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Interpretation: by Whom and for Whom?

Written by Leslie Bedford

The more interesting question from a museum perspective was the second one that focused on the issue of interpretation. Did Japan House teach about contemporary Japan or provide a glimpse into a disappearing lifestyle? This is a complicated story to tell even now.

Important gifts are never free; they carry obligations. And in the case of this magnificent gift, which was jointly paid for by American and Japanese sources, the obligations were much more serious than the museum had anticipated or perhaps ever understood. As a gift from Boston's sister city of Kyoto, Kyo no machiya linked us deeply to many individuals and groups there who essentially saw the house as representing Japanese culture in Boston and by extension the United States. They cared deeply about how we treated it, their culture, and themselves. And of course each time we turned to them for help—new tatami, a design for handicapped access, and soon the raising of endowment funds—we were tightening the bonds. This relationship created enormous pressures on the staff who were, at least initially, naïve and ignorant of how things work in Japan. They were often unable to see the nurturing of the official relationship as a significant piece of their real work.

As program director, one of my first acts was to hire a full-time, Kyoto-born woman who brought a level of expertise to this work that none of the earlier Japanese-Americans or Japanese volunteers could provide. An artist, trained flower arranger, and educator, she brought polish, elegance and authenticity to her programs that could be quite magical. At the same time, although a program insider, she shared many of the feelings of our Japanese donors and also had to answer to them for the museum's—or my personal–inappropriate behavior. As head of the program and with many good ideas, but at least initially not nearly enough Japanese experience, I often was at sea and unable to sort out what one senior manager had asked early on—only partly tongue in cheek–"Is this Japanese or is it crazy?" The steady stream of courtesy calls and visitors from abroad, of ceremonial events and meetings with the Consul-General, of dinners and lunches and gift giving seemed at times to bury us. It took the museum a long time to understand that this too was legitimate work and that we needed to hire someone to pay attention to these duties rather than experience them as interruptions.

The pressures were intense for everyone. In the early days of the Japanese House program, the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Japan was experiencing a new status in the world and the American-Japanese relationship was being reframed, there were endless opportunities for misunderstanding. My predecessor at the museum had lost her job partially because of cross-cultural issues, and everyone who worked on the program at one time or other had to find a balance between their personal lives and professional pressures. The Japanese staff, in particular, were always caught in the middle.

This complex intercultural dance provided an important context for the issue of interpretation. From the beginning, our friends in Japan and the United States had understood and applauded the museum's dedication to learning through doing; they wanted the house used by the public. We worked hard to find ways to bring the space to life without putting it at risk or over-tasking limited staff resources. For instance, Japanese families put their futon bedding away every morning in a closet. We often would leave it out so visitors could see it or even try it out. More than one toddler took a nap there. But over time the bigger issue became which—or whose–version of Japan were we presenting?

The responses of ordinary Japanese visitors, not officials, to the house usually fell into two types: "This is incredible, I feel as if I'm in Japan." And, quite frequently, "This reminds me of my grandmother's house." While the former was gratifying, the latter was troubling. As I took more and more trips to Japan, I became increasingly bothered by the image we were perpetuating: the spare beauty of this ultra traditional environment looked very little like the apartments and houses I visited which, as Japan became wealthier and wealthier, were crammed with Western consumer goods. We began sneaking things in: a TV set in the front room, which looked weird but at least suggested modernity, packages of cereal, soup and cookies in the kitchen, a kit of Transformers and other contemporary toys. And I began imagining turning the Japanese house upstairs into a child's bedroom, replacing the futon with bunk-beds and a student desk–though clueless as to how I would broach this change to the local branch of the Kyoto-based Urasenke School of Tea who used the tea room every weekend.

In retrospect I realize I was trying to implement my own as well as the museum's fundamentally constructivist philosophy of education. Trained as a classroom teacher, I believed in starting with what people knew—the familiar rather than the strange—and the audience was American visitors. It was great that Japanese people felt at home there and even better that we could work together on programs, but the ones I really cared about were the families who had never visited Japan, weren't likely to get there anytime soon and could find very little commonality between their lives and those of today's Japanese families. In a way I was trying to do what Joan Lester had done with the Native American Program and the We're Still Here exhibit. Only she and her advisory group were totally on the same page about what they were doing, and I and mine were often not. I thought we were presenting Japan too much as the "other," but many Japanese, at least the ones who were then involved with the program, did not share this perspective.

Now, years later, I realize that there is value to beginning with wonder and awe, using the new to evoke imagination and learning. This thinking lies at the heart of my doctoral work but wasn't part of my or anyone else at the museum's philosophy at the time. I detested exoticizing other people but didn't yet know how to incorporate a purely Japanese voice into the work while still addressing an American audience. We were in the middle of a genuine sea change in thinking about the presentation of cultures, and it was confusing and hard work.

Cultural education falls into two camps, each with a basic goal. One is to learn about another place for its own sake—the more we know the world, the better world citizen we become. The other is to see the exploration of a foreign culture as a journey in self-understanding. Through understanding the values, arts, and social structures of another culture people begin to take a second look at their assumed ways of doing things and in the process arrive at a new understanding of humanity. I think the generous people who donated the house and continued to visit and care for it were members of the first camp; their goal was to teach Americans about authentic Japanese culture as embodied by this extraordinary artifact. And this was perhaps especially true of those Japanese who lived in the States and had spent many years trying to straddle two cultures. My goal was the second one: to use Japan as a means to personal and cultural exploration. I came to realize years later—and thus left this field–that it wasn't Japan I cared about as much as the journey of discovery. But of course, for the museum, the dichotomy was about more than educational theory and practice. It embraced all the issues of cross-cultural collaboration, the history of the program and our intense relationship with the city of Kyoto, the evolving Japanese-American relationship, and ultimately the interpersonal issues between me and my original staff.

I came to understand how my plans for the exhibition's future were viewed by some of the original supporters when one of the oldest trustees, who had been deeply involved in the arrival of the house, scornfully dismissed my new exhibit plans as being "about blue jeans!"

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