Tourist Dress-Up Debate: Is it “racist” to try on a Japanese kimono?

HANDS OFF THE SILK - In a recently canceled Boston Museum of Fine Arts promotion, visitors were encouraged to try on a Japanese kimono and pose with the famous painting, (Source: MFA)

HANDS OFF THE SILK – In a recently canceled Boston Museum of Fine Arts promotion, visitors were encouraged to try on a Japanese kimono and pose with the famous Claude Monet painting, “La Japonaise.” (Source: Museum of Fine Arts)

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts just stopped letting visitors be photographed in kimonos on “Kimono Wednesdays” because of a few protestors charging that the dress-up event is culturally insensitive.

As a lover of kitschy photo-ops at museums and tourist attractions, I’m horrified.

My street cred? I’m the curator and co-founder of “Tacky Tourist Photos,” a travel website celebrating this practice around the world.

I thought the MFA’s promotion was clever and respectful of Japanese culture and would have exposed many outsiders to history and art they might not have bothered paying attention to otherwise. In Kyoto, Japan, there are lots of studios that invite tourists to go through the lengthy process of dressing in traditional Geisha and Samurai garb.

I’ve also met tourists who have had fun channeling Pharaohs in Egypt, Vikings in Sweden and Sumo wrestlers in Japan. I’ve personally had the honor of dressing like a Canadian! While on Prince Edward Island, I met Japanese and Chinese women who posed in red braids and straw hats and said they dreamed of visiting the land of Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables costume booth at the Confederate Bridge on Prince Edward Island.

Anne of Green Gables costume booth at the Confederate Bridge on Prince Edward Island.

I share my disappointment in the MFA for not standing up to a few protestors – as well as challenge the idea of “cultural appropriation” in general – in this opinion column for The Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper).

A snippet:

“Only a few generations after the Second World War, when Japan and the West viewed each other through the lens of brutal racial stereotypes, our first impressions are no longer Pearl Harbor and P.O.W. camps. My immediate associations with Japan are anime, baseball, comic books and video games. Go to any comic book convention and you’ll find that Japanese culture is worshipped.

I’d like to think that part of that cultural transformation is due to trying on each other’s clothes.”

I know it’s the journalistic equivalent of smacking a hornet’s nest with a baseball bat, but I also humbly propose 5 objective criteria to determine whether a costumed photo-op is offensive or not offensive.

If you appreciate fun travel photo-ops, whether they celebrate cultural or historical themes or not, please consider immortalizing your snapshots in my “museum.”

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Filed under Excuses to Dress in a Kimono, Journalism Assignments, tacky tourist photos

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