Cultural Exchange Vs. Appropriation

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So if you’ve clicked on this tab, you’re probably interested to know how what we do is framed within the “Cultural Appropriation” debate.  Some of you may simply be curious, others may already have torches and pitchforks raised.  What we have to say may surprise you, and should hopefully calm any misgivings you might have.

We have had people on both sides of the Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange debate ask us how our business fits into this tricky topic, especially since we’re not ethnically Japanese.  But, before we get into us and what we do, it’s crucial to understand the difference between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Exchange so that everyone can debate on equal footing.  (Otherwise, every taco-eating, flip-flop wearing, K-pop-listening, anime-watching person would be condemned as an inconsiderate and disrespectful troglodyte.)


  • Cultural Appropriation is the act of taking something from another country or culture, distorting it, refusing to engage in education regarding that thing / country / culture, and claiming that you are the expert and it is your own.  Usually this is done without consideration of those that come from the country / culture in question, and is done in a disrespectful way that does not communicate anything about the rich history or traditions of the culture in question.


  • Cultural Exchange  is the act of engaging with another culture, and engaging in acts to understand, respect, share, and educate oneself and others regarding that culture and the elements that represent it with those that do not come from the culture in question.   Cultural exchange has happened in every culture through the sharing and participating in the exchange of food, fashion, commerce, philosophy, religion, etc. across thousands of cultures over the history of humanity.


So, now that we have that out of the way and are on the same page, here’s how Tangerine Mountain Imports & Designs fits into the debate.

We are owned and run by people who have been interested in Japanese culture since childhood, and have done whatever we could to study, understand, experience and educate ourselves about the history and traditions that make up Japanese culture.  These desires and efforts have put some really amazing people and educational opportunities in our path:


  • Our founder, Cheri, first learned about the process of wearing kimono from a living national treasure of Japan, while learning about Japanese fine arts and culture under his tutelage.


  • Cheri has also engaged in critical study of sumi-e, byobu, ukiyo-e, and Japanese history and holds a Masters Degree of Art in Art Education with an emphasis in Japanese history and museum practice.  (And yes, she dedicated a large portion of her thesis to cultural appropriation vs. cultural exchange; her school agreed with her enough to let her graduate, and then let her work at the same institution afterwards.  If you want to read her thesis, let us know and we can point you to where it is published.)


  • Cheri has incorporated elements of Japanese arts with her own artistic practice, and was awarded a grant from Nippon Sharyo for the rendering of discernable Japanese influence her artwork.  Collectors of her work include a now retired Ambassador of Japan, and is also currently on exhibition in three different countries.


  • Cheri earned the Mary Koga Award from the Japan America Society of Chicago for her numerous efforts to create and encourage cultural exchange in the Japanese and American communities.


  • Both Cheri and her co-founder, Teri, have created programming for the Japan America Society of Chicago teaching about the wearing and construction of kimono.  We are actively working with them to create more programming.


  • Both Cheri and Teri knew that they wanted to do business with Japanese people, directly in Japan, to ensure that (A) what they were doing was “allowed”, (B) it wasn’t offensive to Japanese people, (C) it was done affordably and to the benefit of our Japanese allies, our customers, and ourselves.


  • Both Cheri and Teri go back and forth to Japan, at times up to three times per year, to see and experience the latest kimono and fashion trends, interface directly with the people with whom we do business, and directly connect with the country and culture we love.  Each time we go, we ask kimono shopkeepers what their opinions are regarding Westerners wearing and selling kimono.  We have never received a negative response, and more importantly, we have enjoyed gaining new knowledge that we can then pass on to others.


  • Our Japanese business allies have come all the way from Japan and shadowed us at American events to see how we do business.  They see exactly what we do, hear exactly what we say, and continue to approve of the ways in which we are bringing kimono to the United States and making them approachable to an American public.  If they didn’t approve, they wouldn’t sell to us, and we wouldn’t be around as a business to have this conversation.


  • While our business works with Japanese people in Japan, we also work alongside Japanese-Americans.  In fact, we also regularly sell our wafuku to those that are a part of the Japanese-American community.  To date, we have never received any negative responses from them, and are continually encouraged to do what we do how we’re doing it.  We continually have Japanese-Americans ask if they can work with us and help us as we grow.


  • Both Cheri and Teri were featured on Japanese primetime TV hit YOUは何しに日本へ? because of their cultural exchange efforts that they engage in through their business.  If their business was offensive in any way, they would not have been filmed, since Japanese TV stations generally do not put anything they think would be deemed offensive to the public in their primetime TV spots.  (If they did, they would alienate and offend their viewership and experience a drop in ratings, which is a pretty big deal in a country that doesn’t have Netflix.)


So now that you know a little bit more about us, it should be pretty clear that at every turn of our existence as individuals and as a company, we have interfaced with Japanese people, expressed our interest and love of their country and culture, and have taken steps to learn so that we can share this love with others.  And at every turn, every single Japanese person we have encountered and do business with has said, “Yes!  Please do!”  Rather enthusiastically, in fact.  If we were doing things inappropriately, we would not have the approval and encouragement of the Japanese people we do business with and have befriended, both in Japan and in the United States. Simply put, if we were shameless, disrespectful, thieving appropriators, we simply would not exist as a business.


It is important to remember that no country or culture is completely “pure” and devoid of outside influence, and a lot of cultural exchange does and has historically happened through trade.  The assumption cultural exchange through commerce is instantly reduced to appropriation is inaccurate, and debases the very efforts of cultural exchange that have occurred throughout history.  If we allow ourselves to believe that exchange through commerce was inherently evil, then everyone who buys sunglasses would be condemned as appropriating blind culture; everyone who buys jeans would be condemned as appropriating cowboy culture; everyone who buys flip-flops would be condemned as appropriating Egyptian culture; everyone who wears any garment made of silk would be appropriating Chinese culture; string quartets the world over would be condemned as appropriating European culture; and everyone who eats fortune cookies would be locked in eternal debate over which country or culture was being offended before deciding which people were allowed to eat them.  To us, that all just seems silly.


To reduce kimono – or any wafuku – to something that is simply a stand-in for understanding Japanese culture as a whole would be disrespectful and wildly inappropriate; because while Japanese textiles have had a tremendous impact on Japanese art, history, and culture, Japan simply cannot be summed up in a piece of cloth.   We, as individuals and as a business, constantly engage in discourse regarding cultural exchange because we recognize that the sum of a culture cannot and should not be boiled down to a simple icon.


We know that there are more people like us out there, who share a love of a country or culture that is not ethnically theirs, who may be afraid to even ask questions or learn more for fear of being branded a “cultural appropriator,” due to their genetic makeup.  We know that there will always be those watching by the sidelines, proclaiming, “You’re not allowed!” due to their assumptions of people’s genetic makeup based on other’s appearance.  We know that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and we constantly work to do things right.  And, most importantly, we will never tell someone that they are not allowed to wear something, do something, learn something, or go somewhere based on the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, their physical size, the way they present, their abilities/disabilities, or their score on some hypothetical genetic report card.


That’s just plain wrong.