On Not Being Offended by Avril Lavigne in Japan


If nobody in Japan thinks a racist video about the Japanese is racist, can anyone be offended?

The children’s novelty act known as ‘Avril Lavigne’ really struck offensive gold with her recent video, and criticism runs the gamut: It’s sexistinfantilizes the Japanese, and culturally insensitive. Some have even seriously suggested that the video’s problems were an intentional ploy to distract you from how terrible the song was. Meanwhile, the Japanese press is reporting on the controversy as an ‘overseas press response‘ to the video, and people in Japan think it’s just great, leading to a koan in the age of global media and political correctness: If nobody in Japan thinks a racist video about the Japanese is racist, can anyone be offended?

The most horrifying thing about watching ‘Hello Kitty’ is that Avril Lavigne is still acting like a 14-year-old girl and screeching about sleep overs with a sexual innuendo based on a perversely underage cartoon character. Or perhaps it’s her pronunciation of Japanese words, or use of them: The song starts with her screaming in Japanese, “Everybody Psycho, Thank You! Cute!” and it actually only gets dumber when she switches to her native language.

But, as Avril has pointed out, the song is produced by a Japanese label (Epic is owned by Sony), with a Japanese video director, choreographer and, obviously, a Japanese cast. (She also started that defense with ‘LOLOLOL!!!‘ – I’ll reiterate again that she is 29 years old).

Though this is precisely the ‘I can’t be racist, I have black friends‘ defense, it is more interesting than it seems, because it speaks to how ideology, the stuff that influences everyday culture, is carried through the images that culture produces. I’ll suggest that the racism of the ‘Hello Kitty’ video was actually imposed on Japan by the Japanese, in cohoots with an oblivious foreigner.

Japanese Racism Against the Japanese
Brian McVeigh, a Japan scholar, has written something that explains Japanese culture in a way I intuitively understood in my time there, but never could articulate: The idea which he calls ‘ethos nationalist identity.’ This connects one’s racial identity to a cultural identity and to a national identity; in his words, a belief that is

probably an instinctive reaction (rooted in deep ideological patterns) to categories that somehow ‘should’ be kept separate, ie, Japaneseness and ‘non-Japaneseness’. The consequence is that “Japanese culture” is something only the Japanese people themselves can possess.

This is not exactly racism against other groups of people – though xenophobia and ‘othering’ are a common concern among resident expats and others who live in Japan. It’s also weirdly self-Orientalizing: It is the belief, (by no means universal, but popular) that eating sushi with chopsticks, singing karaoke and going to onsen is ‘Japanese,’ and that other things are not Japanese.

To play with these ideas, for a Westerner to act like Avril Lavigne did – what we’d call ‘culturally appropriating’ the Japanese – is not really a threat to the Japanese cultural identity, because Lavigne isn’t Japanese. So of course, she likes sushi enough to clap her hands like a schoolgirl and gets to stare at a giant stuffed cupcake before petulantly throwing it to the ground (she is, again, 29 years old) but so should the rest of the world.

This goes a long way to explaining why Westerners are more concerned about Japanese cultural appropriation than the Japanese seem to be. That doesn’t mean the criticism of the video aren’t on target. So what about claims of cultural appropriation?

The Japanese Media Complex
Cultural appropriation is an interesting concern, and perfectly valid when it is rooted in a one-sided relationship of cultural exploitation. Middle-class white guys have always had a hard time in hip-hop because it’s a little weird for middle-class white guys to take an art form pioneered as a voice against oppression by middle-class white guys and use it to complain about their first-world problems. This is obviously complicated by class concerns – is it, for example, OK for a poor white guy to use hip hop? The success and ‘credibility’ of Eminem seems to say yes.

It’s a broader issue, rife with racial and class-based landmines, but you get the idea: The problem with cultural appropriation is more or less that it’s rooted in the powerful taking acts of empowerment away from another group in a one-sided way, and using it to their own ends, which is obnoxious. But by taking something into a new cultural context, it also risks reducing the sacred images, rituals and objects of a culture into kitsch: Consider taking the keffiyeh, a Palestinian symbol of unity, turning it into a fashion trend and eventually a joke about hipsters. Or consider Maori tribal tattoos on guys who can’t spell ‘Maori.’

