Is the cherry blossom festival culturally appropriate?


Two women, dressed in traditional Japanese garb, perform during the Grand Parade of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown in San Francisco on Sunday, Apr 16, 2017. (Aaron Levy-Wolins/Xpress)

Last year when I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco, the first thing that caught my eye was a girl dressed in an anime costume wearing a colorful wig and dancing on a small stage. I stopped and stared, and then found myself looking at a rock band behind the stage, waiting for their turn. That’s when I thought to myself, “Is this not supposed to be a Japanese festival?”

The Cherry Blossom Festival seems to be a big deal for San Francisco because it attracts many visitors and promotes diversity.

A few weeks before this year’s festival, I was sad to see cherry blossom branches that were pruned away to decorate the streets.

To create a sense of “Japaneseness,” people are cutting part of trees that symbolize Japanese culture and I think this is what’s going on everywhere. People are consuming and reshaping Japanese culture for their benefit.

Born and raised in Japan, I remember I went to see cherry blossoms with my family and friends in schools, parks and in temple every year in April. People notice the trees and stop to take pictures, but cherry blossoms are not just ornamental for me. They trigger the memories of days when I grew up in Japan, reminding me of who I am and where I come from.

Now here in San Francisco, Japanese culture is a big business.

When I was assigned to cover Japantown, I was surprised to see how small the community is. I got to talk to a few community leaders who were eager to maintain the community and preserve its history. Although the current transition in Japantown represents the loss of its culture and population, it is still important to make sure that consumers and businesses keep coming in so the community won’t lose out on employment and economy.

I think it is crucial to consider the culture as a top priority, because Japanese culture represented today has been consumed and shaped in favor of Americans — therefore, it has created stereotypes and misconceptions about Japanese culture.

I wouldn’t say that non-Japanese people should never dress in a kimono, but I sometimes wonder if they even know what a kimono is.

Many famous online shopping websites sell bathrobes and label them as kimonos. It’s hard to imagine dressing in a kimono after taking a shower because it is tight and very uncomfortable and usually very expensive, often costing tens of thousands of dollars, discouraging you from wanting to ruin it. When a kimono traditionally aims to limit skin exposure to a minimum, it is ironic that American people think it’s just a “sexy” bathrobe.

Last year I joined the Japanese Student Association that helped raise funds for an anime club for Maid Café, in which girls dress as maids and men dress as butlers to serve customers with sweets and drinks.

In JSA, non-Japanese students in the organizing body outnumber Japanese student members, showing the American people’s growing interests in its culture, but also indicating a decreased interest for Japanese people to join and lead the community. The fundraising event was mainly organized by non-Japanese Americans and ended up attracting not a single Japanese customer.

If the Japanese community, businesses, and events are not organized by those who fully understand Japanese perspective, it can discourage the Japanese community from coming together, and would instead create commercial attractions that misappropriate the culture. While the profits don’t even go into the hands of Japanese people.

Americans tend to think white people can offend Japanese culture and Asian people can’t, making it hard to address this issue because they are ignoring the fact that even though we are all categorized as Asian, we possess different levels of privileges.

These days I feel I am less privileged than Japanese-Americans here in the U.S., especially under the current administration. Being a foreign national gives me anxiety and concerns about my future. I have less job opportunities than Asian-Americans, because I have to apply for a working visa, which the current president is willing to restrict.

We need more young community leaders both in the city and on campus, because not enough Japanese American youth are involved in community organizing.

In fact, Japanese-American businesses are now owned by Chinese or Korean people because their children did not want to take over the stores. JSA members are either Japanese nationals or non-Japanese Americans, and only a couple of Japanese Americans are involved in the organizing committee. I think this is an issue, because non-Japanese Americans could misappropriate the culture, and Japanese nationals are leaving the U.S. due to the difficult conditions of foreign employment.

We need someone who can bridge those two cultures in order to avoid cultural appropriation.