Monday, June 13, 2016

A Walk Through the Shoddy Lands: My Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers

I've been talking about a lot of, what I perceive to be, social ills on here as of late. Quite frankly it's tiring being pissed off all the time and it's been a while since I reviewed or talked about a piece of media or art that wasn't some offensive news story or video. Anyway, now I'm going to write about a Japanese film I watched.     



The other day I finally got around to watching Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers a.k.a. "Erogotoshitachi" yori Jinruigaku nyĆ«mon  an influential piece of cinema from Japan's golden age of experimental film, a.k.a. the 1960's, You can tell it's influential because Criterion bothered to add it to their illustrious collection. Originally I was supposed to have seen it in my Japanese Cinema class back in University, however, I was sick that day and missed out.

On the surface, the story is about a nice, penniless youngish guy, Subuyan Ogata, who ends up falling in love with a matronly widow and hairdresser, Haru Matsuda, who he's renting a room from. He eventually becomes a sort of father figure in the household as he supports the family financially and morally. Seems like a nice happy time, only that Ogata is a pornographer in the Showa period of Japanese history (1926-1989) a time when pornography was pretty illegal, and by pretty, I mean totally (literature too!). He also works as a go-between for prostitutes and their customers -- shady business to be sure. Things start off decent enough, as Ogata seems like a stand-up dude who just ended up on the wrong side of the poverty line and is simply exploiting a market that would have existed anyway, trying to make ends meet. However, as the story continues you begin to see that he's just another hypocrite as he chastises other characters for consuming the products he produces and ends up in a relationship with his lover's teenage daughter, herself a person with very few redeeming qualities who repeatedly gets into trouble via poor life choices.

The Pornographers pornographing.
In fact as the movie carries on, you begin realize that all the characters are pretty loathsome people in one way or another. Matsuda, the widow, while being a decent business woman, I guess, is a superstitious git who keeps a carp in her room (in a tank of course) which she believes is the reincarnation of her deceased husband, because it showed up on the day her husband died (she lives in front of a canal by the way). She apparently promised her husband on his deathbed to never get involved with another man for the rest of her life, which obviously didn't pan out, and every time the carp jumps in the tank she interprets it as the discontent of her late husband's spirit. At one point she aborts her and Ogata's would-be baby, without consulting him, because of it's jumping. This doesn't stop her from having sex with Ogata right in front of it, multiple times, however. She eventually catches one of those Asian movie contrivance sicknesses (you know, those ones that are never diagnosed but have a wide range of symptoms) and goes insane and tells Ogata that she should raise her daughter and marry her when she's old enough after she herself dies. Later you find out that she may have had some deep-seated resentment towards her own daughter, because, she's young or something. She eventually bites it and I found it hard to feel sorry for her cause she was quite a frustrating character.

Ogata attends a reform school meeting with his Matsuda's daughter, Keiko. 
Matsuda's son is a pretty shitty dude as well. For much of the film he comes across as a snarky, layabout, loser sponging money off  Ogata and Matsuda to pay for, whatever it is he does when he's off-screen. He eventually fails to get into a bunch of colleges, moves out and get's married, it is implied, to a prostitute. It's also heavily implied as well, that he has an Oedipus complex and is just a little too physical with mummy dearest if you ask me. He sucks, though is more of supporting character.

Ogata's production assistant in the porn industry is also not exactly an endearing force either as he comes across as an odd, sort of perverse type, with a personal mantra that appears to be "who needs a woman when I have my right hand". A real card ladies and gents.

These shitty characters live out the plot in what looks to be a slummy portion of Osaka, or somewhere in Kansai (meaning they all speak that wonderfully guttural and hearty Kansai dialect) populated with low-lives, yakuza and those who exploit them (like richer businessmen looking for low-rent prostitutes). As I was watching it, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Boy, this whole story is a big pile of shitty shit, which just keeps getting shittier" (I pride myself in my eloquence). Of course, and I found this out later, that's exactly how director Imamura wants you to feel. Oh, and this film is actually a dark comedy.

Ogata working on his doll.
The plots of many of Imamura's films, especially from this time, appear to largely be about poor unfortunate souls, in many cases not all that likable and perhaps the sowers of their own discord, trying to improve their lot in life through various means. They often fail in the process or achieve a measure of success and then realize the high life isn't all it's cracked up to be. In any case it doesn't usually end well, but it's often almost laughable just how properly the characters screw themselves over in their many endeavors. Which I guess is where the comedy comes in, everything is just so shitty, in fact it's too shitty, it's perfectly shitty, it's so shitty it's hilarious. It's like when you have a bad day, and just about every little thing goes wrong and when you finally lay your head down to sleep in the evening you take a moment to reflect and can't help but chuckle at how deliciously terrible your day was.

The Pornagraphers is a perfect example of this dynamic. The ending is absurd and has Ogata becoming unhinged and working tirelessly on a realistic sex doll in a houseboat, only to turn down a lucrative offer to mass produce the doll he is working on (remember he was trying to get rich all this time). The boat on which he's building the doll eventually gets untied from the dock and floats out to sea with him totally oblivious as he fawns over his new creation. It's just all so shoddy.

In many ways the transitional nature of the Show period was evident even in the landscape. Tall skyscrapers, dwarfed thatched roof houses and while the urban elite lived with all the amenities, the countryside looked to be somewhat more archaic by comparison.  
But this film isn't merely a bunch of shoddy people doing shoddy things, for if it was I doubt it would receive the level of acclaim it has. While the story definitely appeals to the morbid curiosity of watching human tragedy play out in front of one's eyes, it is also formally as interesting as it is narratively. The shots are often dark and are filmed in cramped locations, the camera often peers around corners, hangs from the ceiling, lies at floor level, or is obscured somewhat by objects in the foreground, giving a sense of voyeurism to the watcher, a concept closely related to the medium of pornography itself. After all, in most pornographic material is not the watcher but a "passive" viewer rather than a participant? One can't help but be given the current constraints of the medium (I'm aware that's beginning to change however). In any case there's some truly stylish shots with my favorite being a top down shot through the carp tank, which in this case is placed on the ceiling (obviously not meant to be literal) of Ogata and Matsuda getting it on while the carp occasionally flicks into the foreground and obscures the picture with ripples in the water (the carp is actually used as the point of view for many shots, adding to the voyeuristic form of the cinematography).

While the style accents the grungy darkness of the subject matter beautifully, the formal choices that Imamura uses could also be interpreted in a historical, social sense as well (though, I mean anything could be interpreted as anything so . . . yeah). I've talked about the Showa period before on this blog, but for Japan this period represented a great shift in both it's internal (local) and external (international) identity. A country, formerly the most powerful, politically and militarily in Eastern Asia, largely rebuilt by western powers in the post/trans-war period after it was nuked twice by those same powers, Japan was having an identity crisis of sorts. The Showa period, which saw Japan on it's way to it's "post-war miracle" was rife with meditations on identity, concerned with where Japan had come from and where it was going. One may look at The Pornographers through a similar lens and interpret the formal elements of the film as an inward look at a problematic, perhaps archaic section of Japan's being that it wished to cast off -- it's local, superstitious and backward poor. Those who at war time might have exalted the Emporer while being, and perhaps choosing to remain blissfully ignorant of the atrocities committed by Japan's armies on it's own people and it's "enemies". The viewer, the vouyer, watching, judging and condemning but at the same time reveling in the hypocrisy and dysfunction of the characters, thus forming their own kind of hypocrisy -- "judge not lest ye be judged" and all that.

