Lost in Translation
Mai, my colleague from Japan, on one occasion came to work dressed in yukata, a summer, cotton version of a kimono. It her act of dressing up there were so many elements that suddenly caught my eye – her transformed walk, pride in her cultural heritage, a refined importance of every detail. From the moment she put it on, this was no longer an ordinary (national) costume.
She enthusiastically welcomed my proposal that she dresses me in one yukata while explaining to me in more detail how the rules work – of behavior, beauty and clothing in Japan.
Mai is a down-to-earth Japanese woman, extremely proud of her country, its culture and identity, but she is also aware that her country has some problems related to the status of women in society.
"Dressed in a Kimono, a Japanese woman is sheer elegance and grace. Her foot steps are tiny and cannot maneuver a lot in the street. If she drops something, there is a special way of picking it up. A Japanese woman is never intrusive or pushy."
We met at her house, where every piece of this somewhat complicated ensemble has its place, neatly arranged and full of sentimental value for the girls.
Putting on a yukata marks the transition from spring to summer, whose symbolic beginning is celebrated on July 7th by the Japanese, through the Tanabata festival.
Together with her friend from Tokyo, Akiko, they began to dress me. "The right side always has to go under the left one! If it’s reversed, it means you're dead," they explained laughingly, implying the importance of every detail. The narrow ribbon beneath the obi was wrapped around my waist several times, so that yukata wouldn’t get undone. They were tightening it until I could no longer breathe. "Now it's tight enough. Stand straight! Imagine that you have a rope on your head that is constantly pulling you up!"
The obi followed more like as an origami decoration, wrapped several times around my waist, with a fixed bow on the back that they elaborated for a few minutes. They put my hair up into a high bun, put flowers around it, and gave me wooden geta sandals (aka flip flops) to wear.
It took, altogether, half an hour. "My mom can dress herself like this in 10 minutes. It’s a matter of practice. Except during the festival, some women and men still wear the kimonos and jinbeis on a daily basis. They’re proud of it.", Mai explains.
"Kawaii!", they exclaimed full of approval.
That was it, now we could go. They were very proud for publicly wearing the yukata in Singapore, the symbol of their Japanese identity. They ran to their aunt working in the nearby local shop to show themselves, also being proud of me as I showed interest in their culture.
"There are a thousand rules, smile like this, not like that, walk like this, not like that, put your arms like this, not like that ... that is, if you intend to properly wear a yukata.", Mai said to me.
Things are never simple, if you want to participate in a foreign culture, I thought.
And what about me? In the spirit of cultural appropriation that makes the internet always go rampant, am I allowed to wear a yukata? Or if I do, am I then an irresponsible, insensitive white colonizer? Being white and from the West automatically disqualifies me from any participation in someone else’s culture to which I do not belong genetically or culturally.
Still, there is something that makes a difference. The context and education.
The problem with cultural appropriation occurs at the moment when taking over a specific cultural segment is emptied out of all meaning – stripped of its religious, historical and cultural context. The stripping of meaning is really just a process to finalize the assimilation into the mass market, as the ultimate victory of neoliberal capitalism. The qualities that an object possesses – gained through a complex assemblage of cultural semiotics – begin to fundamentally differentiate in the moment when the object is violently trivialized. If we wear a yukata or any other object only as a fashion statement, we participate in the trivialization and accept the capitalist strategies, allowing to become assimilated ourselves.
Without a context, even the originals become a simulacrum.