The other week I went on vacation to a Japanese ryokan in Virginia. With onsen baths and miso soup for breakfast, it had all the things I remembered from my visit to a ryokan in Japan last year. When I talked to the owners, a couple who met in Tokyo, they said the main audience for their establishment was “people who want a japanese experience without going to Japan.”
Aside from John and I, there were five other couples staying that weekend—none of whom were Japanese. Most of the other guests I talked to had recently been to Japan and missed it. One of the owners also recounted a recent visit from a newlywed couple in their early 20s who said an interest in anime inspired their visit—and they came all the way from Colorado to stay there.
John and I wore yukata, ate miso-eggplant, and lounged in our room’s tatami area. Outside, we heard the eastern bluebird in the morning and the whippoorwill at night. Never before had we experienced such a total immersion in another culture so close to home.
It wasn’t until I shared some photos online that I realized how bad this looks to other people. Western people in Japanese clothing, using Japanese culture pretty much as a vacation.
Ever since I was seven, I’ve been fascinated with Japan. Years before I saw my first anime, I loved their sushi, folktales, and garden design. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, especially since, as a first generation American, I have a big family in Italy with its own culture and customs that I could have latched onto. It’s not that I idealize Japanese culture on a pedestal above my own—in fact, I often find to be xenophobic and close-minded. I’m not sure why I love it, and this is a conundrum that puzzles Japanese people most of all.
Anyway, I’ve always suspected that my interest in Japan is something to feel guilty about, though it wasn’t until the Internet gave me the terms to talk about it that I knew why: cultural appropriation, the act of wearing a culture that isn’t yours like a costume. I can wear a yukata on vacation and then go back to full white privilege when I get home.
Mainstream culture has come a long way in identifying and shutting down cultural appropriation. But it’s also had some missteps along the way. For example, a commenter told me I was being offensive when I tweeted that I was cooking Japanese curry in my own kitchen. As an op/ed on Everyday Feminism put it, it’s hard to tell what’s appropriation and what isn’t:
“Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?”
On the one hand, wearing a kimono when you’re not Japanese is wearing clothing that wasn’t made for you to wear—often without the cultural background of such an item. On the other hand, Kimono sellers are literally going out of business because the western customers they once counted on now find it too offensive a practice. The concern is that people who wear kimono are engaging in “identity tourism.” The solution that most of the articles I’ve linked so far suggest is to ask people who belong to these cultures whether they’re offended, but this is also an issue, implying that your token minority friend can speak for her entire culture.
What I think helps is when cultural appropriation becomes cultural transaction.
Remember when Urban Outfitters was selling an entire line of “Navajo” accessories? The Navajo Nation sued the company, and in the end they reached a settlement—that the Navajo Nation would provide goods for Urban Outfitters to sell with decision-making authority and monetary compensation.
“The Navajo Nation is proud of its strong history and welcomes working in collaboration with [Urban Outfitters] and other retailers to highlight our unique culture,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said about the settlement. In other words, the Navajo Nation was eager to share its culture with whomever is interested—provided they receive due credit and compensation.
I think getting paid is a huge part of solving the problem. Appropriation can be defined as “taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission,” or basically theft. Theft doesn’t just rob somebody of their valuables, but the authority to decide how those valuables are used. So for me, ethically indulging in my Japanophile tendencies looks a lot like Japanese people and companies getting paid. It’s the least I can do to repay them for hooking me so powerfully on their culture. I donate to the Japan-America Society of Washington DC. I take Japanese lessons from native speakers. I go to pay-at-the-door Japanese Embassy events to learn about sake, rakugo, and traditional lacquer work, so I’m learning the culture’s context at the same time that I’m compensating its artisans.
This isn’t a total solution. I can’t throw money at a problem and consider it solved. As long as I’m a guest in Japanese culture, I need to listen to Japanese people who tell me when I’m being offensive and quit it. I want to contribute to cultural appreciation, not take away from it.
Perhaps this is why this Virginia ryokan was such a complete escape. It wasn’t about me interloping on somebody else’s culture, but coming in the door of a place created for and by American Japanophiles who welcome people who appreciate the culture as much as they do. I was more than happy to part with my cash for an experience like that.