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:  

English Translation:

“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.”

English Translation:

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?”

English Translation:

“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):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmxmPg8duvw

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.

 

References:

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/.

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4 Comments

  1. Quite interesting article 🙂

    Nanami touches on one interesting aspect of “cultural appropriation” which is how the people in the West overly associate race/ethnicity as the component of the culture whereas it seems that we Japanese are not even aware that a lack of “right” ethnicity in the culture can lead to the cultural appropriation. I think the reason for such difference in the perceptions between the West and Japan is up to another discussion, but I would be interested to know how 日本人海外大生 (Japanese who were exposed to the Western culture) would feel about these photoshoots!

    • Thank you Nori for your comment ! 🙂 I think there definitely is a lack of knowledge amongst Japanese people what ‘cultural appropriation’ even means and they are unable to make the distinction and thus would associate anything to ‘appreciation’. (and vise versa with the West being overly sensitive about the issue at times and any cultural representations are ‘appropriation’). I would definitely also want to see 日本人海外大生 ‘s opinions since they are exposed to both cultures!

  2. Cultural appropriation and appreciation is a difficult topic to talk about, and I think Naomi did a great job explaining it with the example. I think it is one of those issues that every individual has to reconsider before posting such criticisms.

    But one thing I want to point out is that the reaction (in this case appreciation) from the Japanese could have been different, if the magazine used a different model.
    May be rude, but while
    Karlie Kloss is: a Victoria Secret model, who has a celebrity status, white, pretty, and her photo is for an American magazine (whose subscribers are mostly white).
    the reaction from the Japanese (mostly ネット民)could have been different (now it is cultural appropriation), if the
    model is: a South Korean, not that pretty (or had a plastic surgery), and her photo is for a South Korean magazine.
    For the latter case, I think some Japanese will be “appropriating” the model, while in other countries, people will be “appreciating” or simply ignoring the Japanese criticism.

    • Hey, its Nanami thanks for your input 🙂 ! I completely agree with you that the reactions could have differed if it had been a model from another race, thats a very good point. (not to mention the bad blood between Japanese and Koreans from the past) Japanese people could possibly react differently because we expect those who are Asians to understand our culture more-so than someone who is Caucasian simply because we understand the great distinction of different Asian cultures (to Americans, Korean and Japanese culture may be somewhat similar but we would argue otherwise) and thus I would say that this could be one of the reasons Karlie Kloss got the hall pass because we do not expect Caucasians to understand our culture in great detail. Obviously theres a lot more factors that come into play but I think inherently there definitely is a over appreciation or lack of a better term, great fascination towards white culture by Japanese people because it is so foreign to them the same way White people see Japanese culture as being exotic and different.

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