Japan shrugs as Americans rage over Gwen Stefani ‘grabbing’

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

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

“I have no problem when, for example, foreigners wear kimono and walk around Kyoto for sightseeing. In fact, I love that people love our culture.”

In an interview with Allure magazine published last week, Stefani, 53, sparked outrage in the English-language media and on social media with comments expressing the deep sense of connection she feels to Japanese culture.

Stefani, who is Italian-American, defended taking fashion inspiration from Harajuku, named after the Tokyo neighborhood of the same name, for her fragrance and clothing brands, recalling her first visit to the famed fashion district.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it,'” said Stefani, who also described herself as “a little bit like an Orange County girl, a little bit like a Japanese girl, a little bit english girl.

Jesa Marie Calaor, the Filipino-American author of the article, wrote that the interview left her “uneasy,” quoting several American academics warning of the dangers of whites commodifying the cultures of marginalized groups, including the distortion of perceptions that other people have from minorities and that minorities have from themselves.

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

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

In Japan, the controversy has hardly registered an blink. Stefani’s interview has been largely ignored by the Japanese media, with the only references to the controversy appearing in small web magazines and blogs.

On social media, some Japanese users have raised defenses of the former No Doubt singer on Western media accounts that accused her of cultural appropriation, which broadly describes the inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices or ideas of one culture by members of another. group.

Sairyo said most Japanese are neither familiar with nor sensitive to cultural appropriation, a once-obscure academic term that has drifted from US university departments into the Western mainstream in recent years.

Some Japanese even use the term pori-kore, an acronym for “political correctness,” to describe those who discuss these issues, he said.

Lyn Tsuchiya, a 23-year-old Japanese professional living in Tokyo, said Stefani’s comments did not faze her.

“I think it’s okay to draw inspiration from something you love in your work, as long as there’s respect, no stereotypical themes or misconceptions involved,” Tsuchiya told Al Jazeera.

Sae Nagamatsu, a 26-year-old French-speaker living in Tokyo, said she was not offended after finding reports of the controversy in the French media.

“He just loves Japanese culture and did not make disrespectful or offensive comments towards Japanese people,” Nagamatsu said. “[Cultural appropriation] depends on the context”.

Stefani is not the first person to reveal a disconnect between sensitive Westerners around so-called appropriation and the perspectives of the Japanese themselves.

ghost in the shell
The Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell was “whitewashed” in the US, but was a huge success in Japan. [File: AP]

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

The 2020 PlayStation 4 game Ghost of Tsushima, a tale of samurai in feudal-era Japan created by Western developer Sucker Punch, faced accusations of racial stereotyping from Western media but received effusive praise from Japanese critics. .

In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in the US city of Boston canceled its “Kimono Wednesdays” event in which visitors could try on the Japanese garment after allegations of racism, despite the fact that the exhibition was backed by the broadcaster. national of Japan and was performed. without controversy in several Japanese cities.

Roland Kelts, visiting professor at Waseda University and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US, said the anger directed at Stefani and others accused of cultural appropriation is largely a Western concern.

“No one I know in Japan apart from Western friends will take issue with your claims, which are mostly just nonsense… No one here needs to prove they’re Japanese, so no one feels threatened by an Italian-American pop of legs. star proclaiming that it is,” Kelts told Al Jazeera.

Kelts said that Japanese culture also freely embraces and absorbs Western influences.

“No one blinks when a Japanese bluegrass band in Stetson hats and cowboy boots sing West Virginia coal mining songs in the Ginza,” he said, referring to one of Tokyo’s most popular entertainment districts.

“Or when Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken annually dresses up as Santa Claus. But what’s remarkable is that many of Japan’s takeovers from other cultures fit seamlessly into what it means to be Japanese. The language, the arrangement, the central unconscious behavior of Japaneseness remains intact.

Even so, Kelts admitted that he is sensitive to some of the concerns about Stefani’s comments as a person of Japanese descent who grew up in the US.

“What is sad and silly is that Stefani could have easily made it clear that she loves Japanese culture and feels it as part of her identity without embarrassing herself and insulting Asian Americans.”

Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood is known for its colorful fashion [File: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

Stefani has a long history of using foreign cultural motifs in her work. In the 1990s, she was frequently seen wearing a bindi, the dot worn on the forehead by people in the Indian subcontinent. The music video for her song Luxurious from 2005 features Hispanic accessories and costumes, while in Looking Hot, released in 2012, she dressed as a Native American woman.

Stefani has rejected claims of cultural appropriation in the past.

“We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other,” he said in a 2021 interview with Paper magazine. “And all these rules are dividing us more and more.”

Stefani has long maintained that she feels an affinity with Japan in particular.

Stefani’s 2004 album Love.Angel.Music.Baby was heavily inspired by Japanese culture. In 2008, Stefani launched a range of fragrances packaged in bottles inspired by her four Japanese American “Harajuku Girls” backup dancers. The Harajuku Lovers perfume range, which won The Fragrance Foundation’s Fragrance of the Year award in 2009, is sold in Japan, including at the country’s largest e-retailer, Rakuten, as well as in Western markets.

In 2015, he presided over the launch of the Japanese-inspired animated series Kuu Kuu Harajuku, which ran for three seasons with 78 episodes.

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

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

Stefani has attributed her “obsession” to her father Dennis, who traveled to Japan frequently in Stefani’s youth as an employee of Yamaha Motorcycles, often bringing Japanese gifts for his young daughter.

Machiko Ikeoka Gozen, a 44-year-old businesswoman 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. It is deeper and more interconnected and the more visible it is, the stronger it is,” Gozen told Al Jazeera. “My family has used matcha tea for over 400 years, and when I travel I see many brands from the US making similar Japanese concepts… I feel more positive than negative, as eventually that awareness [attract] the public to the source.

Karin Takeda, a 21-year-old student from the northern city of Sapporo, said she sees Stefani’s fascination as “proof that Japanese culture is being passed on to the world.”

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

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