my mum and four year old me standing in front of our home
on the day of the entry ceremony of nursery.
The recent feed of @littlecreativefactory, showcasing their new collection called “wabi sabi” that has nothing to do with it, has deeply upset me. I found it irritating and insulting. It followed by @papercutpatterns, presenting non-buttoned top calling “kimono”, which then they’ve amended the name after the apology, whilst they wiped all the discussion, which is another problem in itself.
This is not the first time, not even a small number. Wonky pot called wabi sabi. T-shirts printed random Japanese words that make no sense. I’ve seen them over and over again in the West, well before Instagram. I am sick and tired of seeing people mocking our Japanese culture, whilst they are innocently claimed themselves “inspired by”. And seeing those who continue to voice and call out brands to work better so we can be in the better place, but instead they almost always end up facing the fragility of people who cannot see the problem (or try to ignore it) and having to deal with microaggression, simply makes my blood boil.
Calling out for cultural appropriation is a way to make people aware of that which they cannot see themselves and unfortunately this blindness seems to be happening too often. I can think it is an act of kindness to call out in the hope to create a safe space with no harm. Not acknowledging the harm is dangerous for people on the receiving end. Silence is not kindness. I am more than sad, I am angry and hurt. This blog post is about my honest thoughts on cultural appropriation from the perspective as a Japanese and a maker, and at first and foremost as a human being.
Where is the line?
I must admit I have carried a mixed feeling for some time, when I saw our cultural words were used wrongly. Because I can see their interest. Because I would like more people to get to know our culture. There’s a grey area that we often question how far is ok and not ok. When the grey area get pushed, something worse can happen, and it did as I’ve experienced it.
I am not saying you cannot be inspired by other culture. We all get inspired by something, somewhere, someone. I acknowledge how much Westerners are attracted to Japan. For its mystery. We are often “fantasised”. As I came to study English language in UK, I was inspired too by English language for the communication possibility and seeing the world outside Japan. Of course I understand so well that many people who are interested in learning about foreign country, culture and language. I understand people want to visit or even live in Japan. If you are one of them, good for you. I encourage you. Because that is a start of learning about other culture and people. Through the real living experience and conversation with people of origin. You can’t just get it from the book or screen. What you have fantasised might transcend to a much deeper meaning and understanding than you had before.
Just because you are inspired by Japanese culture or aesthetic, or read some of it, I don’t believe you are entitled to use it in whatever way you want for a mere profit, like naming your products “kimono” or “wabi sabi” that has NOTHING to do with them. Unlike just translating more generic words like ‘flowers’ and ‘stone’ that everybody knows, “kimono” and “wabi sabi”are some of many examples of our cultural words, that have been existing and deeply living only within Japanese people.
Oh, but, those words are everywhere now. Everyone uses them, so what’s the problem? You may ask. The problem is the fact that everyone is using it so lightly. Everyone is doing it, so everyone think they can do it too. When people in the West take over the foreign cultural words and make them “culturally acceptable” in their white centred term. It’s based on their power to “make it ok” and they propagate such ideas. And it’s done so lightly and no one questions the problem. It happens without respecting the foreign culture, without clear understanding and without considering the significant impact on those on the receiving end. It is offensive. It can lead to a from of racism that was built on such blindness and fragility. And it is worse when this happens a dominant culture - the power holder - appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.
For instance, “wabi sabi” is one of the Japanese expressions that we native people find it particularly difficult to articulate, and we hardly use it in our daily life, even though it is rooted deeply within our heart and time passing nature surround us. Whilst native Japanese struggle to express it and rarely use the term, how come Westerners can name as their products with it so easily? Honestly? It is frightening to see 言葉の一人歩き** happens from wilful ignorance.
** 言葉の一人歩き (kotoba no hitori aruki) literally translates as “word walking on its own”. It’s the Japanese expression of the state of misused and misinterpreted information, that has nothing to do with the origin, are spreading selfishly in the society.
When I see our cultural words are used in the West time and time again, more often than not for their money sake, I get this agonising pain in my spine. That pain can be described as my feeling on the bottom line;
Our cultural words are not your trend. Our culture is not your entertainment.
To me, being inspired is not enough. Because it does not measure the correctness. The correctness will require the level of respect toward the culture of origin and the level of understanding with all nuance and subtlety that won’t offend people from the origin. You cannot judge those levels by yourself.
Some of you may think or have said in such debate, too sensitive, too politically correct, too over-reacting, or even narrow minded. Do you know how I feel as I write this blog? I feel alone. I may have no back up. I feel totally defenceless. This is because;
Firstly, I am not an educator, an author, a translator, or an expert. I am limited to explain effectively.
