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Tokyo, Japan – When Eriko Sairio, a 30-year-old professional who lives in Shizuoka, Japan, saw American pop singer Gwen Stefani being accused of “cultural appropriation” in 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 kimonos and go sightseeing in Kyoto. I actually love that people love our culture.”

In an interview with Allure magazine published last week, Stefani, 53, sparked outrage in English-language media and social media with remarks that expressed a deep sense of connection to Japanese culture.

Stefani, who is Italian-American, has claimed inspiration from Harajuku fashion, named after the Tokyo district of the same name, for her fragrances and clothing brands, and recalls her first visit to the famous fashion district.

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

The Filipino-American author of the article, Jessa Marie Calaor, wrote that the interview left her “disturbed” and cited several American academics who warned of the dangers of whites commodifying the cultures of marginalized groups, including distorting other people’s perceptions of minorities and minorities. from themselves.

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

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

In Japan, the controversy barely registered. The Japanese media has largely ignored Stephanie’s interview, with the only references to the controversy appearing on small webzines and blogs.

Some Japanese users on social media defended the former No Doubt singer over Western media users who accused her of cultural appropriation, which broadly describes the inappropriate adoption of a culture’s practices, customs or ideas by members of another. group

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

Some Japanese even use the term pori-kore, a portmanteau of “political correctness,” to describe those who discuss such matters, he said.

Lin Tsuchiya, a 23-year-old Japanese professional living in Tokyo, said he was disturbed by Stephanie’s comments.

“I think it’s good to inspire what you love in your work, as long as there’s respect, without stereotypical themes or misconceptions,” Tsuchiya told Al Jazeera.

Sae Nagamatsu, a 26-year-old francophone living in Tokyo, said he was not offended after reading reports of the controversy in French media.

“He just loves Japanese culture and didn’t make disrespectful, insulting remarks about Japanese people,” Nagamatsu said. “[Cultural appropriation] depends on the context.”

Stephanie is not the first person to identify a disconnect between Western sensibilities and Japanese perspectives on so-called appropriation.

Ghost in the Shell
The Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell flopped in the US, but was a big hit in Japan. [File: AP]

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

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

In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA, canceled its Kimono Wednesdays event where visitors were allowed to try on Japanese clothing after allegations of racism, although the exhibition, which had the approval of Japan’s national broadcaster, took place. without controversy in several cities in Japan.

Roland Kelts, visiting professor at Waseda University and Japanamerica. The author of How Japanese Pop Culture Invaded the U.S. says the anger directed at Stephanie and others accused of cultural appropriation is largely a Western preoccupation.

“Nobody I know in Japan, other than Western friends, will dispute his claims, which are mostly just silly pop foam… Nobody here needs to prove they’re Japanese, so nobody’s threatened by long-lived Italian-American pop. the star declares that it exists,” Keltz told Al Jazeera.

Keltz said Japanese culture also freely accepts and absorbs Western influences.

“No one blinks when a Japanese bluegrass band in Stetsons and cowboy boots sings West Virginia coal mining songs in 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 every year. But what is remarkable is that many of Japan’s achievements from other cultures are seamlessly integrated into being Japanese. The language, the mood, the basic unconscious behavior of Japaneseness remains intact.”

However, Keltz admitted that he was sensitive to some of the concerns about Stephanie’s comments as someone of Japanese descent who grew up in the US.

“What’s sad and stupid is that Stephanie could have easily made it clear that she loves Japanese culture and that it feels like part of her identity without embarrassing herself or offending Asian Americans.”

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

Stephanie has a long history of using foreign cultural motifs in her work. He was often seen in the 1990s wearing a bindi on the forehead of people in the Indian subcontinent. Her 2005 music video for the song Luxurious includes Hispanic props and costumes, while Looking Hot, released in 2012, saw her dress as a Native American woman.

Stephanie has pushed back against 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 driving us further and further apart.”

Stephanie has long claimed that she feels a kinship with Japan in particular.

Stefani’s 2004 album Love.Angel.Music.Baby was heavily inspired by Japanese culture. In 2008, Stephanie launched a line of fragrances packaged in bottles modeled after her four Japanese American Harajuku Girls. The Harajuku Lovers perfume range, which won The Fragrance Foundation’s Fragrance of the Year Award in 2009, is sold in Japan, including on 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 of 78 episodes.

As a musician, Stefani toured Japan with No Doubt already in 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 animated series Kuu Kuu Harajuku. [File: Diane Bondareff/AP for Mattel]

Stephanie traced her “obsession” to her father, Dennis, who often traveled to Japan as an employee of Yamaha Motorcycles during Stephanie’s teenage years, often bringing back Japanese gifts for his young daughter.

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

“Culture is not a brand. It’s 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 United States doing similar Japanese concepts… I feel more positive than negative because, after all, such awareness will be. [attract] the public to the source.”

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

“I’m very happy to see people enjoying Japanese culture across the border,” Takeda told Al Jazeera. “However, when the Japanese embrace 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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