Broken Japanese: why even a “respectful” homage to a country’s culture can be problematic

In the third and final 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. Read part one here and part two here.

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Every person is unique from one another, and views the world through the lens of their own distinct circumstances. Even with positive intentions, applying your own definition of “respectful” or “uplifting” when using a foreign culture’s attributes and ideas in your art or design work will most likely be vastly different from how someone native to that culture receives it. Even the term “uplift” can be interpreted as othering — it implies that the culture needs elevation via foreign intervention to be considered equal. As a part of traditional Orientalist thinking, there is the notion that North American and Western European cultures are more developed than Asian countries and that makes cultural appropriation okay. In the conclusion of the previous article of this series, I mentioned a couple of ways to use elements of a foreign culture in a respectful way, but this needs to be unpacked further.

Additionally, with an interconnected world, “respectful” work towards one group of people does not necessarily mean that it affects everyone in the same way. This is why I find the risks of using visual elements and ideas of foreign cultures outweigh the benefits unless the potential impact and consequences are thoroughly understood. It’s also important to remember that this applies to any and all forms of visual output regardless of how inconsequential it may feel. Systemic problems begin from the smallest atomic units. Regardless of if it’s an Instagram post for 20 of your closest friends or art direction for a global campaign, we all play a part in what is being normalised.

How do Japanese people view appropriation?

When I first moved to Tokyo from the progressive bubble of New York in 2017, I remember asking a Japanese designer friend what he thought about designers in America using Japanese characters in their work that they couldn’t read or understand. I was surprised to discover that while he thought it was a bit odd, he didn’t really mind, and actually thought it was kind of nice that people outside the country were taking an interest in his culture.

This made me consider that exoticism and stereotyping may not necessarily be affecting those who are a majority living in their country the same way it affects those who are minorities within a larger community. For example, the way that culturally offensive work affects me as a Japanese American minority living in America can be vastly different from the effect it plays on a Japanese person living in Japan. Of course, in aggregate, it does affect both me and my friend, but there are varied levels of visibility towards the potentially harmful or offensive effects.

One important aspect of cultural exchange is to consider a broad range of people that could be affected by your work. Simply asking a person native to that culture to get approval doesn’t take into consideration the various cultural minorities who may also be afflicted. This is a difficult blind spot that goes unnoticed unless there’s a bridge built between the two. So what is an example of this, and what are some ways to prevent this?

”Simply asking a person native to that culture to get approval doesn’t take into consideration the various cultural minorities who may also be afflicted“

Ray Masaki

Japan is kawaii, right?

There is a cute and rounded typeface inspired by Japanese signage that was published by a contemporary Swiss type foundry in 2021. The typeface is executed well, and the amount of effort shows that it was genuinely designed from a place of care. The type designer visited and explored the country and began developing the typeface at a coworking space in Tokyo that is well-known for its creative community. I am by no means questioning the validity of a typeface that is inspired by Japanese street signage, but rather, the ways in which its concept was communicated.

The thing I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about was the marketing surrounding the launch of this typeface, which was presented as an impressive microsite filled with kawaii illustrations and graphics. This is not an attempt to disparage the work of this one designer, but if I’m being honest, I find that this type of cultural stereotyping is endemic to foreign visitors who romanticise Japan from a visit and go on to make a design project out of it.

The site’s text, which has since changed, started by saying that the designer “found himself pondering the country’s design language of public communication. Just what makes it tick?” The inspiration behind the typeface is that the designer noticed that Japan has joyful and cute cartoons and animals and hand-written characters that adorn the street signage. This was in stark contrast to the austere sans serifs that the designer was used to seeing in Switzerland’s public signage. I find that this uses the strategy of othering a culture by making Japan the exotic outsider in contrast to the stoic Swiss (as discussed in part two).

As with many stereotypes, they are born from elements of truth, but as I scrolled down the microsite I couldn’t help but notice the infantile imagery and illustrations that poorly reference Japanese “kawaii” character design. For instance, the typeface’s character set is paired with illustrations of fruits, animals, and mountains with cute smiley faces on them like something you might see in a Japanese elementary school classroom.