Perhaps this interpretation is a might too on-the-nose but I feel like the Japanese name of this film which translates to "An introduction to anthropology through the pornographers" is begging for this film to be dissected. In any case, should you choose to watch The Pornographers it will leave you with quite a bit to chew on. It's a sumptuous feast for the senses and that's just how a like my media. Tasty!
             

Friday, June 3, 2016

Rant: Moral Relativism and That Racist Chinese Laundry Ad

I have to get this off my chest.

Here we are again. The North American internet has blown up over some racist content that some people in China made, specifically a detergent ad in which a young Chinese women shoves her handsome and seemingly Black boyfriend into a washing machine and he comes out a light-skinned handsome Chinese guy. It's racist, pure and simple, and has all the shitty connotations. Blackness is bad, whiteness is good, blackness is dirty, whiteness is clean, blackness is undesirable, whiteness is what everyone needs etc. etc.

While this may not offend most Chinese nationals, I do agree that this ad is objectively racist and problematic. That being, said I can understand how it came to fruition, which is more than I can say for the majority of the English speaking internet at the moment. You can watch it here, if you want to feel uncomfortable.
So naturally hordes of North Americans netizens are taking to all sorts of channels to blast this ad, and say how backwards and terrible and racist and intolerant China is and making comments against China, its culture and its people that are pretty much just as racist as the ad itself. Many are questioning, "How could such a thing be made!? It's 2016! Who approved this?! What a bunch of insensitive assholes!" (that last one wasn't a question). And herein lies my problem with people who react, knee-jerkily to offensive things from other countries -- they ask questions but they don't seem to give a crap about finding the answers. 

It is a good question though, how did this come to be? Who in their right mind would make such an offensive ad? Well I covered this sort of thing before in my article on racism in South Korea which you can read here if you so desire, but basically I'm a believer, within reason, in moral relativism -- not so much as an ideal but more as a fact of life -- it's a thing that exists in reality for better or for worse. If you don't know, moral relativism basically equates to "what seems fine in some places is totally not cool in others". Now I do believe that some things can be considered objectively wrong, such as things that cause irreparable pain and trauma, like rape or murder -- wherein it is clear that great human suffering is taking place, but I think it goes without saying that in this vast world, different places have different conditions and circumstances that produce different social climates and situations. 

Segregated drinking fountains were a thing in America. In China, they were not a thing.
While this might be an unpopular opinion, I think racism works in a similar way. This is why I think that judging racism from a place like China in the same way you would judge racism from the United States or Canada, doesn't make sense. I believe most of our strong reactions to racism in North America are the result of our national histories, and present apparently, being full of unabashed institutional racism which makes a lot of people miserable and dead on a weekly basis. We carry with us a sort of national guilt, or anger or what-have-you that makes many of us, especially those who identify as "non-racist" very sensitive towards any sort of thing that could be construed as overt racism, like a laundry ad in China for example. To put it in the simplest terms, I believe that black-face or yellow-face in movies would likely be a non-issue if North America's history (and present) wasn't rife with discrimination against people of colour (especially in the film industry). I mean it would be kind of odd, but I doubt it would be considered nearly as offensive.     

But here's the thing, China doesn't have the same racial baggage that we do. The Chinese never sailed to Africa to enslave large segments of the local populations to work their fields, breaking up families and commodifying humans. They didn't (however "unofficially") summarily exclude them from higher education and, subsequently, higher wage jobs, indirectly (and sometimes directly) forcing them to live in poverty stricken ghettos, while chastising them for being lazy and somehow inherently less intelligent. Their cops don't racially profile them on a regular basis even now (not sure about that last one actually). I can't even find a statistic for the amount of Black people currently living in China which leads me to believe that there probably aren't that many relative to the massive Han Chinese and other populations that lives there.

This is from an interesting video which tries to put some things in perspective. You can watch here. The host in the video is English by the way.
I mean, the ad is still racist, and just cause it's from China doesn't make it right. But I would say that it makes it kind of a different beast entirely. I should bloody well hope that seeing a Black person, literally being "whitewashed" in a washing machine would strike a very strong cord for the average North American. I'm convinced that if this ad was released in North America it would be a media massacre -- no one would buy that detergent ever again, and that would be only the most peaceful outcome. However, it's pretty ignorant to expect the vast majority of Chinese to have the same reaction. Why did this ad get made? Because most Chinese wouldn't have a problem with it and it's a Chinese ad directed at Chinese people. If you get mad at China and the Chinese for thinking this sort of thing is okay, for being "backwards" or somehow intrinsically wrong, you are essentially getting mad at China for not being more like America or Canada and, like it or not, that makes you a cultural chauvinist. "We are right, they are wrong." I know it's hard, but just imagine if slavery, apartheid and racial segregation never happened, and you saw this ad, your reaction would, logically, be different, you might even think it was funny, perhaps a harmless bit of tongue-in-cheek. 

Now look, I know that as a white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, facially symmetrical, English speaking, middle-class, employed, male, I'm practically swimming in privilege and have little business telling less or differently privileged people, what they should be mad at. The internet is also a big place that gives us the illusion that we are all connected, that we should all know and be sensitive to each other's issues. But you can't expect a Chinese twenty-something who spent their entire lives in Chengdu, who speaks a smattering of English and works a dreary nine to five, to give the same amount of hoots you do about something as mundane as a detergent commercial made at the expense of an ethnic group they've likely only ever seen on television and in Hollywood movies - which, by the way don't paint an especially positive picture, by-and-large.

Hypothetically, imagine if you were some person living in a small city in China and Lil' Wayne was the only Black American person you knew of. Like you knew there were others, but Lil Wayne was the only one you'd ever seen, in a magazine you read in a hair shop one time (or something). Yeah, just think about that.   
And therein lies another thing that pisses me off about this whole dynamic. We North Americans seemingly love to get pissed off at people in other countries for portraying insensitive and stereotypical images of our Black countrymen but where do you suppose they got those negative stereotypes to begin with? You know what has been famous in Asia for a really long time? American movies and pop music. Now, I like me some Hollywood and I'm not suggesting that all racism in Asia against American people of colour can be traced to American pop culture, but I'd wager that quite a large portion of it can, especially when it comes to portrayals of Black American culture.

Take a second and think for a moment. Could you imagine what kind of mindset you would have if your only point of reference for Black American culture was Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, Chris Brown, Rihana, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce combined with the numerous Black stereotypes one can easily see in the latest Michael Bay vehicle and the like? (Transformers was very popular in China I'm told) Also imagine if you didn't have normal Black people around to balance out this extremely lop-sided influx of information? Yeah see that's what I think is going on here. It's like sneezing on someone and then blaming them for getting sick. I honestly can't think of a more racially segregated industry, rife with racialized caricatures, yet still so widely accepted as legitimate, than the American pop music industry. Also, it's still a big deal when a Black American person let alone a Black woman gets a role in a Hollywood film that isn't exploitative in some way. I mean, what year is this again? I digress.

Remember these lovable scamps from Transformers? Hehe, and one of them had a gold tooth, and they spoke in ebonics and they were lazy and kind of slow and everyone loved them and we all had a good laugh, hahaha, and nobody was offended? Remember that? No?  
In my experience, the proof is in the pudding. I've gone through more instances than I can count wherein I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince my students and local friends here (in South Korea, where I am currently living, albeit not China) that Black Americans aren't anymore prone to delinquency, promiscuous behavior and/or violence than anyone else, and I mean, lets be honest here, where else could they getting these ideas than from American media? East Asian television shows sure don't feature too many Black characters period.

