Broken Japanese: Understanding privilege and cultural appropriation as a creative
In the first instalment of our in-depth three part series, designer and writer Ray Masaki reflects on the Euro-American’s creative fascination with Japan. Delving into topics such as cultural appropriation, exoticisation, Japanese aestheticism and more, this thoughtful column helps us to consider the various wider implications of the issues at hand, especially if you’re someone who’s just really into Japanese culture.
Without overthinking it, when I say “Japan,” what are the first three thoughts that come to mind? (Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers.)
Maybe you thought of Usagi transforming into Sailor Moon or Super Saiyan Goku. Or did you imagine a fatty piece of maguro nigiri sushi on a wooden board or a hot bowl of shoyu ramen? Maybe you thought of kawaii culture and its cute characters like Hello Kitty or Rilakkuma? Or perhaps you’ve traveled to Japan before and thought of Kyoto and its shrines, or Mount Fuji with its snowy symmetrical cone? Maybe you’ve even studied Japanese art in university and thought of Hokusai’s iconic ukiyo-e woodblock prints?
Or perhaps you hold less generous connotations of the country. Did you think of hentai anime or pornography with pixelated genitals? The overcrowded trains or the drunk salarymen in Shibuya on Friday night? Maybe even darker themes came to mind – like the aging population and declining birth rate, or death from overworking.
Now taking those thoughts, consider the origins of that knowledge? Was it through personal experience? Maybe you heard stories about Japan or saw a friend post about their trip on social media. Did you learn about the country in a class, if so, what book did you read and in what language? Did you grow up like me, watching English-dubbed Gundam Wing on Toonami after you got home from school? Your three thoughts are likely a combination of experience, education, and media.
Now try repeating this exercise with some other countries. Now what about Thailand? Or Peru? Or Switzerland? What happens when it’s your own country? Your answer might now be different from someone outside of your country, or maybe not.
“In an increasingly interconnected world, it's critical that we’re aware of the ethics and implications of using cultural simplifications in our creative work.”Ray Masaki
Regardless of the ideas that come to mind, it’s hard to avoid that we all stereotype and flatten foreign cultures into what limited knowledge we have of them in our minds. And this is something that can’t really be helped. Even as a Japanese person, when I think of the country, my mind materialises cliched images of things like cherry blossoms, Tokyo Tower, and anime characters like Naruto. When I think of other foreign countries that I have very little knowledge about, I can’t help but reduce the culture to whatever rough image I have of that region of the world. Many of us don’t have the means to access foreign countries on a substantive or tangible level, so most of the assumptions that we make are via whatever media or content has been exported and arrived on our shores – filtered and edited to the tastes of our culture and environment. These fragments of information become embedded in us and become the basis for our stereotypes.
But what’s important to remember, and sometimes easy to lose sight of, is that humans are beautiful, diverse, strange creatures with a whole breadth of varied perspectives that cannot be defined by singular definitions and generalisations. Problems arise when we start applying our limited definitions to outputs with an audience, sometimes even when we have good intentions. In an increasingly interconnected world, it's critical that we’re aware of the ethics and implications of using cultural simplifications in our creative work. In this series I’m going to walk through some examples specifically regarding how I've seen Japanese culture filtered through a Euro-American (mostly English-speaking) lens. However, before I begin, I’d also like to note that this stuff is really tricky and I don’t have all the answers. Like you, I’m still figuring out and navigating many of these ideas.
What is privilege?
Think of your race, upbringing, education, religion, income, sexual orientation, geolocation, and whatever else can be attributed to the makeup of your identity. If you’re a cisgendered, white, non-disabled male with an art school education reading It’s Nice That on your MacBook Pro or iPhone and have access to a speedy internet connection, congratulations! You’ve won! You’re at the top of the figurative hill.
Privilege is a topic that is mentioned frequently, but is difficult to grasp unless you’ve had the experience of your privilege being taken away from you. It’s necessary to acknowledge when you’re towards the top of the hill, because your “normal” is not everyone’s normal.
There’s no shame in having privilege, because it’s usually not a choice, but it’s important to understand that it is a position of power. I, myself, am a beneficiary of privilege. I’m a cisgendered, educated, non-disabled, heterosexual male with enough of an income to live in an expensive city like Tokyo. As a Japanese person living in Japan, I’m also a part of the dominant race. I move freely and openly in my space without any fear for my physical or emotional safety. However as an Asian person who was born and raised in America before moving to Japan, I’ve also received my share of discrimination that’s tied to being a minority, and have likely been affected by the stereotypes of Japan that were brought up in the exercise earlier.
