Rise of the Culture Vultures

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

“Toya is more Asian than Asian people!”

My Chinese-Canadian coworker laughs. I, on the other hand, am chastened. I quickly make an excuse, and withdraw from the conversation.

Now, to some people in my circle, my coworker’s off-the-cuff accolade would have been something to be proud of. Otaku (or anime/manga fans to the uninitiated) live for compliments like those. We pepper our speech with common Japanese phrases, bend our minds around the playing of Go, memorize major Japanese holidays and customs, and refer to each other using the proper honorifics.

However, to me, the mad lust for some Otaku to approximate Japanese culture seems like just another way to fetishize another culture. My friends who have been into anime and manga longer than I have regale me with tales of Asian fetishes and white people who claim to be “eggs” – white on the outside, but yellow on the inside. My friend Hae, who is Korean, is viewed with abject lust by the younger boys at the ‘Con. She remembers the early 90s, before anime became mainstream, and she was followed around by freaky boys who wanted to take her picture or stroke her hair. (And for those in the know, Hae is not a cosplayer. She was simply an Asian girl walking in a land of Asiaphillia.)

That being the case, I have watched the evolution of Gwen Stefani with quite a bit of interest. As a teen rebelling from a hip-hop saturated reality, I was ushered into the world of alternative rock by No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom.” The pink haired, bindi sporting rock siren embodied a complete and total escape from bland suburban girlhood and her fashion sense was an interesting mix of Jamaican, Southeast Asian, and So-Cal culture. A decade passes and Gwen reinvents herself again, cavorting around in Alice and Wonderland get-ups and cooing about Harajuku style on multiple tracks. Completely co-opting Harajuku fashion, Gwen remade herself as the Great Gaijin Guru – importing Asian fashion and style, manifested in the pimping of the four Japanese girls who tour with her as a flesh and blood underscore to her credibility.

At first, the shout-out to Japanese style was cool – finally, we little Otaku had a voice. Fruits style was suddenly cool in America. And while I was underwhelmed at her fashion choices – as an onee-kei girl to the core, Harajuku fashion just wasn’t my thing – overall, I was pleased that someone so prominent on the world’s stage gave props to yet another cool aspect of our increasingly global culture.

However, after reading her interview in Bust Magazine’s “Love Issue” – which included yet another rehash of “Margaret Cho needs to stop talking shit and do the research!” – I started to wonder: how many of us anime-loving Otaku are actually appropriating Asian culture? We greedily accost people from Japan, asking to practice our elementary Japanese, eat sushi, ramen, and Pocky by the pound and consume everything we can find about Japanese culture. Are we “respecting the culture” as Gwen asserts, or are we trying to force our beliefs about Japanese culture onto Japanese reality?

After my coworker’s comment, I decided to do a bit of self-examination. Was I coming off as someone trying to assimilate? Were people looking at me like I was a moonpie (brown on the outside/yellow on the inside)? I do spend a lot of time at the Japanese Cultural Center.

I thought about the $3,000 worth of manga on my bookshelves, the RPGs in my entertainment center, the Japanese language and phrasebooks that are all over my apartment stacked on top of Haruki Murakami and Natsuo Kirino novels. I thought about the J-dramas and manga that are sitting on my hard drives and on burned DVRs. Then, I started to ponder the large movie poster for the Chinese film “Three Times” that decorates one wall, and the giant painting of a guy with an afro that a friend gave me as a housewarming gift. I thought about all the K-dramas I also watch, and the manhwa I started to collect. I thought about the Japan Echo, and learning about the political climate of Japan.

And it was then, that it struck me – maybe the desire to learn is what separates someone who fetishizes a culture from those who merely wish to appreciate it. As I get deeper into anime and Japanese culture, I learned what causes some of the issues I see. I read about the rampant sexism in Japan, and their colonization of other Asian nations, which explained some of the more unkind images of Chinese and Koreans in manga illustrations. I learned that a social trend I thought was cool — the ability to pick up a part-time job for a day and be paid in cash as a student — was in some ways an outgrowth of Freeter culture which is becoming a bit of a trap for youth in Japan. The anime glitter was knocked out of my eyes, and I started to understand that Japan was… just Japan. Another country, with its own struggles and issues and cool parts of its society — not perfect, not horrific, just Japan.

From that perspective, Gwen Stefani is the one who needs to check her facts. I appreciate what she is trying to do, but forcing an iron-clad wardrobe/style/set of actions on the Harakjuku Girls (or Gwenihana 4, whatever you prefer) is fetishization. After all, Harajuku style is first and foremost about the ability to change. If you take that away from the girls who are performing, are you really staying true to the ‘juku?

Respect for a culture first stems from understanding the basics.