It’s 2021, and modern Japanese-inspired anime culture is beginning to dictate big fashion circles. Decades of series of manga and anime are being uncovered and enjoyed by Western societies and with that, has come a wealth of fashion clothing brands hoping to get a slice of the action. For big international clothing retailers such as UNIQLO, a range of different Japanese inspired print clothing gets released on a weekly basis, taking inspiration from modern and traditional Japanese cultural phenomena.
But Japanese history and its extremely colourful art forms are closely tied together. Why? You ask, well that is because Japan is a country that has seen much conflict, through multiple wars and genocides, and we know all too well that the victors of war write the history books, or in this case, paint the kakemono.
Troublesome fashion choices
The most popular art inspiration for modern Japanese-inspired clothing in the Western world is from the Edo period. This period ran roughly from 1615 to 1868, and the art produced in this time was foundational for much of the classic anime or manga we may know today.
One industry within fashion that has had a very close relationship with Edo art is tattoo art. Through this form of self-expression, artists and their human palettes have learnt and dealt with the consequences of iconic imagery from this period which was later found to be extremely troublesome.
The elephant in the room for this category is the iconic Japanese red rising sun. Synonymous with bad T-shirts, bad tattoos and the period of 1970’s action films that romanticised the conquest of East Asian nations and culture (cough, The Karate Kid), this symbol was also the foundation for the current Japanese national flag. There has also been a slew of other images that were racist or sexist in nature that were popularised in Japan over the years, such as Jorugomo, all of which never caught on in Western societies, and so are slowly being eased out of modern Japanese fashion and culture.
So, what’s the issue?
Within Japan and much of Asia, these symbols represent slavery and oppression. Adopting such imagery without realising the weight of the symbol you wear is arguably one of the biggest ethical fashion mistakes you can make. Imagine unironically wearing a MAGA hat or a Nazi armband now because you think it looks cool… that’s how it feels to anyone with heritage of any of the affected nations of Japan’s past tyranny.
How to appreciate, not appropriate
If there’s one thing we can learn from this it’s that it is far too easy to look at clothing inspired by a piece of art that you find exotic and awe-inspiring. If you want to be considerate with how you approach sampling other’s cultures then perhaps do a bit of research before you make your purchase. Contentious symbolism is very easy to identify and even easier to avoid, if we just take our time a little bit more when shopping.
In an age where we do most of our shopping online too, it’s super easy to copy and paste the name of the art or symbol that inspires your fashion choice from the description of the product and pop it into Google. This would help us to avoid many embarrassing fashion choices, especially in the cases of the aforementioned tattoos, which are a little harder to fix than a bad T-shirt!
There are a wealth of resources for Edo-period iconography for example, that you can use to search your concerns, which we will link here.
The moral of the story
Learning to appreciate a visual art form not just for its face value, but for the story that it tells or inspired it is really what we should all aim for as wannabe ethical consumers.
In the case of the anime craze that is sweeping society in this moment, it provides us with a wonderful example of how fashion can contain such history and cultural implications, that we can use to expand our knowledge of the world around us, as well as respecting and understanding the trials and tribulations of cultures that may otherwise be unknown to us.
It provides us with an access point into different human experiences that we should use not to trivialise their history, but appreciate it for all of the weight that it may carry.