If the add featured one of these migrant workers getting "whitewashed" I get the feeling it would have generated way more controversy locally. And most Americans, probably wouldn't give a crap about it. 
I'll end with quick turn back to moral relativism. I bet if the advertising execs decided to replace the Black man in the Ad with a dark-skinned migrant worker from Northern China, or a Turkic Muslim, or a Tibetan, or a South East Asian man, you would have a shit-storm on your hands -- at the very least it would definitely strike a cord with a number of sizable local populations. It's a different reality over there, plain and simple, and that's how terrible commercials like the one everyone is raging over get made. Sure, the world is seemingly getting smaller and we're all getting more connected, but it's still frickin' huge and we're not all in the same boat. We also have to think about the consequences of the messages we send out -- context is important and certain information processed in certain conditions can lead to all sorts of outcomes, some great, some terrible.            

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hallyu's Blindspot Part 2: Marketing "Contrast"

Hello! This is part two (obviously) of a two-part article. I was hoping to to get it out last week but life happened. If you didn't read part one and want to, click here. For everyone else, let's cut to the chase.

So in the last post I talked about how the media-driven Hallyu is not hitting all the right notes for everyone, especially in the North American context. To sum up, I feel that a lot of North Americans in general find South Korean media kind of hard to penetrate -- it's too much of one thing and not enough of another. A lot of my Canadian and American friends who encounter Korean dramas or pop music for the first time tend to have a somewhat negative reaction. It's too melodramatic, not gritty enough, not realistic enough, too clean, too juvenile, not sophisticated, too complicated . . . the list goes on. So then if Korean drama and pop music don't quite do it for most of us in the New World, what's the answer? Change it?

Produce 101, a currently airing hit reality/audition show wherein a ridiculously large contestant count is whittled down to a lucky few to form South Korea's next hit pop group sensation. It's essentially televising the K-pop group-forming process. Which is either awesome or terrible, depending on where your interests lie.  
No, of course not. That would be, first of all, very difficult if not impossible, as South Korean media is the way it is because it caters to Korean audiences first and foremost (obviously), and second, it would be a stupid move. K-pop and Korean dramas already have huge followings abroad -- they have found their audience, and how! The question here is how do the brains behind Korean mass cultural marketing capture the imaginations of that much larger segment of North American society that doesn't give a hoot about K-pop or K-dramas? Well, there's no easy answer, but one thing I can say for certain is that difference sells, and Koreans who are trying to "sell" Korea, as it were, to foreign audiences, would do well to remember this.

What do I mean by this? Speaking as someone who has spent considerable time both in South Korea and outside of it, historically (I mean in the last four decades or so) in attempting to sell itself to outsiders, South Korea has had a tendency to try to sell "relatability." For example, in the past Korea's international slogan might as well have been "South Korea: We're just like you! Invest in us!" It's no secret that in the early '90s South Korean companies were attempting to ride the Japanese tech industry boom by sometimes resorting to ambiguous marketing in regard to the national origin of their companies. I remember talking to a Korean friend of mine some years ago who told me that in its earlier days, being mistaken for a Japanese company was one of Samsung's marketing strategies in North America, before South Korea became a tech powerhouse on its own terms.

This is exactly what it looks like: a stuffy politician/business-suit type talking to an audience about K-pop. Believe it or not, it's serious business.
Hallyu is not an accident either. The popularity of K-pop and K-drama is not merely superficial; it means real dividends for Korean corporate entities. It is "soft power" at its most effective. If a Canadian person gets invested in Korean shows and music, they will likely get invested in Korean entertainers. Korean entertainers endorse Korean products. Even if the equation is not so cut-and-dried in every instance, those who take an interest in things Korean will likely be more inclined to buy Korean next time they need a new TV or smartphone, especially since Samsung and LG are such major players in these industries and many take their names as a sign of quality. This is to say nothing of potential tourism dividends as well. I've met all sorts of people who come to South Korea just to see Korean pop acts or visit locations from their favourite dramas. As I've said before, Hallyu works.

But Hallyu doesn't work because Korean media is similar to foreign media, but rather because it's different. North Americans who like K-pop and K-dramas like them not because they remind them of  their favourite HBO or Netflix original series but because they don't. They are looking for something different -- an alternative. For example, a lot of friends of mine who like K-pop currently lament what they perceive to be a recent overemphasis on "sexy groups" in the K-pop industry. Many of them like K-pop because it's a squeaky-clean break from the hypersexualized North American pop music industry. It's more innocent, more pure, maybe even reminiscent of a simpler time in their lives or in the national memory (I suppose that depends on when they were born). Many view the rise of overt "sexiness" in K-pop as a half-baked attempt to cater to foreign audiences, which, if that's true, is quite ironic, because it seems to be backfiring. I believe that dramas attract foreign audiences for similar reasons. They tend to be more romantic and fanciful than their North American counterparts. The bottom line is that K-pop and K-drama sell in North America because they're "something else," and while this is likely not the case for Hallyu in the rest of Asia, I am convinced that this is the truth for North America (and probably Europe too, to some degree).

While K-pop can be equally as contrived and formulaic as its American counterpart, that some view the K-pop as a superior product is telling of its status as a worthy alternative in the minds of many.  
Why explain this at all? Because I've seen so much evidence that would suggest that those who perpetuate Hallyu -- that marketing-savvy bunch -- seem to think that the reason Korean media has been so successful in North America is because it resembles North American media. The best example I can offer up as evidence of this was the inclusion of Snoop Dogg in PSY's second failed follow-up (at least, it failed internationally) to Gangnam Style, Hangover. The former became a huge success in North America because it was something totally bizarre to a lot of North Americans. Gangnam Style was a spectacle -- funny and weird and wholly unexpected from a country that many North Americans had pegged as a humourless land of overworked salarymen and/or stoic tradition. The follow up, Gentleman, failed because it was more of the same, and Hangover appeared, at least to me, to be an attempt to try to win back PSY's supposedly massive North American following by adding a face most North Americans would recognize, which I feel had the opposite effect. "I don't need to watch this Korean guy to see Snoop Dogg rapping over a half-assed hook. There's plenty of artists doing that back home, and I can actually understand what they're saying" is the line of thought in my head, anyway.

So herein lies the problem: many South Korean media marketers seem to think that producing things that are similar to North American things directed at North Americans is an effective way to generate North American interest in South Korea. I disagree. In the last post I said we would look at South Korea's eastern neighbour, Japan. We will do that now.

I think it's safe to assume that most people, Japanese included, have not seen a kabuki play in its entirety, yet most people in the world could likely identify this picture as being an example of kabuki. Isn't that interesting?  
I shall pose a question. Do you know anyone who has never heard of following things? Samurai, geisha, ninja, sushi, sumo wrestling, anime, ramen, kimono, judo, karate, kabuki theatre. Personally, I can't say I do. Even my 95-year-old English-born granny could identify all of these things if quizzed on them. Japanese material culture is super-pervasive, and this didn't all happen by accident either. While many elements of Japanese culture did receive exposure because America fought a war there and essentially took over the country for a few decades (remember, they did that in South Korea as well, more or less), interest in things Japanese was helped along in no small part by a little thing called nihonjinron. Nihonjinron is complicated but it was essentially a body of media produced as the result of a soft-power movement to popularize Japanese culture abroad, by translating and exporting Japanese media and other forms of material culture, coinciding with Japan's "postwar economic miracle" in the 1960s and '70s. It was a huge success and its results can still be felt to this day, because everyone knows what sumo wrestling and kabuki theatre are. (I mean, if you really think about it, why do we know that these things are? When was the last time you were asked to go see a kabuki play?!