”I find that this type of cultural stereotyping is endemic to foreign visitors who romanticise Japan from a visit and go on to make a design project out of it“

Ray Masaki

Kawaii or the Japanese concept of “cuteness” exists as a very visible and globally exported part of Japanese culture. The term, 可愛い (kawaii), is etymologically rooted in ideas of pity — meaning something that is so helpless that it is endearing. Kawaii is a complex part of Japanese identity because while Japanese people are famous for their ability to produce and commercialise these characters, these stereotypes have also been used by foreigners to infantilise, exoticise, and subordinate the people. I’ve spoken with Japanese designers about the desire to retire the word, because it’s become a lazy non-word that is used as a catch-all like saying something is “good” or “cool”.

In pop culture, there have been dehumanising instances like Gwen Stefani using her “Harajuku Girls” as doll-like props for her performances. There’s also the still-existent prejudice towards adults liking “children’s cartoons” that were formed from dated stereotypes of meek Japanese perverts or fanatic otaku (a person who is obsessed with a subculture usually to the detriment of their social skills). Again, while kawaii is a real and important part of Japanese culture, it’s still uncomfortable when a foreign person uses it to relegate a culture’s people to one-dimensional representations.

Within the global landscape, artists and designers should perennially consider the impact and reach of their work. This type foundry is influential and well-respected among graphic designers around the world and even here in Japan. When this typeface was announced to great fanfare on Twitter, I recall checking their retweets and noticed that they were primarily from other white designers — further entrenching and encouraging stereotypes that are congruent with the expectation of what Japan is “supposed” to look like. Although the type foundry later updated the site copy to be more clear that it’s their own personal Swiss interpretation on Japanese visual vernacular, to me, it still feels like they are profiting off of the exoticisation of Japanese culture. My belief is that the messaging and outcome could have been ameliorated if they had consulted a broader range of Japanese people.

“My ultimate hope is that we all remain students of this world we live in and continue to learn about one another, regardless of where we’re from.”

Ray Masaki

As I wrap up this series, I’m unfortunately going to add a caveat. The thing is, as much as I wish there were, there aren’t right answers to the dilemmas that I’ve brought up in this series. Cultural appropriation will continue to happen whether we want it to or not, because it’s an inevitable part of an increasingly connected world, and it’s also not necessarily my place to say if it’s a good or bad thing. Although I am a Japanese person, that doesn’t give me authority to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t allowed.

Culture is difficult to define, because at its fundamental level, it’s nearly impossible to say who owns what. My personal belief is that there’s nothing that is purely under a single culture’s ownership. In Part 2, when I was being critical of Western designers using kanji, should I also be critical of the fact that I’m not honouring the Chinese tradition that the Japanese writing system is based off of? Additionally, I didn’t touch upon the complex power dynamics and hierarchies within Asian countries. Even the fact that It’s Nice That asked me to write this, could be because Japanese culture is given more prominence over many other cultures due to cultural associations surrounding the country’s traditions, craft, mystique, isolationism, etc. One can continuously go down these rabbit holes of questioning one’s agency in an ever-increasingly networked world until you feel completely paralysed.

This isn’t to say that sensitivity towards cultural exchange isn’t meaningful or important, because it is. My ultimate hope is that we all remain students of this world we live in and continue to learn about one another, regardless of where we’re from. If you’re not sure about something, the important thing is to see it as an opportunity to learn from another person about their culture and try to discover a new perspective outside of your own. Perhaps these connections can even help to form entirely new modes of expression that we haven’t seen before. It’s not possible to understand every single perspective, but I do think it’s possible to work towards being aware of your own blind spots and insensitivities. Art and design will always adapt to the ebbs and flows of the world, so more than seeking out the correct answers, let’s be flexible, empathetic, and open-minded.

Broken Japanese: Privilege and Cultural Appropriation is a three-part series exploring the ins and outs of cultural appropriation in visual design; this was the final instalment. 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.

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About the Author

Ray Masaki

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.

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