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” but it certainly is adoption.

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

The Fate of the Sword

sword

A man I know, a reputable lawyer in Japan, was renovating his ancestral home when a samurai sword was discovered in the space above the ceiling. Shortly after WWII, when the Americans occupied Japan, samurai swords were banned and the Americans were wantonly confiscating and destroying them. Many precious heirlooms were hidden in walls and above ceilings to be forgotten. It took years of lobbying to get the Americans to understand that the swords were not just weapons but items of great cultural value and the many of them were irreplaceable. The Americans grudgingly enacted strict licensing laws for people who really wanted to keep their swords. Those laws still remain on the books and over the years they have become even more strict than before.

So, when my friend the lawyer found a sword, carefully parceled in silk cloth and sealed in wax paper, in his old house, he immediately ordered it destroyed. He did not even bother to have it appraised to see what it was worth. He could not afford the repercussions that might ensue if somebody accused him of holding an unlicensed sword. His ancestors, long gone, took great risks to conceal the sword from the American occupation forces. They might have even risked their lives. His had been a wealthy family for generations. Richer, in fact, in the generations past. The sword was probably valuable. It could have been an heirloom that proved his linkage to an ancient nobleman. But he destroyed the sword anyway. The lawyer had seen too much sword trouble with the authorities.

Hundreds of irreplaceable swords are still being destroyed this way each year. The cultural heritage of Japan is being broken and shattered sword by precious sword. And nobody is doing anything about it. This practice needs to stop and soon. Internet auction sites are full of swords cut into legal sizes. Aficionados like to fashion them into pocket knives and fashion accessories. Sometimes the steel is recycled to create carving knives for serious craftsmen. It is a disgrace.

This is the fate facing what used to be called the Soul of the Samurai. They were heart of the Japanese manor for centuries, enshrined on the tokonoma like a crucifix on the alter. They were the spiritual center of homes. And now they are being cut up and cast away like nails pulled from the sole of a shoe all because the Japanese do not have the right to bear arms. What a pitiful, disgusting fate for the Soul of the Samurai.

弁護士である知人が先代の家を改装していたところ、屋根裏から一振りの日本刀が出てきました。戦後進駐軍は日本刀の所持を禁じ、片端から日本刀を押収し破壊していました。この頃、かけがえのない家宝を守るために多くの日本刀が壁の中や屋根裏に隠され、その後忘れ去られてしまいました。日本刀はただの武器ではなく貴重な文化遺産であると必死の説得が続けられ、その結果、進駐軍も渋々日本刀の保持を免許制にして許可しました。こうして制定された銃刀法はその後も継続され、年々強化されてきました。

絹の布に包まれ、油紙で封印された日本刀を私の友人が古い家の屋根裏からみつけたとき、彼は刀の鑑定もせずに直ちに切断処分するように依頼しました。刀剣を所持することの彼の職業に対するリスクを恐れたのです。とうに亡くなっている彼の祖先は非常な危険を冒してこの日本刀を進駐軍から隠したものだと思われます。代々裕福な家系だったので、値打ちものの刀であることはほぼ間違いないでしょう。歴史的な系譜を証明する手がかりになる品物だったかも知れません。しかし、日本刀を巡るトラブルをさんざん見てきている弁護士は、どんな評判が立ちうるかを考えると刀を処分せざるを得ませんでした。

こうして今でも毎年何百という日本刀が切断処分されています。ほとんど再現できない日本の伝統が刀の処分という形で一本ずつ失われているのです。しかも、このことを問題視している人はほとんどいません。なんとかしてこの破壊に歯止めをかけなければなりません。毎日、寸断された日本刀の残欠がインターネットオークションに出品されています。趣味人がナイフやアクセサリーに加工することに使用しています。一部では玉鋼を再利用して工芸用の彫刻刀に加工されています。あわれな最期です。

これが「武士の魂」と謳われた日本刀がさらされている運命です。キリスト教社会の家庭で祭壇に十字架が飾られたように、日本の家では床の間に日本刀が飾られ、長年日本の家族の精神的な中核になっていました。しかし、今では靴底から抜かれた釘のように軽々と捨てられています。アメリカ国民に保証されている武装の権利が日本人には与えられていないからです。「武士の魂」がこのようなみじめな最期をむかえてしまって、本当にいいのでしょうか。

The Samurai Novelist

I write under the nom de plume Akira Fuyuno.

I am a professional with a full time job, but I have dreamed of becoming a novelist since childhood. I hope to meet other aspiring novelists and discuss writing and its difficulties. I am Japanese (living in rural Japan) and English is my second language, but my language of choice.

I thought writing a novel set in Japan (past or present) might give me a niche. But it is very difficult to write a good samurai novel in English. Please follow me if you are interested in my endeavor. Thank you.

(The ivory dragon on my avatar is a netsuke by the carver Rakuchu. I also carve netsuke as a hobby.)

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