Is Eri Chan Appropriating an Asian Culture?

May 8, 2008

The song’s not bad; it's quirky with catchy loops that could easily get it heavy rotation at hipster bars and art exhibit after-parties. But I can’t help but wonder…

Is she Asian American?

I couldn’t find any information on her ethnic make-up, and photos aren't always accurate gauges of ethnicity either. At a mere glance, she appears to be Caucasian. Her bio simply states that she’s an American who moved to Japan to teach English and now lives and creates music in the southern city of Kyushu.

I realized I wanted to know if she had Asian roots because she’s pretty much taking on a Japanese identity, which could be seen as problematic if she is, in actuality, an American Caucasian person (see: Steven Seagal).

On “KitsuneBi,” the artist says, "In folklore here, foxes play an important role...Something that really appealed to me is this ancient notion of kitsune-tsuki, which is when a woman becomes possessed by a fox...The woodlands have this kind of ancient, quiet mystery...there's always this feeling that you're being watched, but it's not a threatening feeling. I suddenly was overwhelmed by this weird feeling that I was being transformed into a fox.”

So what do you all think? Appropriation of an Asian culture, or an American musician that just really digs Japan? Does her race/ethnicity matter in terms of the image she's created as an artist?


Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.



Hi,For what it's worth:A popular Japanese name for girls is "Eri," and "Chan" is a term of endearment for close girlfriends or small children. My name is Elizabeth, and when spelled out in the Japanese katakana phonetic alphabet, it'sエリザベスor "E Ri Za Be Su".Therefore, Japanese friends took to calling me "Eri" "エリ" and "Chan" followed naturally. It's one of my favorite nicknames.The questions most of my music explores are:1. What, exactly, is it that I'm experiencing when I feel magic in Japanese wilderness?2. Why is it so easy for me to believe Japanese folktales and ghost stories, more than anywhere I've lived before?3. How does a foreigner fit in/connect with an ancient understanding of the natural world that isn't, historically, her own?Of course, our own cultural landscapes, backgrounds and life experiences determine how we relate to and understand any story or legend...someone in Goto, the remote Island where I lived last year, might understand the same legend differently from someone living as far away as Northern Japan, or as close as next door... I'm not simply shopping around the globe for something that sparks my curiosity, to exploit it creatively. This album is about ME, a foreigner, attempting to work with/through my experiences within a natural world where the characters of a traditional folklore are both alive for me and not "my own." Admittedly, I do feel challenged by the barriers that have sparked so much discussion on this blog. Who am I, an American, Caucasian girl, to be so moved and inspired by a traditional culture that I wasn't born into??? Does the fact that I'm not a native Japanese person, or Asian American, prohibit me from studying and exploring creatively the supernatural elements of the place where I reside?Arguing about how much of that I'm "allowed" to connect with is legitimate, as I can't really relate to the feeling of being protective of one's own cultural heritage. I'm connecting to Japan through ancient, esoteric ideas such as Kitsune-Bi, things that are hard to explain, even among Japanese people. In Japan, perhaps because of their mystery and lack of tangibility, I chose to focus on and be creatively inspired by these elements of the traditional culture. But it was with knowledge, admiration, humility and respect that I dove into and was moved by ancient Japanese myths and legends... not to steal them and claim them as my own, but to use them as another tool to understand this country and my "place" here.I'm not presenting "JAPAN" to my listeners, I'm presenting "MY OWN EXPERIENCE IN JAPAN."-EBMPS:The Steven Segal comment... a low blow!
Hi there,My name is David and I'm a friend of Lizzie Moore's. I suppose that probably puts me in the non-objective-friend-on-the-defensive category. But then, what are we but just categories anyway?When this post was brought to my attention, I told Lizzie that if she was going to respond, she shouldn't mention her ethnicity - as it was of no relevance whatsoever. Turns out she did reveal her WHITENESS [OMG!], but the relevance issue still stands.As she said - and you quoted - the album expresses "the thoughts of a girl living in Japan, fascinated by folklore and possessed by a fox." At what point does/should her race come into play there? Note again it's "girl living in Japan" - not "Japanese girl struggling with her racial identity."I'm living in Japan too - and frequently express my thoughts and feelings about this country. Should I censor myself because I'm not Asian? Oh wait - I actually am Asian! But... I'm the Chinese kind of Asian, not Japanese Asian. I have to be Japanese, yeah?How local or how deep does your background have to be? Does it mean that only indigenous Aboriginal artists should be allowed comment on the Australian experience? Native Americans in your country?You mention that you are "born and raised in the U.S." and you seem to imply [correct me if I've misinterpreted] that this gives you some kind of explicit entitlement to comment on your culture - an entitlement that an ex-pat does not have. What about someone who was born and raised elsewhere, but has spent more time living in your country than you have been alive? If that person makes an album/book/film about it, is she crossing a line? How dare she appropriate your culture?!Do you know how long Lizzie has lived in Japan? If she lived here for 50 more years would it be okay then? Is there a statute