Written By Nanami Nogami
As long as you are on the internet, you are bound to come across the term “cultural appropriation” at one point or another, whether that is from angry tweets accusing of a celebrity that was caught using ‘insensitive’ slangs that didn’t originate from their heritage, or in news headliners critiquing a photoshoot issue released featuring ‘misrepresented’ cultural clothing. It’s almost as if its a given to expect a swarm of people to come your way if you ever dare to show any interest in a culture that isn’t yours.
The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is blurry – and is a constant topic of discussion for years, and certainly, many more years to come.
Recently in my Anthropology class, I inherited a new term called “structural violence” that I’d like to share today which closely relates to this topic. Structural violence by definition is “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”. It is used in instances in which the dominant groups steal or hijacks a part of what belongs to the minority group, which is why cultural appropriation is cohesive to structural violence and sheds light on why it can be so dangerous.
This inspired me to research how Japanese people react to cultural appropriation as part of my Anthropology research project and my findings were rather unexpected, that it led me to question whether the cultural appropriation is even a real phenomenon at all.
I had observed that often with those angry tweets or critical comments, it wasn’t necessarily always coming from the voice of minority groups but in fact the majority were from those who are claiming to advocate for the minority groups. This is a form of prejudice and ignorance, and ironically a case of structural violence in itself, as the dominant groups are although in intention trying to protect or give voice to the minority, they are not hearing the actual reactions from them. Therefore my purpose for this project was simple, to provide agency – meaning that my aim was to pass the spotlight to the actual ‘victims’ of cultural appropriation, the Japanese people.
I based my research case study on a Vogue magazine shoot that was released last year that portrayed a series of pictures of Victoria Secret model Karlie Kloss, wearing ‘Geisha’ themed outfits. This resulted in complete backfire, to the point that not only Vogue, but Karlie Kloss herself had to come out to issue an apology for taking part in the photoshoot.
The following are some of the pictures that were issued:
While the world was outraged accusing Vogue of “white washing” and being “disrespectful” or “racist” towards Japanese culture by choosing a Caucasian woman to dress in an Asian clothing instead of hiring Japanese models, the reaction from actual Japanese people were quite the opposite. The majority of Japanese people have expressed that they were “glad that their culture is being recognised by the world” and took no offence but rather received as a form of flattery.
The following are tweets from Japanese users:
“What makes me angry is people getting upset and shouting that this is racist even as they ignore the sensibilities of people in Japan. It’s easy to see that they’re trying to use the situation to drum up business, and in the end, they don’t really care about what the people from the culture in question actually think.”
“They’re psychopaths who get a sense of superiority by calling anything and everything racist until the other party bows its heads in shame.”
Karlie Kloss dresses like a Japanese person.
Japanese people: “Wow! You respect Japanese culture! You’re our friend! We’re happy!”
People overseas: “She’s stealing Japanese culture!”
People overseas: “She’s making fun of Japanese people!”
Japanese people: “Huh?”
“So in regards to Karlie Kloss, as Japanese people, we should be saying ‘There’s no problem! Please do more of this!’ about any aspect of Japanese culture. And to those who say this is whitewashing or racist, to you I say, before you get angry at her, please do something about your concepts about ninja.”
There’s also a link to a video that I’ve found of some Japanese people expressing their opinion about the photoshoot (spoiler: 100% of the people have supported the photoshoot concept):
So in conclusion, it is fair to say that “cultural appropriation” to an extent, can sometimes be coming from the wrong people who take offence to the most minuscule detail which are blown out of proportion. Personally my impression is that the ‘Karlie Kloss photoshoot scandal’ is cultural appreciation and not appropriation. I think that there is no harm in discussion. However, it is definitely important to have awareness of what appropriating a culture means and identify when it is being done, but what is more important is to pay attention to what people of the minority are actually saying rather than making assumptions of what their reactions would or should be, as sometimes it can have the backwards effect of hurting the minority groups rather than helping them. Let this be a lesson for those people who have mistakenly appropriated Japanese people’s opinion by not hearing them out.
Bassel, Cassey. “Japanese Twitter Seems to Have No Problems with Karlie Kloss’ ‘Geisha’ Photo Shoot.” SoraNews24, SoraNews24, 17 Feb. 2017, soranews24.com/2017/02/17/japanese-twitter-seems-to-have-no-problems-with-karlie-kloss-geisha-photo-shoot/.
Kichi, Danny. “Japanese Twitterati’s Response to Karlie Kloss’ Geisha Shoot for Vogue’s ‘Diversity Issue’ Is Surprising.” DramaFever News, TooFab and HPMG News, 17 Feb. 2017,www.dramafever.com/news/japanese-twitter-responds-to-most-recent-controversy-regarding-cultural-appropriation-by-vogue-but-not-in-the-way-that-youd-think/.