Respecting Culture vs. “Having Fun”

18 09 2009

Believe it or not, the following are actual photos from the Asian Art Museum’s own Spot the Samurai promotional campaign.

And then there are the video spots:

This is the kind of promotion that has been described by a major museum’s distinguished curator as “fairly insulting to the whole idea of the samurai.”

Apparently the Hosokawa family, owner of the art objects on display, has gone along with it, but we can’t imagine they’re too proud or thrilled to have their exquisite collection associated with such a cheapening of culture. (In fact, we were told by one museum official that they have no intention of the Hosokawas finding out about this protest).

Some of our own principal staff are documented descendants of samurai ourselves, and we have to say we find this gross mishandling of our ancestral culture horribly offensive.

Museum staff have told us they’re just “having fun.”


Now, lest you believe that this is solely the work of the museum’s PR/Marketing department, think again.

Here are photos of the museum’s director donning the costume:

This is the highly esteemed head of the museum, a man with his own sense of agency and personal politics, wearing the cheap samurai costume in front of an audience.

This is the reality of the culture inside the museum, a place where staff actually believe that a footnote on a wall didactic somehow makes up for an insulting ad campaign plastered all over the city.

The question of “gate,” or the need to draw people into the museum, as justification for this kind of promotional practice has been raised repeatedly, but nowhere have we seen any serious consideration or voice given to those who are misrepresented by and have to live with the consequences of such deliberately base distortions of our cultures.

And who gets to decide:  those who benefit at the box office, or those who have to deal on a daily basis with such dehumanizing stereotypes projected upon their racialized bodies?

The very “logic” of such a question is founded upon a deeply ingrained tradition of Orientalist, white supremacist entitlement: the presumption that you could somehow put a box office price on the racial stereotyping of Others is itself a repugnant proposition.

It profoundly shapes how people look at us, and how we see ourselves.

Through this art action we are telling the museum, and the rest of the world that is watching, that it’s no longer solely the museum’s place to decide.




12 responses

19 10 2009
sumie [a.k.a. "aoi"]

hi, there!
thank you for reply.

I understood what triggers your anger.

when I saw your parody page, I was amazed at the high level of accomplishment .
however, can you get many followers in this way?

why don’t you teach right history about what happened between Korean and japan at that time.?

What we see depends upon where we stand.
It’s more important to recognize that there are a variety of standpoints and ways of looking at each historical fact.

For those people with opposing arguments, it is our desire that you realize that there are others who act differently or see things differently from you.

what I want to say;
first requisite for success of your parody site and raise the profile of a movement in general,

I think people need to be more engaged and actually trying to understand, you know, the other, their perspective, where they’re coming from and so forth.

lately. as a historian and Budo teacher .
I add the meaning of “Bu”.

according to Zuo Zhuan (B.C, 4).
the word “Bu” means “to stop fighting with a pike.”

20 10 2009

Thank you for sharing your comments.

We’re curious about what appears to us to be a basic contradiction: on one hand the post advocates teaching the “right history,” while at the same time pointing out the need to recognize variety in historical viewpoints. How do you reconcile the two?

What is “right history” and who gets to tell it?

We reference a multiplicity of sources on our site, demonstrating that our perspectives are not singularly our own, but are in fact widely supported by recent scholarship. And yet, the comment above implies that the history we reference, regardless of the endorsement by academic historians, is somehow “wrong.”

As reported in this New York Times article, the history between Japan and Korea in the late-16th century remains contested by competing interests.

Is there really one “right history,” and who gets to decide? Is the version of history that has been historically taught in Japanese school textbooks the “right history”?

The notion of “right history” suggests the privileging of one singular vision of history, and the subordination of all others. Implicit in this is an intolerance for the variety of historical viewpoints that the commenter appears to be advocating for, which can in practice amount to censorship. This intolerance is documented, for example, not only in Li Ying’s film Yasukuni, in the form of what film critic A.O. Scott describes in this review as “ugly, xenophobic nationalism,” but also in the efforts by neonationalists to silence the film with the “threat of ultra-right wing violence.”