of limitations? Or does she have to be really, truly, in-her-blood Japanese???Artists are inspired and influenced by what's around them and what they experience. Whether they're at home or in a "foreign" land, whether they reside there or are just visiting, doesn't make one sliver of difference.Or... are you suggesting that Paul Simon should have been forbidden from making his Graceland album because he's not black? Should The Clash have dropped all the reggae and dub elements of their music because they were white? Should someone have told The Beatles: "Hang on a second whiteboys: You can't use sitars in your songs - you're not bloody Indian!!"Though I have Asian roots, I am actually from Ireland. My mother's Irish. When I'm away from home for St Patrick's Day, I often deride non-Irish folk celebrating [appropriating?] the day in their distinctly non-Irish ways - doing things that Irish people would never ever do, like dye beer green or pinch people [wtf?]. But I do this in jest....Because if I were actually being serious - If I were actually trying to deny people participation in my country's festival due to their lack of ethnic and/or nationalistic credentials... Well, wouldn't that just be sheer arrogance?David
Holy crap. This may be the first time a blog subject has actually commented on the blog. It's very scary/exciting.Greetings Lizzie (and to your friend David),I appreciate your responses, especially Lizzie's, since you offered much more insight into your artistic choices than the NPR article that I stumbled upon. You have some avid defenders here. To preface, I want to say it was never my intention to offend or defend you. I wrote this post because I wanted to express an honest reaction (a curiosity about your ethnicity) and get some discussion going on what's problematic or is not problematic at all about it.The U.S. has seen its fair share of Caucasian artists who have brief obsessions with the magical East (Madonna, Gwen Stefani, etc), so you can see why my mind may have jumped quickly to that conclusion. But I tried (hopefully with some success) to pose questions rather than hastily fling half-baked criticism about you or your music.I think these kinds of questions are important and unfortunately are not frequently asked out of fear of being pegged an "angry minority" or a "race baiter." Despite the initial intentions, sometimes they're gonna be interpreted as inflammatory or, in this case, racially-privileged. And I think that's okay as long as people are talking. [I mean, I can retroactively explain my intentions all I want, but they're going to be interpreted differently by different people.]More and more minority American groups (particularly Asian Americans) are asking questions, questions that may not be safe or sweet. Hell, we have a blogger on here that loves finding "Uncle Tom" Asian American comedians and criticizing them. Some people agree, some disagree; but the point is, we're talking about it from all angles. We don't deny that there's some good, some bad, and some ugly.Think of the debates over Eminem when he first came on the scene. Endless discussions were had about his race, his "cred," and his place within a historically African American cultural form. Those discussions didn't negate the fact that he's become one of the most critically acclaimed rappers of all time, but I do think it was important that they took place, even the ones where people simply muttered, "What's this white boy doing?"This post was in no way an attack on your experiences in Japan nor am I the gatekeeper who permits or denies folks into Asian culture. I'm just an Asian American who wondered why I was curious, even a little bugged, by your musical persona and song material and asked those questions in an open forum. I couldn't help my reaction, but I tried hard to stay as objective as possible, which as a lowly blogger is all I can do really.And by the way, I was not likening you to Steven Seagal; I was using him as the epitome of what goes wrong when someone thinks they've become another race/ethnicity. The only person I would ever lay that insult on is probably...Steven Seagal.Best,Sylvie
I detected a few bars of "Wade in the Water" in the it's certainly not just a presentation of Japanese culture...
these discussions are definitely important, and i do agree with sylvie that often times, people are scared to ask questions when it's really a pure sense of curiosity. and through whatever answers they get, they seek to discover more about the way they think and reevaluate their own thought process. i know that i have refrained from asking questions before (not related to race) simply because i felt that me asking the question = i was so out of the loop and not educated. so what was a pure "i don't know, please tell me" sort of became a shameful thing. anyway, i do appreciate everyone's comments. i find all of this discussion fascinating and please keep it coming. after all, what has been happening in the media and specifically, in hollywood/entertainment industry has confused us all!
not to put too fine a point on it, but...if it's questionable for ex-pats in japan to use musical/cultural influences, then it's only fair to ask if NPR listeners have the right to talk about "street cred..."
in agreement with the line above:"if it's questionable for ex-pats in japan to use musical/cultural influences, then it's only fair to ask......".......if people who don't know the basic geography of japan have a right to identify a person as "taking on a japanese identity""in the southern city of Kyushu" ?!
