Learning and Unlearning: an interview with Emi Ito on cultural appropriation

Photo by Kristen Murakoshi Photography

We’ve been captivated by Emi Ito’s voice and way of speaking up about cultural appropriation and diversity since we came across her Instagram account (@little_kotos_closet) early this year. She graciously agreed to answer our many questions about creativity and misappropriation for our Summer 2019 Issue. We found her words so inspiring and important that we felt this interview should be shared as widely as possible, and so we are publishing the interview as it appears in the magazine here for all to enjoy.

For those who might not be familiar with the term cultural appropriation yet, how would you describe it?

When I think of cultural appropriation, the first words that come to mind are power, profit, and people. ‘Power’ first because there is almost always a power dynamic of a more dominant culture taking from another less dominant culture. ‘Profit’ because someone is typically profiting in our capitalist society and often it is not the origin cultures and communities. And ‘people’ because the peoples of the origin cultures almost always get erased.

This definition by Ijeoma Oluo informs my thinking:

“So that brings us to what it is that makes cultural appropriation, appropriation. It really is systems of power. We live in a society where dominant cultures have been able to come and take what they want from oppressed cultures and use it however they want, change it, and then discard the rest, even degrade the rest that they don’t like, that doesn’t suit them in the way that they want to use… And they will take what they want for their own purpose. They will then say, “That’s what this is. It’s what it has always been.” And they will further remove it from the culture that developed it and depends on it. They may even profit off of it while the people who developed this piece of culture themselves are still being degraded and oppressed and sometimes mocked for those very same things.”1

I wear my family’s kimono and haori to express pride in where I come from in spite of the violence of assimilation. I wear the cultural garments sewn by my grandmother’s and mother’s hands in the face of visceral racism. Part of what is hurtful about cultural appropriation is that the trauma and harm we have faced as Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) in a white supremacist society gets ignored and then compounded by the theft of appropriation.

Ito’s mother as a child, with her own mother

We would love to hear a little about your journey to becoming a respected voice on cultural appropriation. What led to you feeling called to work on this?

I would like to emphasize first and foremost that I am one person with my own set of lived experiences and opinions. I am continually learning from the people around me who write about and speak out on the issues of cultural appropriation. I, too, am constantly engaging with the questions that surround appropriation, inspiration, and where the line is.

For the past fifteen years I have been a public school educator in elementary schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several years ago I became very passionate about teaching my third graders and colleagues about the impact of cultural appropriation in the context of Halloween costumes. And as you can imagine, there were a variety of reactions from the adults, but incredible empathy and understanding from the children. I have been in these complicated and nuanced conversations ever since.

A year ago, I opened a public Instagram account as a way to connect with like-minded people in the sustainable fashion community and happened to see a post by the brand Jamie + The Jones stating that they were going to release a J+J Kimono Jacket. I left a comment asking if they would consider the name, J+J Haori, since a haori functions as a jacket, while a kimono does not. Their response was swift and kind, and they utilised my name suggestion right away.

My heart opened at the possibility for change and ever since then, I have been asking brand and makers to consider garment name changes whenever I see the misappropriation of the term kimono. Most of the time, garments are so far removed from the alleged inspiration of the kimono, that I recommend names like duster, cardigan, jacket, robe, wrap coat and so on.

Three other very meaningful experiences also helped to transform my decision to be more outspoken on this topic. The first was engaging in a lengthy dialogue with Jennifer Gordy about her formerly named Wiksten Kimono Jacket sewing pattern, now Wiksten Haori.

Wiksten Haori sewing pattern by Jenny Gordy

The second was collaborating with Elizabeth Suzann to name her Asawa Tie Belt after the Japanese American artist, Ruth Asawa. In both instances the creatives engaged with me through a series of honest conversations that honoured my lived experience and the traumatic history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. It was healing to be heard and for positive action to be taken based on these conversations.

