A Love Affair with Americano: A Note on Cultural Appropriation in Japan
Ever since the weather here in Hiroshima began to get warmer, I’ve been making a habit of getting out of my little hobbit hole of an apartment and walking the streets of the city. A rule that I made for myself is that I’ll never eat at a chain and I won’t eat at the same place twice. After all, what better way to discover a city than by the stomach?
One one particular occasion I stumbled on a little bistro called New York New York that was open for lunch. Hungry and feeling a bit more homesick than usual, I walked in and sat at the bar. They had bottles of Brooklyn Lager on ice, and as I let the warm feeling settle in my stomach, I was feeling pretty cozy. But then I began to take a measure of my surroundings and noticing things: the Chinese wooden embroidering above the above the cabinets behind the bar, the Bob Marley playing softly in the background. The staff had episodes of Popeye the Sailor (yes, those) playing on televisions in the back of the restaurant. That’s when I finally asked myself: just what kind of bar was this? The entire establishment seemed to be trying desperately to be Western — or at least non-Japanese. In its attempt it had not only missed the mark, but had morphed into something completely different. A coagulation of the West — the more I walked and looked the more I saw it in the restaurants, the music and especially the fashion. But is this cultural “abomination” really such a bad thing? In my opinion, yes and no.
On another day, I decided to have dinner and a beer with a coworker at a bar called THE SHACK. I had noticed the place multiple times while wandering around Hondori for the past couple of weeks. The sign kept drawing my eye — not just because it was the only one in English on the entire street (the typeface they used was reminiscent of an AC/DC album cover) but because the name suggested that some ambitious Japanese businessman was obviously trying his best to recreate an American dive bar. Eager to finally put my skepticism aside, I persuaded my friend to give it a try with me and we sauntered in.
At first glance, things seemed pretty genuine; an old, worn out pool table in the corner next to a beaten up dart board. Low hanging ceilings, dim lighting, old wooden tables. At first, it made me feel a little nostalgic for one of my favorite bars back home. But after my coworker and I ordered burgers and my Guinness got to the table, I adjusted my gaze and more and more things seemed out of place. For one thing, looking at the walls, it appeared as though the owner had stepped into a secondhand store with a handful of money and bought anything that was even remotely Western: random vinyls were nailed and hung on one wall, with a few electric guitars thrown on a banister on the other. Above the guitars were framed posters of the Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and an untitled photograph of a guitar player that I guessed was supposed to look like Bruce Springsteen. A TV behind a DJ stage cycled through a US Pop playlist on YouTube. Lines of Christmas lights were wrapped around exposed banisters on the ceiling, seemingly at random. For the ceiling above the bar, half of it was covered with sheet metal. On the wall next to the kitchen door, they had stapled a random assortment of paper currency from the US and Europe. By the end of my beer, I had completely given up trying to figure out what exactly this bar was trying to do. At first it was frustrating, but learning about a new culture always is.
I tried to imagine what it was like for me when I had just started learning about Japanese culture — I confused it with Chinese and Korean culture more time than I would ever care to admit. It was only after about a year of research [and i was a nerd about it] that I could faithfully tell the difference. But for a while, all Asian pop music is J-Pop and any Asian food is Chinese food. I chuckled when I thought about how the Japanese must think of Europe — how many countries were their own distinct entity? Or was it all just the same on the map to them until they hit China? Their ideas of what Western culture might be seemed like a mix of a bit of everything from everywhere, and in the process of doing so created a culture all its own.
A prime example of this would be the American restaurant chains that have locations in Japan. Big brands that hop the pond don’t have to change that much in order to be popular — The First Church of McDonalds, for example, is pretty much exactly the same here as it is in the United States. Some places, however, shocked me with how different they were.
Take Denny’s, for example (yes, that one). While I was living in Nagoya, I ate with nothing but chopsticks for all three meals for the first week I was there. After that, slurping noodles and inhaling rice started to get a little old. This is especially true of breakfast; turns out there is only so much miso soup a stranger in a strange land can drink before he wants to throw his bowl out the window. One day, one of my coworkers saw a Denny’s while we were wandering around the city. Eager for a taste of home, we headed to work early one morning to grab breakfast on the way. I could already see it: giant short stacks with crispy bacon and tubs of syrup. We entered and eagerly took our seats. Imagine the foreigner’s face of surprise when we find out that not only does our waitress have no idea what a Grand Slam is, but there’s nothing even remotely close to it on the menu. Resigned, we sipped coffee, nibbled toast and wept for home. In adopting a signature Western staple, Japan had created something completely new — not all Western or Japanese, but something totally different.
Another area where this appropriation shines through is in Japanese fashion. Now, I didn’t get off the plane thinking that everybody would be walking in geta shoes and the girls would all be wearing yukatas, but i definitely didn’t expect to see so many Levi jackets. But that wasn’t all: everybody I see on the train is wearing olive green bomber jackets and Converse All-Stars. Girls slouched next to the train doors in denim skirts and fire-red Vans. I felt like I was in an Old Navy commerical. And then there’s the graphic tees.
You can find Japanese of all ages wearing one of these magnificent gems. They seem to be crazy about graphic t-shirts, and the more English on them, the better. Some just have a basic message — “Smile Always”, “Prepared for All Action”, etc — but others seem to be trying their very best to go the extra mile.
In an effort to be motivational or inspirational, some of the shirts — like the one pictured above — miss the mark completely and go in a completely different direction. The results are hilarious. Seriously, I used to write them down when I saw them, but there were just too many to keep track. Tons of my students have shirts like this. At first, I tried to make reading them into an activity for a few of the smarter ones. I soon realized that none of them had any idea what their shirts said. It completely baffled me; someone could design a shirt with the most offensive sentence ever, and as long as it was in an interesting typeface the unassuming youth would beg their oblivious parents to buy it for them. No matter how old I was, I personally wouldn’t think of buying a shirt with illegible type on it, no matter how pleasing to the eye it was. Then I remembered: a similar fad had gripped the United States not too long ago, but it was a more permanent venture: Chinese tattoos. Remember those? Of course you do. They used to be THE thing to get tattooed on your triceps or lower back in the late 2000's, and everybody was getting them. The results, as you know, are well documented.
So I had to ask myself: was a Japanese kid buying graphic tee with some messy English on it that much different from a college freshman getting some illegible Japanese phrase etched into their lower back? More expensive, sure — but the idea was the same. They are drawn to it for its exotic flare. Quite simply: they crave it because they don’t understand it. A Japanese man who wants to open an American dive bar in Hiroshima and a Canadian who, say, wants to open a ramen shop in downtown Toronto, probably have more in common than they think. They are both, after all, enticed by and seek to understand a culture that seems very unlike their own. IT’s just my hope that, in doing so, they both get their execution down a little better.