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Why Assimilation Is Not Appropriation

Illustration for article titled Why Assimilation Is Not Appropriation

I'm a harsh critic of cultural appropriation. I find that appropriation is never acceptable, which is why it is appropriation. But what about my own decisions to work Japanese culture into my life?


In various articles on cultural appropriation, I have inevitably received comments about my choice to engage in Japanese cultural aspects while living in Japan. After all, these commenters say, "isn't it appropriative? You're white; you're the coloniser!" The implication is that being White and/or Western are automatic disqualifiers from participation in any non-White culture which cannot be claimed via genetic or cultural heritage.

The problem with this position versus those who live/work/travel in a non-Western, non-White country/culture is that is fails to grasp the difference between appropriation and assimilation. In popular consciousness, these two words are used interchangeably, although appropriation has a much more (and decidedly correct) negative connotation. To avoid textbook definitions, which often look too much alike, I will give my own for each term:

Cultural Appropriation - taking cultural elements of an ethnic group while outside of that ethnic group and when divorced of cultural context which is often done for trivial reasons and taken by the ethnic majority from an ethnic minority.


Cultural Assimilation - where a minority ethnic group loses traditional cultural elements while gaining cultural elements from the ethnic majority over time, often for personal, economic, and political reasons.

The difference is pretty stark. An immigrant to Japan, one who has lived here for more than five years, spent time in academia studying Japan, and plans to live here for the rest of my life as a citizen of Japan, my slow adaptation to Japanese cultural norms and traditions is not the same as appropriation. It's just my daily life.


Take the issue of kimono and yukata. I have recently posted pictures of my yukata and jinbei here and elsewhere. Why is it not appropriation for a white woman to wear traditional Japanese clothes? Context. I am a Japanese immigrant. I live in Japan. I purchased my yukata from a local mom & pop operation in the older part of my town to help support my local economy (which is textile based). I wore my yukata to an appropriate cultural event, the local matsuri (festival). I did what was expected.

But if I decided to just wear my yukata around Austin, Texas because I felt like it and wanted to make a fashion statement? That's appropriation. In such an example the yukata would be divorced of all cultural context. It would be used as an accessory, something to simply make me stand out against the cultural (and racial) norms of my area (joke about how abnormal Austin is here). Whereas in Japan, gender, age, marital status, region, etc actually go into making decisions about what yukata to wear and which will be understandable to Japanese who can "read" the yukata, such context is entirely eliminated when wearing yukata outside of Japan (or outside of a Japanese-American matsuri, which I tend to believe is a much fuzzier area).


What about anime conventions? I'm torn on this one.

Many anime conventions, especially recently, have introduced programming specifically to redirect their purposes to a more generalised Japanese cultural event. In many cases this includes programming on Japanese language, history, arts, and cultural elements. I myself run panels on immigration to Japan and since my graduate coursework covers 1825-1945, with special emphasis on the Taisho Era (1914-1926), I often have been asked to sit in on the history panels and offer my more modern perspectives on Japanese history.


I tend to think that anime conventions have the potential to fall into the same area as Japanese-American cultural events. However, I think emphasis needs to be placed on education. If convention goers are going to show up in yukata and kimono then they should know 1) how to properly put it on 2) what the choice of fabrics says about the individual wearing the yukata or kimono 3) what types of events would be the correct events to which one would wear yukata/kimono 4) cultural dos and don'ts about manners and behavior while so dressed.

Every time I get a comment like this one here on Jez, I just have to eye-roll:

Memes, MLP and 'Kyosuke'.

Just what we needed. Another wannabe Japanese weeaboo talking about privilege.

Note: weeaboo is a derogatory slur which is a modification of wapanese which is itself a reference to whigger. Offensiveness everywhere!


Frankly, as a gaikokujin (a foreigner), I could be excused if I refused to assimilate, but as a juumin (resident) or ijuusha (immigrant), and especially as a kikajin (naturalised citizen, lit. "person who returns [to the homeland]"), a refusal to assimilate would be unforgivable.

Most Japanese people are very understanding of a reticence to participate in some cultural traditions, because the general view of many Japanese is that Japanese "things" are hard. This presents its own issues when the "things" in question are quite easy or were learned in childhood. I've been using hashi (chopsticks) since I was a pre-teen, at least. Often my Japanese friends and co-workers will marvel at how capable I am at using them (I can even switch hands! Most Japanese can't do that). They view language, religious ritual, and putting on clothing equally as "hard for foreigners." While I think it is ethnocentric and can be used as a series of microagressions, that is an essay for another time. The point is that Japanese generally encourage assimilation, or even attempts at assimilation. There is respect given for trying, because the cultural element is "hard" so failure does not reflect badly—at least not initially.


After 20 years in Japan... failure is not so kindly looked up. And a refusal to assimilate probably won't win you any friends or allies.

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