Japan is a different story. The things that Lavigne are doing are already mass-produced kitsch, and many of them are part of a culture that Japan’s government was spending millions to export abroad, part of a package of media and entertainment exports called ‘Cool Japan’.

Is it really cultural appropriation if most of what Lavigne is showing off is precisely the image that Japan wants us to have? She’s not taking selfies at shrines, Bieber-style, or really participating in anything that ever actually happens in Japan. She’s being reductionist, for sure – presenting Japan in one particular way, the kawaii-and-wacky stereotype of the country that is completely independent of the country’s real culture.

The problem is, a Japanese director shot this video for a Japanese company, so it must reflect some idea of Japan that they felt comfortable with. And if you look closely at ‘Hello Kitty,’ it is precisely what Japan sees as ‘Japan for foreigners,’ which is really what the suite of ‘Cool Japan’ stuff is intended to be. The ideology here is that Japan is so unique and different that ‘authentic Japanese culture’ can’t be understood by outsiders – so here you go, guys, have a giant plush cupcake.

Mrs. Roboto
The other, more problematic concern with this video is the role of the women in the background, dancing stiff-faced like robots, the supporting cast to Lavigne’s prancing eyeliner party. This is a perfect rendering of the unconscious mind of the worst type of Japanese expat, the ones who see the country and all of its people as the supporting backdrop for their great white adventure in the Orient. It would not surprise me if Lavigne, who spends ‘half her time in Tokyo,’ was one of those worst kinds of expats.

The women here are identical and form the backdrop as dancers, candy sellers, and Lavigne’s entourage. They smile once, when shown the picture that Lavigne takes of them – as if they can only really recognize themselves in the images a foreigner has of them. What a metaphor! The vision of unending Japanese hospitality, an image Japan presents to the outside world and loves seeing the outside world reflect back, is more or less perfectly captured in these models being shown what they look like by Avril Lavigne and loving it.

This is all problematic on many levels, but perhaps not considered a big deal in Japan simply because of that ethos-nationalist self-orientalism. We’re being shown the idea of Japan that a Japanese director and Japanese company want foreigners to see. It’s riding a nationally arranged, corporate-supported advertising gimmick of ‘Cool Japan’ abroad as a giant shopping mall full of docile, identical women who only want to serve you and party while you consume a range of lifestyle products — essentially product placement for the stuff Japan assumes we’ll like.

The Verdict
I am going to leave the last word on the inherent racism, sexism and Orientalising in this Avril Lavigne video to the people who either are or aren’t offended by it. I’m confident, though, to say that this video got made because it is a perfect mix of a Japanese director and corporation trying to promote a specific, self-Orientalizing version of Japan rooted in the idea of ‘what foreigners think of us,’ and the culturally oblivious vision of 29-year-old-white-girl-in-Japan, Avril Lavigne, telling them that they are exactly right.

Likewise, it was probably a two-way street of cultural obliviousness, where Lavigne insisted on something or other and was met with a nod and a smile because nobody in Japan is going to say no to Avril Lavigne, and because the whole thing was set up to be about ‘Japan from Away’ that Lavigne had a unique insight toward constructing.

The result is an eye-numbing train wreck of a video for a traumatic plane crash of a song, making this whole ordeal one of the worst transportation disasters in the history of bad metaphors.

This song, on the other hand, was once my personal karaoke standby:

So what if I go out on a million dates? You never called or liked This Japanese Life on Facebook, anyway. 

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30 Responses to On Not Being Offended by Avril Lavigne in Japan

  1. Locohama says:

    Interesting post, dude. This is the first time I’ve seen this video, though I’ve heard a great deal about it. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough or I’m desensitized from too many years in America where black music has been serially appropriated and exploited by Caucasians, from jazz to rock to soul, to funk, to Hiphop (sometimes with black cooperation, much the way the Japanese cooperated with the making of this one) and too many years here in japan, exposed to scenarios and lifestyle choices that make this video simultaneously acutely accurate, humdrum, and preposterous, but I’m having a hard time seeing anything unusual, for Caucasians, about it except the fact it’s being viewed by mostly Caucasians as racist. Perhaps times have changed…oh wait, who won the Grammy for top rap song (etc etc etc) in 2014? Macklemore???? Anyway…nice post yo!