Hallyu and nihonjinron have much in common. They both ushered in a major increase in international accessibility to the national spaces they represent, in the form of translated media and mass culture. They both followed a period of considerable economic growth. They have both succeeded in generating real interest and investment, both socially and economically, in the countries of their origin. There is, however. a fundamental difference that sets them apart. Hallyu seems to be all about building up South Korea as being on par, economically and/or socially, with the "developed world." "Look! Our television shows are well produced and boast expensive budgets like yours! Our pop stars are attractive and say, 'Hey, yo, dawg,' and star in flashy videos, just like yours! We are not so different, you and I!"

A picture that needs no introduction. It's sumo wrestling. You know what this is when you see it.
Nihonjinron, on the other hand, was all about setting Japan apart from, well, everyone, and from where I'm standing, it seems to have worked out much better. After all, most foreigners go to places like Japan and South Korea as tourists to see and experience things that they can't see at home.

In the past few years multiple Korean friends of mine have lamented that South Korea lacks anything unique to really sell it abroad. "Why are you interested in Korea, Alex?" they ask me. "We don't have any cool traditional things like Japan!" But that is, of course, not true. South Korea boasts more than 4,000 years of history and tradition. As a civilization you don't hang around for four millennia without developing some unique traits and traditions.The major difference between Japan and South Korea, however, at least in this respect, is that the Japanese government, and interested Japenese private entities and philanthropists, have invested big bucks in perpetuating and marketing their "unique traditions" both domestically and abroad, whereas similar entities in South Korea have done so to a much lesser degree.

If you have worked within the Hallyu movement as I have, you know that in many instances there is some degree of government funding behind things like K-pop conventions, K-pop concerts abroad and other such Korean media-related events in foreign countries. The Korean government actually spends taxpayer money on this stuff, and for the most part it appears to be money well spent -- it's gotten real results. That being said, if South Korea hopes to be an instantly recognizable cultural force like Japan, which it seems to want to be, I feel that perhaps diversifying the cultural push could be beneficial. In other words, I'm advocating expanding the Hallyu umbrella to include all sorts of Korean traditional and cultural entities that are woefully underexposed abroad, and that I think foreign audiences might find pretty interesting. K-pop and K-drama have received disproportionate financial attention for years and I think interest is starting to plateau. It's time to diversify. To illustrate this, I present a few examples of things that should be getting a lot more attention in South Korea but for some reason or another aren't (even locally). For impact's sake I will compare them with their Japanese counterparts to show how they could be marketable.

This is what sseirum looks like. Similar to sumo, but just different enough that I think it could attract a dedicated international fan base if it had more exposure.
Ssiruem vs. Sumo

In Japan, sumo wrestling is a huge international draw that has produced international fans and enthusiasts for decades. Many tourists who can afford the fairly expensive ticket price have "attend sumo match" fairly high on their Japanese travel bucket list, and there is a wealth of foreign-language information on the sport. Also, for quite some time foreigners have competed in high-profile sumo competitions, in many cases reaching celebrity status. Sumo is a sport that consists of two often overweight men (depending on the weight class), whose training consists of eating ridiculous amounts of protein and carbs and pushing heavy things all day, getting into a ring and trying to get each other off balance through various means. It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it out of context, but it's internationally famous and extremely recognizable. It can even be a somewhat lucrative career -- it is possible make real money being a sumo wrestler in Japan.

In contrast, ssireum -- traditional Korean wrestling -- is so underexposed that many foreigners who currently live and work in South Korea don't even know it exists. This is a travesty. Ssireum shares many similarities with sumo but is just different enough that, if given the proper exposure, it could really generate its own international fan base. Ssireum is done in a large circular sandpit which is a bit bigger and more sandy than that used in sumo. The rules are very similar, the object being to throw your opponents off balance so they fall on the ground or out of the ring. One difference is that contestants are required to constantly be holding on to their opponent's sash, which is often tightly wrapped around their waist. Therefore ssireum lacks the pushing techniques present in sumo, as the contestants are not allowed to break and the emphasis is on leverage rather than bulk displacement (though sumo uses similar tactics as well). Hence, ssireum athletes by and large tend to boast a much more "athletic" physique than their bulky sumo colleagues, which could be a draw in and of itself for certain fans. Ssireum athletes often come from myriad martial arts backgrounds as well, and it is possible to witness adapted techniques from martial arts such as judo and jiujitsu being used in the sandpit.        

Sseirum is often touted as a major part of Korean tradition that has been around for eons, only you wouldn't know it because it's never advertised and rarely ever on display. Up-to-date English-language information on where one can watch ssireum contests is virtually nonexistent, and trust me, I've searched extensively. The Korean Sseirum Association hasn't updated its English web page in more than three years, and similar organizations don't even have English pages. What's more, sseirum is woefully underfunded and underexposed even in South Korea. I don't think I currently know anyone who knows where I can watch this sport, aside from on major holidays such as the lunar new year and the harvest festival, traditionally big times for sseirum in Korean tradition. As a result, sseirum has nowhere near the level of prestige or lucrativeness that sumo has in Japan, and international contestants and fans are few and far between.

This is all rather a shame as, like sumo, sseirum has all the makings of a perfect spectator sport. It's fast and kinetic and the rules are simple enough that you can figure out what's going on fairly quickly, but, also like sumo, there is also a lot of depth and technique for seasoned fans to pick apart. I'm convinced that sseirum is a criminally undermined cultural resource that could have a huge international presence if anyone cared to try to push it. I am not alone in this line of thought; many South Koreans also lament the dwindling popularity of the sport.

Talchum vs. Kabuki

Talchum. While visually quite different from kabuki, its general tone can be quite similar.
Have you ever heard of Korean mask dancing? You might have, but chances are if you're not Korean your knowledge extends as far as "It's a form of theatre wherein people wear masks and dance . . . I guess." The reliance on masks for storytelling might make talchum appear more similar to Noh theatre in Japan, but whereas Noh has its origins in the premodern Japanese aristocracy, the origins of talchum, like kabuki, lie with the peasantry. As such it tends to be a more lighthearted and humorous affair, occasionally mixing in some acrobatics and spectacle to boot. Talchum performances also boast a number of similarities to the Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte, as there are numerous stock characters, identified by different masks, that show up in their respective roles in myriad stories: the lovers, the scholar, the old man, the old woman, the harlot, the trickster, etc. Talchum has its own variations on all the classic roles. There are numerous regional plays and variations on the form. However, English-language resources beyond general information are currently sparse, making proficiency in Korean a must for anyone hoping to learn anything about talchum beyond its general premise. Finding showtimes and places where it is being performed is not impossible but does require more digging than I feel should be necessary. Even on YouTube there are few videos that really show off the complexity or narrative structure of the art form.  

By contrast, there is a wealth of information in myriad languages about kabuki theatre and it's relatively easy to find out where performances are being held, as there a numerous dedicated kabuki theatres in Japan with seasonal programming. Kabuki fandom is huge both locally and abroad, with kabuki connoisseurs and enthusiasts spanning the globe and kabuki visuals being immediately recognizable, especially the red lion character, which has become visually synonymous with the art form. Kabuki actors are also fully recognized national cultural assets, as they come from established lineages and are frequently cast in television dramas and movies. While it might be hard to imagine talchum actors filling prominent roles in Korean film or dramas, I feel that a lot more could be done to make this art form at least more accessible to outsiders. Talchum is visually unique and, if you're lucky enough to see a performance, can be quite a magical and otherworldly experience, like kabuki. Like sseirum, I think that if talchum was given more exposure it would surely find an audience abroad and a bigger one locally.

