Sooner or later, there was going to be a celebrity who tattooed something ridiculous on their body. I don’t think people in the Japanese community were surprised when Ariana Grande got hers.
It was supposed to say “Seven Rings,” in Japanese, but it ended up saying a Japanese style of barbecue.
On one hand, her tattoo exposes a careless misunderstanding of our culture, perhaps cultural appropriation. On the other, like many other immigrant communities, we have a tremendous desire to share our culture with other Americans.
I grew up in Nikkei Japanese communities in the U.S. I’m a second-generation Japanese American.
In that community, we were never exclusively ethnically Japanese. Buddhist temples, Japanese churches, and community organizations were attended by people of other races, and we embraced their presence. They’re not appropriating our culture — they’re members of our community.
Like many communities, we love sharing our culture. Japanese festivals serve to maintain the Japanese-American community’s coherence but also to share our culture with the entire community. The festival is a chance for people who have never been to Japan to experience a subculture of it. For people who have been to Japan, it is a chance to re-experience it. Fans of Japanese literature, religion, and art come to piece together what they have read and studied. More recently, fans of anime come for the same reason. There are people who have never thought of Japan, who get their first taste of the culture as well. There is nothing wrong with that. Most Japanese-Americans want to put you in kimonos and watch you be uncomfortable. We’ll feed you interesting food, teach you small phrases, and maybe write your name in Japanese characters. And you shouldn’t be afraid of sharing your experience or posting pictures of it.
The annoyance from our community comes when our culture is misunderstood. Representing us irresponsibly raises red flags, whether you want to call it appropriation or not.
It’s important to remember that Asian Americans are equally American. When a person gets asked “where are you really from,” it suggests they aren’t American. You would never question the “American-ness” of a 6th generation American with Anglo-Saxon heritage, nor should you expect Asian Americans to be straight from Asia. A lot of Asian families have been here since before WWII. Many don’t get to experience Asian communities like the one I grew up in. Communities like mine are often the only chance at maintaining a connection to an ethnic culture. It’s not the norm, and even then our identities are distinctively American. If you know your way around Asian last names and humbly ask an Asian American an educated question about their heritage, people are more likely to give you an answer about their ethnicity.
Mixing up Asian cultures is another problem. Asian cultures are as distinct as European cultures. Imagine if anyone suggested that the British, French, and Germans were the same. What if I praised the fantastic British automobile company BMW and their French counterpart Lamborghini? How about German pizza, and Spanish croissants? There’s nothing wrong with not knowing , but do us a favor and either say nothing or ask which is which.
If someone is trying to embody or promote a culture, I hope they put in the effort to avoid misrepresenting it. American pop culture is guilty and Ariana Grande is only one example. Misspelling is always avoidable, and consulting a member of a community isn’t difficult. Her tattoo demonstrates a general carelessness, and carelessness can place burdens on communities.
Let’s expand to Hollywood and the media. If someone is creating a character or a persona carelessly and inaccurately without consulting a member of a community, all sort of biases and stereotypes will influence a character’s portrayal. Consider that ethnic Asians aren’t cast for Asian roles. Consider how obvious it is when there are hollow, stereotypical caricatures of Asians. The same can be said for any other minority group.
Most people don’t mind sharing their culture so long as the outsider comes from a place of curiosity and interest. That means educating yourself. I understand the frustration of being called racist for exercising curiosity. That criticism is harsh and sometimes unjust. We wish to share, but some of our experiences have tarnished our willingness to do so and made us skeptical. Maybe we should be less defensive, but perhaps society should also consider learning more about a group of people that has been in America for over 100 years.