Does the Tokyo Olympics branding amount to cultural appropriation?
What started as a stereotype of Japan by western media has turned into a process of nation branding
Fabio Gygi, a lecturer in anthropology at SOAS, University of London, on the questions about how Japan is viewed by outsiders and insiders.
In the weeks leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the BBC premiered its trailer for the games – an extravagant, 60-second romp through the recent imagery of Japan as a cute, colourful, anime and manga-inspired wonderland.
With signature music by Kenji Kawai, vocals by virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku and a maximalist aesthetic, the trailer has had a mixed reception. In social media commentary, fans were enthused, non-fans were non-plussed, and some more vinegary voices muttered about cultural stereotypes.
The reaction of the Japanese-speaking world was similarly split. Many Japanese comments on YouTube said something along the lines of “I see, this is how Japan looks like from the UK,” and then added “but this does not look like Tokyo at all, more like Hong Kong.”
The portrayal of Japan in this trailer raises questions about how Japan is viewed by outsiders and insiders, and what cultural or economic purposes such images serve. One theoretical lens through which to address these is the concept of orientalism.
The term, coined by the US-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, describes how someone creating a representation of an individual or culture wields power over those who are represented.
Said argued that stereotypical depictions of the Middle East in European art become closely linked to preconceived notions of the Orient as an exotic and potentially erotic place. Orientalism as a style of painting becomes a style of thought and, with the colonial expansion of European empires, a corporate enterprise.
Although Japan was never colonised – apart from a ten-year period after the second world war – a similar dynamic applied to the Euro-American fascination with images of Japan. This was fuelled by the craze of Japonisme in the 19th century that influenced artists, composers and novelists.
Japan’s rapid recovery in the post-war years and its increasing dominance in the global market for consumer electronics and industrial robots in the 1980s led to a shift in image best captured in the term “techno-orientalism”.
In the hostile rhetoric of the trade war between America and Japan, the submissive geisha fantasy was replaced by an image of the salary man as a conformist, robot-like menace to western dominance. No longer held back by age-old traditions, Japan appears as the vanguard of technology and entertainment – a place where you can visit the future before it happens to you.
Japan’s government has long realised the potential of the cultural industries as tools of cultural diplomacy and “soft power”, projecting positive images of Japan through consumer goods, media products and popular culture, such as Hello Kitty.
What started as a stereotypical image of a toy-like Japan produced by western media, has now been turned into a process of nation branding. Partly supported by the country’s foreign ministry and other government agencies, the “Cool Japan” policy was supposed to spread this image of Japan around the world.
The Olympics are a global stage on which this shift has manifested. The opening ceremony of the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 heavily featured Japanese traditions such as local festivals and sumo wrestling. In contrast, the flag handover from Rio 2016 focused entirely on popular culture: then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared as the computer game character Super Mario, assisted by the comic book characters of Doraemon and Captain Tsubasa.
These images are consonant with other ways of promoting Japan in the UK, such as the yearly HyperJapan Festival which encourages visitors to “find your inner Japanese”. You can dress up in kimono and play at being Japanese, cosplay as your favourite manga character, spend three days as a samurai warrior or sample makeup trends from Harajuku. Much of what is on offer could be seen as orientalism and cultural appropriation – in other words, treating and branding parts of Japanese culture as property in order to sell it for a profit.
But can we really speak of cultural appropriation, when something has been explicitly produced by a Japanese company with a foreign consumer in mind? HyperJapan is organised by the London-based Japanese firm Cross Media Ltd, whose aim is to bridge Japanese and UK culture through events like sake tastings, and owns the label eat-Japan.
This is where things get rather murky. Whether the images are created by an orientalist “outsider” perspective or by an essentialising “insider” point of view, the results are shockingly similar: cultural and social diversity is silenced in favour of a playful but uniform depiction of Japan. Perhaps the distinction between insider and outsider is no longer useful in a world where everyone can be a media producer.
The BBC trailer is another case in point. Many comments online assumed that this was a trailer representing Japan produced by a British team, when in fact the art director, Fantasista Utamaro, is a Brooklyn-based Japanese artist.
Shot in Tokyo with a local crew remotely directed from London, the clip is truly an intercultural production. Obviously, one cannot expect that a 60-second trailer provides an accurate image of Japan in all its complexity. There is an unbridgeable tension between creating something that is recognisably Japanese and yet avoids the stereotypes on which this recognition is based.
In the end, the real problem of these Olympic games is not representation, but the fact that the majority of the Japanese population don’t want them to happen.
A citizen’s movement has formed around this resistance and a series of convincing arguments have been made by the protesters: without visitors, the economic investment into the Olympics is essentially meaningless and, as has been shown already, the games are a hotbed for potential new COVID infections.
From this controversy emerges an image diametrically opposed to the playful “geek chic” aesthetic of the trailer: Japan as a divided country, with low levels of trust in the government and gaffe-prone officials.