Cultural Appropriation Comes Full Circle

by Cat Dinh (福島県)

Disclaimer: The following is based on the opinion of an Asian-American, non-academic. These opinions are not reflective on the entire Asian diaspora.

I was going through my Instagram, and a Japanese Instagram-friend had done a geisha/maiko makeover in Kyoto. She hashtagged #Halloween on the photo, along with #cosplay. The Angry Asian American in me squirmed at the innocent and unknowing perpetuation of cultural appropriation, one that somehow got re-appropriated in the country of its origin. I had the biggest urge to tell everyone about how geisha is perceived in the West.

To give you some context for my inner conflict, the image of geisha is, unfortunately, one of the many Western stereotypes and caricatures that objectify Asian women (and even men), as well as label Asians as exotic and foreign, even if they’ve lived in America for generations. During my college years, I heard and watched my peers fight against it in spoken word or performance art. This was around the time “Memoirs of a Geisha” was published and later released as a movie, so there was a lot of discussion around it in the ethnic and women’s studies circles. If you Google “Kristina Wong” and “geisha”, or have a moment to check out “Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire,” you will see much of the politics that influenced me during college, creating the foundation of my discomfort with this photo of a geisha makeover that I felt was poorly hashtagged. This discomfort is still felt, as one can see in the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign of 2011 that took place at Ohio University.

The geisha makeovers in Kyoto are a way to attract tourists, as well as share a Japanese cultural asset. This is something I have no problem with and I sincerely hope that the gei (芸, or artistic skill) in geinoujin (芸能人) is being understood as those tourists go through the makeover experience. Also, I am sure that my Japanese friend understands geisha, but unfortunately may not even bother thinking about the stereotype if she feels that they don’t apply to her.

On the other side of the coin, the Japanese media has deemed Halloween as merely cosplay–a term from the otaku subculture where they dress up as manga, anime, and video game characters–with barely a mention of trick-or-treating for the kids or Halloween’s obon-like tradition of celebrating the return of spirits. So how can I fault someone who only has the superficial notion of what Halloween is?

In the end, I find myself feeling concerned that someone might see this and think it’s okay to dress up as a geisha for Halloween because this Japanese person has. What do you think? Is it appropriate? Is there a difference between being authentically made-up as a geisha and donning a cheap imitation for a Halloween occasion? ◆

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