Traditional Performance Troupes

A picture that I can actually take credit for. This was from the Namsadang performance I saw last week, wherein acrobats are posing while floral confetti rains down upon them. 
Last week I attended a show by the Anseong-based performance group Namsadang on their home turf, and I was treated to an energetic, charming and very funny two hours of folksongs, dance, acrobatics and comedy both physical and linguistic. It was a lot of fun and immediately endearing. The crowd was rather large and I was one of two foreigners present. That's fine (it's not exactly high season right now for tourists), but I wouldn't even have known I could see the show if I hadn't visited Anseong and asked about it. There is quite a bit of information on the web about that specific group, but again, it would be tricky to find it if you didn't know what to look for. While Namsadang is a mainstay of Anseong city and has its own dedicated show space and annual festival, many similar groups elsewhere struggle with dwindling attendance and lack of interest, as well as a rather small pool from which to recruit new talent. This is really a shame, because I think that foreign audiences would love this stuff. I strongly believe that if even just a bit more national revenue was spent on grants to supplement training and advertising budgets to give these groups more exposure, this could be a huge draw as well. It's also about as uniquely Korean as you can get.

Contemporary Art and Music

A fantastic book that is currently available from many a retailer, sampling some of the big names in the Korean contemporary art scene. Check out its dedicated website here.
With Seoul Fashion Week attracting much international attention, I think it's fairly obvious that more and more folks are realizing that South Korea has a lot to offer in the creative realm. The sheer overabundance of information on K-pop and K-drama virtually eclipses other art forms in South Korea, to the point where many folks who do not dare to pry are totally unaware that a massive indie/alternative music scene even exists. While exposure is increasing significantly, that South Korean tourism entities are not pushing Seoul as an edgy, hipster-friendly mecca of artistic innovation is a missed opportunity. This is especially because "fringe" acts have become such an it thing in North America that I feel a lot of folks who are turned off by K-pop's glossy and formulaic elements could find a lot to love in the South Korean indie scene, which is just "Korean enough" to grab those looking for something different. Exposure is increasing daily and there are currently fairly large contingents of South Korean indie music fans outside of Korea, but most of them stumble across this stuff by accident. More could be done to at least show outsiders that cool fringe communities do actually exist here. Similarly, South Korea has for some time boasted a similarly active and vibrant contemporary art scene that I feel is also underexposed. While Japan is often praised for being a mecca for art and music experimentation, South Korea also has a lot going on that is just not represented as well as it could be.

I shall end the list here. I'm sure there is much I could add, but I think you get the idea. I feel that Hallyu as a thing that chiefly promotes K-pop and drama as the soul of Korea has sort of run its course. K-pop and drama have become so big in the communities where it's flourished that its fandom is more or less self-sufficient -- fans will keep producing new fans. But there are many other segments of South Korean culture that I feel could really capture the hearts and minds of would-be travellers and aficionados. Thus I propose an expansion of the Hallyu umbrella and a shift in Korean cultural marketing to try to sell Korea as the unique space that it really is -- a shift from "We are similar enough that you can be comfortable if you come here" to "You can't get this anywhere else." It sure worked out well for Japan . . .

Join me next time when I talk about some other topic that I haven't thought of yet.
           

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hallyu's Blindspot Part 1: Media Culture Clash

So it's been a while since I've blogged and all. Once again I've moved (back?) to South Korea and had to deal with all the things one has to deal with when they move to a radically different time zone that runs on a different currency. Jet lag, living-space limbo and temporary total poverty were all things I had to deal with while I was getting set up over here. Not to mention I had to get used to my new job, which is teaching Korean children English. This will likely continue to be my job until I can get my Korean language skills to a high enough level that I can either go to grad school or qualify for some other kind of job over here. Still, the job is fun, the kids are cute, if unfocused most of the time, and my apartment is small but cozy and in a good spot. Suffice it to say I'm settled . . . for the moment, that is.

So hey, why not do some blogging, right? I mean I actually like writing and I've been running this blog off and on for years now, so anytime I can get back to it, I generally do. Now I'm going to do something I love, which is talk about South Korea.

Here's the cover of a book I read for a class on Korean history. It's a good book and a fairly easy read if you're not sure where to start. 
It's no secret that the 20th century was not good to South Korea. In the space of a hundred years the country we now know as the Republic of Korea had survived colonization, annexation, a civil war, and three consecutive dictatorships, with a brief period of prosperity being smashed by national bankruptcy. I may have stated this before on this blog (I honestly can't remember), but I often tell my friends and peers, "The most impressive thing about the Republic of Korea is that it still exists." I don't mean this in a mean or sarcastic way either -- larger and more well-established nation-states have been obliterated by less -- it is genuinely impressive from where I'm standing that South Korea is still an autonomous nation.

I bought this book back in 2006, although by then it was already four years old. The "New Hong Kong" subtitle is a reference to Hong Kong's cinematic golden age, which was thought to be petering out by the early 2000s. South Korea's film industry was thought to be its replacement. 
That being said, if the majority of the 20th century was like a sand-blasted drought, the 21st century saw South Korea reaping a bountiful capitalistic harvest indeed. The late '90s and early 2000s saw a new age of prosperity as Hyundai, Samsung and LG once more began to take over the world, as they had begun to do in the mid '90s. There was money to go around and the increase in film and advertising budgets ushered in the "Korean New Wave" of films in the early 2000s, with such films as Old Boy and My Sassy Girl and Friend garnering international praise. Korean television and music, particularly serial dramas and pop music, started becoming famous throughout Asia, marking the beginning of the "Korean Wave," or Hallyu, as it is known. However, the wave didn't stop there. Somewhere between 2009 and 2010 Hallyu hit the shores of North America and Europe, which culminated in the unfathomable anomaly known as . . . Gungnam Style. Finally South Korea's dominance over the eastern and western hemispheres was realized. All hail Samsung! All hail Kia! What's your bias, oppah!?

Alright, so maybe it didn't quite happen like that, but South Korea is sitting prettier then it's ever been and Hallyu was/is totally a thing and a huge part of that success. Korean pop concerts have now become viable acts in the United States and Canada, with Korean rap group Epik High's last concert in Toronto (down the street from my former home, in fact) selling out. Undeniably, especially in the context of North America, Hallyu has had a noticeable effect. North American interest in South Korean stuff has certainly been on the rise in recent years. The popular cartoon Family Guy had a K-pop episode. Conan O'Brien shot a special in Korea and appeared in a local soap opera. Lee Byung Hun was in a string of high-profile Hollywood movies. South Korea's been on the up and up for a while now, and with the latest international success, the drama Descendants of the Sun, Hallyu is still looking like a force to be reckoned with.

A chart representing YouTube K-Ppp views in 2011 by country. I imagine the numbers have likely gone up significantly since then.
Hallyu, for the most part, has always been a media-driven initiative, one that I would go so far as to say likely happened by accident. Your TV drama (Winter Sonata) gets unexpectedly popular in a country outside yours (Japan) and suddenly you have a market you never knew existed. What do you do? Run with it, and before you know it half the world is giving you the attention you've always wanted. Hallyu has brought real visibility to South Korea and, perhaps more importantly, people willing to spend money, in the form of tourists, investors, and even international merch-buying K-pop fanatics who order online. It's difficult to argue that Hallyu as a "brand" has worked very well for South Korea, but could it be working better? That's a question I've had knocking around in my mind for a while now.