So taking what we know about privilege, let’s take a look at how stereotyping and exploitation specifically affect visual and popular culture.
“It’s necessary to acknowledge when you’re towards the top of the hill, because your ‘normal’ is not everyone’s normal.”Ray Masaki
Cultural appropriation can be defined as adoption of another culture’s customs, practices, or ideas for one’s personal (social or financial) gain, ignoring the original significance usually for the purpose of an aesthetic or a trend.
The calling-out of cultural appropriation is something that began with good intentions. I personally noticed an uptick when people started speaking up against the inappropriate and exploitative use of minority cultures and practices, which felt especially prescient in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013. Over time, many of us developed internal detectors for cultural appropriation, and when that sensor was tripped, we felt emboldened to make remarks.
However, one danger of calling out cultural appropriation is that it is often packaged with “cancel culture” (the ostracisation of a group or individual usually facilitated by social media) and is quick to dissolve into a veritable witch hunt. The term “cultural appropriation” is perhaps useful as a basic descriptor, but also has a binary quality, especially on social media, that tends to reduce the visibility of its context. What I’ve witnessed is that these moments of cultural appropriation often manifest as a compressed jpeg posted to Twitter or Instagram paired with a simplistic call to arms. I recall once seeing a white woman get harassed online for wearing a bridal hanbok, ignoring the fact that she wore it to show respect to her Korean husband’s family. Punishing the offender without understanding a greater sense of context can lead to doxxing, death threats, expulsions, and job terminations, many of which can be just as harmful as the offense itself.
This is, of course, not to excuse the heinous offenses that occur, but there’s a need for greater sensitivity and understanding towards cultural exchange. Additionally, we should acknowledge that it’s usually not a simple black-or-white answer, and that there are larger systemic issues that play behind the motivation to appropriate.
“I feel uneasy that a traditionally Japanese product that has been around for over 1,000 years needs to be repackaged and splashed with Millennial pink in order to be consumed or appreciated by the American public.”Ray Masaki
I've seen American brands emerge that have harvested Japanese culture without much exchange. Take for example a popular New York-based matcha company co-founded by two white American men. On their website’s About page, they discuss the origins of their matcha product and describe it using terms that are coded in Asian exoticism like “ceremonial grade,” and wordplay like “I Love You So Matcha!”
“Matcha has been a staple of Japanese drinking culture for over 1,000 years. We traveled all over Japan in search of the perfect source, finally locating the preeminent matcha cultivator in Uji (whose first harvest is sent directly to the Emperor of Japan). Stone-ground from the youngest leaves, stems and veins removed, our ceremonial grade matcha is the real deal.”
Their products and packaging have been rebranded to suit the Western Millennial audience with loose script lettering for their logo and smooth, colorful gradients on their cans. If they think that this is a way to honour a rich Japanese tradition or bring more visibility to the Uji matcha leaf cultivators, it isn’t very clear. I feel uneasy that a traditionally Japanese product that has been around for over 1,000 years needs to be repackaged and splashed with Millennial pink in order to be consumed or appreciated by the American public.
These types of tropes are unfortunately a common occurrence in the world of design and commerce. Although it’s easy to point fingers at the co-founders as the figureheads of cultural appropriation in this instance, it’s also important to consider the economic system in place that incentivises the profiteering behaviour and the exploitation of things that are considered exotic.
As graphic designers, art directors, and artists, we’re at the forefront of creating and expanding upon the visual language of our world. We are also, by extension, helping to define what is normalised and desired, which is why this is particularly essential for us to understand. While a deeper understanding of cultural exchange might help facilitate more equitable and sensitive work, positioning ourselves to be guilt-free is not the goal. The goal is to do our part in making the world a more respectful and fair place for people from all walks of life.
In the next installment of this series, we will approach how graphic designers often undertake roles of privilege, one example being in the use of cultural appropriation. A phenomenon that has become so common we may not even notice it.
Broken Japanese: Privilege and Cultural Appropriation is a three-part series exploring the ins and outs of cultural appropriation in visual design; this is the first instalment, read part two here. Written from the perspective of a Japanese-American designer, Ray Masaki offers his take on one of the most contentious issues currently prevailing the Western creative industry. To explore such topics further, Why is the Salaryman is a bilingual book on the history of institutional white supremacy and Westernisation in the Japanese design industry.
About the Author
Ray Masaki is a Japanese-American graphic designer and writer from New York, based in Tokyo. He studied illustration at Parsons School of Design, type design at The Cooper Union, and is currently studying for an MFA in graphic design at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2021 Ray published Why is the salaryman carrying a surfboard? – a bilingual book about the history of institutional white supremacy and westernisation in the Japanese design industry.