Cultural Appropriation in Contemporary Japanese Art

Mayonnaise Anyone?

Next time you ask for mayonnaise on your sushi; drown your rice in soy sauce; drink miso soup with a spoon or from a ceramic bowl and think you are experiencing Japan… beware and think again! The possible consequences of the worldwide addiction to sushi are explored in a proof of concept clip for a proposed Japanese black comedy/horror movie called Monster Roll (Trailer also viewable at the bottom of this article). I won’t spoil the clip with any further information, but we are presented with the discord between the boorish, insensitive foreigner and the young chauvinistic Japanese sushi chef in a specialist sushi bar. The chef is outraged at the lack of etiquette and understanding of the foreigner, but his older boss responds with traditional Japanese politeness and the outward expression of お客様は神様です (okyakusama wa kamisama desu), ‘the customer is king’. A generational discord is also presented: The younger chef openly hostile and expressing that; the older chef practising the face-saving device of politeness – honesty and dishonesty or ill-bred younger generation and genteel older?

A similar theme is expressed in ‘Sushi Mama’ (pictured right) an original artwork by Shohei Otomo exhibited in our recent show ‘Fool’s Paradise’. As noted in the curatorial:  ‘SHOHEI’s work is political, stark and unforgiving in its strident comments on contemporary Japanese (read international) culture. Familiar and beloved symbols of Japan’s much admired traditional culture cavort with icons of the contemporary age, a tense, dark melange that is nonetheless beautiful. The images are unmistakeably Japanese yet the conformity of globalization renders them intimately recognizable.’

Both sushi mama and child are set against the background of the strident rays of the Japanese rising sun, symbol of Imperial Japan. Both appear blinded and muted by severe metal masks; the woman has the formal hairstyle of a geisha, her hands are deformed or cut off; the child’s feet appear to be so… how do we interpret this?  The geisha is perhaps one of the most iconic and most misunderstood of Japan’s ‘symbols’. Against the backdrop of the nationalist rising sun, it could be said that the geisha, like the elder sushi chef, is a symbol of a traditional, obsolete Japan, one that is now internationally recognized yet misunderstood, blinded and muted. The younger chef refuses to be muted, refuses to turn a blind eye to the inappropriate behavior of the foreigner, the older turns the blind eye. But the child too is blinded and muted. The child waves the Hi no Maru national flag, its arms are free… is it trying to re-establish a sense of national identity? Is Japan’s national identity to be equated with sushi? Is Japan dependent on the success of the globalization of its ‘culture’?

In another of the works in this exhibition, Shinjuku 2099 (see below), we see similar figures whose faces are covered with metal masks. Shohei explained that these were the survivors of Japan’s holocaust- whether natural or nuclear or some other cause- and the woman in red was a new breed, the result of new DNA coding. Are the sushi mama and the child survivors of Japan’s cultural holocaust?

Shohei can be seen as part of a younger generation of artists, many of whom have shared their ideas with us, mirroring the alienation of cultural appropriation. Disenchanted with what they perceived as ‘old japan’ and spending their youth immersed in the icons of American cultures, they had placed great value on movements such as Hip Hop, Graffiti, Punk, Rock n’ Roll, Street and Gang culture, and Hollywood. Disappointment and disillusion resulted from their raw experiences of American culture. Found wanting, its clay feet are leading to a re-engagement with identifying what is truly Japanese. These young artists express a feeling of responsibility toward preserving the values of a purer articulation of Japanese culture. It is possible that a fledgling art movement is emerging, one characterized by originality and exciting artistic expression.  Lesley Kehoe Galleries is following their careers with interest, and as they crystallize their identities and mature, we aspire to bring their work to your attention.

Shinjuku 2099 – ballpoint pen illustration by Shohei Otomo.
Image courtesy of the artist

Moster Roll – Proof of concept video by Dan Blank

All images property of Monster Roll / Dan Blank