K-pop, TV dramas, and to a lesser extent variety shows and movies have been the driving forces of Hallyu since it began. Non-Korean nationals who are interested in these things tend to be loud and devoted, drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Ergo, as I mentioned earlier, you cannot deny that K-pop and K-dramas have found audiences abroad. Still, though, to what extent?

Some might have us believe that the ridiculous popularity of PSY's hit single "Gangnam Style" in North America and, indeed, the world over a few years back spelled some sort of unanimous global acceptance of K-pop into the international mainstream. I mean the video broke the YouTube counter! PSY hosted the Much Music Video Awards (it's Canadian) in Toronto back in 2012. It's official! The world loves K-pop now! It's here to stay! Oh, but if only that were true.

 
At the time of their debut, BTS was touted as being a sort of hip hop/K-pop group hybrid (I suppose they still are). While they've made some catchy tunes, and I can't say they're any better or worse (I don't follow pop music very closely), it's pretty hard to imagine them replacing Drake or Kanye "Yeezus" West in the hearts of North Americans in the foreseeable future.   
While international K-pop and K-drama fandom has certainly seen unprecedented popularity in the Americas, I'd argue that the truly ardent fans of these mediums represent but niche communities in their countries proper. Especially in North America. In other words, while Hallyu has certainly found its audience, the much larger North American majority remains untouched by the wave or, at the very least, has little desire to ride it. Why is that, pray tell?

The problem, as I see it, is this: I'm convinced that for most North Americans K-dramas and K-pop represent a sort of uncanny valley that for many is hard to come to terms with. As much as I like a good K-drama, to the average North American who has only passing knowledge of South Korea at best (and obvious cultural differences aside), K-dramas, especially those made recently, kind of look like American dramas, except they're way more melodramatic, overly romantic and/or schmaltzy (which is, incidentally, why so many foreign fans like them). In other words, they generally seem corny to American sensibilities.

A Korean poster for the latest South Korean prime-time smash, Descendants of the Sun.
They are a far cry from the sex, violence and straight-faced cynicism and/or dark humor presented in the latest HBO vehicle or whatever the new Breaking Bad is now. I just can't imagine the majority of my Canadian friends opting to switch out Mr. Robot or Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones for Descendants of the Sun (let's call it DOTS), The Flower in Prison or Vampire Detective. DOTS is a great show in the realm of K-drama, to be sure, but the average North American would find the amateurish foreign actors laughable, the often non-fatal gunplay nonsensical, and the love triangles and comedy angles in the middle of a battle zone ridiculous.

Likewise, with K-pop we are faced with a similar problem. K-pop kind of looks like American pop, especially with "sexy groups" on the rise -- these are groups in which the members try to portray a sexually charged identity by exposing more skin and writhing around on the floor more than they would otherwise (not exactly uncommon with North American female pop acts). While K-pop can be catchy and fun, for many of the uninitiated it can seem like a corny, childish or contrived emulation of American pop, or worse, straight-up cultural appropriation. I've had many a Canadian friend over the years say things like "What's the deal with K-pop? Why do they keep perpetuating that '90s idol formula? It's super weird!" or "I can't get into K-pop. It's like they're trying too hard to be American or something." (The cultural ownership debate is really interesting, but that's for another time.)

I feel that the sheer unabashed implausibility of many K-drama plots alone presents a pretty tall hurdle for your average North American TV watcher. 
The examples I've set up here are not merely straw-man arguments. These observations come from real conversations I've had countless times with family, friends and acquaintances. It's also the reason why I'm baffled whenever a Korean talent company like YG or JYP sends its talent abroad to debut in the U.S. expecting them to achieve mainstream success, which ultimately never comes. (Remember BOA? Remember Wonder Girls? Ciel from 2ne1 is trying to do this now.) Now let me just say that in making this argument I'm not attacking Korean media for being less legitimate or less "real" than American media. However, there is a culture clash that needs addressing.

So if Korean media are just too "light" or "fluffy" for the average jaded North American, how do you get around this? Well, for some perspective, I'd like to take a look at South Korea's neighbor, Japan.

Join me next week as I talk about how South Korea could harness the awesome power of mass cultural marketing, like Japan's been doing for the past four or five decades, to take Hallyu even further!  
         

Saturday, February 27, 2016

No Easy Answers: A Critical Examination of the MFA's Kimono Crisis

Ya'll know me, I have no problem blasting racist malarkey on this here blog. Subjectively, I don't like to see human suffering and I feel that racist things produce a lot of that, I like people to be happy and comfortable and I'm a firm believer that the more people experiencing happiness and comfort the better the world is. Objectively, I feel that racism is a symptom of ignorance and a distinct lack of critical thinking which doesn't serve any useful purpose. Racist claims are not based on empirical evidence or objective truths and sweeping generalizations are by their very nature, logical fallacies. In other words, on a macro level, I think racism is unequivocally stupid, useless and causes unnecessary pain and anguish and holds us back as a species from achieving really cool collective feats of awesomeness -- which is why it pisses me off so much.

The town hall in which the director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and a number of prominent figures in the Asian-American community discussed the problematic nature of the exhibit.
That being said, it always takes me a while to write articles about racially sensitive topics because I want to be absolutely sure that I understand the whole situation (or as much as possible), I want to make sure my feelings on the subject don't change based on new evidence, and/or that the thing I'm actually harping at is, in fact, racist and I'm not jumping the gun so to speak. I'm also a white cis-gendered, heterosexual male so there's that too. I quite literally have to take time to check my privilege to make sure I'm not just coming at this from the wrong angle. Do I merely not understand a racially sensitive issue because I'm not a person of colour and have no personal steak or experience in the matter? or am I actually an objective party who has weighed all sides of the argument and is making an informed and educated assessment free from personal bias (as much as one can be free of such a thing)? That's the question I ask myself before I write articles like the one I'm about to write. So here we go . . .     

Claude Monet's La Japonaise
Back in July the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted an exhibit that many found problematic in which a lesser-known Claude Monet painting of his wife, Camille Monet wearing a kimono, and posing with a folded-out paper fan in a faux geisha pose, titled La Japonaise was exhibited in a prominent location in the museum. The exhibit came with a side-gimmick, "Kimono Wednesdays" which allowed museum patrons to wear a kimono fashioned, by traditional kimono makers in Japan, after the one featured in the painting. "Channel your inner Camille Monet. . ." the exhibit read, inviting museum-goers to come and try it on. The exhibition also featured a "spot-light" talk, presumably by some specialist, titled "Claude Monet, Flirting with the Exotic".

A promotional Picture for Kimono Wednesdays.
Shortly after the exhibit opened numerous people, many being members of the local Asian-American community, took to social media, and media in general, to criticize the exhibit and the MFA for exoticizing, fetishizing and advocating the appropriation of East Asian culture. A tumblr page was created to facilitate exposure of the situation, "Stand Against Yellow Face" which was later renamed to "Decolonize Our Museums". Activists showed up in the museum with signs with such slogans reading "Not your Asian fetish" and other considerably longer messages referencing systemic racism in America, the white colonial gaze, objectification of Asian women, orientalism, and even the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (just to name a few). The situation got even more complicated when a counter-protest was organized, largely by other members of the Asian-American community who thought the original protesters were being unreasonable and suppressing the sharing and appreciation of culture, making for a post-modern liberal nightmare.

