Big in Japan is bad in Winnipeg.
That's what the Winnipeg Art Gallery discovered in recent days as it reeled in the backlash to its 25th annual Art and Soul fundraiser entitled Big in Japan.
As a result, Stephen Borys, the WAG's director and CEO, confirmed on Wednesday it has scrapped the Japanese theme entirely and, just a week and a half before the event is held, is now going with a theme of 'Hot and Cold: 4 Seasons at the WAG' to celebrate "Manitoba's distinctive seasons."
Borys admitted the original theme had been greeted "with mixed reactions in the community.
"It became clear over the course of the last few days that the event itself was being overshadowed by the issues at hand," he said.
'It became clear over the course of the last few days that the event itself was being overshadowed by the issues at hand' -- Stephen Borys, the WAG's director and CEO
The fundraiser, to be held on Feb. 22, is in its 25th year and features different themes each year. Past themes have included London Calling, New York New York and Viva Las Vegas.
Before the WAG's website was updated with the new theme, it told possible attendees to "grab your chopsticks" or "show off your karate skills" and "throw on a kimono and celebrate everything Japanese."
The gala takes over all four floors of the WAG and features live music and entertainment.
Borys said the event is put together by a group of volunteers, but in the end the WAG itself approves it.
"What was approved was looking at the best of Japan," he said, citing a list including cuisine, art and anime.
"But there's another level of history. There was enough comment and criticism that we felt we had to dialogue with the community.
"We are sorry for any offence that was caused."
Borys said they spoke about partnering with the Manitoba Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, but that organization was already busy with another event. A spokesman for the MJCCC could not be reached for comment.
In the end, Borys said the WAG doesn't shy away from controversial themes with its art exhibits, but at a fundraiser, which encourages community members to come in costume, it doesn't have enough control over it.
"You can only do so much -- if someone has worn inappropriate dress then it has gone too far," he said.
Jenny Heijun Wills, an assistant professor in the University of Winnipeg's English department, and the person who sparked the issue on social media and in a column in Wednesday's Free Press by accusing it of being "yellowface," said she is pleased with the WAG's decision.
Wills said she believes the fallout would have been even worse if the event had gone on with the original theme.
"I can't imagine what kind of photos would have appeared and what kind of public relations nightmare it could have been for them," she said.
"In this case, you can predict what might have happened."
Prof. Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said he doesn't believe the event's organizers intended to hurt members of the community.
"Stereotyping can sometimes be innocent or insidious," Schafer said.
"I think the art gallery is right to change the theme... if members of the Japanese community find it offensive, then the art gallery is right to change. I just don't think we should condemn them (WAG) harshly."
Prof. Lori Wilkinson, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the University of Manitoba's faculty of arts and a professor in the sociology department who teaches a course on ethnic relations, said the WAG should have spoken with members of the community before settling on the Big in Japan theme.
"There's ways of celebrating culture without dehumanizing or stereotyping it," Wilkinson said.
"It's too bad. Hopefully they learned better ways of dealing with it."
Was the WAG culturally insensitive in its choice of theme? Or is this a case of overblown political correctness? Join the conversation in the comments below.