Broken Japanese: exploring exoticisation and stereotyping in graphic design

In the second 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.

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Cultural appropriation has always existed in one form or another, but I believe that social media has been an accelerant due to the accessibility and widespread usage of its technology.

Over the past decade, technologies like Instagram have transformed from simple photo sharing applications to essential portfolio tools for those in the creative industry. With this development, it has naturally become a resource for art directors to look for artists and designers to hire, as well as a tool to seek inspiration. With the often visible metrics of user engagement (like and comment counts, views, number of followers, etc.), many of us have also become privy to the kinds of aesthetics that are trendy or that perform well on the platform. Consciously or not, using these technologies have most likely shaped the way we think about our own creative output, as there’s an incentive to lean into the tastes of the platform to gain influence or to be hired for work.

Meta (formerly known as Facebook, Inc.), which owns Instagram, is a multinational technology conglomerate, and its services are accessible from most parts of the world. While this has been a positive development as a way to access underappreciated and underrepresented art and design communities, it has also opened up alleys for shallow emulations and exploitative trends. As a designer who follows a number of graphic designers and artists on Instagram, when I look at the Explore tab — an algorithmically generated page of public images and videos catered towards each individual user — I often feel like I’m peering into the current design zeitgeist.

For instance, over the past couple years, I’ve noticed a growing visual trend commonly referred to as “Acid Graphics” pop up on my Explore tab. The visual style embraces a lot of the psychedelic and sci-fi imagery of the 70s, as well as the shiny and primitive digital lettering and 3D graphics of the 90s and Y2K era that could be seen promoting events and raves. Perhaps the maximalist approach of Acid Graphics is also in reaction to the reduced minimalist aesthetics that were dominant in the 2010s.

However, what I’ve curiously witnessed often paired with Acid Graphics is the bizarre use of gibberish or broken Japanese. As someone who speaks and reads the language, the use of the Japanese writing system more often than not seems naïve and machine translated. I can’t help but feel that Japanese is being used in a way that’s entirely semiotic — symbolising the aesthetic qualities that tie together the techno-futuristic aspects of Acid Graphics with visual stereotypes of Japan rather than having any significant comprehensible meaning. As discussed in Part 1, the designers are probably creating these graphics without bad intentions, but are using these visuals as a shorthand for their personal cultural simplifications of the country.

“I can’t help but feel that Japanese is being used in a way that’s entirely semiotic”

Ray Masaki

Exotification in design

I’m looking at an Instagram post by a prominent designer in the Acid Graphic design scene. To the left, there’s black and red typography written in English on a neon yellow rectangle. Adorning the top border of the rectangle are smiley faces — presumably an homage to the psychedelic illustrations that were printed on LSD blotters. To the bottom right there’s an iPhone X colorised in Klein Blue with another neon yellow and red face illustration on its screen. To the top right there’s 酸音楽 (san ongaku) typeset in Kozuka Gothic, a typeface designed in the 90s by Masahiko Kozuka for Adobe, with a chrome-like Photoshop bevel and drop-shadowed in Klein Blue with a neon green outline.

I’m going to be making some assumptions about this work for the sake of discussion, which I recognise is unconvincing especially when examining the concept of stereotyping, but I’ll try to explain how I came to these conclusions.

The first thing to note is the misuse of Japanese kanji. 酸音楽 (san ongaku) is a straight translation of “acid music” and doesn’t make sense for native speakers. 酸 (san) is the kanji for “acid” or something that is sour in flavour, but not a character that represents the slang for the psychedelic drug, LSD. Curiously, doing a Google or DeepL translate of “acid music” to Japanese outputs the katakana syllabary of アシッドミュージック (asiddo myu-jikku) as opposed to the kanji characters used in the design. My guess is that this designer broke up the translation of “acid” and “music” to output the three kanji characters of 酸音楽 to be more visually exotic.

“There’s so much more to Japanese culture beyond its “kawaii-ness” or Akira-like neon metropolitan visuals, which is hard to get past when these stereotypes are promoted over and over.”

Ray Masaki

The use of the Adobe default sans-serif of Kozuka Gothic also makes me think that the typography was a haphazard decision. It’s of course possible that the designer is making some sort of commentary on Japanese default typefaces, but the type choice paired with the incorrect translation makes me feel as though it is deliberately not intended for native readers, rather, the language is being used as decoration.

Another possibility is the trickle-down of design history that aided the formation of the Acid Graphic style. The Y2K era geometric approach of the graphics and typography seen in Acid Graphics are reminiscent of the work of older studios like the UK-based The Designers Republic (TDR). The studio became well-known for their work on the Wipeout video game series from the 90s and 2000s, which takes heavy cues from Japanese aesthetics. The video game covers are admittedly very striking, but make use of naïve katakana, and Orientalist logos that are intended to look Japanese but are strange amalgamations formed from fictional exoticised Japanese letterforms (not conceptually dissimilar to something like the Chopsticks font). Furthermore, influential Japanese design publications like Idea magazine featured and lionised the studio during the 2000s, which indirectly validated TDR’s use of appropriative imagery.

Scrolling through an Instagram account that aggregates and curates Acid Graphic posts, it only takes a couple swipes to encounter numerous similar examples of incomprehensible Japanese. And when I tap into the profiles of each post, it reveals that they are users from France, Kosovo, United Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden to name a few. It’s possible that some of these users are native speakers of Japanese and are using the language in a thoughtful way that I failed to recognise, but part of the problem with platforms like Instagram is that it is optimised for bite-sized visuals without an abundance of context, so it registers to me as naïve decoration.

“Because I like Japanese culture”

The challenge with this type of exoticism is that it is rarely done with bad intentions, and on the contrary, it usually occurs because a person likes and wants to promote their own cultural associations. If you were to ask one of these designers who uses a language that they do not understand, I imagine they would respond along the lines of “because it looks cool” or “because I like Japanese culture”. These concepts are challenging, because on the surface, it is flattering to hear.

However, to take a step further into the harmful effects of exoticisation, at its base level, it is “othering” a culture by creating an “us” and “them” dynamic. Regardless of how flattering a term may be, a definition is being thrust upon a group of people as a generalisation, and the group isn’t given agency to define themselves to be seen for their full humanity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with romanticising a culture, but it can lead to misleading ideas about how a culture or individual exists in reality. There’s so much more to Japanese culture beyond its “kawaii-ness” or Akira-like neon metropolitan visuals, which is hard to get past when these stereotypes are promoted over and over.

Exoticisation is not something that only goes one way, and will often occur in both directions. For example, Japan has an infatuation with French culture, and there’s even a term called パリ症候群 (paris shoukougun) or “Paris Syndrome” for the extreme culture shock of Japanese tourists who visit Paris and are disappointed when the city is not the idealised, perfect metropolis that they expected. There’s also the use of 飾り英語 (kazari eigo) or “decorative English” used on Japanese products and packaging to promote romanticised notions of Western luxury, not at all dissimilar from the use of Japanese characters by Acid Graphic designers.

So what if you do want to use a foreign culture’s elements in your work in a respectful way? This is honestly a very sensitive area that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach and is difficult to advise without thorough research. If you do want to use another culture in your work, I think it’s important to engage with the culture directly. Speak to people native to that culture and figure out ways to honour or give back, or better yet, maybe it makes more sense to give them the opportunity instead. Make sure that you aren’t just taking without any form of cultural exchange. Consider why these elements might be necessary in your creation and what they represent, or at the very least contextualise your work to make clear what is being borrowed. If the goal is to make something more “interesting” by co-opting stereotypes of a culture, perhaps you might reconsider your methodologies.

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 second 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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