A group of protesters denouncing the exhibit.
Originally the museum made slight modifications to the exhibit to placate the protesters, but the movement persisted and eventually Kimono Wednesday was removed outright. The discontent continued until the exhibit wrapped. Why am I writing this now? The town hall, dealing with the incident was held recently in which the director of the MFA made a formal apology to all in attendance after a lengthy Q & A session with a panel made up of the director himself and a number of specialists and advocates from the Asian-American community from various sides of the argument. The town hall was conducted in a very interesting manner that I think spells progress for race-relations in general, wherein the director of the MFA was forced to patiently listen to the grievances of those in attendance over the exhibit. I'm all for that, and it probably should have happened sooner. However. . . 

When this incident was playing out back in the summer, I was all over it. I read article after article, followed the tumblr page, trying to make sense of what was going on. I had been to the MFA some years ago and was impressed. Initially I braced myself to be angry as well when I saw that, extremely orientalist painting of Camille Monet. I was getting ready to launch into one of my usual socially-charged tirades about how shitty racism and cultural appropriation are. I was going to condemn the MFA for being ignorant and short-sighted and angering all these already marginalized people.

One of the counter-protesters advocating the return of Kimono Wednesdays.
But as I researched more and more, the arguments that activists were launching at the exhibit, it seemed to me, were becoming less and less relevant to the specific nature of the content of the exhibit itself. On this went to the point where I, armed with all my studies in orientalism and distaste for the fetishization of things foreign, could no longer find fault with the exhibit even in it's unmodified form. 

"Uwwhaaaat!? But Alex, this exhibit is heinous in how it propagates the white colonial gaze, the fetishization of Asian culture and totally ignores the history of marginalization and outright discrimination of the Asian diaspora in the United States! It's racist! I thought you were an ally!"

A protester with a strong message. But, is the white couple wearing kimono really guilty of all that? 
But that's the thing, I'm not convinced that this exhibit, in and of itself, was doing all that stuff and so this whole debate and even it's outcome just never really sat well with me. This is why I held off writing about it until now, because I just couldn't decide how a I felt about it. I was torn. To be sure this whole issue is right up my ally, based on what I've written about on this blog and in school thus far, but I would be so bold as to say that the vitriol directed at the MFA and this exhibit itself was misdirected, in my humble opinion. On with explanations about why I think what I think. . .   

Emile Villa's La Japonaise
What Japonisme was. . . 

The the dubious painting is an example of Japonisme, a somewhat odd aesthetic phenomenon that was en-vogue in France in the 1870's. It resulted in all kinds of odd behaviour such as installing "Japanese rooms" full of faux Japanese motifs, complete with tatami-mats. In such rooms French people would play with tea sets in kimono-esque clothing, essentially pretending to be Japanese. Now, by today's standards, a bunch of white French people pretending to be Japanese people by appropriating a bunch of material culture is pretty messed up and would fall under the cultural appropriation umbrella to be sure (I think nowadays, we would call them weeaboos). However, and as I'm sure most of you can guess, in the 1870's there wasn't exactly an abundance of reliable information about Japan available in French -- I'd wager that you could count the amount of textbooks on one hand. There also wasn't a significantly large population of Japanese nationals or immigrants living in France at the time that one could attempt to associate with. Therefore, the means to meaningfully engage with Japan and the Japanese simply was not available to most people in that space, at that time as a one-way trip to Japan, meant a costly, potentially risky, months-long voyage. 

Alfred Wordsworth Thompson's La Japonaise
Is Japonisme cultural appropriation? 

Japonisme is cultural appropriation in the purest sense -- it is quite literally the appropriation of one people's material culture by another. However, I believe that the conditions of France in 1870's make it impossible to classify Japonisme as cultural appropriation insofar as the term is used today, especially in the space of the United States. Now I understand that the definition of cultural appropriation is in constant contention, but I have seen a definition, the use of which seems to be very wide-spread in relation to U.S. geo-politics at present. It is that cultural appropriation happens when a dominant cultural majority elevates and subsequently co-opts elements from a marginalized minority while continuing to marginalize the minority they've co-opted from. Therefore, for cultural appropriation to occur in all it's heinousness, the presence of a marginalized minority would need to be present to appropriate from. In France, in the 1870's this was not the case, there was no significantly large, permanent and marginalized Japanese population in France in the 1870's. Japanese people did travel to France for education and "cultural experience" but many stayed no more than a few years after which they returned home.              

Mary Brewster Hazelton's La Japaonaise
The "exotic" problematic . . .

The lack of ability to engage with Japan would have rendered Japan as an exotic place to most French people at the time by the very definition of the word -- something strange, unusual or different, not native. Beyond that however, exotic also denotes a kind of mysteriousness or a lack of ability for something to be understandable. It's my understanding that the reason why the word "exotic" is so problematic at present is because we now have a wealth of information on places, previously thought exotic. If you want to learn about China, for example, you can just read a book, you can watch a video in which actual Chinese people introduce aspects of their own country, you can attend a seminar or a class, you can talk to Chinese people (I mean people who are culturally Chinese -- not merely ethnically) about their experiences, it's easy. Ignorance is now a choice, so being content to sit back and refer to something as merely exotic can be seen as laziness at best or self-induced ignorance at worst. The word is not only inappropriate but the information age has rendered "exotic" somewhat of a misnomer. How can something be exotic if the tools for understanding it are constantly at your fingertips? That being said, to Claude Monet in the 1870's and indeed to many of his contemporaries, Japan would surely have been exotic for lack of information and wearing a kimono or drinking green tea, would likely have been thought of as "flirting with the exotic" to some degree. Therefore, the seemingly problematic title of the accompanying talk actually makes sense within context of the exhibit. I mean context is everything . . . isn't it?

Leon Francois Comerre's La Japonaise
Is japonisme a colonial phenomenon? 

Yes and no. Broadly, you could argue it is insofar as colonialism is related to intercontinental trade and that the French had colonies in South East Asia and their dealings with Japan could be seen as part of their colonial legacy -- as the reason they had such a large presence in Asia in the first place. On the other hand the French never attempted to colonize Japan specifically. The influx of Japanese goods to France was mostly the result of the Meiji government opening the country and the formation of a bilateral agreement between the governments of both countries which had French military experts training Japan's armed forces in "modern warfare". It also might be worth mentioning that Japan itself was a colonial power for almost fifty-years, took over much of North and South East Asia and did all sorts of heinous things all while holding a seat at the League of Nations.    

Again, strong accusations launched at the MFA, but to what extent can Japonisme be linked to American imperialism? An interesting question to be sure.


Is trying on a kimono in a museum cultural appropriation?

Fundamentally I don't think so, the exhibit was not barring certain patrons from trying on the kimono. Anyone could try it on and strike Camille's pose (or whatever) regardless of ethnicity. The event was ostensibly inclusive and the kimono itself was made by real Japanese artisans prior to the launch of the exhibit. Trying on a piece of clothing is not intrinsically a case of cultural appropriation, but striking a stereotypical pose with a paper fan with no real knowledge of the historical significance of the pose and clothing itself? Could be (more on that later). After all, people didn't take issue with Iggy Azalea merely because she was rapping. It was rapping with a black Houston accent while obviously not being black or from Houston while being unabashedly racist on her twitter feed, all while being celebrated by the mainstream American music industry that branded her problematic.        
So then what's the problem with the exhibit?

