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.


The Fate of the 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.





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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