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Shō in New Music: Study on Cultural Appropriation

This article has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated July 1, 2020, on Gagaku Dayori Vol. 62.

  “Since hearing gagaku music here in New York, I’m really into the sound of shō, and would like to compose for the instrument one day. But my family do not have any ties to Japan. Are there things that I should be careful about in order not to disrespect the Japanese culture?” This was a question I received from a composition student at Manhattan School of Music, where I gave a workshop titled “Shō: Composition Techniques and Notation”.


  In recent years, the debate over cultural appropriation seems to have intensified. Cultural appropriation can be defined as the act of adopting, usually without acknowledgement, the customs, practices, and ideas associated with or originating in minority communities. One of the many incidents which blew up was the kimono fitting event “Kimono Wednesday” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which invited visitors to try on a kimono in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise”, depicting Monet’s wife in the same traditional Japanese garment. This event was canceled due to protests over its “racist, Orientalist, and colonialist” approach to Japanese culture.


  So, must one take into account of their ethnicity and their family ancestry when composing for gagaku instruments? My goal in this article is to first introduce the criticisms towards using other cultures, and to explore multiple angles of the discussion. It is my wish that the article can be constructive for those, both Japanese and non-Japanese, who aim to engage with gagaku instruments, whether in performance, composition, or research.


  The criticisms over appropriated cultures, in many cases, stem from the history of exploitation done by colonialism and imperialism. Take for example, the New Age movement by the hippies, during the latter half of the twentieth century. Considering the history of early European settlers plundering the Indigenous People’s lands, culture, and ideology on the American continents, it is unsurprising that Indigenous People were upset to see hippies of European ancestry oversimplify and misrepresent their cultures. However, objectively defining the boundary between cultural appreciation and appropriation is, to put it simply, nearly impossible.


  In 2019, British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was heavily criticized around appropriation for his newly opened Lucky Cat, an Asian fusion restaurant “inspired by the underground clubs of Tokyo in the 1930’s”. While an early press release introduced the restaurant as “authentic”, critics pointed out the lack of Asian chefs in the kitchen, as well as oversimplifying Chinese and Japanese cuisines as “Asian”.


  On the other hand, data shows that more than 90% of the restaurants serving Japanese food worldwide are owned by persons without ethnic or cultural roots to Japan, and of those, other Asian ethnicities such as Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, hold the largest share. While many of the dishes served in these “Japanese restaurants” are untraceable to Japan, criticism of plagiarizing culture is unheard of in this context.


  Alarmed at the growing numbers of restaurants neglecting the strict traditional trainings sushi-chefs go through, and serving pseudo-Japanese style dishes, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan announced a system to certify “authentic” Japanese food, which was quickly shut down by Western media as a “revival of nationalism” (Washington Post).  The reason why the appearance of “sushi police” prompted a backlash from the Western media, frequently amplifying the voices critical to appropriation, will be illustrated, alongside with the point at issue about cultural appropriation, in the latter part of this article.


  It is undeniable that cultures have evolved and transformed over time by spreading across the world with human flow. Cultures have been borrowed, stolen, mixed, and appropriated throughout human history. In search of how we can mold future cultures, I interviewed Daryl Jamieson and Miya Masaoka, each of whom who has dealt with this topic in their respective ways. The interview was conducted in Japanese with Jamieson, and in English with Masaoka.


  Upon receiving his doctorate in composition at the University of York, Canadian composer Daryl Jamieson came to Japan as a MEXT Fellow, studying with Jo Kondo at Tokyo University of Arts. As the recipient of the 3rd Toshi Ichiyanagi Award for “Is nowhere free of bad tidings?”, his works for Japanese traditional instruments (wagakki) are widely recognized in Japan. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Kyushu University.


