It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting here with some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head for a while now. There have been a few instances in fashion in recent months that have brought this topic to the forefront of my mind, but working out how best to approach it from my position has been more challenging than writing the words themselves.
Before I go forward with this article it’s important to clarify the context of what is about to be discussed. The catalyst for writing this article has been an oft-bandied-around statement in fashion circles about Japan’s relationship with American fashion, specifically one that claims ‘Oh, the Japanese/Asians just want to be White/American. That’s why they rip off American/Western culture all the time.’ That I’ve had to use slashes here already highlights the issue I’m trying to discuss.
The longer that time has gone on, the more this attitude has troubled me as problematic and misguided for various reasons and recent events have offered a potential space in which this can be discussed. It’s equally important to clarify my own position as a white English male who’s grown up in England; as such, I can’t offer any concrete answers in this article, nor would I ever claim to or want to.
This is therefore a conversation in which I can only play the role of an auxiliary agent, but in the words of The Cat in the Hat, ‘The way to find the missing object is to find out where it’s not’, and I would certainly like to try and shift focus away from – or perhaps expand the conversation beyond – attitudes and sentiments that only perpetuate a problematic perception of inter-cultural relationships between the East and the West, both in fashion and on a much broader scale.
Anybody who’s a fan of contemporary men’s fashion will probably be aware of the large role that Japan has played in crafting our current cultural landscape in fashion. Whether you’re someone saving up pennies to get the latest streetwear pieces – like myself – or someone taking their first step into selvage denim via the likes of A.P.C. – like myself several years back – the fact is a large number of current trends have come to our shores courtesy of style pioneers in Nippon.
Selvage denim, vintage production techniques, the revival of classic sportswear, workwear and casual clothing, many of these movements came about as a result of Japan’s discerning eye for quality manufacturing techniques and a sincere appreciation for the stories and symbolism behind fashion and, indeed, many parts of culture. Japan became the central point of the premium denim revival when America began scrapping all its old shuttle looms; likewise with loopwheeled cotton. Hiroki Nakamura’s committal to the implementation of the Goodyear Welt in many of his footwear creations is significant at a time when more and more fashion companies are doing away with this feature in favour of cheaper, less resilient methods of production.
The Japanese population spends much more of its disposable income on consumer goods than people in the Western world – and also remains very much a cash-central culture over credit and plastic. One by-product of this is a more discerning eye for quality and value for money. As the US and Europe shifted ever further into the capitalist model during the 20th century, Japan happily adopted our ‘antiquated’ methods, recognising the finer-quality end product that could be achieved as a result. This isn’t an issue of mimicry or replication – it’s a case of difference between cultures that place greater values on different parts of the picture.
Another thing worth highlighting is how closely some of these techniques tie into rich segments of Japan’s own culture. The Japanese appreciation for high-quality denim is not so alien when one considers their own longstanding relationship with indigo dyeing techniques, the oldest examples of which can be traced all the way back to the 10th century.
Far from adopting a new fascination, denim culture actually fed straight into a tradition of which the Japanese were already masters. There’s also a wealth of evidence of the presence of printing in East Asia long before the West had even discovered it – one of the greatest criticisms of Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels in the East during the 13th century is that he somehow managed to completely overlook Asian printing practices, something which would take several more centuries to emerge in Europe. It’s a stretch, granted, but this remains evidence of Asia’s independent relationship with cloth, craft and construction beyond the Western Gaze – something that “trying to be us” narratives inevitably erase.
Moving beyond respective histories and timelines, the discourse of an Eastern populace infatuated with the West is deeply problematic on a number of levels. The history of Western Imperialism and colonial rule in East Asia is one that involves the USA, England, France, Portugal, Russia and the Netherlands and is too complex to be easily summarised in a single article.
Japan was actually one nation that made resounding efforts to keep Western influence out of its borders for centuries, whilst the simple fact remains that Western imperialism was no less brutal or destructive in the East than it was across Africa, the Middle East or the Americas. If one reflects upon some modern Western attitudes towards post-colonial countries in Africa – “we were doing them a favour, they had nothing until we came along” – the suggestion that populations in the East somehow all aspire towards Western culture is actually just another example of the Imperialist attitude that rephrases its intrusions in an attempt to relocate oppression to the mind of the oppressed.
Moving briefly into modern history, what I find to be most problematic about a perception of infatuated mimicry in Japanese fashion is its erasure of three of the greatest atrocities of the Second World War – the USA’s creation of Japanese Internment Camps in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the absolute decimation of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American forces. These were unquestionably some of the darkest points during the War, all three of which directly affected the Japanese people, which is all I feel comfortable saying. Blanket statements about some perceived Japanese infatuation with America are, put simply, massively misguided and blinkered in their consideration of broader history – which matters.
