Streetwear may have been conceived in California and its aesthetic defined by New York, but Japan holds a particular reverence within the industry that nowhere else (Big Apple aside) can match.
Not only has Japan given streetwear, and wider fashion in general, some of its most pioneering brands, not to mention much of its revenue (let’s not forget that six of Supreme’s 10 global flagships are based in Japan), but its distance in the imagination imbues it with a certain mythology that serves as a bottomless well of inspiration.
Western and Japanese brands consistently feed off of each other. Sometimes that process is a partnership of equals, but other times it borders on parasitic. The impenetrability of Japan’s culture and language, its foreign abstractness to the typical Western eye often leads to reductionistic interpretations – think misspelt kanji and visuals such as koi fish that are overdone to the point of utter kitsch.
Railing against this sort of cultural objectification, NYC-based creative collective, Shock and Awe, has teamed up with Sasa Li, the creative brains behind custom kimono label, The Kimono Kid, on a batch of irony-laden T-shirts satirizing this phenomenon. The simplistic design features the words “random Japanese shit” splayed repetitively onto a plain white tee in black Katakana lettering – a sneer in the direction of brands that use it in the wrong context, reducing it to a hollow visual devoid of any meaning.
So far, so snarky. But this endeavor is more than just a sartorial eye-roll: part of the proceeds will be donated to The Japan Foundation, a non-profit that promotes Japanese language and culture globally. We sat down with Sasa and KEFF, of Shock and Awe, to find out more.
So what inspired this project?
KEFF: I think this general cultural commentary idea had been brewing for a while as the result of a lifetime of witnessing Asian culture appropriated and reduced to an aesthetic - from the popularity of non-Asians getting tattoos of Chinese characters, to the news just this week of how the film version of the anime The Ghost in the Shell is casting Scarlett Johansson to play the lead Japanese female, and CGI-ing her to make her look more Asian.
This specific idea, though, was a recent reaction to seeing more and more artists and brands, especially streetwear brands, throw Kanji [Japanese characters] on everything from clothing to SoundCloud album art. Most of the time there's no real reason for the Kanji to be there - there's no connection to the brand - it's just there to make the design look “edgier.” It works pretty well, too, as people have demonstrated they'll buy and wear something with Japanese on it, even if they don't know what it means.
All in all, it a very clear example of "all aesthetic, no meaning" - being loud, without having something to say - making it a prime topic for Shock and Awe to tackle. I knew right away I wanted to get Sasa involved: she owns a Japanese brand that hand-makes custom kimonos using traditional techniques, and I knew she felt just as strongly, if not more so, about the misuse of Kanji.
We sat down to chat ideas, and quickly figured out that the best way to one-up tees with random Japanese shit all over them was to create a tee that literally has "random Japanese shit" all over it. Not the Google Translate version, either – the phrase someone fluent in Japanese would use.
Makes sense. It's hard to believe that in 2016 brands and people are still fixated on Kanji. It's as '90s as tribal tattoos. So which brands, in your mind, stand out as particularly bad offenders in regards to re-appropriating and objectifying Asian culture?
K: I've joked before that MKI Miyuki Zoku is like the Chung Ling Soo [a white vaudeville magician who performed on stage as a Chinese man] of apparel. As interesting as their name's backstory is, it's hard for me to imagine it wasn't chosen for the exotic factor…and a justifiable excuse for a Leeds brand to sell Kanji clothing.
Beyond that, no "particularly bad offenders" come to mind for me - just a lot of young, internet-inspired streetwear brands that've been guilty of little things here and there, like a lookbook shot in Chinatown, or some random Korean on a sweatshirt. Pink Dolphin and Elevenparis come to mind. I guess I should add since I'm kind of throwing shade here that I don't think these brands are conniving or terrible at heart - I think they simply don't know any better.
How did you go about getting the translation right?
Sasa: Our translation is written entirely in Katakana, one of the Japanese alphabets. Katakana is generally used for foreign words; for instance, "Google" using katakana is pronounced as "Guguru" and "Apple" the tech company is pronounced as "Appuru,” whereas the Japanese word for apple, i.e. the fruit, is "ringo.”
We could have easily done a more traditional and direct translation using Hiragana and Kanji, but I decided on Katakana because it is used most often for slang. Since our intention is to highlight the problems seen within the fashion industry, more specifically the streetwear industry, it was only fitting to use Katakana.
But I got to shoutout to my homeboy, Tomota, who double checked me on my writing. He's born and raised in Tokyo and a writer for Qetic, a Japanese magazine, so I made sure to run it all by him before I finalized my design.
Not that I'm defending the re-appropriation or objectification of Japanese culture, but it happens a lot over there as well, with Japanese brands fetishizing and adopting elements of Western culture, particularly subculture, and reducing it to an aesthetic. Is this an issue of wider cultural reductionism or is it a peculiarity of the fashion industry and proof of its inherently superficial nature?
