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Racist in the West, cool in Japan

By Mika Fukuda

From Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” backup dancers to Katy Perry’s geisha get-up for the 2013 American Music Awards, what has been criticised in the West as racial appropriation of Japanese culture for the sake of entertainment seems to have had an entirely opposite reception in Japan.

This article comes in the wake of Canadian singer Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” music video, released on 21 April, which has sparked much criticism and debate online. If your fear of loathing is so strong it has quelled your curiosity to watch the reel, a sparing synopsis follows.

The music video features the former punk rocker, now a pop princess with a side-buzz hairstyle, prancing around Tokyo’s "wakamono," or youth, districts in a cupcake tutu.

She is giggling over sushi and shochu, waving at adoring Japanese fans, taking one Polaroid picture, and generally showing us she’s a true international star by throwing out some “relevant” Japanese phrases.

Throughout the video she is followed by a posse of four expressionless Japanese women wearing quirky, colourful outfits that juxtapose their robotic demeanour. The latter has been the most heated target of criticism.

And, as you might have guessed by the title, the record vaguely incorporates the idea of Sanrio Co., Ltd.’s famous feline mascot with the lines, “Come, come, kitty, kitty, you’re so pretty, pretty” (debatable songwriting skills there).

Web users who first saw “Hello Kitty” had many comments on the Japan-themed video, to the extent that it was temporarily taken offline.

Perhaps the most influential of early-bird opinions came from an article on Billboard, which called the video “even more abhorrent than the song” and “an embarrassment in any language”. Although the article did not explicitly label the clip racist, as many of its readers would, it did find Lavigne’s robotic Japanese quadruplets “offensive” at the least.

Canada.com, a popular trend-watching site based in Lavigne’s hometown, was more generous with their criticism of her music video.

According to an article titled “Avril Lavigne doesn’t understand what racism is”, the stylisation of the backup dancers “present[ed] Japanese women as passive, adorable background decoration for a wealthy North American pop singer”. Ouch.

And if that doesn’t sting enough, you can read an article by a PolicyMic writer called “It’s Almost Impossible to Choose the Most Racist Moment of Avril Lavigne’s New Video”, which signs off in an outright boycott.

Accusations of the video being racist are understandably more prevalent and scathing in the realm of social media.

However, what is interesting to note is that none of the finger-pointing has come from Hello Kitty’s birthplace.

Despite the negative reactions of non-Japanese audiences, Japan largely accepts the “Hello Kitty” music video as flattering. If anything, we’re hearing more positive reactions from Japan about this tribute than the feedback for the overweight Godzilla.

Objectively speaking, there is really nothing inaccurate about how a particular, albeit extremely narrow, aspect of Japanese culture was portrayed in the three-minute clip.

Everything from the overly cute backdrops to the Canadian singer’s costume is nothing we haven’t seen in Harajuku, where most of the footage was shot.

As for the heavily discussed emotionless back-up dancers, were they not very reminiscent of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s deadpan quadruplet dancers in her “Candy Candy” video, which no one seemed to have a problem with?

The only offense the Japanese seem to have taken comes not from the content of the video but from the presumptuous opinions of westerners that it is racist toward Japanese.

Japanese social media users have been quick to respond to such opinions, saying those accusations are actually racist.

If anything, Lavigne’s music video has inadvertently provided firepower to the Japanese government’s Cool Japan policy. So far this Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry strategy, which seeks to promote exports of Japanese cultural items such as anime, has been received with an eye-roll from citizens.

Maybe the backing of a supersonically famous North American pop star is what the nation needs to believe in what their government is trying to sell to the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, this incident teaches us that Japanese consumers are still a market the West needs to study more cautiously.

Defying the curses of western critics, the “Hello Kitty” single breaks in at number 82 on Billboard Japan’s 100 Hot Top Airplay, which only includes a handful of international musicians.

The singer’s self-titled album, meanwhile, ranks second overall in Japan, coming in after Lady Gaga and before Arashi—a local idol group—and two albums by virtual singer Hatsune Miku.

We’re not saying that Lavigne is a marketing genius. Accusations of cultural offensiveness aside, the record’s tastefulness, especially in comparison to the singer’s earliest works, is still under trial.

What we would like to entertain, however, is that many commentators overlooked the fact that the culture featured in the controversial video is the same culture that embraces (more than anyone else in the world) over-the-top pop acts like Pamyu Pamyu and Lady Gaga.

Ironically, Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video appears to have become a statement of Cool Japan that for once appeals more to the Japanese than to the West.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I wouldn't say this is indicitive of Japanese people's nuanced ability to interpret how (or whether) their culture is being appropriated by the west, so much as it is a demonstration of the simple fact that Japanese culture being promoted or glorified, in any way, by the west, is something that tickles the hell out of Japanese people.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

That said, I'm not sure the video is racist.

Don'tcha know? EVERYTHING is racist these days. If you look at somebody the wrong way, it's racist.

It would seem that Japan and the West are at too opposite extremes. In Japan, EVERYTHING is OK and NOTHING is racist, while in the west it's the opposite.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I didn't even know Avril Lavigne was still considered relevant these days, not heard of her in years!

That said, I'm not sure the video is racist. Terrible, yes, but racist? Hmmm, I'm not sure.

The song is one of the worst I've heard in my life though!

