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Critics of Big in Japan go overboard

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Dear Editor

As a naturalized Canadian citizen of Polish and British ancestry who has the highest respect for Asian culture, particularly the historical cultures of China and Japan, to the extent that I have endeavoured to acquire even a rudimentary knowledge of their languages, I find Jenny Heijun Wills' article, WAG and the peril of yellowface (Free Press, Feb. 12) to be overreactive.

In the unlikely contingency that a cultural institution in Japan were to sponsor a Canadian-themed event, and were to use phrases such as, "Crawl out of your igloo, grab your tuque, your hockey stick and your maple leaf boxer shorts, harness up the dog team and mush on down to our fundraiser," I wonder if Canadians of any ethnic background living in Japan would be grossly offended.

Heijun Wills writes that "intention does not matter," but I truly doubt that any intention of ridicule or "cultural tourism" was present in the Winnipeg Art Gallery's choice of words.

If we are to scorn "cultural appropriation," then we should cast a cold eye on much of the decorative arts of 18th-century Europe, particularly France, where the vogue of Chinoiserie, the imitation of Chinese decorative motifs, had a sweeping influence on everything from interior design to textiles and porcelain.

In the same century, the gorgeous Imari porcelains of Japan inspired the emulation of the great English pottery manufacturers, Wedgwood, Spode, Chelsea and Derby, to name only four.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the similar phenomenon of Japonisme engulfed Europe, especially after the Japanese pavilion proved to be the most popular venue at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, and without the influence of Japanese art, we might not have some of the most compelling works of Vincent van Gogh.

Do Heijun Wills's objections to "decontextualized images" mean that henceforth, if Winnipeg's outstanding Gilbert and Sullivan Society wants to stage The Mikado, it will be necessary to eliminate all references to Japan, or alternatively, issue a "we don't mean to offend anyone" apology? Will the Manitoba Opera Association be placed in the same position if they want to present Puccini's Madame Butterfly?

To carry the factor of racialism further into the equation, should a concert pianist have to apologize before including Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk in a recital, because, for readers who may be too young to remember, a golliwog was a blackface doll dressed in the blue jacket and red and white striped trousers of a performer in a Kentucky minstrel show?

Unfortunately, an attempt at humour can, unintentionally, backfire and hit a sensitive nerve, as I conjecture was the case with Heijun Wills, but my own reaction to her article is best encapsulated in a quotation of which, since Heijun Wills is a professor of English, it would be superfluous for me to cite the source: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."


David Rozniatowski


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 A17

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