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Is the Emperor of Japan mocking the West?

Is the Emperor of Japan mocking the West? When the Imperial family appears at events wearing formal Western wear, does this represent cultural appropriation?

This question occurred to me while discussing the Kimono kerfuffle at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A second question would be why the change in dress? Did any country and its leaders force upon the Japanese the wearing of western clothing?

First, some simple observations. Of course the women of the imperial family also wear kimono to certain events as do others. But wearing a kimono in any part of Japan has become the exception to the norm. As a result, the kimono business and culture has been floundering greatly, and efforts are being made to try to save this art.

So how was western dress introduced to Japan? Japan’s history has been recounted in innumerable places and is not the purpose of this article. And I am not a historian, so I take responsibility for any unintended errors. Some history follows. In 1543, Portuguese traders arrived beginning the first contacts with the West, establishing trade routes to the port of Nagasaki. A few other places in Japan also had limited trade with other countries, but it was strictly controlled. Along with this trade came Portuguese missionaries who were successful in converting some Japanese to Christianity.


This relationship continued until 1639. A failed rebellion of enormous impact occurred and was blamed on the influence of Christians in Japan. The ruling Tokugawa shogunate set into place an isolationist policy, expelling all foreigners. With extremely rare exceptions, no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan, nor were Japanese allowed to leave (again with rare exceptions since the Japanese did send some people abroad to report back on current affairs). If any Japanese left without permission, the punishment was death. Thus, from approximately 1633 – 1853, for all intents and purposes, Japan remained closed to the West.

When The Black Ships 黒船, “kurofune”, of the United States entered Tokyo waters in 1853 , so called “gunboat diplomacy”, and insisted that Japan trade be open to the West, suddenly 250 years of isolation came to an end. The Shogun era ended, The Emperor became reinstalled with his previous powers.

Japan and its culture began reaching distant shores of Europe and the Americas and vice-versa. Some Japanese became intrigued with Western clothing and articles and wore them, embracing the new and presumably fashionable. There are many woodblock prints from the Edo period showing Japanese wearing Western garb.


Claude Monet-Madame Monet en costume japonais

The appearance of Japanese art and culture immediately rippled across the oceans. Painters in France were but one group influenced by Japanese art. Claude Monet’s 1876 painting “La Japonaise” (his wife Camille in a “Kimono”) is but one example.

It is this painting and an accompanying cultural experience which has caused a great deal of disruption at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts via protestors objecting to the opportunity to try on replicas of the robe in the painting worn by Camille. The protestors believe that Monet was mocking Japan and Japanese culture and that the wearing of the kimono by non Japanese or Caucasians was racist.

It should be noted that none of the protestors were Japanese. More interesting is that the protestors themselves had a protestor. Timothy Nagoaka, who teaches Japanese in the Boston public schools, was disappointed that the museum backtracked, ending the wearing of the kimono. He was hoping to take his students to see the work and accompanying robes. After all, a museum’s mission is to educate. His students would have learned much from the experience.

When a recent exhibition at the Setagaya Museum of Art titled “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” was held, the kimono replicas were available to try on. Presumably, there were non Japanese visitors to the exhibition which included some of the Japanese works which inspired the Western artists’ works being shown. Many of these works fall into the art history category of “Japonism”, works created using Japanese arts for inspiration. There was no objection to this opportunity in Japan. The replicas were funded by NHK, the Japanese national broadcasting system which entertains and educates. The opportunity was embraced with enthusiasm. Of note also is that concurrent with the Monet painting at the BMFA are two masterful large exhibitions, “Hokusai” and “In the Wake, Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11.


Unfortunately, the BMFA was inconsistent in its response to the protestors. First it said the experience would remain as is, then it cancelled the wearing of the kimono and limited it to touching only. The museum missed an opportunity to educate, something they have been doing very well with their new wing and the signage accompanying each exhibition in the museum overall. That being said, criticism, often highly negative criticism, can get people to attend an exhibition to see what all the fuss is about. That is a good result.

One posed question would be did any country at any time force Japanese to wear Western dress? The answer is no, it was the Japanese themselves who embraced many facets of Western dress after the opening of Japan to the West. School uniforms are but one example. The image of the woodblock print by Yoshu Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) titled “Scene of the Diet” shows members of the Diet and observers in Westernized dress.

At present in the United States, Hiromi Asai, a kimono designer, is trying to raise funds to hold a show during fashion week in February 2016 and present kimono as a form of modern dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”

Will much ado about a kimono and the museum’s indecisive response help or hinder that cause? Have the protestors confused centuries and cultures and are responding to current events? It would seem very unfortunate that what should have been a learning experience would be flipped upside down and become instead a cause by some for unrelated dissatisfactions. I am certain that the BMFA wishes this had not occurred. It will be interesting to see what follows.