If this exhibit is not about Japan or about Japanese-American experience but simply about Japonisme, this quirky, somewhat obscure, European French fad that probably didn't last much longer than a decade, what's the problem? Why do so many Asian-Americans insist on including this weird French thing into the broader global colonial narrative? Aren't they just overreacting? Isn't this just a knee-jerk reaction to a white woman in a kimono!? Aren't they the racist ones!?!?

By today's standards Japonisme is very problematic, but it sort of still happens . . . Katie Perry at the 2013 AMA's.  
Well, my friends, I'm a firm believer in the old axiom, where there's smoke, there's fire. In my opinion the problem with the exhibit is not so much the exhibit itself but more that it was displayed in the United States of America. Now I'm not America-bashing here, but anyone who knows anything about American history knows that it's full of racial tension -- yes, the same can be said about any country really, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. In America's case, there were several intervals in which Asian-Americans specifically were not only marginalized socially, but also politically and publicly targeted outright (a lot of this happened in Canada too). Rail-road slave labour, the immigration exclusion acts, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- and that's just the stuff you can read about in High School textbooks. This is to say nothing of the myriad hate-crimes and violence endured by smaller groups and individuals throughout American history.

There was once a time, when signs like these were fairly common and our governments enacted policies to make immigration very costly for East Asian peoples.  
Now if this marginalization and discrimination was all in the past, well then you could probably build a stronger case for these protesters simply being a bunch of butt-hurt shit-disturbers. However, it's not that simple is it? Discrimination and marginalization against Asian-Americans continues to this day usually in a much less overt way (although Donald Trump is breaking this trend -- of being less overt, that is). The evidence is all around us. How many Asian-American singers were featured on the Grammy's a few weeks ago? We don't have the "one-drop rule" here in Canada, I'm talking about fully genealogically Asian Asian-Americans . . . not many right? I would offer more examples but you can just look at my older posts, or better yet, go check out Angry Asian Man or Re-appropriate, or Hyphen Magazine and hear it from the horse's mouth. Many of these folks put up with a lot of crap. Large groups of people don't typically come together to complain about something if there really is nothing to complain about . . . I mean that makes sense right!? Protests usually take place because there is a thing that exists that is making many people unhappy. Makes sense to me!

The other thing that I must point out is that many of the protesters were not advocating closing the exhibit outright, but adding context to make it more obvious that Japonisme is this thing that is far removed from the reality of Japanese (or Japanese diasporic experience). Yes, Japonisme isn't so much about Japan (and even less about Asian-American experience) than it is about a quaint segment of the French upper-class, but if the MFA is not making this fact obvious, well then it makes sense sense for people to take issue with the exhibit. I'm still flabbergasted by the frequency with which I encounter North Americans (and not just white North Americans) who have this extremely orientalist and colonialist view that Asia is still this magical, alien, highly exploitable world, full of effeminate men and submissive women that prostrate themselves in the presence of whiteness that is backwards and in need of guidance of some sort (or something not far off). Many of these people have fantasies which they project onto Asia and Asian-people. Many also project them on to Asian-Americans as well, and if these views are incorrect and insulting in the East Asian context, then they are even more insulting to Americans whose parents or grandparents just so happen to have originated from those spaces.

Racist graffiti from a case in San Francisco back in September. While not as common as it once was, the fact that this is still happening in any capacity is as awful as it is ridiculous.  
For comparison, I once watched a video about a gay man explaining his reasoning for boycotting the film adaptation of the famous science fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card that came out a few years ago. Ender's Game is widely considered to be a modern classic of the genre and happens to be a book I quite like. Orson Scott Card, however, is a blatant and outspoken homophobic who has no problem publicly denouncing the homosexual community. The speaker in the video explained that he didn't care if the film or the story it was based on were excellent works, but that he was sick of prominent figures denouncing the gay community. I paraphrase "Let's say there's a famous sandwich shop in your area and you see all these customers enjoying these delicious looking sandwiches from that shop. Now imagine if every-time you went to that shop and put your money on the counter -- the same amount everyone else pays -- they gave you, and only you a literal shit sandwich simply because of who you are. How would that make you feel? Basically, I'm tired of being expected to swallow shit sandwiches and I don't want to support those who expect me to swallow them." Ender's Game as a piece of literature does not promote homophobia or denounce homosexuals but within the larger context of gay rights in the United States, that it is written by someone who vehemently opposes those rights is problematic and cannot be ignored by many individuals within that marginalized community.

I've always liked Gwen Stefani as an artist, but remember that time she used to hang out with that human-prop entourage of Asian women who were (so I've read) contractually obligated not to speak on camera? Yeah . . . I mean this wasn't that long ago.
It's a similar dynamic in the case of the MFA's exhibit. Whether or not the exhibit is actually promoting orientalism, colonialism or cultural appropriation is not really the point. The point is that Asian-Americans live in a country in which they are frequently under-represented or mis-represented in their media, wherein prominent non-Asian-American figures play dress-up and appropriate or even straight out mis-represent the culture of their ancestors (think Katie Perry's "Japan inspired" number at 2013 American Music Awards, Avril Lavigne's Hello Kitty video, Coldplay and Rihanna's Princess of China video, Gwen Stefanie's fetishistic Harajuku fascination etc.), wherein they were historically and are currently marginalized, objectified and fetishized in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to serialized literary fiction. I know from growing up alongside and listening to many of these people's woes for years, that they have to deal with the socio-cultural backlash and subsequent environment that all this orientalist discourse produces on a daily basis and many of them, as I understand, are extremely tired of it. In other-words, they too are tired of being fed shit sandwiches.

Remember that time when Hollywood adapted Memoirs of Geisha, a not-very-historically-accurate story of a geisha written by a non-Japanese person and instead of casting Asian-American actors in prominent roles, they opted to import celebrities from China to star in a film about Japanese people which only had two Japanese people in it? Get's more messed up the more you think about it.  
So while I don't see any inherent issues in the MFA's exhibit on Japonisme and feel that a lot of the anger and vitriol directed at it's content is misguided, I also can't fault a lot of these protesters for pouncing on the exhibit in the manner they did. It just looks so much like all the other crap they have had to deal with up till now and I'd imagine in the minds of the non-Asian, non-Asian-American museum patrons, this exhibit likely reproduced and perhaps confirms a lot of their assumptions about the "mysterious east" being "mysterious". If they showed this exhibit in Paris or even Tokyo it likely would have been a non-issue. America's socio-political climate, coupled with the colonial nature of a lot of western Museum collections (i.e. the MFA boasts a rather large East Asian section full of impressive artefacts, which is well curated, but how do you suppose they got such artefacts in the first place?) and the racially problematic nature of using ethnic dress for "dress-up" (i.e. when non-ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture, wear ethnic Asian clothes they are often thought of as being progressive but when ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture wear ethnically Asian clothes, they are thought of as being regressive) you get some rather negative reactions. Simply put the MFA's exhibit is a victim of America's social climate, and that's kind of a tragedy.

So there you have it. It's complicated and tragic and it should make you mad or should at least provoke some thought. We do, however, have the power to change this, and wouldn't that be nice if your children's children could go see an exhibit on Japonisme in the United States sans protesters and simply chuckle at this quaint obsession of the past? I think it would. But to do that we need to engage these problems instead of ignoring them. Thankfully that's not what happened here.