So we’d like to ask Sumie (identified elsewhere on this blog by the screen name “Aoi”): Since you feel that the history on our site is not right, can you provide us with your version of right history? As a historian yourself, it shouldn’t be difficult to offer up one or more academically-credible sources of history for us to consider.

Thank you for your consideration.

19 10 2009

when you have time. please my blog!

20 10 2009


sumie is my online namein my blog. aoi is my name.

you said , ” can you provide us with your version of right history?”
my answer is ” it is impossible ”
no one know what happened ,
if we know it , we should make time machine.

however, I agrree with your article about samurai .

Might I also add a sense of ethics of world ( modern japan) is different from samurai’ period.

about samurai and Bushido wrirtten by Nitobe .
Soukichi Tsuda (historian , 1837-1961) has already pointed out the problem of Nitobe’s Bushido.
As you mentioned, actual samurai is different from samurai’s image in movie such as Last samurai and Nitobe’s bushido
when I read his book , I agreed with his theory.
So I thought it is right .

but I don’t have time machine . so I have never seen real samurai world.
when I say that it is right history , because I agreed with the theory.
that is all I can say.

here is a book I want to recommend .
it is written in Japanese.
it is not samurai book .
it is kind of crimatology.

Hudo by Tetsuro Watsuji.(風土 和辻哲郎)
this book may help to understnad Japanese.

Your site’s name is “ Asians art Museum”.
Museum is a training ground.
You have provided a training ground for studying history and cluture.
I hope you continue to maintain an attitude of strict neutrality.

Let’s change the subject.
Well, I’m mostly interested in art , the spiritual part in japanese, such as Buddhism or Zen ,and cross cluture exchange.

Aside from terrible topic suc as militalism , war, violence,・・

sometime I want to see nice place in your country , interesting book , nice food, traditional art in your country in your own blog.
aren’t you going to do a more nice cross-cultural exchange?

21 10 2009

In the original post, we were asked why we don’t teach right history about Korea and Japan. Now we’re told it’s impossible, and that you agree with us.

In any case, we may be missing the point on this thread, or how the book on climatology fits in, but all of it suggests to us the need to restate what our own intentions are here, so that the scope of this blog can be better understood.

We are contemporary artists, and the website and blog are part of the art that was created as a cultural intervention, in the form of parody. The target of the intervention was the cultural practices going on at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, in particular their exhibit about samurai.

This blog is a place to engage in dialogue related to the intervention, as well as get information about the project in general. As artists we’re committed to responding responsibly to issues raised in the dialogue produced by our work, as they relate to the work itself.

But more generally speaking, we are not an actual museum, and are unable at this time to serve as a broader educational resource on history and culture, or to host a general forum for discussion of food, sightseeing, traditional art, and so on.

Thank you for your interest and understanding.

22 10 2009

thank you .

I hope everything is well and happy with you all!

25 10 2009

Thanks for your parody website. I think I met one of you at some event at KSW I think last year.

I was recently in Kyoto and attended the Jidai Matsuri, a 100 year old event that features a parade of 2000 citizens in costumes tracing 1000 years of history, including Samurai and Ladies of the Samurai, as well as common folk. So by your standards, this is glorification as well, I would think. What do you think Kyoto should do about this?

27 10 2009


Did you happen to read our previous comment on this same thread:

“The target of the intervention was the cultural practices going on at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco . . .

“This blog is a place to engage in dialogue related to the intervention, as well as get information about the project in general.”

How is it our place to say what “Kyoto should do” about celebrations of its own history? Obviously it’s not, nor would we presume it to be, regardless of the question’s sad implication to the contrary.

That said, we wish we could have enjoyed your good fortune of attending the matsuri. And we’ll take this moment to talk about the gross contextual difference between that traditional festival in Kyoto and the show at the Asian Art Museum.

We don’t know what standards you are choosing to attribute to us, but one we consider to be paramount that your question so flippantly overlooks is context. Our critique is in large part predicated on the belief that meaning is a function of context.

