Broken Japanese: understanding privilege and cultural appropriation as a creative

Their products and packaging have been rebranded to suit the Western Millennial audience with loose script lettering for their logo and smooth, colorful gradients on their cans. If they think that this is a way to honour a rich Japanese tradition or bring more visibility to the Uji matcha leaf cultivators, it isn’t very clear. I feel uneasy that a traditionally Japanese product that has been around for over 1,000 years needs to be repackaged and splashed with Millennial pink in order to be consumed or appreciated by the American public.
As graphic designers, art directors, and artists, we’re at the forefront of creating and expanding upon the visual language of our world. We are also, by extension, helping to define what is normalised and desired, which is why this is particularly essential for us to understand. While a deeper understanding of cultural exchange might help facilitate more equitable and sensitive work, positioning ourselves to be guilt-free is not the goal. The goal is to do our part in making the world a more respectful and fair place for people from all walks of life.
“Matcha has been a staple of Japanese drinking culture for over 1,000 years. We traveled all over Japan in search of the perfect source, finally locating the preeminent matcha cultivator in Uji (whose first harvest is sent directly to the Emperor of Japan). Stone-ground from the youngest leaves, stems and veins removed, our ceremonial grade matcha is the real deal.”
I’ve seen American brands emerge that have harvested Japanese culture without much exchange. Take for example a popular New York-based matcha company co-founded by two white American men. On their website’s About page, they discuss the origins of their matcha product and describe it using terms that are coded in Asian exoticism like “ceremonial grade,” and wordplay like “I Love You So Matcha!”
These types of tropes are unfortunately a common occurrence in the world of design and commerce. Although it’s easy to point fingers at the co-founders as the figureheads of cultural appropriation in this instance, it’s also important to consider the economic system in place that incentivises the profiteering behaviour and the exploitation of things that are considered exotic.
In the next installment of this series, we will approach how graphic designers often undertake roles of privilege, one example being in the use of cultural appropriation. A phenomenon that has become so common we may not even notice it.

Posted by Contributor