  In 2016, in Winnipeg, Jamieson was confronted by an audience member on the topic of cultural appropriation, after presenting his composition for string quartet, which was based on waka (31-syllable Japanese poem). To this criticism, Jamieson explains, “when dealing with cultural appropriation, it is important to consider the level of understanding the appropriator has over the appropriated culture and tradition, rather than the ethnicity of the person”. He adds, “Where I am unable to agree with the people who criticize appropriation of cultures is when they insert the concept of ‘ethnicity’ into the debate. They say a Japanese-Canadian can wear a kimono, but a white Canadian should not do that. If they are both born in Canada, they are both culturally Canadian – why do we need to differentiate people by ethnic ancestry in this way?”


  After moving to Japan, Jamieson studied nō theatre (nōgaku) in depth. He says, “we should not bind culture and ethnicity together. Anybody who studies another culture and tradition should be able to be part of that tradition”. Although it is the political left that condemns cultural appropriations, “dividing people by ethnicity is a right-wing ideology”, says Jamieson. He states that those people who say it is culturally insensitive when borrowing an aspect of a specific culture, are brainwashed by capitalism. “Capitalists propagate the narrative of ethnic and racial division to divide and conquer, so the pubic do not start directing their anger against capitalists”.


  Born in Washington DC, Miya Masaoka, a Japanese-American artist currently based in New York City, has been actively involved in Japanese culture in the United States, such as the founding and directing of the San Francisco Gagaku Society. Her improvisational performances using koto and electronics are highly popular, and her sound art works are exhibited around the world. Since 2016, she has been the director of the Sound Arts MFA Program at Columbia University.


  Masaoka explains that she has seen fetishizations, both subtle and blatant, of Japanese and other minority cultures in the United States. During World War II, her parents were stripped of their daily lives, and forced into internment camp for their ethnicity. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, small-scale gagaku was practiced in a temple in California, however, that too, was shut down by the authorities. “They burned Japanese instruments on the streets”, says Masaoka. “Even after the camps were over, Japanese music was suppressed along with other Japanese culture, so the Japanese Americans started playing organ music in churches. It’s due to these historical tragedies forced upon Japanese-Americans and other minorities, that in the United States, some may find it culturally insensitive when the society appropriates a culture that it once attempted to exterminate”.


  In 1993, Masaoka released her first album Compositions/Improvisations with the album cover of herself dressed in kimono. She was met with disapproval and criticisms from some of her Japanese-American community about catering to the image of the “exotic Oriental female”, which was already widespread in the United States. Masaoka’s story made me feel the incomprehensible complexity and weight of history of cultural identity.

Miya Masaoka.jpg

Miya Masaoka "Compositions/Improvisations"

  “There is no clear line on cultural appropriation”, describes Masaoka. “But there must exist a power structure between the majority and the minority in order for ‘cultural appropriation’ to make sense.” Jamieson agrees to this, and says, “when there is an economic and social inequality between two communities, the one with more power should be cautious when experiencing the other community’s culture, as cultural exchange can easily transform into cultural exploitation”.


  While the debate over cultural appropriation has been around for decades, vocal accusations of it have become louder and stronger in recent years. With this phenomenon, the voices of those who disagree have also been amplified, saying that enjoying foreign cuisine, as well as experiencing customs from different cultures are the first steps to admiring and familiarizing oneself with other cultures. Furthermore, those who criticize the concept say that a culture cannot be owned by an individual or a group, as all cultures have spread and intermingled with one another in the course of history.


  At the same time, it is true that expressions promoting discrimination and prejudice of specific ethnic groups and races can be found in many areas of life, and it is an urgent task to fix it. Should the discussion of cultural appropriation, then, be introduced into Japanese society as well?


  Historically, Japan has been flexibly and uniquely importing and incorporating outside cultures into its own. Today, many Japanese living in Japan are living as a majority in the Japanese culture, therefore, are relatively uninterested in the debate over the ethics of appropriating overseas or minority cultures. However, with the growing numbers of newcomers in Japan, I feel the need to reconsider how Japan should accept foreign cultures without diminishing it in a discourteous style. Nevertheless, I do not believe that, just because criticism towards using outside culture is a progressive concept from the West, we should simply import it into Japanese society for the following reasons.