The importance of historical context is a point we’ve made repeatedly, some might say by now ad nauseum. Here’s what we said in our interview at

“It’s because of how the samurai as a symbol has been Orientalized: taken out of time, out of historical context, instead turned into another idealized ‘marvel of the East.'”

And in the SF Chronicle, italics added:

“to deny… context from a warrior culture such as this one, particularly for an audience largely unfamiliar with that history, is to effectively aestheticize violence, knowingly, in a time of war.”

Not to mention numerous times on this very blog.

With regard to context in the present example, it’s a no brainer.

A century-old event tracing a millenium of Japanese cultural history, taking place not just in Japan, but in the storied former capital and very center of history and traditional culture itself, with thousands of participants in costumes reproduced using authentic materials based on exhaustive research: in context? Kinda sounds like it, yes?

Contrast that with a show about samurai in the US, where the dominant samurai image in American culture comes from more than a century of enthusiasm for a romanticized ahistorical archetype of virtuous oriental warrior, wrapped in racial stereotype and serving as one more idealized Other in a familiar repertory of Orientalist tropes. Who in this country, outside of scholars of Asian history, is familiar with real samurai history, as opposed to romanticized myth? And what happens when you make plainly visible such history, as we’ve done with this intervention?

As mentioned by Tom Conlan, a leading scholar of samurai history, at the end of this article, “people get upset when they find the myth they believe in is not reality.” Not only have we found the same to be true, we’ve noticed that by and large those who do get upset are not even aware of what it is they are upset about.

It’s just history, and we’re not making it up, as evidenced by all the recent scholarship that our site is linked to. To borrow an analogy from Shoji Yamada’s excellent new book Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West, when the mirror of real history is held up, the distortion behind the samurai myth is revealed to be much like that of a funhouse mirror.

What did the museum consciously choose to do with this history? In the example we gave in our interview at, we noted how the museum chose to spotlight Thomas Cleary, not an academic historian but rather a translator who has sold lots of books on “the way of the samurai”, as main catalogue essayist and special event guest, at the expense of the voices of historians such as Conlan. Again, isn’t this the funhouse mirror: deliberately choosing to promote myth at the expense of real historical context, this time in the name of box office?

It’s a concern that has been echoed by scholars and museum professionals alike.

But beyond the lack of historical context in content, what of the historical contexts of the events themselves with regards to the politics of cultural representation: who is representing whom, and where is it taking place?

This museum in the US has a documented history of controversy within the Asian communities whose cultures it purports to represent, and, as verified by the museum’s own director of publications (screen name xensen) in his comments in response to this blog post on collection, has its origin in the collection of a wealthy white man, in an institution originally staffed mostly by white folks. We’re not saying the museum hasn’t changed since its beginning, but obviously given recent history it has a long way to go and—how shall we say—it ain’t exactly Heian Jingu, where Jidai Matsuri has taken place for more than a century.

So given all of the the above, by our standards, it’s absurd to compare the century-old matsuri, taking place in the ancient capital—in Japan—to an aggressive promotional campaign in the US, considered even here to be “insulting to the whole idea of samurai” and featuring this fellow in a dorky plastic outfit doing the Rice-A-Roni on a cable car.

Where’s the context? Looks more like Disneyland or Hallowe’en to us. And what do his fellow passengers know of, for example, the troubled history of Hagakure, compared to their counterpart matsuri-goers in Kyoto? Let’s face it, they know a lot more about Rice-A-Roni than they do Hagakure, even if they did happen to see Ghost Dog.

In terms of representing and respecting culture in historical context, the difference really is absurd.

That’s why the change that’s called for is right here in the US, where we live and are impacted by the practices of museums like the one that sees fit to call itself “The Asian” in spite of its history, a museum which no doubt has much in common with other museums of Asian Art in this country.

27 10 2009

I’m glad I can be as provocative (if naive) in my questions as you are in your parody 🙂

There were a lot of western tourists at the Jidai Matsuri, and there was really no “context” to it, other than location and whatever cultural/historical memory exists amongst the parade-goers. So showing off the Samurai/Imperial culture in all its glory doesn’t exactly showcase the dark side as your intervention does, either. Maybe it’s “okay because Japanese people do it” (not a quote, just a provocative paraphrase), but isn’t there more to the context there as well? There still exists a Yasukuni shrine and museum which provide ample support and indoctrination to a militaristic point of view.