  2. Yesss! Thank you for expressing my thoughts in a way I could not. I knew they the Japanese would most likely not have a problem with this song/video but I couldn’t really articulate WHY it was still wrong (along with being a terrible song). Thank you for this!

  3. morganbarrie says:

    It’s not racist. Racism is the suggestion that people have negative or positive attributes that are inherent to their ethnic race. That they can’t change, or escape from, because that is there race. i.e Irish are stupid, Scottish are mean, blacks are violent, Japanese are shy, etc. As opposed to having negative or positive attributes that derive from upbringing, environment, personality, opportunities, zeit geist, etc.
    Understand what racism actually is before tossing it around.
    But the song is taking the piss by the look of it.
    And, so what, it’s a free world.

    • owwls says:

      That’s not what racism is. If it were, then depictions of a single person belonging to a race showing exaggerated features of their race wouldn’t be racist because it’s “against one person.” Reducing people to stereotypes of their race, which this video is criticized for doing, is also a valid form of racism.

      • ikinone says:

        Using stereotypes is not the same as reducing people to those sterotypes. This video is hardly a documentary about the nature of Japanese people.

        I don’t see any racism going on here. I think most people are probably more upset by the sexual innuendo (and for some reason prefer to complain about racism). Those people must be pretty oblivious to what pop music is.

  4. So we should be offended, but instead because this is all that Japan thinks we can understand/enjoy/appreciate about its culture?

  5. Locohama says:

    And I think the “psycho” use may be her attempt to say the Japanese word “saikou” which means supreme or best. No? And in my comment I should have said “black music and culture” (-;

  6. Mike says:

    saikou = da bomb; like locohama said I think she is trying to say “you guys rule” not “everyone is crazy”

    But still this video is insane. Exactly what I would expect from a washed up american idol trying to do a half-assed imitation of kyary pamyu pamyu while also trying to capitalize on dubstep. I do like the train-approaching sound at the end though. Triggers my commuter spidey sense

  7. brinkling says:

    Wow, I never thought about it from that perspective before! That it would be self-orientalizing…that’s really interesting, thank you for sharing. That also kind of makes me sad to know.

    One side-note – I don’t think she’s saying ‘Everyone psycho,’ I think she was taught to say ‘みんな最高’ (minna saiko – which sounds like psycho) meaning moreso in the context that ‘everyone here’s the best!’

  8. Eido INOUE says:

    The overseas cries of racism with respect to cultural relativism are connected to the rather unique American phenomenon of “cultural appropriation.” What many Americans don’t understand is that “cultural appropriation” is relative. Cultural Appropriation defined as when the cultural majority (i.e. Whites in America) appropriates the culture of a minority (i.e. Asians in America).

    The reason why Avril is not cultural appropriation in Japan is because Black & White etc. Americans and Canadians are not the cultural majority in Japan.

    So what if a White/Black person in Japan attempts to “act Japanese” and they do it badly or in a mocking way? It doesn’t matter; Japanese in Japan are the MASSIVE majority and their identity / pride can’t be harmed or affected by a minor, MINOR minority (less than 0.04% of the population) in Japan. If a white/black person in Japan attempts to dress up like a geisha/ninja/samurai for a Hallloween party in Japan and gets it all wrong or do it so that it looks like a mockery, Japanese don’t get offended or think their cultural identity is under attack because their culture is too strong in Japan to be threatened; they simply think that White/Black person is a Fool and Ignorant; they laugh at and mock the stupid foreigner who can’t do it properly.

    Let’s be clear: this video was made BY JAPANESE (her Japanese record label), FOR THE JAPANESE — they (unsuccessfully, it leaked) attempted to geo-restrict the video to the Japan market first before releasing to the world, and directed/produced/choreographed in various stages BY JAPANESE — Avril sings and plays instruments, she just participates in the videos. Many of the decisions regarding the artistic direction of the video that were criticized as Avril “culturally appropriating” were actually artistic decisions made by Japanese staff.

    Just as it’s okay for a minority in America to “act white” or more politically correctly, “act American”, it’s okay for a non-Japanese in Japan to “act Japanese”… that is, speak (or “attempt to speak”) Japanese, dress in Japanese (modern or traditional) fashion.

