Racist in the West, Cool in Japan

By Mika Fukuda
Intern, CarterJMRN K.K.

From Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” backup dancers to Katy Perry’s geisha get-up for the 2013 American Music Awards, what has been criticised in the West as racial appropriation of Japanese culture for the sake of entertainment seems to have had an entirely opposite reception in Japan.

This E-bulletin article comes in the wake of Canadian singer Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” music video, released on 21 April, which has sparked much criticism and debate online. If your fear of loathing is so strong it has quelled your curiosity to watch the reel, a sparing synopsis follows.

The music video features the former punk rocker, now a pop princess with a side-buzz hairstyle, prancing around Tokyo’s wakamono, or youth, districts in a cupcake tutu.

She is giggling over sushi and shochu, waving at adoring Japanese fans, taking one Polaroid picture, and generally showing us she’s a true international star by throwing out some “relevant” Japanese phrases.

Throughout the video she is followed by a posse of four expressionless Japanese women wearing quirky, colourful outfits that juxtapose their robotic demeanour. The latter has been the most heated target of criticism.

And, as you might have guessed by the title, the record vaguely incorporates the idea of Sanrio Co., Ltd.’s famous feline mascot with the lines, “Come, come, kitty, kitty, you’re so pretty, pretty” (debatable songwriting skills there).

Web users who first saw “Hello Kitty” had many comments on the Japan-themed video, to the extent that it was temporarily taken offline.

Perhaps the most influential of early-bird opinions came from an article on Billboard, which called the video “even more abhorrent than the song” and “an embarrassment in any language”. Although the article did not explicitly label the clip racist, as many of its readers would, it did find Lavigne’s robotic Japanese quadruplets “offensive” at the least.

Canada.com, a popular trend-watching site based in Lavigne’s hometown, was more generous with their criticism of her music video.

According to an article titled “Avril Lavigne doesn’t understand what racism is”, the stylisation of the backup dancers “present[ed] Japanese women as passive, adorable background decoration for a wealthy North American pop singer”. Ouch.

And if that doesn’t sting enough, you can read an article by a PolicyMic writer called “It’s Almost Impossible to Choose the Most Racist Moment of Avril Lavigne’s New Video”, which signs off in an outright boycott.

Accusations of the video being racist are understandably more prevalent and scathing in the realm of social media.

However, what is interesting to note is that none of the finger-pointing has come from Hello Kitty’s birthplace.

Despite the negative reactions of non-Japanese audiences, Japan largely accepts the “Hello Kitty” music video as flattering. If anything, we’re hearing more positive reactions from Japan about this tribute than the feedback for the overweight Godzilla.

Objectively speaking, there is really nothing inaccurate about how a particular, albeit extremely narrow, aspect of Japanese culture was portrayed in the three-minute clip.

Everything from the overly cute backdrops to the Canadian singer’s costume is nothing we haven’t seen in Harajuku, where most of the footage was shot.

As for the heavily discussed emotionless back-up dancers, were they not very reminiscent of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s deadpan quadruplet dancers in her “Candy Candy” video, which no one seemed to have a problem with?

The only offense the Japanese seem to have taken comes not from the content of the video but from the presumptuous opinions of westerners that it is racist toward Japanese.

Japanese social media users have been quick to respond to such opinions, saying those accusations are actually racist.

If anything, Lavigne’s music video has inadvertently provided firepower to the Japanese government’s Cool Japan policy. So far this Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry strategy, which seeks to promote exports of Japanese cultural items such as anime, has been received with an eye-roll from citizens.

Maybe the backing of a supersonically famous North American pop star is what the nation needs to believe in what their government is trying to sell to the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, this incident teaches us that Japanese consumers are still a market the West needs to study more cautiously.

Defying the curses of western critics, the “Hello Kitty” single breaks in at number 82 on Billboard Japan’s 100 Hot Top Airplay, which only includes a handful of international musicians.

The singer’s self-titled album, meanwhile, ranks second overall in Japan, coming in after Lady Gaga and before Arashi—a local idol group—and two albums by virtual singer Hatsune Miku.

We’re not saying that Lavigne is a marketing genius. Accusations of cultural offensiveness aside, the record’s tastefulness, especially in comparison to the singer’s earliest works, is still under trial.

What we would like to entertain, however, is that many commentators overlooked the fact that the culture featured in the controversial video is the same culture that embraces (more than anyone else in the world) over-the-top pop acts like Pamyu Pamyu and Lady Gaga.

Ironically, Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video appears to have become a statement of Cool Japan that for once appeals more to the Japanese than to the West.