Secondly, because of the language. I have to exhaust my energy to tell people why I think it’s wrong in a foreign language (English). It took me a whole week to rewrite this over and over again and still feels not enough to explain it all. Quite likely so, many native Japanese (including those friends of mine who share their views) cannot communicate in English. Let alone use it for confrontation.
Thirdly, as you may know, Japanese are a nation of politeness. We are often too polite to confront for the sake of argument. We respect others and make peace within our heart. It is our nature, our social characteristic NOT to put opinion forward. (unfortunately it can be rather a weakness for us.) Then there are people outside who take advantage of it.
So in the end, we are often left watching the world abuse us. And it hurts. Cultural appropriation hurts people. It even triggers my anxiety.
I feel this hurts more often and more acute lately than when I was living in Japan. This is quite likely my perception has changed a lot since I live in UK. (will talk about this later why) The truth is Japanese people’s reaction can vary. The degree of involvement and the focus on the matter can differ from people to people. As Emi Ito @little_kotos_closet said herself in her dedicated narrative on Kimono, not every native Japanese who live in Japan are concerning about cultural appropriation. But most of the case, they are not even aware of what’s happening in the West, because such debates do not happen in Japan as often as the outside of the country. They are not sunk in racial problem within their daily living in such mono-racial country.
But it doesn’t mean that you can ignore those who are aware and care. When people point out the lack of respect, those voices are totally valid. In fact those who are telling you it matters and hurts should be the utmost centre of care. I once talked about cultural appropriation in my past IG post, then now prior to this blog post, I have spoken to numbers of Japanese people including; those who live in Japan, those who live outside Japan, those who are biracial and carry Japanese heritage. Those who speak out their hurts are the centre of my attention and who I would like to support. And I really don’t believe anyone have the right to criticise that we (and those who speaks out) are too sensitive.
But what about Japan?
Yes, Japanese people do that too. Japanese people also have the tendency to use foreign words, often ignorantly. If you have travelled the city of Tokyo, you would have probably noticed that there are many shops written in English logo. Every time I go back to Japan and see people wearing clothes with English words that make no sense, I often feel like crawling into a hole with embarrassment. Yes we seem to love using English in such ways, and it’s been happening a lot, especially since more and more Westernised we get. Must not forget the impact from America that effectively occupied Japan after the war and we’ve been significantly influenced by the white ideology.
It is so apparent that people in Japan lack the awareness on cultural appropriation within such mono-racial society. It’s our weakness in defence. I believe this contributes to the reasons that why we won’t often get involved in the debate. Because how can we whilst we are doing so ourselves? As I said I have discussed with numbers of native Japanese people prior to this blog, and many have expressed this awkwardness. I admit Japanese people need to learn about cultural appropriation individually and collectively. More so makers and brands hold this responsible for impacting consumers, spreading the ignorance in the society, when we are doing incorrectly and naively.
Though almost having held back my voice with knowing own nation’s awkwardness in defence, I would like to express it from my personal point of view, after living a half of my life in Japan and another half in UK, seeing Japan and the world from this unique position. In my opinion, I still lean on to that there are more weight on the majority and believe that the power is laid on the whiteness in the West. My focus of frustration is the misuse of cultural related words and that seems to be happening more in the West. Or am I completely biased? Is this the view from someone who has experienced racism (as I wrote here) in the white society? Is this because I am constantly questioning my identity? The more I see Japan from outside, the more I would like to protect my origin of culture, and the eagerer I am to pass down the true cultural influence to next generation, including my daughter. Is it wrong to wish to protect the culture of your origin? Is this desire relatable to anyone?
The difference is that whist Japanese people live in Japan might withhold their voice in order to avoid confrontation or necessity, because they never experienced the trauma, that Japanese people outside of Japan might have had. And my ultimate bottom line - “Our cultural words are not your trend. Our culture is not your entertainment.” - have to be centred to those who are in the minority, who are are hurt and distressed by it. We have to be very mindful about that.
We all make mistakes
I name all of my pottery collection in Japanese. I know exactly what the name means. I can explain clearly why it is called that way and what idea goes behind it. If you are my customers, you know I do so clearly whenever I was asked. Some design of my work are inspired by my lived experience of non-Japanese element, but I still name it within my clear knowledge. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone from any foreign culture by using their words to name my work just for the sake of it. Because simply there is no reasons for me to do so.
If you are makers of any products, be it a brand or small business (including myself), you have a responsibility to do it correctly, because you have the influence, be it small or large, to your customers and society, and more so if you are using the online world. If causing harm, whether it was intentional or not, you have to own the mistake and do better.
Ideally you do it right from the start, but unfortunately it is often not the case. We all make mistakes. The important part is to recognise the mistake, accept it, amend it accordingly and do better in the future. You tell that to your kids and you know that yourself, right? Please do not look away, ignore those who took time to call out, or offend them for worse. Please take your accountability to deal with the mistake. This is why having such conversation might be painful but so important as it is the work which is toward a healthy direction. Avoiding conversation is more harmful.
