Innappropriate Cultural Appropriation: Black Culture in Japan and Japanese Culture in America

“What would America (and the world) be like if we loved black people, as much as we love black culture?” – Amandla Stenberg

 We’re in a toxic relationship with the fashion industry, and it’s fierce. We take bits and pieces that we love from the catwalk and parade them around the streets of our neighbourhood. But what happens when we start taking bits and pieces from people’s culture and traditional dress to jazz up our outfits? Add a bit of ignorance and you’ve got yourself cultural appropriation.

Vanessa Hudgens wearing a Native American head dress and Indian bindi. Source
Vanessa Hudgens wearing a Native American head dress and Indian bindi. Source

Cultural appropriation is ‘the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.’ (Frew, 2015). It is generally associated with white people appropriating other’s cultures. The classic example is above, a white girl wearing a bindi and head dress at a music festival.

‘Marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun’ (Johnson, 2015).

But watch out Vanessa Hudgens, hello Japanese teenagers where an interesting form of cultural appropriation taking place. B-Style (Black lifestyle) is becoming a trend among young Japanese people who change their hair and skin to look like black rappers or singers. It involves using a sun bed to make their skin darker and spending hours and huge amounts of money on their hair.

“We live in a highly globalized world where lines are blurred, rules are changing and cultures are melting together to form new ones” (Yuen, 2012)

B Style Japanese girl. Source
B Style Japanese girl. Source

There are many obvious criticisms of B-Style. Firstly, that they’re engaging in ‘blackface’ which has strong racist history in the United States (Siddiqui, 2012). The similarities between Vanessa Hudgens and the Japanese youth is power. Or ‘post-colonial power’ (Nicklas & Lindner, 2012). The dominant or ‘normal’ culture is free to appropriate what they want, whereas the ‘minority’ or ‘marginalized group’ is left with significant cultural forms of expressions, being worn by white girls at music festivals or B-Stylers on the streets of Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation is dangerous and damaging. According to Everyday Feminism contributor, Maisha Johnson, it ‘trivialises violent historical oppression, let’s privileged people profit from oppressed people’s labour and perpetuates racist stereotypes.’ It is only this year that wearing a head dress has been banned at Montreal’s Osheaga’s Arts and Music festival to show respect and solidarity.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Singer Katy Perry performs onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Source
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 24: Singer Katy Perry performs onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Source

It’s a very unique and interesting position for these Japanese B-Stylers to be in. Japanese culture has been appropriated beyond belief. The above image is one of many celebrities appropriating Japanese culture. Whilst it can appear artistic or creative, the truth is ‘nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women.’ (Yang, 2013) We’ve always looked to Asia through Orientalist glasses, and we want to keep the stereotype that way.

The issue then of young B-Stylers adapting American black culture is complicated. B-Stylers say it is out of pure appreciation and respect. Comedian, Margaret Cho says ‘a Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface’ which would explain both black and Japanese culture to be offended by it’s adaptation by the other (Feeney, 2013). However it doesn’t make any of it ‘ok’ if people are still being offended.

Source
Source

An Interrupt Mag article by Mojuicy, explore various questions you can ask yourself to ensure you are not appropriating a culture.

  1. What is my relation to this culture?
  2. Why am I wearing it?
  3. Who made the product?
  4. How respectful/accurate is it? (Mojuicy)

By asking ourselves these questions, whilst being aware that the things we decide to wear, inspired or taken from another culture, can cause immense offense to that culture’s history and traditions. By doing this we can try to avoid tension and be more appreciative and accepting of one another.

References

Bailey, C 2012, Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance, The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4, University of Missouri

Feeney, N 2013, ‘Katy Perry’s Geisha style performance needs to be called out’, The Atlantic, 25 November, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/katy-perrys-geisha-style-performance-needs-to-be-called-out/281805/

Frew, C 2015, Othering, blackface, appropriation and #blacklives matter, Lecture Slides, University of Wollongong, 14 August

Johnson, M 2015, What’s wrong with cultural appropriation? Everyday Feminism, June 14, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/

Nicklas, P, & Lindner, O (eds) 2012, spectrum Literaturwissenschaft / spectrum Literature : Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation : Literature, Film, and the Arts, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, DEU