    If “cultural appropriation” was not allowed to be relative, then basically that would mean that white people must “act white” no matter where they are in the world. In Japan and wearing a kimono, participating in Japanese festivals and speaking Japanese? Sorry whitey, an English speaking Japanese-American in Connecticut is offended that you’re making a mockery of his hyphenated ethnicity. Speaking Japanese with an accent in Yokohama? Sorry Loco, cut that out: Tony Tanaka in Scottsdale, Arizona thinks you’re mocking him.

    Criticizing Avril for making this video in Japan for Japanese as as ridiculous as a Japanese-American getting upset because “Loco” posts a photo of him wearing a kimono and praying at a shrine — in Japan. Is Loco negatively “appropriating” Japanese culture? Of course not! He’s living IN JAPAN. And if Loco was an anime otaku and/or dressed up similar to this video, Japanese (otaku — not normal people. ;) ) would be okay with that too.

    “When in Rome…”

    P.S. As for the other comments about the women acting like robots, I had to LOL… because obviously these people are unfamiliar with the showbiz backup singer creed: “the backups shall never upstage the lead”. There are many ways that those in showbiz do this, however, the use of expressionless faces, having them fawn over / act subservient to the lead, tone down their dancing or have them very simply harmonize with the lead/soloist, are techniques to “keep the spotlight on the star” that have been used for centuries around the world. The only reason people paid attention to them in this video is because they were racially (and ethnically) Japanese and Avril is not, so they had to “turn them into victims” in order to make their theory that the video is offensive to Japanese/Asians work.

  9. Sara says:

    I really liked this. Thanks.

  10. Nikki says:

    I never thought I’d see a video that made “Ponponpon” look erudite by comparison.* But, that’s the interesting dichotomy. When Kyary does it, it’s not reductive, even if it is a tiny sliver of Japan that is exported particularly because it is what appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential tourist and consumer. I think the Avril video is nothing more than another shrewd move by a company to market Cool Japan, even if I personally didn’t even realize she was still relevant…

    Anyway, when Japanese marketers appropriate caricature and mock white people, (the “Hello Gaijin-san” costume kit and some recent McDonald’s commercials come to mind) white people have been similarly outraged (apparently). When the shoe is on the other foot and Americans, just for example, are reducing Japan to a single word such as “kawaii” or “arigatou”, or a jaunty kimono, I’ve never seen the same level of outrage from any community.Maybe it’s because we aren’t doing the buck teeth anymore? Although, I’ve met many people still throwing around certain three letter epithets that lead me to believe that was hardly the nexus of the problem.

    Cultural appropriation is extremely subversive and blurry, but the only examples that really piss me off are when culture is ignorantly appropriated for callous reasons of vanity and affectation. To me it’s only really offensive because it’s obnoxious and trite. But again, I don’t think Avril can be blamed here; Avril is just a shill for a larger marketing schema, and at most her creative endeavor on this song and video probably amounted to coming up with the title by looking at the first brand name in arm’s reach.

    Good article!

    *But I love Kyary. Avril’s marketers copied her marketers wholesale.

    • Karin Vandom says:

      But Kyary is genuinely into the subcultures of the weird Japanese street fashion. She first got popular because she wore weird fashion on the streets and got featured in Kera or some other alternative fashion magazine. I thought “Pon Pon Pon” was more of an expression of how she was into those fashion sub cultures than “Cool Japan” marketing. Then again I see that maybe that was also the tool by the other people involved to get her to be popular. But “Invader Invader” seems to say that she loves those weird subcultures of japan and wants to spread them around the world, doesn’t it? Idk if it’s a marketing trick or if she genuinely likes those things, or both?

  11. Tara says:

    Great post, Eryk. One thing I’d argue is that “I’m not racist; I have black friends!” is a weak argument because it’s usually just not true.

    Also, ‘What the hell’ is an excellent song.

  12. Nyasha says:

    It’s so weird because I would find it offensive but I’ve heard some Japanese people don’t .__.

