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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Today, a few thoughts on cultural appropriation (and sparking joy)

One of the things I think about a lot, and occasionally feel anxious about, is the very sticky issue of cultural appropriation. In short, cultural appropriation is the act of taking something from another culture and using it for your own profit without acknowledging where it came from, without sharing the profit with the people you took it from, and without recognizing the cultural (and social or even religious) context in which the things were first created.

This can also be called an act of cultural imperialism--the act of forcibly or violently taking what you want for your own purposes because, well, you can. This can also be termed privilege: if you want to say, "well, what's wrong with borrowing from other cultures?" the answer is most likely, "if you think you have the right to borrow (or let's face it, take) whatever you want, that is evidence that you live with implicit privilege." These discussions make people uncomfortable. They tend to crop up every Halloween when some moron at some company green lights costumes that represent different cultures, but in horribly stereotypical ways (or not even horrible--just ways), and then people flip out because "my culture is not your costume!!!!" And then, invariably, these costumes get pulled, the company says "sorry you were offended, didn't mean to!" (which is code for "sorry you people are so f@(#&@ sensitive! geez!") and then we wait with baited breath for the next misstep.

For crying out loud. And I'm not even going to get into the problem with the "exotic alluring Asian woman" stereotype.

This issue has a very complicated history. The reasons for objecting to stereotyping and "dressing up" as different cultures vary: the age-old love of pretending to be "Cowboys and Indians" not only relies on tired tropes about Native Americans, but also completely disregards the recent history and contemporary issues of many indigenous peoples. It also forgets the shocking violence done against indigenous peoples for centuries. And it romanticizes "cowboys" as heroes of the American West while glossing over their part in the imperial land grab that lies at the heart of American history. It's not pretty, is what I'm saying. So don't dress up as them! The use of "Asian" costume gets into a different set of issues and stereotypes: Asians as "exotic," effeminate, Asian women as particularly sexually alluring, Asians as inherently different, etc. Not to mention ways people exaggerate facial features to mimic Asian "stereotypes" that are just, racist. Stop it!

Seriously? Also, this photo is titled "china man." I.can't.even. StOP IT!!!!

Sorry, after that last photo, I needed to take a break. Ok, now, why do I bring this up? I recently came across two separate articles that are both of extreme interest to me that gave me food for thought. The first, this one, is about a new exhibit set to open February 8 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on the global influence of the kimono.

Evening dress, Autumn/Winter 1991, by Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, b. 1942) for Comme des Garçons Noir. Silk taffeta with hand painting. Collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute. © The Kyoto Costume Institute.PHOTO BY TAKASHI HATAKEYAMA

Now, I am dying to see this exhibit. As someone who takes most of her inspiration from kimono fabric and patterns and colors, I am fascinated with the diversity and creativity expressed in the history of kimono, including more recent iterations of this garment. To me, one of the things to celebrate about kimono is how much room for creativity, innovation, and pushing of boundaries exist for it.

The other thing I want to point out, despite my recent rant about terrible costumes and cultural appropriations about Asian culture, is that in the case of Japan, things get a little more complicated. Historically, Japan is a bit of an idiosyncrasy. Yes, it is a non-white nation that gets stereotyped in racist ways and has been subjected to various forms of unequal treatment by western powers. But it was also a colonizer, an appropriator, and a power in its own right. It's the third largest economic power. And it's not actually a "small island nation" (despite what any Japanese person, including my mama, will tell you). It's the size of California. And it is FULL of people. And as I've mentioned in other posts, if there is an actual Japanese tradition, it is its endless fluidity and flexibility with "Tradition." It is the first to appropriate itself, and appropriate and adapt from other cultures, taking what is convenient or useful while ignoring other things.

And then I came across this article on one of my favorite websites. The author writes passionately about the cultural significance of kimonos to her and others, and forcefully criticizes mainstream (ie white) culture for mindlessly appropriating the term, "kimono," without acknowledging the significance and meanings of the garment.

I will be honest and say I don't feel as strongly about this as the author does. I think that partly has to do with our different upbringings: she grew up here where she faced more overt racism about her Japanese heritage, and stigmatism for the cultural things associated with it. I grew up in Japan and feel very comfortable and safe about the Japanese things around me. Just like her, there are kimonos at my mom's house that belonged to my grandmother. But unlike her, we never had to choose whether or not to take up precious space in our luggage to bring them with us. They are just sitting in the "manshon" (Japanese for condo) where I grew up. I'm the only one interested in them. When they are just the things around you, everywhere, they don't carry the same intense significance as family heirlooms lovingly brought over many miles.

But I also get what she is saying. I've been spending a lot of time interviewing Japanese Americans in their late 80s about their childhood as they and their families were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and it's heartbreaking hearing them talk about everything they lost, including most of the things they had brought from Japan out of fear those things would make them appear suspicious to the government. (This might be a post for another time, but truly, it's hard to put in words--actually, it's impossible--the devastation to this community of having to walk away from EVERYTHING.) I've been asking people to share these stories off and on for almost 20 years now, but it never gets easy. And it remains difficult for these people, now some in their 90s, to talk about.

Japaneseness has been in the news a lot lately, mainly thanks to the annoyingly plucky cheer of Marie Kondo. Which brings me to the last thing that I've been thinking about. Cultural appropriation has one more side, which is what I call self-cultural appropriation.

Marie Kondo, you don't spark joy in me. Can I "thank you for your service" and then toss you?

Now, don't get me wrong. I actually think she has some useful suggestions. I'm still squatting with friends (now into my third month...the apartment is getting worked on, don't ask), and both sets of couples I stay with have been watching and tidying. I've been reading all the articles, ranging from how thrift stores are getting full with stuff dumped on them after New Years Day when Netflix dropped the series, to the one about how her approach is influenced by Shinto spirituality and her time as a worker at a Shinto shrine. Sure, I guess there is something to Shinto in her approach of treating each item as something to be thanked or even "awakened." But what irks me is the way her approach is being packaged as "the Japanese art of tidying" as though Japanese people in general all go around tapping books or thanking worn clothing before they toss them out. Trust me, there are plenty of messy and cluttered houses in Japan. Also, most Japanese people don't go around talking to their clothes or "waking up" their books. This is not "the Japanese art of Tidying" so much as "Marie Kondo's very clever marketing approach to making herself seem very special." She is, in other words, counting on YOUR assumption that there is something inherently special and exotic and mysterious about Japanese ways, so much so that she can turn a few helpful but general suggestions into an empire.

And frankly, that is also the "Japanese way." So people outside of Japan are enamored with Japan and think it's special? Sell them exactly what they expect! Behave like an exotic special and spiritual person and let that sweet money roll in!

Japanese people have been doing this forever. This is Okakura Kakuzo, author of such classics as "The Book of Tea," who used to dress up in 8th century court attire and seduce the rich ladies of Boston in the late 1800s.

And here's why I get anxious about this. Is what I do any different? Where is the line between using Japanese design influences because you genuinely love them, and using them because people are attracted to them?

My latest batch of "self-cultural appropriation." These are sort of addicting...

Here's the thing: the deeply complex and often painful histories that contextualize cultural objects, and our personal taste and interests, are sometimes hard to reconcile. Or not. For me, these colors and designs are comforting; they are the sights of home. And if other people like them as well, it makes me very happy. I think part of my own discomfort comes from insecurities about what people assume about me based on just my name, if they don't know me very well. But, I know myself. I know why I make what I make. In other words, they "spark joy" in me.

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