Once again, Japan comes out as the least offended when someone seemingly appropriates their culture.

The 63rd annual Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps the world’s largest example of humanity’s peculiar obsession with making music a competitive sport, came to a close last week. In the end it was Israeli singer Netta (Netta Barzilai) who took top honors with her song “Toy.”

Let’s watch!

I thought it was a rather cute and catchy song, but for the most part I was transfixed on that weird computer-type thing that Netta seemed to be operating for most of the song. Was that thing playing music or just making light patterns go off? It was like an MPC from Star Trek: The Next Generation and really distracting.

At least, it was distracting enough to lure my eyes away from something apparently far more sinister going on…“cultural appropriation!” Here is a selection of the outrage compiled by the Japanese website Yuruku Yaru.


I have to admit, aside from glimpsing a bunch of maneki neko (cat statues often used to attract customers into shops) in the background I pretty much missed most of this cultural thievery taking place so I watched again…and her dress kind of looked like a kimono if you squinted your eyes the right way and changed your monitor settings to black and white.

I always thought doing your hair in double buns like that was more of a Chinese thing; that or the Rebel Alliance.

▼ Japanese buns tend to be… Seriously, what the hell is that thing in front of her?!

The lyrics to “Toy” also frequently use the Japanese word “baka” meaning “stupid,” in reference to stupid men who would objectify women. Although, admittedly it’s a little weird that she makes “baka” sound like a chicken clucking. There is also a line where Netta says, “I’m taking my Pikachu home.”

Seems to me if she really wanted to co-opt Japanese culture, Netta ought to get 47 more singers and then set up a convoluted hierarchy based on sales of singles, all operating under a rigid behavioral policy similar to that of a 19th century schoolmarm.

But I could be wrong, so let’s go to the netizens of Japan for judgement.

“The millions of Japanese people with dyed hair must be laughing at this.”
“Westerners care too much about silly things.”
“Culture is meant to be stolen. If it’s not worth stealing, then it isn’t culture.”
“If people keep claiming ‘cultural appropriation’ then people will not touch our culture. Then, people will not understand our culture and it will be easier to become our enemy.”
“In a contest like this an Israeli should use their own culture to win, not steal Japanese culture!”
“The clothes and cats are Japanese. The song is Korean. The make-up and hair is Chinese.”
“If someone properly uses and appreciates Japanese culture, then I respect them for it. If not, I just don’t care about it. It’s simple.”
“Are these people using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ properly?”

Part of the confusion illustrated by the last comment is the difference in the interpretations of the English term “cultural appropriation” and the Japanese translation of bunka toyo which literally translates to the more direct term “cultural theft.”

Unlike “cultural appropriation” which is considered to be the usage of another culture without a proper understanding of it, “cultural theft” might be interpreted as one culture taking another’s and then passing it off as their own.

▼ The official video for “Toy” also briefly features Netta in kimono. The Eurovision YouTube page also links to a “karaoke” version of the song… How dare they!

It really doesn’t seem like Netta is doing either, however. Cat statues and references to Pikachu aren’t really that sacred that one needs a PhD in Japanese culture to wield them properly. One might argue that because she is representing Israel in the contest, it is a little misleading to use Japanese symbols, but the backlash is suggesting that if anything, people are attributing too much of this performance to Japanese culture.

For another perspective, free of semantics and controversy, I tried showing the video to a few Japanese people out of context, to see what they thought of it at face value. Here are their comments.

“She seems like Naomi Watanabe. I don’t like Maneki Neko though. That’s too much.”
“Is she Japanese? It all looks Chinese with the colors.”
“It doesn’t seem like the designers know much about Japan, but whatever.”

If anything, I’m a little disappointed Netta hadn’t culturally appropriated a little more. Kimono makers in Japan, who have been putting up with a steadily shrinking market for the past four decades, would surely be happy if one was sported by the reigning Eurovision champion.

▼ Here she makes that computer thing say “Hey,” but why does it do that? Why would someone create something that does that?!

The people who make these beautiful garments will not be able to survive if people who wear them outside of Japan get branded as “cultural appropriators” for doing so. Sure, if left to their own devices, there is a certainty that some people will use a kimono or another aspect of the culture of Japan ignorantly and disrespectfully, but it’s a big culture. It can take care of itself.

However, if any person who uses Japanese culture becomes instantly stigmatized and bullied out of doing so, then others will stay away from it too, and it will wither. “Protecting” culture from appropriation is like keeping a goldfish in a wine glass to “protect” it from being eaten. Cultures and goldfish would be much better off in the wild, where nature can run its course, for better or worse.

Source: Independent, Yuruku Yaru, YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest
Images: YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest