Appropriation, Emulation, or Appreciation?


There’s a lot of talk about the problem of “appropriation”, meaning the usage of cultural practices, clothing, words, etc. by a non-member for their own purposes. Like the concept of political correctness, though, there seems to be contention over what is considered “appropriation” and what is considered “appreciation”. When is a person taking for their own use with disregard or disrespect… and when are they simply emulating popular culture? Is there a line, a gray area, or an all-or-non mentality? Who is the decider on where any divisions lay?

Let’s take a look at Nipponophiles, or “Weeaboos” as they are more vulgarly known, and their obsession with Japan. At what point does appreciation for Japanese anime, manga, food, and culture cross that line into appropriation? I have looked through a number of blogs, opinion pieces, and discussions and it seems like they focus on two aspects: respect and awareness. Are you doing this in complete respect to the originating culture? Those who take only what they want just because it’s “cool”, such as stealing certain words or gestures or downing traditional matcha like a Starbucks tea, are guilty of appropriation. Worse are those who do so without any knowledge of the culture itself, such as tattoos in kanji or wearing kimonos as daily garb. Are you doing something with understanding of the culture it originated from and differences with your own? Those who want to believe they’re Japanese and latch onto the culture because they cannot handle their own are appropriating. We can be respectful and participate without ignoring who we are and the origins of the other culture’s practices.

Despite these two factors, there are other aspects that make people irate that I question their veracity. At what point can a person use Japanese terminology and gestures without being guilty of appropriation? Many bloggers upset at these acts claim you should never use Japanese words and mannerisms if you’re not speaking Japanese; to enhance one’s primary language (often English) with the occasional phrase is crossing the line. My problem is that this doesn’t account for linguistic evolution or those languages that are already mixed. What about Hawai`ian Pidgin English, a recognized language that uses English at its base yet blends in a variety of other languages, including Japanese. Is it appropriation to say, “I need to shishi”? Is it fine when you’re in Hawai`i, where the term is regularly used? Or is it acceptable for anyone who has been around said language? And then there’s the English language itself, which the American dialect contains close to 100 words originating from Japanese. Tycoon, soy, tsunami… judo, Shinto, anime… even the dreaded “kawaii!” have all melded into our language and are in dictionaries. Is it appropriation to take words from elsewhere or is it intercultural exchange when they enter your vernacular?

Another example is the claim that certain ethnocentric practices are limited to that culture. What about practices that are recent, often stemming from assimilation of other popular cultures? While many may agree that the inappropriate wearing of kimonos is appropriation, the line is less clear on recent trends including anime, J-Pop, and Harajuku styles. Are these inherent to the culture at hand or are they popular (and transient) enough to be open to anyone appreciative? Is an American who likes to wear cat ears, wear Hello Kitty backpacks, and yell “Kawaii!” appropriating or simply emulating a new aspect of global pop culture?

Another issue is who determines the line between appropriation and appreciation? Most of the blogs and articles about Nipponophiles are written by Americans of Japanese descent, upset at what they see as insensitive and ignorant acts by others (primarily Caucasians). Yet many celebrities who emulate Japanese culture are doing so in Japan, in concert with Japanese businesses or organizations, often for Japanese audiences. Who is really the determinant on whether someone is appropriating or appreciating? Is it solely an issue in America by PoC-Americans directed at White Americans, stemming from the battle with a culture of stereotype, bigotry, and racism? Another concern is whether appropriation is limited to Caucasians or if it is found whenever anyone uses aspects of another culture. There is an obsession with Orientalism in American Hip-Hop that could be considered “appropriation”, and the American Wild West is often emulated in many foreign countries, including Japan and South Africa. What about intra-European emulation, including Celtophiles and Nordophiles? Are Americans who wear kilts or runes as guilty of appropriation as the others?

This seems to be like political correctness, a hotbed of debate over whether someone is being culturally insensitive, ignorant, or outright racist. Someone may take offense, but the problem is determining if the offense was intended or existed at all (in the eyes of said culture) and what can be learned. I was once told by someone that “American Indian” is offensive and that I should use “Native American”; in turn, my grandfather (who was part Cherokee) said they were stupid, he had no problem with the term “Indian”, and maybe they should worry about more important shit. As we become a global community, we certainly have to be prepared for intercultural conflicts, cultural sensitivity, and use critical thought in our words or actions. Yet, we must also be prepared for the blending of cultures that has occurred since Roman times, including assimilation, appropriation, emulation, and all the other “-ations”… all so we can become a singular nation.