Borrowed Plumes

As a kid I loved to run around with Indian feathers on my head, a Sheriff’s star on my jacket … and of course I was a “Cowboy”, because that word sounded so cool. My name was Old Shatterhand-Winnetou and I remember I refused to come for dinner when not being called by that proper name.
Not much changed since than, I guess … I just exchanged the Indian-Cowboy-Sheriff crossover dress into some Japanese Kimono, and instead of having that Karl May heroes’ double-name I nowadays use some Japanese names given to me by my teachers. Well, I come for dinner on my own …

What remains the same is the absolute dedication in aspiring “to really be” and really live what impressed me as a kid, or now as an adult. I was as much a little Indian-Cowboy-Sherrif as any real Indian or Cowboy or Sheriff at age nine, maybe even more. Nowadays, my Japanese friends often mention my lifestyle is by far more Japanese then theirs … and after enough beer or sake “you seem to live more like my grand-grandfather”. Well, he probably didn’t write a blog …

Recently I followed a discussion concerning some celebrity who had the funny idea to call her collection of underwear according to her given name plus adding “ONO”, to make it sound “KIMONO”. The person in question seems to be free of any relation to Japan or (Japanese) culture or any knowledge about it. Possibly some PR agent made that suggestion explaining “Kimono” means something to wear (which is correct), and so she agreed. And of course she had her brand name trademarked.
Unbelievable the uproar in Japanese media that broke out, eventually urging the Major of Kyoto himself writing her a letter asking to not use the word Kimono for her underwear.

There was much talking about “cultural appropriation” in the context of that Kimono Scandal. But isn’t cultural appropriation only an issue, when an allegedly superior culture decorates itself with items from parts of the world to where it otherwise looks down to (or spends a few weeks of holiday, at most)?

Borrowing items, names, or a life-style from an equal or even superior culture can only be either “cultural learning and study”, or an act of total ignorance – which was probably the case in the concerned scandal.

Aiming towards Japan and Japanese culture, we can often see a weird mixture of admiration (“Samurai”, “Geisha”, “Zen-Master”) and totally gone wrong attempt to frame the one or other symbolic item within our Western context.

Just the other day I came across the advertisement of the German branch of a Japanese automotive manufacturer. The little film starts by some (possibly Western) person drawing an ENZO (Zen circle) with a big brush on the floor. All the setting, atmosphere and background gives a very strong impression of China, while the (German) text goes “In Japan we call it Enzo…”. The rest of the lyrics reveal a total misunderstanding of Zen and it’s prominent symbol Enzo by linking it to “perfection” (and the imagined perfection of the Enzo to the cars to be sold …).

I imagine none of the car manufacturer’s Japan Headquarter management had seen this advertisement before it went on-line in Germany. Will the head priest of Myoshinji write a letter, maybe? I don’t think so …

Said that, I believe there is only a very small step from that Enzo-car-advertisement or Kim’s Kimono to all those folks in Europe and the US who call themselves “Zen-Master” or “Roshi”, wearing fancy robes and names and don’t speak a word Japanese or fulfil any of the requirements to be called a “Master” or “Roshi” in Japan, the very place on earth they refer to with such masquerade.

While Japan perfectly incorporated Western culture, technology and lifestyle into it’s very Japanese Way, I believe we still have a long way to go before naturally living a Western way of Japanese culture.

It’s a joyful way, as far as I am concerned, with some tough lessons to learn. Cultural Learning literally costs a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears … other than Cultural Appropriation.