“The only people who think culture shouldn’t be shared are racists like you.”
Most of the Internet is a little late to the party, but a 2012 post on party planning blog The Gala Gals has sparked discussion online over the past few days. The post, which can be seen in its entirety here, contains pictures of a birthday party that a mother, living in Utah, organized for her elementary school-aged daughter and four guests, all of whom are fair-skinned and appear to be Caucasian.
The guests drank tea from porcelain Japanese-style cups and munched on Pocky and cakes decorated with cherry blossom motifs. The birthday girl herself, as seen in a photo included in the Gala Gals post, was dressed in a kimono, sewn by her mother, and wore heavy geisha-style makeup.
Some time later Tumblr user ginzers recently stumbled across the above photo and was upset by it, using the image sharing platform to post the condemnation “Teach children that this is not OK,” and later expanding upon her stance by saying:
“The makeup is clearly reflective of traditional Geisha makeup which is yellowface and therefore racist. Furthermore, the girl is wearing a kimono, a garment that has for ages carried cultural significance. Assuming that she is white how can you think this is ok? And cultural appropriation isn’t a thing? What rock do you live under? I suggest you educate yourself on the differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.”
The term “yellowface” is generally used to refer to makeup being used in an attempt to make a non-Asian theatrical performer look Asian, often with the connotation that the depiction results in a condescending caricature. That’s a little different from what’s going on here, as the intent of the makeup doesn’t seem to have been used to say “This is what Japanese people look like,” but “This is the style of makeup geisha wear,” and the heavy white powder, bright red lipstick, and jet-black eyebrows are all in keeping with common geisha cosmetics motifs.
The assertion that the kimono is “a garment that has for ages carried cultural significance” could probably also use a bit of clarification. As an indigenous Japanese article of clothing, it does indeed have a connection to Japanese culture. However, kimono, as indicated by the etymology of the word (“kimono” literally means “thing to wear”) have never had a connection to a specific cultural activity, ceremony, or class, and so Japanese society doesn’t have, nor ever has had, the belief that kimono should only be worn by certain ethnicities or other demographics, nor only by those engaging in certain activities.
As such, much of ginzers’ anger sounds like it may be coming from someone without much first-hand experience with Japanese culture. Someone who does have such experience, though, is Yuki, a Japanese woman who jointly runs the Tumblr account cheshireinthemiddle and responded to ginzers’ criticism at the bottom of the Tumblr thread below.
Yuki’s rebuttal reads:
“I am Japanese, in Japan at this very moment. The only people who think culture shouldn’t be shared are racists like you. A vast majority of Japanese people actually enjoy other people making an effort to spread and enjoy Japanese culture, and encourage it. Many make businesses in deliberately taking pictures of people in kimono. A common omiage (gift) for foreigners from Japanese people is traditional Japanese things such as kimonos, tea seats, shisa dog statues, etc. And to top it off, basically 80 percent of Japanese customs, traditions, and food, came from other countries. Japanese is an integration of different cultures, like America. Japan takes influences from places like Korea, China, Russia, and Europe. If Japan stuck to itself, there would be no tempura, Japanese tea, tea ceremonies, kabuki, Japanese bread, Japanese curry, J-pop, anime, cars, or modern fishing techniques. The picture is not “yellow face” they are not making fun of Asians. In fact, it looks like they put extra care and research into their work. The only reason that you have a problem with this is because that little girl is white and you know that it is acceptable on Tumblr to crap all over white people. The only racist here is you.”
Yuki jointly runs cheshireinthemiddle with Jackson, who is black, and the account’s self-introduction line proclaims “If our opinions don’t match up with your perception of what our races and genders should believe, that is your problem, not ours,” an attitude clearly reflected in Yuki taking issue with someone else judging who should and shouldn’t be allowed to take a participative interest in Japanese culture. It’s a sentiment a number of Japanese-language Twitter users seem to share:
▼ “Is it racist for a Caucasian girl to have a Japan-themed birthday party? My answer: No. Please enjoy Japanese things as much as you’d like! Help spread the word.”
西荻猫 (@NISHIOGINECO) August 07, 2017
▼ “That Japanese woman’s rebuttal is exactly right. I’m happy someone could put that so eloquently in English for us.”
あそコロ♪優パパ★ (@asokoro_yupapa) August 07, 2017
Though it would be nice if someone could tell The Gala Gals that even women’s kimono are supposed to be worn with the left flap over the right.