Siddiqui, A 2012, ‘B-Style is a racist fashion trend slowly finding its voice in Japan featured’, Dramafever, http://www.dramafever.com/news/b-style-is-a-racist-fashion-trend-slowly-finding-its-voice-in-japan-featured/

Yang, J 2013, ‘Geisha a-go-go: Katy Perry’s AMAs performance stirs debate’, The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/25/memories-of-a-geisha-katy-perrys-amas-performance-stirs-debate/

Further Information

You can read about B-Style experience in Japan here

You can read more about racism and lack of cultural diversity in Japan here

You can read more about appropriation versus appreciation here

Television: Look at Moiye vs. Check it out y’all

Left - American version Right - Australian version (original) http://i.dlisted.com/files/kathandkimno.jpg
Left – American version
Right – Australian version (original)
http://i.dlisted.com/files/kathandkimno.jpg

What makes something funny? Is it someone slipping on a banana peel? Babies laughing? Or maybe the millions of cat videos on Youtube? Comedy and humour are heavily dependent on cultural references. The iconic Australian comedy T.V show, Kath & Kim, reflects Australian ideologies, ways of life and values, making the show relatable and understandable to Australian audiences. In order for something to appear funny, social rules must be broken according to Comedy Theory 1. And our beloved Kath and Kim break many!

The clip above illustrates the cultural ‘rules’ being broken in Australian culture which therefore make it funny. Australians love a good tan as well as saving money. We all know someone (or maybe have shamefully experienced) a bad tan thus when Kath tans just one arm to save money and suit her outfit, we can relate to Kath and laugh at the ‘rule’ of tanning gone wrong. Followed by Kim making the obvious suggestion of flipping the top, is greeted by her being a genius (where through her character, we know she is not). The final funny remark is where Kim is pulling at her pants asking if Kath had washed them incorrectly because they were too tight. The thing that makes us laugh is that we know it is not Kath’s washing skills but Kim’s tragic desire to wear sizes too small for her figure. Whilst these are lots of little instances where the Australian social ‘rules’ have been broken, the repetition of breaking the rules is what encourages us to laugh, thus making it funny.

Hornbags or scumbags? http://www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2004/10/15/kathkimblokes2_wideweb__430x334,1.jpg
Hornbags or scumbags? Australian version Brett (left) and Kel (right)
http://www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2004/10/15/kathkimblokes2_wideweb__430x334,1.jpg

In the Australian version, the funniest aspect of the show is the staggering difference between the way Kath and Kim view themselves, to how we (the audience) views them. They see themselves as some ‘foxy ladies’ and their respective men as ‘hunky spunks.’ Where in reality, Kim wears two sizes too small at all times and Kath has a blond afro, Kel is a middle aged man with a serious combover and dreadful fashion sense (the opposite to hunky) and Brett is frankly a bit of a pathetic loser. This is another aspect which adds to the shows comedy because of these distinct differences.

Something that is lost in the US version of Kath and Kim is this difference. The actors are actually quite attractive, thin and not that ‘cooky,’ you could almost say that they really are foxy! A quote which accurately defines the poor reception of the American version of Kath and Kim is summed up by Sue Turnbull saying “I would suggest that what has been ‘seriously lost in translation’ is the role and place of irony: in this case, the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how the appear to the audience (Turnbull, 2008).

Despite NBC’s (not so) greatest efforts to make the American version of Kath and Kim a success, the video above highlights the awkwardness and the fact that the show simply ‘missed the point.’ I believe a combination of factors such as casting, costumes, ‘jokes’ and setting just didn’t hit home, supported by the San Fransico Chronicals article stating ‘it’s a contender for the worst remake ever’ (Goodman, 2008).

Maybe the US will get the delicate adaptation process right one day? Or maybe Kath and Kim should just keep to Fountain Lakes.

References

Turnbull, S 2008, ‘It’s like they threw a panther in the air and caught it in embroidery’: TELEVISION COMEDY IN TRANSLATION, The Australian Teachers of Media Inc, St Kilda.

Goodman, T 2008, ‘TV Reviews: Kath and Kim, Testees,’ SFGate,  http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/TV-reviews-Kath-Kim-Testees-3266718.php, accessed 21 September 2014,