My grandmother is an avid and gifted quilt maker. She has dozens gathering dust in her cabinets, although one of her quilts was recently appraised at several thousand dollars. So for Christmas a few years ago, I gifted her bits of antique kimono fabric. Even when no longer wearable, Japanese traditional dress is too precious to be thrown away, so the remnants are made into smaller goods—silk purses, hair ornaments, decorative baubles or sometimes quilt pieces.
Japan has one of the strongest and most unique quilting traditions in the world. Originally an American import, Japanese women have made the craft their own. In my mind, a kimono fabric gift was an opportunity to interact with that tradition, to create something authentically American and authentically Japanese, so I was a little horrified when my grandmother decided to turn my gift into quilt depicting, in her words, “geisha girls.”
“Geisha girls” might be a common image of Japanese women in the West, but it is far from how the Japanese imagine themselves. Geisha are a curio from the Edo Era two centuries ago, and even then a geisha was not a typical Japanese women. Geisha were members of the “floating world”, virtuose of beauty and the arts, removed from the sphere of everyday life. Today, fewer than a hundred women act as geisha, mostly in a small, historical district of Kyoto. Geisha are just as exotic and foreign to modern Japanese people as they are to Americans.
As a dutiful granddaughter though, I collected woodblock prints from the Edo Era and photos of modern geisha for my grandmother to base her designs on. But there was very little in these authentic images that she was willing to use. The women’s kimono were too flowing, their faces too long. Even the obi, looped in the traditional Edo style, weren’t tied how she wanted. In the war between her mind’s eye and real life, there was no way the reality of Japanese women—and thus, their dignity—was going to win.
Not that the Japanese quilting world (or Japanese culture in general) is free of similar debasements. In the vending booths at the quilt show, fabric labeled “USA” was usually either tacky, garishly-colored prints or quaint florals, country enough to make even a Midwesterner retch. In the Japanese imagination, American quilting is typified by Tasha Tudor’s quaint, antiquated lifestyle in pastoral Vermont. Picturesque? Yes. Reality? No. For those of you who know my grandmother, can you imagine how she would react if a Japanese woman told her she could only be a real American quilter if she lived on a farm and dressed like it was 1918? Granny would definitely have some words for her, or at least pursed lips and a cold shoulder.
Just to be clear, this rant is not about my grandmother, the Japanese or quilting. A few weeks ago, I went to dinner with a Chasidic rabbi who used the opportunity to tell me “what’s wrong with Christianity”. From his seat across the table, he proceeded to tell me what I believe as a Christian. About 50% of his information was correct. He also spoke about how Shintoism, the Japanese indigenous religion, is verboten because people worship idols inside Shinto shrines. When I and the Japanese who were present pointed out that there are no statues inside Shinto shrines, the rabbi told us we were definitely wrong. There are definitely idols inside shrines, which is why he’s never been to one.
But this rant isn’t about the Lubavitch either. It’s about mindsets that say, “I want to interact with your culture, but only in the ways it fits my pre-conceived stereotype” or “Be yourself, as long as ‘yourself’ is how I want you to be.” This is probably the number one thing living abroad teaches a person: ethnocentrism is not a virtue.