So far I’ve attempted to discuss the relationship between Japanese fashion and white Western culture, but another more complicated discussion that is taking place is that of the appropriation of Native American culture and symbology by some Japanese labels. Again, I must clarify my position as a White Westerner with a tacit awareness of the problems that this topic has raised and the limited perspective that I can have into the nuances of such discussions.
On the one hand, the appropriation and repackaging of the culture of Native American tribes has become ever more prominent in recent years; Victoria’s Secret using ceremonial Head Dresses in their runway shows; perpetual culture-pisser Urban Outfitters selling Navajo underwear; the ongoing debate about football team the Washington Redskins’ continued use of a term that alludes to the bounty that was offered for the scalps of dead Indigenous Americans. The list goes on. And on. I don’t discount any of these debates and I can only continue to read texts by Native American writers and hope to gain a better understanding of the conflicts in play here. As far as Navajo goes, however, let’s stop. Someone tell Pharrell to stop using headdresses as well.
In the hands of Japanese creators this issue of appropriation and “inspiration” is as prominent as any other instance. However, certain instances have highlighted a different relationship with Native culture. Goro Takahashi of the legendary Goros jewellery store first learnt the silversmith craft in his years spent with the Sioux tribe, during which time he even earned the moniker ‘Yellow Eagle’. Upon returning to Japan Goro continued to work exclusively out of his own store, refusing to sell pieces unless they suited the character of the customer. To me this highlighted a shared appreciation for genuine craft as well as a respect for the traditions that were passed down to him, something of which one must take note.
Similarly, the travels of Visvim founder Hiroki Nakamura have seen the designer picking up many unique crafts and traditions along the way, the Native American tradition being one of them. Far from assuming the position of an aesthetic mastermind, however, Nakamura has always explicitly cited his sources and inspirations, from textile to technique to final product. His pursuit of raw, traditional methods have created beautiful pieces that are clearly rich with culture, but it is this culture that Nakamura has often tried to make central to his work. A few seasons back he accompanied his previews with a teepee that he crafted and constructed himself, even using buffalo brains to tan the stitching.
Most crucially, I was relieved during the recent ‘FBT Explosion’ that has seen the likes of Kanye West and Wale wearing his most famous creation to see Nakamura release a comprehensive text on the history of the Native moccasin-inspired shoe, deconstructing his own design and relating every aspect of the FBT back to the place where he first found inspiration. Unlike the recent Saint Laurent Spring/Summer 2015 collection that saw Hedi Slimane slap a hideous bunch of tassels onto shoes with no explanation whatsoever – seriously, why? – it seems important to me that Nakamura, an early celebrator of the traditional moccasin shoe, has always made great efforts to deflect the true credit from himself towards those who first crafted it out of necessity rather than aesthetic.
Returning to history, this complicated relationship between Western culture and Indigenous American populations is one mirrored in Japan’s own troubled relationship with America. Furthermore, there is a wealth of study into the roots of indigenous American cultures, a segment of which has found evidence to suggest that some Northwestern indigenous tribes may have originated from East Asia and, specifically, Japan. This is a small but noteworthy consideration that highlights another aspect of the relationship between Japan and Indigenous American cultures. As stated in earlier paragraphs, what emerges so often from the Japanese approach to Native American aesthetic is a sincere appreciation for the spirituality and cultural beauty of Indigenous traditions and the connectivity of the two might go to explain how their interactions have often birthed such beautifully synchronized creations. This is a topic on which I cannot claim to be an expert and, as such, I emphasise my own careful footing around such discussions.
In conclusion, I reiterate my original motives in writing this piece – I do not wish to assume the role of agency for either Japanese, American or Indigenous American cultures. My interest in this discourse is brought about by my own passionate interest in the conversations that entail from this interplay of aesthetic, culture and creativity and the effects that this has upon each respective faction’s own identity. I also clarify once more that I cannot hope to restore or rebuild in areas where genuine damage has been done. I do however wish to adjust Western attitudes towards Eastern and Indigenous cultures that deny these groups their own agency and ability to be defined by their own values.
My primary focus in this piece has been the erasure of independent Eastern identities that instead places countries like Japan and China under an umbrella of “trying to be like us, but never quite like us” – a mentality that is rooted in the ugliest parts of Western Imperial discourse. Similarly, I think it’s important to maintain an intersectional and reflexive approach towards culture and appropriation and to remember that our primary focus in the West should be to continue examining our own relationships with other cultures and to play an active role in encouraging discussion and conversation across the entire spectrum. Focus on tidying up your own yard before looking over your neighbour’s fence, but be ready to have a discussion as a community when the meeting comes around.
As our borders fall down in the advent of Internet culture and mass-media it seems a beautiful thing to be able to appreciate and celebrate the many lifestyles and cultures that inspire and ignite creativity in all of us, but it’s also important to keep our eyes and ears open and continue to ask ourselves what that actually means. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “over-thinking” things. As a matter of fact, it’s when we stop thinking altogether that people start causing real damage. Thanks for sticking with me and I hope you have a nice Sunday.