Japan shrugs while Gwen Stefani’s ‘cultural appropriation’ upsets the US | Music news

Tokyo, Japan – When Eriko Serio, a 30-year-old professional living in Shizuoka, Japan, saw American pop singer Gwen Stefani accused of “cultural appropriation” in Western media, she couldn’t fathom the controversy.

“I personally think it’s very cool that people want to incorporate Japanese styles into their fashion,” Syrio, who works in the medical device industry, told Al Jazeera.

“I have no problems when foreigners, for example, put on kimonos and walk around Kyoto sightseeing. I really like that people like our culture.”

In an interview with Allure magazine published last week, Stephanie, 53, sparked outrage across the English media and social media with remarks expressing the deep sense of connection she feels with Japanese culture.

Stephanie, an Italian-American, defended her inspiration from Harajuku fashion, which is named after the Tokyo district, for its perfume and clothing brands, and recalled her first visit to the famous fashion district.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know that,'” said Stephanie, who also describes herself as “a little girl from Orange County, a little Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl.”

Filipino-American essayist Giza Marie Calor writes that the interview left her “uneasy” and quotes several American academics warning them of the dangers of white commodification of the cultures of marginalized groups, including distorted perceptions others have of minorities and that minorities have of themselves.

Media outlets including CNN, The Guardian, CBS, ABC, NBC and Buzzfeed picked up the interview and resulting social media firestorm, omitting any reference to the views of the Japanese themselves.

Gwen Stefani has defended her use of Japanese cultural motifs in her music, fragrance and fashion lines [File: Steve Marcus/Reuters]

In Japan, the controversy barely scored a bright spot. The Japanese media largely ignored Stefani’s interview, with the only mentions of the controversy appearing on websites and microblogs.

On social media, some Japanese users put forward defenses of the former No Doubt singer over Western media accounts that accused her of cultural appropriation, which broadly describes the inappropriate adoption of one culture’s customs, practices, or ideas by individuals of another culture. a group.

Serio said most Japanese are neither aware nor sensitive about cultural appropriation, a once-obscure academic term that has moved from American university departments into the Western mainstream in recent years.

She said some Japanese use the term bori kore — a portmanteau of “political correctness” — to describe those who discuss such issues.

Lynn Tsuchiya, a 23-year-old Japanese professional who lives in Tokyo, said she was unaffected by Stephanie’s comments.

“I think it’s fine to take inspiration from something you love in your work, as long as there is respect, with no stereotypes or misconceptions,” Tsuchiya told Al Jazeera.

Sae Nagamatsu, a 26-year-old Francophone who lives in Tokyo, said she was unaffected after receiving reports about the controversy in the French media.

“She just loves Japanese culture, and she never makes disparaging and insulting remarks towards Japanese people,” said Nagamatsu. “[Cultural appropriation] It depends on the context.”

Stephanie is not the first person to reveal a disconnect between Western sensibilities about the so-called appropriation and the views of the Japanese people themselves.

Ghost in a bowl
Hollywood’s adaptation of the Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell was a ‘whitewash’ in the US, but a smash hit in Japan [File: AP]

The 2017 Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell was criticized for “whitewashing” upon release, despite its box office success in Japan.

2020’s Ghost of Tsushima on PlayStation 4, a samurai tale set in feudal-era Japan by Western developer Sucker Punch, has faced accusations of racial stereotypes from Western media, but has received overwhelming praise from Japanese reviewers.

In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, canceled a “Kimono Wednesday” event where visitors were allowed to try on Japanese clothing after allegations of racism, even though the exhibition was endorsed by Japan’s national broadcaster and performed without controversy in several Japanese cities.

The anger directed at Stephanie and others accused of cultural appropriation is very much a Western preoccupation, said Roland Kelts, a visiting professor at Waseda University and author of Japan America: How Japanese Pop Culture Conquered the United States.

“No one I know in Japan except Western friends would object to her claims, which are often just silly pop foam… No one here needs to prove they’re Japanese, so no one is threatened by the long-running Italian-American pop A star announces it,” Kelts told Al Jazeera.

Likewise, Kelts said, Japanese culture freely adopts and absorbs Western influences.

“No one blinks when a Japanese bluegrass band wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots sings the West Virginian coal mines of Ginza,” he said, referring to one of Tokyo’s most popular entertainment districts.

“Or when Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken dresses up as Santa Claus annually. What is remarkable, however, is that many Japanese acquisitions from other cultures are seamlessly integrated with what it means to be Japanese. The basic language, dispositions, and unconscious behavior of Japan remain intact.” .

However, Kelts admitted that he is sensitive to some concerns about Stephanie’s comments as a person of Japanese descent who grew up in the United States.

“What’s sad and ridiculous is that Stephanie could have easily explained that she loves Japanese culture and feels like it’s part of her identity without embarrassing herself and insulting Asian Americans.”

The Harajuku district of Tokyo is famous for its colorful fashion [File: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

Stephanie has a long history of using foreign cultural motifs in her work. She was frequently seen wearing a bindi, the point worn on the forehead of people in the Indian subcontinent, in the 1990s. The music video for her 2005 single Fancy features a Hispanic outfit and costume, while in Hot Search, released in 2012, she is dressed as a Native American woman.

Stefani has disputed allegations of cultural appropriation in the past.

“We learn from each other, we share from each other, and we grow from each other,” she said in an interview with Paper magazine in 2021. “And all these rules divide us more and more.”

Stephanie has always maintained that she feels a particular kinship with Japan.

Stefani’s 2004 album, Love.Angel.Music.Baby was heavily inspired by Japanese culture. In 2008, Stefani launched a line of bottled fragrances modeled after the four Japanese-American dancers “Harajuku Girls”. The Harajuku Lovers fragrance line, which won the 2009 The Fragrance Foundation Award, is sold in Japan, including at the country’s largest electronic retailer, Rakuten, as well as in Western markets.

In 2015, she headed the launch of the Japanese-inspired anime series Kuu Kuu Harajuku, which ran for three seasons over 78 episodes.

As a musician, Stefani toured Japan with No Doubt as early as 1995 and as a solo artist on The Sweet Escape Tour in 2007.

Gwen Stefani has released a range of products inspired by Japanese culture, including dolls inspired by the Kuu Kuu Harajuku anime series. [File: Diane Bondareff/AP for Mattel]

Stephanie traced her “obsession” to her father, Dennis, who traveled to Japan frequently in Stephanie’s youth as a Yamaha motorcycle employee, often bringing Japanese gifts for his young daughter.

Machiko Ikoka Gozen, a 44-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in a samurai family in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, said she sees the adoption of Japanese culture abroad as a cause for celebration.

“Culture is not a brand. The deeper and more connected it is, the more visual it is, the stronger it is,” Guzen told Al Jazeera. “My family has used matcha tea for over 400 years, and when I travel I see a lot of brands from the US doing similar Japanese concepts… I feel Positively more than negative because eventually this awareness will [attract] audience to the source.

Karen Takeda, a 21-year-old student in the northern city of Sapporo, said she sees Stephanie’s infatuation as “evidence of Japanese culture being passed on to the world.”

“I am very happy to see people enjoying Japanese culture across the border,” Takeda told Al Jazeera. “However, when the Japanese adopt the cultures of other countries, they are often criticized as ‘imitating America’. This is very sad. I think countries should be open to accepting each other’s cultures.”

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