Everyday kimonoism

And then there are the kimono wars, which I’ve been ignoring until now.

The BBC tells the story:

Following an uproar of criticism on social media, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) cancelled an event that protesters labelled racist and culturally insensitive.

Museum officials announced that they would cancel “Kimono Wednesdays,” which was originally scheduled to run until 29 July.

Every week, visitors were encouraged to “channel your inner Camille Monet” by posing in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise” while trying on a replica of the kimono Monet’s wife, Camille, wears in the painting.

Protesters quickly labelled this event as racist, saying it propagated racial stereotypes and encouraged cultural appropriation.

The MFA posted this image on its Facebook page, though I don’t see it there now:


I don’t know. I can sort of see finding it dubious, dressing up in the clothes of distant others…but at the same time, can’t it also be seen as interest in and admiration of the clothes and cultures of distant others? And is that a 100% bad thing?

The passion for all things Japanese was a big deal in late 19th century Paris, and I have a hard time believing that passions of that kind should just be stamped out. Yes they’re probably under-informed and full of naughty exoticism and so on, but…

…but get real, kimonos are incredibly beautiful, and it’s not insulting Japan to say so.

What about the manga fad right now? Are the protesters protesting that?


  1. MadHatter says

    So…will everyone who is outraged be returning the kimono-style robes they may have bought to wear around the house? Or the pretty decorative samurai swords? I get that cultural appropriation is a thing, but I’m not always clear *when* it’s a thing I admit. So I ask. I have a friend from India who has invited me to his wedding, and I asked about what I should wear. He told me I could wear anything, but that if I wanted to wear a saree I could. I asked if it wouldn’t be seen as rude or inappropriate for a white westerner to do so, and the answer was an emphatic no. My Japanese friends also said it was appropriate for their western friends wore kimono’s for some events.

    Do they plan to protest Chinese food that isn’t authentic Chinese (or eaten by westerners), or Persian carpet knock-offs? I’m confused…

  2. Jean says

    Appropriation of cultural items from oppressed people is one thing but that’s not what this is. Is everything not from the “white culture” off limit?

  3. Dan says

    I dunno. Sometimes the idea of cultural appropriation goes too far, but I don’t want to be like, go ahead and wear feathered headdresses, white kids.

  4. says

    That’s why I waffled all over the place in the post. I get that there can be such a thing, and I guess I sort of get that this can be seen that way, a little bit…

    …but is it so much that way that it merits a protest, with people holding signs, and lists of demands? I don’t see it.

    Not least, I don’t think we want people shying away from being interested in other cultures. I think that’s the opposite of what we want.

    On the other hand, that fad for gurus that went on for decades? Now that I could do without.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    And where’s our outrage over the ‘appropriation’ of Japanese women wearing blue jeans?

    Antoine Sax was Belgian, even though he worked in Paris. How dare Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc. blatantly appropriate this 19th Century European artistic accomplishment?

  6. says


    I’m pretty sure I don’t have a dog in this fight…

    But I have just discovered ‘kimonism’ is a word. Indexed by Google. Other than here…

    I hereby plan to work it into a sentence later in the week. Just seems a worthy challenge, is all.

  7. rjw1 says

    I’m outraged at the insensitive way that the Japanese culturally appropriated Western dress, industrial culture and parliamentary government.
    We should also give the Romans back their alphabet, and anyone who isn’t ‘Anglo Saxon’ should never speak English.

  8. says

    What about the manga fad right now? Are the protesters protesting that?

    Reading manga and watching anime are akin to reading translations of non-English novelists and subtitled foreign movies. Appreciation and appropriation are not the same thing. Even cosplay of anime isn’t appropriation, it’s as much enthusiasm and appreciation as those who dress up like characters from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.


    Also, it’s not a fad. Anime and manga have been a constant Japanese export since the 1990s, and probably earlier than that.

  9. MadHatter says

    Appropriation of cultural items from oppressed people is one thing but that’s not what this is.

    Ok I said I didn’t understand *when* cultural appropriation is an issue, I lied. This I definitely understand.

  10. says

    So whites should give up jazz, blues, and rock and roll?

    This gets taken to ridiculous lengths in some places with multiple ethnic groups that have lived together for a long time. Try to figure out if a dance from Anatolia is Turkish, Armenian, Greek, or some other nationality and watch the feathers fly.

  11. says

    … huh. There are indeed some cases of claimed Cultural Appropriation that I don’t understand/agree with (my black girlfriend and I have an ongoing discussion about white folks wearing dreads), but in this case, I can totally see the problem.

    Kimonos draw on a very clear *-stereotype-* of Asian femininity. Cultural Appropriation that does clearly perpetuate stereotypes of a marginalized community, I have no trouble calling problematic. This event in particular, I can certainly see how Asian women would reasonably feel “exotic” and stereotyped.

  12. freemage says

    Is reading manga eagerly appropriation in and of itself? No.

    On the other hand, if you’ve never run across the American fan community that thinks that having learned half a dozen phrases of Japanese by reading the complete works of Rumiko Takahashi means you’ve somehow become a total expert on Japanese culture, then consider yourself lucky. They make Eminem seem like a paragon of nuance and racial sensitivity.

    As with most things, context, attitude and method count for a lot. In this case, it’s not so much MFA as Monet who indulged in some appropriation. On the other hand, this was the late 1800s; the notion that appropriation was in any way wrong (or even was a concept) was simply not on the radar.

    I do think the MFA dropped the ball in simply calling it a ‘kimono’–a museum should strive to present the most accurate information possible, and this is the outermost layer of a very traditional and complex garment. And I think they could have (and should have) used this as a teaching moment. This could have been a great opportunity to talk about the aforementioned very real elements of appropriation and orientalism of the late 1800s.

    It’s sad–it just feels like a missed opportunity all the way around.

  13. says

    That all makes sense, and sounds like the kind of thing critics can and do say, and the kind of thing the public can lobby the MFA to improve. The protest and the list of demands just came across as silly. As you say, a missed opportunity. (Though maybe not entirely missed, since the MFA did pay attention and probably is hearing from more nuance-friendly types.)

  14. weatherwax says

    Yeah, I think this may be going to far, though as a white male I need to sit down and listen to the argument.

    But it kind of reminds me of one of the Native American groups at Humboldt State while I was a student there. They claimed that white people trying to be more environmentally aware was stealing Native American culture. Living in harmony with nature was their way, not ours.

  15. rjw1 says

    @16 weatherwax,

    What does ‘living in harmony with nature’ actually mean? It’s essentially a platitude.

    Most hunter-gather groups used their available technology to alter the landscape to suit themselves. ‘Firestick farming’ is one example, by increasing the frequency of fire events, people suppressed forest cover and encouraged grass growth which favoured those animals which provided a good food source. How harmonious is that? In Australia the arrival of humans coincided with the extinctions of most megafauna species.

    No humans have ever lived “in harmony with nature”, the term is meaningless.

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