Bringing the question of cultural appropriation back to the magazine, here is the About Us description. We are three people, and you will see that Sakiko Yanagisawa, Master Calligrapher, is dressed in very sexy Western dress for a performance presentation, and Rona Conti, calligrapher in her studio, is wearing a samu-e or monk’s work clothing.

Comments happily received.

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Rona Conti

Rona Conti is a painter and calligrapher whose artwork is represented in numerous public, private and corporate collections and museums in the United States and internationally. English editor for Beyond Calligraphy, in 1999, she began studying Japanese calligraphy with (Mieko) Kobayashi Sensei of Gunma from whom she received her pen name (魂手恵奈). Invited to exhibit calligraphy at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art with the International Association of Calligraphers for the last five years, she received the “Work of Excellence" Prize three times. She was invited to demonstrate Japanese Calligraphy at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2009. Her handmade paper artwork is produced in New York City at Dieu Donne Papermill.


  1. Yoshio Kusaba on 28/07/2015 at 05:05

    Hi, Rona! This is Yoshio. I have just read this article, and you raise a good question: When the Imperial family appears at events wearing formal Western wear, does this represent cultural appropriation? Indeed, it was an intentional cultural appropriation on the part of the Meiji government after 1868. This “appropriation” was part of the new national policy called “bun’mei kaika” 文明開化 and “fukokukyohei” 富国強兵 so as to be able to compete with the Western nations, especially the British Empire, the US, the Dutch, and the Russians. The Edo-period Japan learned a lesson from observing what happened in China in the the Qing period, the Opium War in 1840-42, where the “modern” British firepower was too much for the Chinese to cope with. How did the Japanese of the Edo-period know of the Opium War in China? It was through the Dutch who were permitted to carry on trading at Nagasaki all through the so-called “sakoku” 鎖国 period from 1633 to the time of the American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, who forced Japan to open herself to the world. When the Meiji period began in 1868, to catch up with the West was the primary objective of the new government. I can provide a lot more detail about the historical background which you did not mention. I note on one critical factor here beside the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543 at Tanegashima and the subsequent arrival of the Jesuit St. Francis Xaiver, the Apostle to Japan in 1549, and their transmission of the Tanegashima rifles. One significant even we need to keep in focus in dealing with the Japanese awareness and “appropriation” of the Western ideas is the arrival in 1600 of the English pilot William Adams, 三浦按針 Miura Anjin (1564-1620), one of the first “foreign” samurais, the main hero of the novel Shogun by James Clavell. William Adams was navigating the Dutch trading ship, the Liefde, of the East India Trading Company. The significance of this event is that William Adams informed Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder the Edo shogunate, that the Roman Catholic as was evangelized by the Jesuit Francis Xavier was not the only form of Christianity, Both the English pilot and the Dutch were protestant. This raised serious concerns on the part of the Ieyasu regarding the Portuguese activities in Japan, eventually to be expelled from Japan in 1639. Subsequently, the Dutch were permitted trading, and through they the Japanese gained Western ideas and information. One tangible example of the Dutch presence in the late 1780s you can see in this web site, showing the three Dutch visitors on their way to Edo/Tokyo stopping over in Kyoto and visiting the Nikenjaya 二軒茶屋 tea house establishment and watching a marquee girl delicately slicing Gion tofu and comment that we the technologically advance Dutch wouldn’t know what to do with tofu. This scene is from the second volume of the Shyi Miyako Meisho Zue 拾遺都名所図会, Supplement to the Pictorial Guide to the Capital (i.e., Kyoto), dating from 1788:

    • Yoshio Kusaba on 28/07/2015 at 05:11

      There is a typo: One significant even we need to keep in focus in dealing with the Japanese awareness and “appropriation” of the Western ideas, should read: One significant event.

      • Yoshio Kusaba on 28/07/2015 at 05:14

        There is a couple of typos: 1) One significant even we need to keep in focus in dealing with the Japanese awareness and “appropriation” of the Western ideas, should read: One significant event. 2) . . . and through they the Japanese gained Western ideas and information should read: . . . and through them the Japanese gained . . .

  2. Rona Conti on 24/08/2015 at 00:34

    Many thanks to scholar Yoshio Kusaba for his detailed historical accounting. A complete history of this exhibition can be found at It will have traveled to Japan, Canada, and the US. It was curated from the large and internationally known collection of Japanese art in the permanent collection of the BMFA which has a museum branch in Nagoya, Japan.

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