  It is for both historical and societal reasons that this concept is blazing in the United States and many other Western countries, and the differences in the societal structures bring forth contradictions and inconsistencies in the argument when brought to other contexts, such as the criticism towards “sushi police”. Unlike in many Asian countries, in the United States, people are very much categorized in an unscientific classification of “race”, and those of East Asian descent, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, are bundled together as “Asian” or “East Asian”. As sushi is a cuisine from Asia, many are relieved seeing Asian people make sushi. Additionally, the sushi served there, such as dragon roll and rainbow roll, have become part of the US food culture. Thus, people who point out the plagiarism of culture are critical at people of European decent inventing fusion-style sushi, but are uninterested in cultural appropriation when non-Japanese Asians create a peculiar version of sushi without proper training as sushi chef.


   On a personal note, I have lived in the United States for four years, and enjoyed some of the American-style sushi very much. I also do not find any significance in “certifying” authentic Japanese food, an expression of explicit cultural nationalism. That said, the concept of cultural appropriation is not perfect. Power dynamics at work are often complicated when we see things outside the common “oppressor – oppressed” dichotomy of Western society.


  Those who engage with Japanese instruments, whether in the context of performing, composing, or researching, may be at times asked about opinions on the theme of cultural appropriation. I personally believe that, when debating whether something is a perversion of a culture, it is necessary that we invite the people who associate closely with the culture. Jamieson points out that the protests against the kimono fitting event held at the Boston Museum of Art were mostly coming from people “non-Japanese or not of Japanese descent”, which resulted in the cancellation of the event, not the preferred result for many Japanese people. On the other hand, concerns were heard from the Navajo Nation regarding the usage of a Native American-style headdress on a model for a fashion show. In this case, I strongly believe that we must sincerely listen and learn.


  Regarding non-Japanese people performing and composing for gagaku instruments, Mayumi Miyata, who has been a central figure in introducing shō to contemporary music, says, “There are diverse ways to understand how we should handle ‘culture’. Honestly, it is not uncommon to see a person who grew up in Japan to not fully comprehend what Japanese culture is about. When hearing the word ‘gagaku’, there are many people who imagine the elegant sceneries of the Heian Period, or stern and dignified musical cultures of the Japanese ceremonies, and that is ‘fine’. However, the people of the Heian Period saw gagaku as an exotic new music ahead of their time, imported from the advanced cultural power-house of Tang China. Then the people of Japan gradually developed the music as their own traditional music.” From Miyata’s comments, we can see that gagaku was “appropriated” by the Japanese people over a millennium ago, and although today gagaku is perceived as Japanese heritage, there is a possibility that the people of Japan today can also “appropriate” their own culture.


  Finally, I would like to note my position on the concept of cultural appropriation in artistic expression. While I strongly feel the need to address both ongoing and past exploitations, I am also deeply concerned about how this concept, which nobody can clearly suggest the boundaries of, are setting arbitrary limits on artistic expression. The amplified voices of those not associated closely with the original form of a ‘perverted culture’ can have a significant impact on many artists sympathetic to social issues. An artist has both the privilege and responsibility to voice what an ordinary citizen is hesitant to voice, due to social constraints and collective pressure. Thus, assuming that an expression is not made in order to deliberately discriminate against another culture, I am convinced that studying about and borrowing a part of another culture when necessary is constituent to the creative process in any field of expertise. Any criticism that arises from the expression should also be heard by the artist, as part of her/his responsibility as an artist.


  To the composition student at Manhattan School of Music, I replied, “you have a privilege and a responsibility as a composer. Try creating your genuine expression with the gagaku-instruments and see where it takes you.” I hope I was able to successfully articulate my true intention about cultural appropriation.

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