully and face to face, as their predecessors had when the regional tension had been lower. This gives hope, for failing to reach a genuine mutual understanding is not nearly as bad as ceasing to try. I say this with some sadness, knowing Indian summers before the region entered the current diplomatic frost. To end this, we need more than small-scale conversations such as the one that Sandel hosted. But these are worth repeating, not least because they help avoid black smoke filling the sky while we await a thaw.

‘Hello Kitty’, Society, Utopia

Several people have asked me why I wrote a post to defend Avril Lavigne’s music video ‘Hello Kitty’. I’m a little bemused by the question, as I thought my main motive was self-explanatory: it is a part of philosophers’ job to consider when it’s appropriate to use normative terms to blame someone or something. It’s one thing to say that a singer is tasteless; it’s quite another to say she’s racist and indulges in cultural appropriation. One is an aesthetic claim; the other is a moral one.

I won’t repeat what I said in my previous post but would like to share a relevant thought today: one doesn’t need to be in a library or in a seminar room to reflect on moral questions. For example, if you’re in a bar and vaguely watching something random on screen such as ‘Hello Kitty’, you could start asking yourself questions. Why is this controversial? Who are offended, and why do they feel offended? What are the terms the critics have used to blame the video? Are they right to use those terms? Did the singer respond? If she did, was that an adequate response? And if you find yourself agreeing with the critics, what changes would you like to see? In other words, what kind of popular culture would you like to see to emerge?

Of course, it’s not healthy to be contemplating moral questions 24/7. You should indeed stop contemplating if you decide to get on the dance floor, for example. But it’s worth remembering that we can begin a moral enquiry in a wide range of contexts. In fact, an ethically better world might be the one in which people talk and think about moral questions in bars, restaurants and coffee shops, rather than in libraries and seminar rooms.

 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A version of this post originally appeared on globalethicsnetwork.org.

In Defence of Avril Lavigne: Racism, Cultural Appropriation and the Meaning of ‘Hello Kitty’

By Kei Hiruta

The latest music video by the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has been accused of racism and cultural appropriation.[i] Bearing the name of the world-famous Sanrio character, ‘Hello Kitty’ shows the pop star singing and dancing in what appears to be a girl’s room in Tokyo. She also explores the city, shopping at a candy store, eating sushi, drinking shochu, and waving at her fans as she strolls in the fashionable Shibuya area. Throughout, she is accompanied by four young Japanese women, acting as backup dancers inside the room and following her outside. Continue reading

Two Cheers for Laughtivism

By Kei Hiruta 

Political activists are laughing everywhere. They mock the powerful and ridicule the corrupt, whether the target is a Middle Eastern dictator, a North American CEO, or a recently deceased British Prime Minister. On the streets we see the comical and the absurd in service of a demand for greater transparency and accountability. Online we see an endless flow of memes and Youtube videos to mount a further attack on the crumbling legitimacy of strongmen. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to dispose of arsenal to negotiate with power. Physical force still has a legitimate role to play, and it is unfortunately abused and misused in many parts of the world. But a large number of contemporary activists are giving up violent means. They certainly do not embrace their parents’ and grandparents’ weapons and tactics: Molotov cocktails, the barricades and Mao’s Little Red Book. They instead use toys, French baguettes, fake moustaches and other such items, assisted by Smartphones and MacBooks, twittering and facebooking news from the ground force.

How should we understand all this? A recent Foreign Policy article (and a TED Talk by one of the co-authors, Srdja Popovic) suggests an interesting answer. What we are witnessing, the article argues, is the rise of ‘laughtivism’: ‘a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun’. Of course, ‘[s]atire and jokes have been used for centuries to speak truth to power’, but their contemporary incarnations are different in that they ‘now serve as a central part of the activist arsenal’. Laughtivism, the article continues, is particularly effective in tyrannical societies where the stability of the regime depends on the culture of fear. Laughter creates cracks in the seamless whole of tyranny, and it is here that seeds for change are sown to bear fruits. Here, then, is the revised Foucauldian maxim for twenty first-century activism: where power is wedded to fear, laughter is the prime form of resistance.

There is much to be said for this analysis, and I by no means wish to underrate the creative energy and transformative force of political laughter. Yet the Foreign Policy article, like many others (e.g. here and here), seems to overstate the case for laughtivism. First, it is not true that laughter is always or even normally on the side of the people. There is democratic laughter and there is dictatorial laughter. Satire and jokes can be used ‘to speak truth to power’, but they can also be used to conceal truth and reinforce cynicism. George Orwell encapsulates this in the unforgettable revised commandment in Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ Dictators know how to smirk, though one may wish they only knew how to growl.

Second, there is the laughter of cruelty as well as humane laughter. Even the worst kind of authoritarianism does not consist solely of cold-blooded ideologues, capable of stabbing an enemy without showing any sign of emotion. It also hires state-sponsored sadists and criminal elements, who enjoy using their license to kill, rape and otherwise inflict pain on the powerless. But let us not demonise authoritarians to feel proud of ourselves. Remember Abu Ghraib; the laughter of cruelty is also heard in liberal democratic torture chambers. Freely elected governments too have issued permits for sadist entertainment. Laughter can serve inhumanity and no particular form of government has a monopoly of that wretched commodity.

These points should not be overlooked, but something else – something more urgent, perhaps – goes missing if we are too impressed by the power of laughtivism. It is that laughter alone cannot achieve what political activism, as distinct from mere vandalism, must ultimately aim at: a new, improved political order. Mockery, jokes and satire are powerful tools to destabilise the existing order, but they are ill-suited to the different tasks of ending chaos, filling a power vacuum and installing a new order. Laughter as a political weapon is like bullets and explosives in this respect; it must be put in storage when the task of re-building a broken community gets started. Once strongmen depart or make sufficient concessions, laughtivists must stop laughing and start deliberating and negotiating with their former enemies; they must turn their righteous anger into an enduring sense of justice; and they must realise that the destructive force of laughter could turn against itself to block the way forward.

Fortunately, fear and laughter do not exhaust our emotional options. Fear can end laughter, but so can a smile. Politics will liberate itself from both fear and laughter when laughtivists start smiling to get onto the mundane business of governance. Only then will the excitement of revolt give way to the happiness to live in a better society.

 

Photo credit: inju [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

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