For me as a European (I’m a German living in Japan) the whole concept of cultural appropriation is absurd. Europe as we know it, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for picking up someone else’s culture and their ideas, mixing and matching it with your own and trying to improve on it. If we’d have to turn back time to remove all cultural appropriation from Europe, it would be impossible. Simply because we don’t know enough about the Celts (the European “aborigines”) to exactly replicate the culture they had.
Most of German and Scandiavian culture came into existence through a mix of Celtic and Germanic tribes (sometimes peacefully and sometimes through conquest) and the culture and religion they had. Going further in history to Roman conquest, if we’d have to remove any cultural appropriation from the Romans – or would it have to be called cultural imposition? they were invaders after all – Germans and Scandinavians would have to stop building stone/brick houses. Germany would have to tear down all the nice old castles (fortification and stone wall building was something the Romans brought into Germanic culture), hell they’d have to stop making wine and get rid of the Latin alphabet, replace it probably with Runes. Then they’d have to close all of the thermal baths. In turn for that, all southern European people would have to take off their trousers. Yep. Sorry, but trousers are an invention of horsemen, so unless you’ve got Germanic, Mongol or Hun ancestors, take off your trousers – that’s horsemen culture appropriation! Only croatians should be allowed to wear neckties, Italians would have to wear sandals all year through (but they’d be OK wearing socks and sandals, because the Romans did it, too). Ah, and unless you’re a Native American please stop smoking, you filthy oppressor!
Then let’s look at inventions: Inventions are always a result and direct fruit of the culture they came out of. If we were to remove cultural appropriation there, it would mean that most of the world except for Europe and maybe China would have to go back to a semi-medieval thing they had going on at the time they started appropriating European culture, some places would have to go back to the stone age or their respective tribal hunter gatherer culture before European culture catapulted them into the modern era. Ah, and also stop using modern science and its fruits. The scientific method is something born in Europe thanks to the Renaissance and much more later the humanist enlightenment.
What Culture Has Japan Been Appropriating?
I’m living and working in Japan, so here’s some news about Japanese culture. You’d think as an outsider that the Japanese culture is quite unique. And their culture is rather “pure” even to this day. As someone who speaks Japanese at native level and has been living here for 20 years let me tell you: The most typical icons of Japanese culture are actually the fruits of “cultural appropriation” or as it’s normally called “culture”.
Green tea came from China, but the Japanese process the leaves differently so Japanese green tea became unique. The origins of Sushi actually lie in China but they again gave it their own unique “spin”. Sukiyaki has its roots in – the shocker – Westerners eating beef all the time (Japanese originally ate no meat from four-legged animals) and Japanese wanting to try it reluctantly, but didn’t want to sully their pans so they cooked the beef on the blade of a plough instead (suki=plough yaku=cook,fry). Tempura, even the word, comes from Portugese “tempora” the “times” before the fasting period when in most Christian cultures people tend to eat fried or generally fatty food (Germans have “Fasnachtskrapfen” or better “Schenkeli” in the south). Buddhism came from India, Zen Buddhism from China to Japan – again Japanese Zen Buddhism is quite unique, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t “appropriated” it from China, which in turn have appropriated Buddhism from India. Even the roots of Karate stem from China (some martial art techniques came to Okinawa the home of Karate. Okinawa used to be the Ryukyu Kingdom under Chinese rule). This is exactly how culture comes into existence, how it thrives, develops and advances, this is how even animals climb up in the evolution ladder: through imitation, appropriation and then adding own improvements.
It’s Pure Numbers, Not Oppression
There is no such thing as a blanket oppressed or dominating culture. It’s always a give and take and often the roles of “oppressor” and “oppressed” are being switched back and forth depending on what time frame we’re talking about. For Europe, Romans have been the oppressors most of the time, until, well until the oppressed Germanic cultures served them their asses on a platter and took over the ruling of Europe. Looking at it from the present day there’s no clear telling of which culture is the dominating or oppressed one, since both took a stab at it during their high time.
There is usually a prevalent grown culture which one could consider dominant in a certain country, but that supposedly dominant culture could be “oppressed” at the same time elsewhere.
Let’s take German immigrants in the US. Many communities of German settlers in the US still have their own “subculture” of German festivals they still cherish. Does that make German culture oppressed, or doesn’t that simply mean that whatever people are the majority in a country will be what defines the “culture” of that country? There’s no conscious oppression, it’s just pure numbers. If being a minority by numbers automatically means you’re oppressed, it would mean all men are oppressed by women, because there are more women than men, albeit a small majority.
But the social justice warriors who are propagating the lie of cultural appropriation do have an agenda: they are trying to define it so, that Western culture is always the oppressor, so it can be appropriated by anyone who wants it, in their twisted world-view Western culture was always imposed onto all these poor native cultures. Problem is, that is not true.
How Japan Got Westernized
Japan – at least on the surface – is utterly westernised. And yet they have never been “oppressed” by the West. They might have lost WWII after which the US had a massive cultural influence, but they were pretty massively “westernised” before that, or how do you think they have even been able to join the war and not be squashed right away? They had airplanes, were wearing Western clothes, had warships, a lot of Japanese law before the war was based on German law, Western medicine came in from Germany, too (Prussia and the German Empire was a pretty progressive country – the first country to have social insurance and pensions). The first electric power plants in Japan were built by a US company in the Kansai region, and by a German company in the Kantô region (that is why to this day power outlets in Kansai are 60Hz frequency vs. 50Hz frequency in Kantô), and nobody forced them to it.
As a matter of fact, Western countries never had colonies in Japan. Moreover during the isolation period “Sakoku” (鎖国) Japan gave the middle finger to all the “long-nosed barbarians”, only letting them come ashore in three dedicated harbours, the rest of the country was off limits to any foreigner for 300 years. There is nothing the West could have imposed or oppressed under these circumstances. Yet Japanese happily took over Western culture all along. Anything Japan has taken from the West has happened by virtue of them appropriating Western culture. But no Europeans were oppressed by doing so. Odd, isn’t it?
The claim that “taking” someone else’s culture would take away anything from that culture makes as much sense as saying making a copy of a file is theft. Culture is very much like software: some of the best is entirely free and we’re all being enriched by sharing it.