Do these instances of names and garments inspired by Japanese culture still qualify as cultural appropriation? To be honest, I’m not sure. But for me, as a Japanese heritage person, knowing that the inspiration for the designs comes from my culture and that there has been thought and effort to name them in a way that honours my culture, particularly in the instance of the Asawa Tie Belt, by uplifting an important Japanese American artist who was incarcerated during World War II, I feel like this is a step in the right direction. To be inspired by Japanese culture and create a design but then not honour that inspiration would also feel like an erasure. I don’t think there are any clean answers for me, personally, yet.

The third experience was being invited by Densho Blog to write a guest article2 on the cultural appropriation of the kimono. Since that time, I have collaborated with several other brands to make garment name changes, and most recently Matter Prints changed the name of their Kimono Jacket to Haori Jacket and credited my influence3. While I am deeply humbled to be specifically named, I know that the labour of many, many marginalised peoples are a part of this wave of change.

We understand that your work in the slow fashion community then bled over into the maker community, even though you are not a maker yourself. Is it possible for people to be inspired by cultures that are not their own without culturally appropriating?

Perhaps, but for me, there are more questions than answers. I think people want a checklist to follow and there isn’t one. I think people want agreement and there rarely will be, rather, it will be messy as we continue to have these important and complex conversations. I think people want a set of rules to stretch across all cultures, but that isn’t possible. The cultural appropriation of the kimono, versus Indigenous regalia, versus African headwraps are all unique and different instances that must be considered as such.

Here’s a starting point: Fordham University Law professor, Susan Scafidi, has the 3 S’s Test, which stands for Source, Significance (Sacredness), and Similarity.

“Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What’s the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knock-off, or just a nod to a colour scheme or silhouette?”

Scafidi’s 3S’s Test is an excellent starting place and I would like to offer a few more questions for makers to consider:

1. Are you profiting in some way or taking from the origin culture, without an investment in the origin community, therefore perpetuating a colonial power dynamic?

2. Are there makers of the origin culture already making these kinds of items, and could you be making something similar that is rooted in your own heritage or family traditions instead?

3. If you are truly inspired by a culture that is not your own and that inspiration is evident in the design, would it be harmful not to acknowledge and honour the origin culture in some way? Would that contribute to the erasure of the origin culture?

4. Have you consulted with a wide swath of people who represent the origin culture so that you are getting a range of viewpoints and not cherry picking from known friends who would most likely affirm your point of view?

5. Are you perpetuating a hierarchy within the origin culture or considering the entire diaspora? Something I noticed a lot when receiving commentary on my speaking and writing about the cultural appropriation of the kimono, was the tendency to elevate the perceived response of Japanese heritage people living in Japan – that they do not care about the cultural appropriation of the kimono. First of all, no one can say what an entire nation of people think and believe. But more importantly, when being inspired by a culture, the entirety of that culture and the various rich histories need to be included. So when we consider inspiration from Japanese designs and silhouettes, we cannot ignore the histories of Japanese Americans, Japanese Canadians, and Japanese Peruvians and what these garments mean in these communities.

6. If you are a white maker who is inspired by BIPOC cultures, what work are you doing to unlearn the racism that is embedded in our society and within you? While questioning and challenging cultural appropriation is an important step, it is the beginning, not the end of conversations, and more importantly, the beginning of working to make our communities more equitable and inclusive, especially as a white person who is a member of the dominant culture.

Nirav Patel Photography

Is it better for a magazine with a platform like Pom Pom’s to stick to pattern names/themes/topics that draw on our own staff’s cultures or to look outside for inspiration?

If so, how do we do this sensitively and respectfully?

For several years I worked for my teachers’ union on the recruitment and retention of teachers and staff of colour. Because of that experience, I believe that in all organisations, it is the responsibility of the leadership to rigorously recruit, retain, and promote BIPOC staff members and leaders so that they are included in all levels of an organisation. There also needs to be regular trainings on equity and inclusion led by Black and Indigenous racial justice educators. If an organisation has yet to hire a more diverse staff, the staff that is present needs to cultivate their awareness, work to be actively anti-racist, and make the workplace a safer space for marginalised staff members.

