Posted by Jayna Viswalingam
Cultural Appropriation is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Last month, Ariana Grande decided to get a tattoo written in Kanji letters in celebration of her song Seven Rings that was supposedly inspired by Japan and Japanese culture. Instead, she ended up getting a tattoo of an ‘earthen charcoal brazier (for cooking)’ as defined by jisho.org, as a result of her misunderstanding of how Japanese language and Kanji characters work.
In the last month, there has been lots of debate and discussion on whether her new tattoo is cultural appropriation or not. In my opinion, it is a clear form of cultural appropriation. This, in addition to her music video for Seven Rings, is a clear example of how the West has taken cultures
I am in no way an expert in Japanese language and culture but during the last four months of living here, and having lived most of my life in Asia, I have learnt that language is an integral part of any culture. This is the case worldwide. Discourse, the words we use, the slang we use, is so important in Western media. So why aren’t Asian languages and Asian discourse treated with the same respect and importance?
To briefly explain what I have learnt about Kanji in my Japanese classes here in Japan is that on your first lesson in Kanji you learn that Kanji are pictorial characters. Therefore, it doesn’t work like English letters that you put together to spell a word. With Kanji different characters combine to make different words and so the same character can be combined with different characters and mean completely different things. Ariana Grande’s tattoo for example individually mean seven and rings but when put together mean a type of BBQ grill.
However, we have to make one thing clear. Cultural appropriation is what it is because of power dynamics that exist in Western societies concerning race. The power dynamic, in this case, concerns the use of culture. In a place like America, Asian Americans have faced discrimination and many stereotypes places upon them. Asian women specifically have faced the sexualisation and therefore fetishisation of their culture. Speaking Asian languages or using Asian languages by Asian people in the West has garnered negative comments or racism in the present day and in the past. Therefore, Ariana Grande, by using it, has appropriated it, misunderstood it and made it a tool for style and profit.
Ariana Grande’s tattoo for example individually mean seven and rings but when put together mean a type of BBQ grill.
Let me make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with appreciating another culture or trying to learn about other cultures around you. I agree it makes you a more aware individual and helps you learn about the power imbalances that exist between races and cultures in the West. However, it is key that you pursue this through education and accuracy. There needs to be an understanding of the power and impact media and representation have on our thinking. It’s a channel in which we receive and process information and lots of people look to icons like Ariana Grande for inspiration and strength. Ultimately the media affects how and what we know. There is a clear difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and that is education.
In this case, a simple question to a Japanese friend or someone who is fluent in the language would have gone a long way. Without actually pursuing an educated approach, it makes it seem like you’re entitled to employ parts of a culture you don’t seem to be actually educated about. It makes it feel like you’re not appreciating at all but rather taking parts of it that appeal to you as an aesthetic, not as a language that has such ancient and interesting roots. Her appreciation for Japanese culture becomes superficial.
But putting the tattoo controversy to a side for a minute, her music video needs to be talked about as well. As I said earlier, the fetishisation of Asian women is a stereotype that very much exists. Not only did I hardly recognise the 7 Rings music video to be inspired by Japanese culture, but vague connections were also used in a sexualised and fashion oriented way. It emphasises the fact that again Ariana Grande uses Japanese culture as an aesthetic to profit from. It limits and objectifies a whole culture reducing its importance and meaning.
It is as if the price we pay to be in Western media is to be exoticised while letting people appropriate our visual histories. She is capitalising on the fetishisation of Japanese culture and Japanese female caricatures. Apart from this, Ariana is also strongly criticised for appropriating the Black culture to which she is yet to respond.
I think the most frustrating thing about this and cultural appropriation, as a whole, is people’s complete denial of it. It started off as a situation that was pretty funny, I mean she had a BBQ grill tattooed on her hand (honestly I think that’s worth keeping). Ariana’s response in a
There is a clear difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and that is education.
Firstly, it still isn’t technically right, but more importantly, her exasperation is unfounded because to me there is a very simple and clear solution. All we ask is for you to recognise what you did and apologise, I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. Avoiding it and calling it appreciation does not solve anything because it shows you haven’t bothered to properly consider your actions and the effect it has on people and general society. She needs to learn from this mistake and grow from this experience.
This whole situation has me less angry and more disappointed. There was God is a Woman that empowered women to embrace their sexual freedom and power as women. We saw Thank you, next – a uniting force for all those who had gone through tough times and were united in a message of moving on and being strong despite what life has thrown at you. We saw Ariana triumph through pain all while being under the public eye. To me, this was amazing, it was inspiring. It now feels like that message is tainted, it feels like that message was only meant for some people. As someone who enjoys your music, it makes me feel side-lined, like your message and your music does not include me or other Asian women.
Jayna Viswalingam is a Philosophy student at Durham University currently on a year abroad in Kumamoto, Japan. She spends most of her time eating and sleeping while simultaneously trying to find ways to redefine society. You can follow her on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Capital FM