Daigaku Z: Proprietary Propriety

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

One of the major problems with the rising trend of globalization, particularly in so-called First-World and New-World nations, is the matter of cultural appropriation. At its core, the phrase refers to taking an element of a culture that one does not belong to and inappropriately applying its aesthetics or activity, without regard for the context in which it is used in its native culture. This includes things like wearing First Nations’ war headdresses as a fashion statement, when in reality the original use of the headdress was as a war memento and required certain actions prior to its wearing.

As you can imagine, for an American guy of Irish, German, and Hungarian descent– all of it several generations in the past– this poses a not-too-uncommon dilemma with respect to both my appreciation of Japanese pop media and my study of the Japanese language and culture. Depending on which quadrant of Tumblr you ask, my efforts are either an admirable adventure that I should be proud to undertake, or a racist abomination that serves to reinforce that white guys ruin literally everything. Not like I really expected to be able to please everyone with doing this, but at the very least the fact that I’m taking my studies seriously should work in my favor, right?

I want to be clear on this: the practice of malicious cultural appropriation absolutely does exist. A 2011-2012 recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live parodies the practice, with the overenthusiastic and undereducated student hosts of “J-Pop America Fun Time Now!” expressing what their bored faculty advisor describes as “a loving form of racism”. You don’t need to be a student of the actual culture to realize that these people are just plain Doing It Wrong; mangled shonen cliches compound shallow understanding of the source material to make a sketch that induces cringes severe enough to cause faces to collapse in on themselves. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, as since it has to fit in with the (admittedly wide) broadcast standards of NBC, the sketch cannot delve into the genuinely offensive.

That said, it’s very difficult for me to muster up any appreciable level of counter-sympathy for the hapless exhibitionists in the skit, because despite their obvious handicap, at least they’re trying. Sincerity counts for a lot, as well as genuine affection for the source culture. Where the wheels fall off is when people refuse to take corrections when they’re pointed out. For example, wearing a kimono folded the wrong way at first (as in, wearing it in the arrangement it would be in if the wearer were deceased) is embarrassing but benign; but to continue to do so after being corrected pushes the act into willful ignorance and intentional disrespect. Likewise, chanting a mudra during meditation is fine, but just doing it at random because you think it sounds cool is an abuse of the mudra. (Even if some of them really do sound cool.)

The problem, again, is context; but it also goes into the realm of policing and accusatory action. One of my plans, once I am able to write more frequently and fluidly in Japanese, is to add brief paragraphs in the language here in order to demonstrate my knowledge and challenge it, as well. I did something similar when I was learning French in high school, seeking out verbs and nouns that weren’t in the lesson plans to add to my vocabulary. Someone seeing the wad of kanji at the bottom of those future posts, however, might be tempted to call me out on the use of the language, saying I’m just stringing words together at random and that I have no actual knowledge of what they mean.

This would probably prompt certain of those individuals to extend the castigations into the realm of saying I have no right to speak Japanese, let alone consume the culture. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, think again: a well-worn post on Tumblr asserts that simply eating food from a culture different from one’s own native culture is a malevolent act of cultural appropriation. Maybe it’s just me, but I would think that the zillions of Chinese restaurant owners in US college towns might be a little upset if this were to become a mainstream view.

Where the situation becomes extremely blurry is in the matter of Western culture being appropriated by East Asian populations. As much as we love to amuse ourselves with the unintelligible English so beloved by Pacific Rim pop culture, a case could be made that it is in fact the same kind of malicious cultural appropriation as your stereotypical pasty chick with a kanji tattoo on her shoulder. The lack of complete understanding coupled with the selection based on aesthetics over context grants them both the same hallmarks. Yet the outcry of “loving racism” doesn’t seem to be applied to the Asiatic act nearly as often as the Anglophonic variant. While the quick and easy answer is that there is some racism itself involved in the accusation of racism, it ignores one important fact that is universal to all of human society. If you read last week’s column, you can see where this is going.

The arrival of globalization and worldwide connectivity means that even the most isolated society on the planet is no further removed than a handful of clicks and keystrokes. Even without the Internet, our varied social structures and cultures never developed in a vacuum. There were crossovers and influences as early as 2000 BCE, when ancient Chinese and Korean peoples exchanged ideas and craft techniques. I was surprised to learn this week that the distinctly Japanese symbol of the magatama (a comma-shaped bead, usually made of a precious or semi-precious stone) is actually descended from a Korean bear-claw ornament. Imagine that– one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan isn’t even natively Japanese!

America is, like I mentioned last week, no different in its syncretistic accumulation of customs and culture. I come from three different European cultures myself, and have more than a few traditions and habits from still others that I picked up through where I lived and grew up. As Americans we tend to gloss over or ignore the idiosyncrasies of our own local areas, even when they’re blatantly obvious. For example, Texans think nothing of their obsessions with high school football, in much the same way that Hawaiians take an exceptional amount of pride in their high schools. We take our regional differences to be quirks, because they are secondary to the unifying label of “American” that we hold most sacred. In a sense, it’s a matter of hierarchy: we pride our national identity over almost all else, and become agitated when that primacy is challenged through a blending of national identities.

In an ideal world– the kind of world I wish for on every shooting star– we take that widening of the identity to its logical conclusion, and consider ourselves unified under the label of “human being”. I know that’s an unrealistic wish, at least for the time being. People are too invested in the concept of the primacy of national identity. It doesn’t make me wish it any less. It still hurts when it’s shown that it can’t happen in my lifetime. But I still keep wishing for it. And that’s one aspect of my culture I have no problem letting others appropriate.