And not to quibble, but doesn’t your combative stance belie the non-militaristic, non-violent nature of what you wish to achieve? Or have I misread your wishes to combat militarism?

Cheerio 🙂

27 10 2009

I realize that your real target is the AAM, not “samurai culture” per se. But I think that perhaps even Japanese could be guilty of misrepresenting or giving a partial view of their own culture, no?

27 10 2009


Thanks for your interest, and apologies for our own brand of militarism. We (mis)read your original post as flip, in the wake of receiving one hostile email too many, but did what we could to respond substantively. Maybe it’s time for us to take a vacation . . .

We see the context of the century-old festival as pretty self-evident, not that that means the event-holders are passing out translated programs to foreign tourists explaining 1,000 years of history, dark side included, but simply that it’s taking place where the history happened, in a festival that’s been celebrated this way for a long time, with a general understanding and respect for the culture and history, in contrast to what went on here this summer.

That’s not to say that it’s not being represented through a hegemonic lens.

But as for the so-called dark side showcased by our intervention, it’s important to keep in mind that what we did can be referred to as “tactical intervention,” with very specific intentions and target. We’re dealing with a completely different set of circumstances and representational issues than the festival, so maybe we would have been better off to answer the original question by saying simply that it’s beyond the scope of what we’re trying to address.

We’re not at all saying that Japanese can’t be guilty of giving a partial view of their own culture, so we agree with you on that and about Yasukuni. In fact, if you look at what’s on our site (esp. left column), much of it is about how bushidō history and culture have been selectively represented and exaggerated in highly motivated ways to serve ideological ends, both in Japan and the US. There’s a link to an article called “Samurai and self-colonization in Japan” which relates to what you are suggesting.

So we agree with your point, but we don’t have an answer as to what intervention would be called for in Kyoto.

Similarly, but slightly off track, the issue of self-representation of Japanese culture is the subject of the book we recommended in our previous comment, Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West, by Shoji Yamada (2009). Yamada explores the idea of Zen in the West, and how traditional Japanese archery and the iconic Ryōanji rock garden in Kyoto both became popularly seen as “Zen” in Japan only through 20th century Western influence. It’s again about giving a partial view of the culture, but in this case by importing a flattering view of Japan from the West; a reappropriation of what’s been appropriated, if you will, that’s full of virtue but yet again not supported by history.

Just like the samurai.

(By the way, the author will be speaking at UC Berkeley next Tuesday, November 3).

28 10 2009

What an incredible resource you’ve put together! Thanks for all the references, that’s very helpful. I hope your site stays up for a long while.

I did visit Ryōanji – one of my favorite spots. I’m curious to check out the book you recommended. It does seem very “zen” to me, in that viewing it emphasizes the meditative absorption that’s typical of zen (which is originally from India by way of China, as I’m sure you know). Zen does seem to reach a kind of flowering and resonance in Japan that it didn’t reach or maintain in its land of origin. For that, I think we’re all glad. Anyway, that’s off topic.

Overall, I agree that the promotion shown in the photos above is ridiculous and cheapening. Our pop culture does that to everything, but it’s particularly disgraceful when applied to another culture. However, the unquestioning reverence shown at the other extreme has it’s own aura of ridiculosity as well, I’m sure you’d agree. Somewhere in the middle lies an area that examines and explores, yet leaves intact. We’re still groping for that middle ground, and your corrective helps pull us in the right direction.

Another off topic. When I was in China, some years back, I was struck by how the main museum in Beijing (can’t recall the name) had a lengthy, glowing description of calligraphy as being elemental in the culture of all Asia, yet had a minimalist description of Buddhism which barely mentioned India.

Thank God (or Buddha, or History) that we’re not in a repressive state where alternative viewpoints are suppressed. There’s even a good chance that your alternative views will find their mark and promote change.

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