  13. burenan says:

    For those interested in the various examples concerning discrimination in/of/by Japan, here are some links:

    “white face” ANA Commercial – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCjxzpSrFP4
    Choya Umeshu “white face” commercial – http://www.japanprobe.com/2011/07/20/japanese-commercial-white-people-have-gigantic-noses/
    McDonalds Japan (as Nikki mentioned above), Mr. James, super gaijin – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTXbgaqwPdM
    the appropriation of the ‘Black Lifestyle’ in Japan – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qe4AZRkFYE
    Anti-Korean stickers on the Shikoku Henro trail – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/04/09/national/racist-notice-discovered-on-popular-shikoku-walking-trail/
    and the follow-up – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/04/11/national/korean-guide-still-loves-japan-despite-racist-slurs-on-temple-sites/

    similar to Lavigne’s video, Katy Perry’s Japan-themed AMA performance – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjgnxWSZkKQ
    Googe’s forbidden maps of Tokyo’s old eta neighborhoods – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/05/05/national/google-crosses-line-with-controversial-old-tokyo-maps/

    Also worth noting are the adoption of kanji/hanzi characters so popular as tattoos by foreigners, as well as the strange, nonsense English often found on clothing and accessories in Japan.

    I recently talked on this topic with my Japanese high school class, so I wanted to share the some examples that show how diverse and complicated the topic can be. I would ask them “do you think this is discrimination/appropriation?” but stopped short of giving them an answer, because a topic with such controversy should be openly discussed, as opposed to ‘answered’.

    I think Eido makes a good point about the impact the video has had on Japanese people, which doesn’t seem negative at all. Foreigners don’t have much power in Japan, and there’s no such history of white-on-Japanese discrimination in Japan. The history matters. I’d say that’s why the childrens’ book “The Little Sambo” is an eyesore in America, while the teachers I’ve talked to in Japan think it’s cute. There’s no history of Japanese-on-Black racism.

    But that’s Japan, where the Japanese identity is the majority. I wouldn’t be so quick to downplay the frustration of the Tony Tanakas in the world who may have actually had to deal with real-world discrimination where their ethnicity is in the minority. The difference between globalization and cultural appropriation is near impossible to define, but while we’re figuring it out I think the intention of the perpetrator should come into consideration as well as the amount of respect due to the offended.
    Katy Perry’s kimono performance is miles away from a tacky Halloween “exotic geisha girl”, but it was still a costume, one almost never naturally seen in her home country, and one that brings an idenity with it that she shed later that night once the performance was over.

    I couldn’t tell you how right or wrong it is, but it’s good to be asking.

    • owwls says:

      Good comment, though I think there are some solid examples of Japan adopting racial attitudes of Westerners towards blacks in the 19th century that inform a lot of that imagination of racial difference today. I would be extremely hesitant to suggest that there’s no history of racial prejudice against blacks in Japan.

  14. Umin says:

    I was actually pretty surprised about the introduction of this article, since I first got to know the video when Japanese friends – who did feel offended by it – shared it on Facebook, calling it stupid.

  15. Dave308 says:

    What I found the most irritating was the condescending, smart ass attitude the English teacher brings to the piece. The “Children’s novelty act” known as ‘Avril Lavigne’ is enough to make me puke, as Avril would say. Is that how a cool hipster, such as yourself, describes a multi platinum recording artist? Sounds like something a loser would say. Must suck to be you.

    • owwls says:

      Sorry to disappoint!

    • Jonathan K. says:

      Personally, I don’t believe I’ll ever again be able to mention, or even think about, Avril Lavigne without attaching “children’s-novelty-act” to her name. It’s not particularly convenient, so it’s just as well I don’t often find myself talking (or thinking) about childrens’-novelty-act Avril Lavigne.

  16. starlightshimmers says:

    I’m Asian-American, I lived half of my life in Asia, in fact I was born there, there’s absolutely nothing wrong about foreigners participating in Asian culture, using Asian culture in their music or art, and there’s nothing wrong about Asians wanting to exploit Asian culture. I actually like it when artists like Avril Lavigne or Coldplay use Asian-style themes on their videos, and many Asians like showing off our Asian culture (both Asian pop culture and traditional culture). I think this entire article is really ridiculous, especially coming from a white man, who just happened to live in Japan for three years. I’m Asian, I have Asian blood, I was born in Asia, I lived there up until I was 10 years old. There’s nothing wrong about the Avril Lavigne music video.

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