i don't think the problem here is whether or not someone can use some "thing" as their musical influence. the discussion was more about taking on an identity, and i think eri has clearly stated that that is not what she's doing. as for NPR listeners, you don't expect them to just listen, and shut up do you? that would defeat the whole purpose of NPR. NPR is about raising questions as well. i don't think you can deny someone of the basic concept of discussing and getting their questions answered. i think everyone has the right to deserve feedback even if it's not the answer that they were looking for the basic geography of japan. i have to admit that i don't know a thing about that. do you know the geography of the rest of the world? if not, do you still comment on what's going on outside of what you know? i should think and hope so.
talking about media representations of ethnicity is important and needed. talking about what this song is communicating may also be important.however, it is another thing entirely to mention a specific individual by name in a very public forum, and ask if she is guilty of cultural appropriation (i.e. theft). this, i think, is not an abstract line of questioning or a way to sharpen one's own thinking. it is a specific charge (essentially "did she take something that doesn't belong to her"), and as such requires substantiation.if the roots of the person in connection to a specific locale are important (i.e. japan) to legitimate what she does, the poser of the question should have a sense of what japan is.if she has appropriated "an asian culture," the poser of the question also needs to explain how an african-american spiritual (wade in the water) played on a kazoo is part of "an asian culture" or a japanese identity.
Appropriation of an Asian culture? How presumptuous. This is an American resident of Japan, and you have the audacity to question her street cred based on some fuzzy notion of ethnicity?Are you AA? Do you "appropriate" Western Culture?
I think "fuzzy" is the perfect word, which is why I posed the questions of "is this problematic?" and "does it even matter?" so I could get some other opinions. Admittedly, I personally would find it problematic if she has no Asian roots especially in light of her self-described "obsession" with Japanese folklore. I'm not saying I'm part of the Ethnicity Street Cred Squad; just pointing out that it's a slippery slope. And yes, I'm Asian American, born and raised in the U.S. I guess I can't appropriate a culture I was born into?
she sort of sounds like a... gwen. btw has she released those harajuku girls yet? anyway, i do that too sometimes, with books, music, people writing about china, for example. don't know if it's wrong of me, but i measure how much trust i put in a written piece depending on how much i know about the author's goes the research? does she have asian roots?
sylvie:You're completely missing the point here: it doesn't matter what her ethnicity is. She lives and works in Japan. What on earth could be "problematic" about it?What's presumptious is you're applying racist double standards: she can't appropriate a culture she immigrated into? Japanese culture doesn't belong to you or indeed to anybody not residing here in Japan.
Hi okazakiOm,I think what's problematic is that taking on the artistic expression of another culture is a bit unilateral. Non-Asians can appropriate Asian culture easily (Gwen Stefani's Harajuku affinity, David Carradine in "Kung Fu") regardless of residence in a country and have a certain cachet, yet I don't think it necessarily works in reverse. I think a person from Asia coming to the States as an artist to take on expressly "American" art forms wouldn't be received as warmly. If Eri Chan were a Japanese woman that came to live and work in the U.S., changed her name to Joan Smith, and made songs about Paul Bunyan and other American mythologies, I'm not sure she'd be as successful.
sylvie:With all due respect, I really think you're grasping at straws here. There are numerous examples of Asian artists working in the West in traditional Western mediums.And again, we're talking about Japan here, not the US. I also don't think that this particular woman is particularily successful. Why don't you pick on Jero, the black enka singer who is successful? Or does his having a Japanese (or possibly nikkei?) grandmother give him permission work in a Japanese medium?I think you're projecting your biases on a culture that isn't yours, and that you don't really understand.
okazakiOm, have you ever read this blog before?? It's an AA blog, in case you didn't know. This isn't the first time issues like these have come up and I don't see anything racist about talking about them. And I don't see how you can say that unless you live in Japan, people aren't allowed to have any opinions about Japan. Now that's "presumptuous".
Chowgirl:You've reinforced my point exactly: it's an AA blog. If this lady were based in the States, then maybe this issue would be relevant.Where did I say that people outside of Japan weren't allowed to have any opinions about Japan?
quoting boo from "Asian American Hip-Hop for Dummies"article.."you hear all the time that hip hop should be universal. but obviously there are people out there that don't buy that. so does that mean only black people are entitled to these form of art? hip hop? b-boying? i think there's a problem of adopting a culture, and not giving it the recognition that it deserves, but i also think that there's a problem when we try to put ownership on something. this is mine, and that is yours."So boo, do you have black roots?
what you quoted was an observation from watching benson lee's "planet b-boy" and some other films... are you asking me if i have black roots because you think i am taking on a black identity? i don't really see how whether or not i have black roots relate to what was said, in response to a different blog post. and in the context of this post, adopting a culture's art form and paying the necessary respect to it is definitely different from adopting a different identity/persona.if you really want to know, and if it makes any difference, i grew up in africa.