I recently received a powerful direct message via Instagram where a white woman who works for a slow fashion clothing brand told me that she shared my guest article for Densho Blog about the cultural appropriation of the kimono with her staff. She said that a colleague of colour came up to her after the meeting and thanked her for taking the risk of speaking out about cultural appropriation because she, as a woman of colour, hadn’t felt safe speaking out. The priority needs to be cultivating a staff culture that is truly inclusive, diverse, and is a safer space for the voices of marginalised peoples so that there is a seat at the table for everyone.

Nirav Patel Photography

If not, how do we avoid presenting a monolithically western/Eurocentric worldview that will feel open to as many readers as possible?

For a magazine like Pom Pom, that may be in the process of diversifying the staff, there are ways of regularly including the voices, experiences, and wisdom of BIPOC and marginalised makers through regular “meet the BIPOC maker” series, features, columns, guest articles, etc. that intentionally celebrate these important perspectives. Representation matters, and while an organisation may be in the process of working toward more equitable practices, there are creative ways to ensure that representation and marginalised voices are at the forefront.

Is there anything that you see happening (trends, rather than specific examples) in the making community that you’d like to see addressed better?

The reason I care about calling out the misappropriation of the kimono in fashion is because this topic is an entry point to larger discussions in fashion around inclusion and representation. Aja Barber (@ajabarber on Instagram) has discussed this before: how we have to focus on who holds the power within a brand, even a small one.

Who is making decisions? Who has the safety and space to express themselves with an unfiltered voice? Who is being marketed to and represented in brand visuals? Are items accessible through price? Are items inclusive in sizing and for different bodies and disabilities? Is the website and language used for navigating categories gender inclusive? How is power being shared with marginalised peoples within the company?

When we ask a question it typically leads to other questions. When we feel comfortable speaking out about one issue, we get comfortable speaking out about more issues.

I see people opening up conversations with brands about cultural appropriation and size inclusivity, but my hope is that they keep going. Keep asking questions and let’s continue our collective efforts to encourage brands to dig into what it means to engage in ethical practices.

If a brand asserts itself as ethical, then these questions need to be part of the conversation: Who has power? Who profits? And are the people of the origin culture being honoured or erased? If you start questioning these symptoms of white supremacy, don’t stop there. While this has been one entry point for me, it’s not where my work stops.

What is the best way to respond if someone is called on to examine their own problematic language usage and behaviour?

1. Listen to the lived experiences of the person who is sharing.

2. Reflect on why the person is sharing their perspective.

3. Remember that impact is always greater than intent. No matter how positive your intention may be, what is the impact on the people of the origin culture?

4. Act from a place of making changes that work toward an equitable world that dismantles white supremacy.

Awareness of cultural appropriation has increased online over the last few months. What positive developments have you seen as a result of your and others’ work?

I have been very moved by the way many designers and makers have responded to calls for change and I hope to see more. Every time I ask a designer to make a change and they take action, it feels like we are working together to chip away at white supremacy. But as Ijeoma Oluo states,

“To change the hierarchy, we must take a sledgehammer to the pillars that make the system itself.”5

May we work individually and collectively to knock down the pillars in order to create communities that move us closer to living in a world where we can have accountable and respectful exchanges of ideas and inspiration deeply rooted in origin cultures and firmly grounded in equity.

Thank you Emi.

Emi Ito is the great granddaughter of a tea master, the granddaughter of a calligrapher, and the daughter of a koto and shamisen player. She is also a mother and proud public school educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Emi has been outspoken about the cultural appropriation of the kimono in fashion and can be found on Instagram @little_kotos_closet. She founded and co-moderates the Instagram page, @buyfrombipoc, which celebrates Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are makers and innovators in the sustainable, slow, and ethical fashion communities.

Pom Pom had the honour of having Emi consult on matters of cultural appropriation and inclusion for Issue 29 of the magazine.

  1. The full transcript of Oluo’s talk can be found here
  2. My Kimono Is Not Your Culture
  3. Cultural Appropriation of the Kimono In Fashion
  4. A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appreciation
  5. When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We’re Missing The Point
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