K: I think it's both. It's definitely a cultural issue, and I would argue that what you just described, despite what it may seem, isn't exactly a fair equivalent. Western culture, including fashion, heavily dominates the rest of the world in status and influence, largely due to historical imperialism – just think about how the suit and tie, over time, became the global standard for business attire. Within that context, when a Japanese brand adopts Western elements, is it stealing, or is it simply assimilating or fitting in? On the Western side, what's the fine line between inspiration and appropriation? It's a complicated matter, and one I'm sure thousands of social justice warriors on Tumblr have already gotten carpal tunnel over.
As for fashion...our aesthetic used to be defined by our identity, and now, our identity is defined by our aesthetic. You're right about fashion being inherently superficial, as appearances always matter the most. But that doesn't mean we, as creators and consumers, should completely ignore the meaning embedded in words, symbols, images, even processes and fabrics. That's just empty self-expression that downgrades brands into names and fashion into clothing.
S: Personally, this is definitely a cultural issue. There are so many problems in fashion, granted, this could very easily be tied into that, but I think that’s another story for another time.
There’s a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Surface level, these examples of misused Kanji and even English phrases on clothing can be brushed off as innocent attempts at celebrating a culture that is not your own. But the consequences are more severe than they seem. The misused Kanji in particular, creates this cyclical effect where Asian stereotypes are being perpetuated on a passive level. The problem lies in the way this type of pseudo cultural appreciation reduces the Asian experience by compartmentalizing it.
As innocent and trivial as it may seem to some people that we’re getting so worked up over some misused characters on a T-shirt, the real problem is that it goes way deeper than just a spelling mistake. It’s building on an issue that’s already so embedded in our culture, most of us don’t even realize it’s there.
But how do you separate appreciation and appropriation – what does a brand need to do to avoid stepping over that line? Or do you think it's better that they simply steer clear completely?
K: I don't think they should steer clear - cultures can't survive if they're exclusive, and ought to be experienced and celebrated by anyone who wants to. I'd say just practice sensitivity and respect, and know that there's a rich history and culture behind whatever visual or phrase you're using.
S: It's all about education. I'm sure you never go and write an article without knowing the whole story. The same principle should be applied to brands and fashion in general. If you’re a designer who’s inspired by another culture, don't just take those Google image search photos and use that as your basis. An educated designer will do his or her research before they delve into anything. Read. Educate yourself. Get connected to the source. A problem I see a lot in the design and creative community in general is the lack of emphasis on the importance of literature. As creatives, we see ourselves as visual beings. But that doesn't mean we should neglect the written word.
As a designer myself, it is clear as day when I see a collection that’s honest and well informed versus something that barely skims the surface. Even if you’re not a designer, I think it would do us all a little good to learn about someone else’s culture. It instills humility.
Looking at this project I can’t help but think of SuperDry Japan, who cover their clothing in meaningless excerpts of Japanese text, and even admit to keying in English phrases into basic translation software to extract really obtuse translations. Were you aware of this?
K: To be honest, I didn't even know that SuperDry is a British brand, so I definitely wasn't aware of this. I think it makes them even more of a Chung Ling Soo than MKI, given that they've used that front to build a global fashion empire for themselves – it's like imperialism all over again. Part of me wants to believe their usage of meaningless Japanese is almost like a self-aware inside joke, but they've already stated it's mostly for the cool factor, which is the very problem that our shirt is addressing.
At some point, Sasa and I had actually briefly considered not telling people what the Japanese on our shirt actually means, in an effort to make some sort of social experiment out of the release. If we'd done that, it would have been similar to what SuperDry's already doing. The difference is that we wanted our wearers to be in on the joke.
S: I've heard different accounts of the story. Some say the poor translation was deliberate and thereby making a statement. Others say it was purely an aesthetic choice. Whether or not it was intentional, it brings exactly what we're talking about to light. At this point, I don't think it matters which it is, that would be like asking if it was the chicken or the egg. It's already out there so I just see it as an opportunity to be having this conversation. It's a conversation that people within the industry should be having, along with their consumers.
To reiterate Kev's point, our intention is to let you all in on the joke. You as a viewer or consumer are active participants. Even if you're not in a creative field, clothing and design are integral parts of everyday life. We hope this tee brings to light the issues that we're addressing and make you think a little more next time you wanna cop some new threads. And also, I figure, why not try doing something cerebral within an industry that time and time again has been deemed superficial and trivial?
Priced at $35 each, the tees will be limited to a run of 40 shirts that will be available from the Shock and Awe webstore. For more of Shock and Awe's and The Kimono Kid's work, head over to their respective websites.