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Cultural Appropriation: Robotic Stories

August 13, 2006

First, you might want to check out this rage against the hegemony, or visit Hanzi Smatter.

The American Otaku is certainly a target of accusations of cultural appropriation. It isn’t simply the act of appreciating “anime” (a problematic loan word that can be its own subject of discourse) or the learning of another language (an incredibly useful act). I suppose what troubles some is the fetishization that often results from anime fandom. As goofy as seeing heavy-set 12 year old white girls parading around in a “Sailor Moon” costume might seem, I don’t see their idolization as cultural appropriation, especially with our current working definition. There’s no “making it their own” here, the otaku are certainly obsessively deferential to Japanese (and curiously to anyone from the Asian diaspora). It’s very hard to make the power dynamic argument convincingly. Like white rap fans, the deep core American anime fans are very insistent in having their anime be “authentic” (no dubbing, no editing, no gaijin producing “anime style” programs).

I think the fans are the wrong targets. They’re mostly harmless and a bit nerdy, and their fetishizations aren’t cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation of “anime” is more likely to come from hack directors of Hollywood action films (or not so hack. The Wachowsky brothers didn’t “come out” as anime fans until they were called on it) than from some kid learning Japanese in high school.

The existence of cultural appropriation from the Asian diaspora, however, should be obvious to anyone. It has become so prevalent as to be corny, which usually makes such appropriations seem like kitsch to hipsters and ad execs, which almost always leads to even worse appropriation.

It’s much easier to pick this kind of appropriation out because of the easily recognizable and long standing cultures within the diaspora, yet Madison Avenue and Hollywood and my nephew always seem to lump them together. It’s the flip side of the racial essentialist coin, they all look alike so they must all be alike. So while some want to use racial essentialism as a defense of some practices of cultural appropriation (dreadlocks), it is also at the root of cultural appropriation against cultures of the Asian diaspora.

One of the most frequent objects of scorn is the hanzi tattoo. How many NBA stars do you see with the tattoo for an order of chicken feet running down their arm? Language is context, and though the act seems innocuous enough, the context in which the hanzi tattoos are done is kinda funny. I see the attraction. Outside of the obvious exotic otherness of it, the figures are so much more graphically interesting than roman letters. That’s part of the cool like dat aspect of Japanese snacks I imagine (and they are tasty). For many kinds, except the terminally boring Pocky, the design work on some of the stuff is incredible.

Yet, what’s the real purpose of using kanji when roman letters send the same message? Are you trying to encrypt your feelings about your mother? Are you sending secret messages to people when you travel in China? If your answer is simply that it looks cool, well, it is hard to argue with that . . . unless you’ve been drilling in that language for most of your youth. Then they are just symbols of things like roman letters.

The Hanzi/Kanji tattoo on the non Asian or Asian American body is probably the most explicit example of removing the cultural context of something in cultural appropriation (only slightly more clear than the dreadlocks matter), and well, pretty much anything you can think of regarding Asian cultures and their presentation in American media, feng-shui becoming slang, katana blades sitting on someone’s wall (a curious symbol of Japanese nationalism to some, pride to others, art deco to the rest) . . . as I said, pretty obvious to most.

Another thing that I think drives this argument is the authenticity factor. Rap fans and anime fans alike crave it, and Quentin Tarantino and Vanilla Ice have been taken to task for their lack of it. How important is it?

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