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Everyone has an opinion. I do have to say it does fit in with everything else you see on TV in Japan.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

In the visual sense, I think the deadpan dancers are similar to Robert Palmers' Simply Irresistible mannequin like backup dancers and similar artistic expressions have been used many times before in music videos. Subjectively I do agree though with borax above, whereby I can't escape feeling that there's an undertone of Japanese elation whenever some aspects of Japanese culture or lifestyle are adopted overseas even if they're somewhat stereotypical & even unrealistic to a certain degree, especially by the West.

What I find unsettling is the "need" by Japan/Japanese to feel "approved" by the West and what such visuals will add to the Japanese stereotype in Western eyes. Although I think that since stereotyping itself is quite common in Japan, perhaps due in part to the Japanese group mentality in the culture; Japanese people don't mind they themselves being stereotyped as much as the West think they do.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Well, thanks for the distraction today. Was going to think about heavy things and this popped up. I never would have seen the video, otherwise. Saw it. Just seemed like people singing a faddy song with costumes not to be found in Canada or the U.S. Refreshing in a mindless way. Like that "Barbie " song a while back. Probably on the level of Elvis girating his hips, "OMG in 1950's" and stepping outside his own cultural safety zone. Nah, I just found it goofy. No worse than that 80's "Doumo Arigato Mr. Roboto, Doumo, " "No, sex, no drugs, no wine, no women, no fun, no wonder it's dark......I think I'm turning Japanese ......." Did that raise eyebrows?

Other stuff to think about. Gonna forget about it now.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I don't know it's racist. But I know it's stupid. Abril is still popular in Japan? Yawn

2 ( +2 / -0 )

how dare she wear a cupcake tutu and not a muffin one!!!!! and her dancers should have been wearing scone tutus......

1 ( +2 / -1 )

As long as the people of Japan are happy with the videos, that's good enough for me.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I guess everybody missed all the Harajuku girls following the "robot" dancers and laughing at them while making fun of their motions. I think it's pretty clear the dancers were meant to be over-the-top. That's not racism of Japanese culture, otherwise they wouldn't have included the JAPANESE girls following and mocking them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Here come the PC police... sound the horns!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I agree... now-a-days, and mainly in North America and areas influenced by them, every single thing is racist.

Just a small example, very recently, the name of a certain color in the Spanish language is now considered extremely racist. And even some Spanish speaking countries are avoiding to use that particular name of the color....

I don't mention the name for that color in here, since last time I did... it was systematically erased.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

It would be rather ironic if the Japanese, of all people, started getting offended over 'appropriation' of their culture. The reactions to the video from the Tumblr crowd just indicates how out of touch they are.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

People the world over are so oversensitive as to race creed & color it makes me sick! as for me it's live & let live so if Gabriel Levine want to swing like a kitty let him rip!-& Chill Out,Folks!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Don'tcha know? EVERYTHING is racist these days. If you look at somebody the wrong way, it's racist.

Basically true.

And in the meantime, real racism that we should be concerned about pretty well gets ignored.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Are the Japanese a separate race now? (I'm sure many think they are.)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I tried to watch the video once to see what the fuss was about. I didn't even make it to the 1:00 mark. The song is so horribly bad...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I saw the video some time ago. This entire "racist" tripe began with some twitter follower of Avril that saw it as "racist". Fortunately political correctness is not as strong in Japan as in the west. Japanese people don't mind such videos, since the video was made in earnest for entertainment. Those that dwell on finding an offense in anything and everything, in particular leftist liberals are a scourge to humility and a constant annoyance where ever they show their hideous, repulsive, vindictive, boring, cowardly and delusional faces.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Come on...how can you expect a person who is married to the singer of Nickleback...to still have ANY taste left whatsoever???

Her taste buds were blown to bits years ago...nice try on the Miley Cyrus-wannabe haircut, though, Av...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Avril Lavigne doesn't understand what racism is.

Hello Kitty video appears to have become a statement of Cool Japan that for once appeals more to the Japanese than to the West.

In a post-modern world racism is understood quite differently than it once was. Plus, you need a PhD to fully understand its nuances. Otherwise how do you judge where cultural cliches end and racism begins? (Sarcasm--in case you missed it.)

There are those who insist that wearing a kimono as a Halloween costume are appropriating culture and it's racist. Some days I'm not sure whether I ought to re-purpose and wear the handmade yukata I was given as a bathrobe--or not. That, too, might be misconscrewed. That probably makes me a racist because racists never get that they are racist.

I can live with that. I believe we are genetically hardwired to be racist. In our primitive limbic brains other is evil and a threat to our safety. Not to be racist is an intellectual choice. We commit to rethink our reptilian mind-set, to look for the commonality in others, and to behave in a non-racist manner.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Japanese are polite people with very short attention spans.

People who don't live in Japan think all all this subtextual analysis is somehow meaningfully damaging to Japanese' self perception is in for a surprise: Japanese will have their laughs then go on to the next cool thing.

Japanese have no time and patience to feel insulted by anything you can throw at them.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

I didn't see any racism in it either. Maybe a little mocking here or there, which only shows that...uh...what's her name?.....Ah..that's it April La-big-knees might be a little jealous.

Glad I watched though. Otherwise I wouldn't have found this funny parody of the same video.


-4 ( +0 / -4 )

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