On your naming and your responsibility
As I said before, it is maker’s and brand’s responsibility to do it correctly. To emphasise that, if you are one of them, you can ask yourself question;
Why do you want to name (or have already named) your selling products with a foreign cultural word?
Is it because it’s trendy? sounds cool? sounds better? catchy? sellable? inspired by? read a white American said it means ‘imperfect’? google translation said so and sounds about right? looks ‘kimono-enough’ to you? nobody in Japan offended you? your Japanese friend said ok so you felt you got a 'pass'?
Then please question further.
Do you really think they are enough reasons to take advantage of our cultural words? Can you confidently explain to your customers? Have you involved people from the culture? How much consultation is enough? Who can pass it? Who gets to say ok? Have you ever thought of people who might be hurt from your products name? How are you going to respond to them?
Ultimately, does it really need to be called that?
How far is ok or not ok might be down to the correctness. That might be measured by the level of respect that was shown to the culture of the origin, and the level of understanding. This validation can be quite different from the people in the culture living within to those who living outside, even though both are genuinely native to the origin. (as I explained previously) Well if you cannot measure it, then you cannot draw a line. Will this be forever blur?
Let me insert an example of exception here.
Once I met an Australian potter called Euan Craig, (written a post here) who lives and works in Japan over 25 years now. Euan is drawn to the Japanese “mingei" influence and the philosophy learnt directly from his early career through apprenticeship to one of Japanese National Treasure. He has been creating his beautifully hand crafted pottery art to date. He is one of those people I call, “日本人より日本人らしい” (nihon-jin yori nihon-jin rashii), translated as “more Japanese than Japanese”. He speaks fluent Japanese, dedicated the study of Japan and understands the culture to the subtlety and nuance we express. His respect is seen within his conversation. His humbleness is mirrored his work. He is someone I would probably never offend if he ever name his work, say “wabi sabi”. I wouldn’t call that cultural appropriation. Because the level of respect and understanding is so apparent to me.
Yet, the truth is, he wouldn’t do it. Why would he? He deeply knows that such words should not be abused from the first place.
Is that too extreme?
If you are truly inspired by the foreign culture, then you can pay the respect by finding the other way that people from the culture can feel appreciated, NOT appropriated. You are the power holder. Use your privilege to lift them up.
Our cultural words are not your trend. Our culture is not your entertainment.
If you want to name your selling products with a foreign word, think again. Naming DOES matter. Please don’t take it lightly.
I am summing up with the beautiful expression by @maiko.hikosaka;
“If you have enough creativity, respect and dignity as a human being, you surely won’t need to culturally appropriate and make a living off of it.”
Some of you might know that I have contributed to the recent book “wabi sabi” by British author Beth Kempton. In case you may see this as a contradiction to what I said, I would like to add this as an ending note.
To be frankly honest, when Beth first approached me, I told her that I am anxious about it, because I knew it would be very difficult for me to explain. She well knew that too, because of her life long dedication to experience, to connect and to study Japan and Japanese language. Like I said I am happy for people who want to learn about our culture (or any other country for that matter). I am not against the curiosity and enthusiasm. However, I am not an educator nor author who might be able to explain this all in English effectively. This is where she might be beneficial for many.
The difference is that she has indeed involved and communicated many native Japanese people over decades and prior to the book (including myself) and have put them forward. She has said herself in the book that it is hard to define the word of wabi sabi and used the term of “what she comes to understand” instead. None of these are one line sentence, or absolute definition. It’s a lengthy research that was challenged the misconception and impact have been left in the West by another author. (or google translation for that matter) If anyone can do so quickly, such a book won’t be needed. As she told me herself, her interpretation is still based in a Western upbringing, as an outsider with a keen interest, but feels confident enough to have dug deep from her years of dedication. The way she encouraged the readers was respectfully managed, sharing her hope on how people can learn from the Japanese wisdom and philosophy that might be able to apply into your mind and personal development, possibly to help them as a life lesson. It is written to encourage people to explore more about it but it certainly does not encourage to abuse it.
I guess how readers would take further would depend on individuals - how much respect and care to be taken on their action.
In order to clarify, I would like to add and emphasise that there are many people who enrich Japanese culture being of non-Japanese heritage. Like Euan and Beth I mentioned here, there are many other people who are immersing themselves in an adopted culture through their long term dedication of study, understanding and respect. They are the people who can bridge the gap between Japanese cultures and the world, who can help others to understand us better. If you are truly inspired by the Japanese culture, these people are the one who you can learn from how NOT to appropriate, too.
Thank you so much for reading.