We put up the christmas decorations last weekend. Well, I say ‘we’. I put them up while my wife tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to prevent the kids from eating the tinsel. They’ve been shitting glitter for the last five days, which if nothing else makes for a more festive visual experience during nappy changes.
In the town where we used to live there was a pachinko parlour called Santa. I like to think that it was a very clever (all right, slightly clever) pun the owner’s name of 三田, but I never went in or met the owner, so what do I know? Outside there was a 20 foot high pole with a massive illuminated depiction of Santa doing a kind of awkward thumbs-up belly-slide. All year round, obviously. When my mother visited she found this hilarious: we drove past and she insisted we pull over so she could take a picture. At this point I’d been Japan for a few years so I had no idea what she was talking about. Of course it’s June and there’s a colossal flashing Santa shilling for the most unbearable, childish form of gambling since Spin the Bottle. Why wouldn’t there be?
I was going to make some kind of point here about cultural (mis)appropriation; how the Japanese penchant for taking foreign traditions and using them in ways that would appear utterly inappropriate in their ‘original’ cultures is no worse that some of the same similar practices we have back home. But y’know what? I’m not sure I can be bothered. Sure, it does mean that I won’t be able to segue smoothly from christmas decorations to Miley Cyrus’s arse (and you can imagine how reluctant I am to give up that opportunity), but really, what new ideas am I going to add to this discussion?
|I'm reliably informed that this is a 'twerk'|
It’s not like Santa is some sort of deeply important religious figure. Saint Nicholas, sure, maybe you could make a case that he’s all about christian charity and whatnot, but Santa? A figure entirely concocted by western corporations for the specific purpose of pimping sugar-highs? Not really worth manning the barricades over that, is it?
It’s not even as though I care about the ‘christmas spirit’, either, what with the atheism and all. Have at it my friends. Want to picture Santa on a cross? It’s no more of a ludicrous concoction that either of the source stories (although it is) so why not? It’s all good as long as it gets across the central message of a life lived in uncomplaining servitude and ending in pain and suffering at the behest of a distant and ultimately unknowable and unfathomable master. You can fill in your own punchline to that as you like.
So what am I saying? That this stuff just happens? Get on with it and deal with it? In a way I guess I am, but that too is to miss the bigger picture. The reason the misappropriation is (on occasion) so jarring is because so much of the usual appropriation is so seamless. Why shouldn’t there be a McDonalds and a Starbucks on every high street in Japan? Why shouldn’t I be able to walk into a Tower Records and buy Lady Gaga or One Direction CDs?*
I’d suggest that the stuff you don’t notice is more important than the stuff you do. I’m not going to get all pinko lefty on you and claim that this is entirely a bad thing, because people clearly want their Big Macs and early-period Madonna rip-offs (or at least think they want them, which may well be the same thing), but at the same time the homogenizing pressure of global capitalism is hardly benign. Multinational brands aren’t so much appropriated as imposed. Diversity is strength, if not at an individual level then certainly for the species. Diversity makes us more resistant to perturbation by giving us more options from which to adapt. We lose that and we lose a very real coping mechanism for the changes we will inevitably face in the future, a large number of which we’re causing ourselves.
So this, I think, is where we’ve come to, via green tea frappachinos and twerking. Cultural misappropriation (at least when it’s misappropriation of a dominant culture by the dominated) is a good thing. The perennial Santas remind us that what we take for granted perhaps shouldn’t be: that there is more than one way to skin a cat or illuminate a sleigh and that the global village is neither, nor should it be.
*Clearly there are many, many reasons why I shouldn’t do this, but you know that’s not the point.Credit where it's due.