Real or Fake? (Cultural Mis-Appropriation in BJJ / MMA Products)
Updated on Sep 9, 2018. Originally written and posted on Feb 21, 2016.
No, this article isn't what you think. It isn't some politically far-left, snowflake, social justice warrior article on why an American school girl wearing a Chinese qipao dress out of cultural appreciation "is offensive" and an example of "cultural appropriation".
But at the same time - if you don't care for other people's perspectives other than your own (closed-mindedness), then this article is not for you and you should click close on your browser tab instead of leaving us a pitiful ignorant comment.
Now that we got that out of the way, we are going to break down the true meaning of cultural appropriation, orientalism, Japonism, and give fans an authentic Asian perspective on why cultural misappropriation in BJJ / MMA designed products can be potentially offensive to Asians and should not be practiced.
Similar to how other non-Asian designs like Nazi / Alt-Right imagery or the "UFC Ireland" shirt with the incorrect design can offend others, the same rings true with the many Asian-inspired designs / products that don't actually consult with Asians first on why a certain design does or doesn't make sense.
Let's dive into what cultural appropriation or misappropriation is.
What is cultural appropriation?From Wikipedia:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is often controversial, as the use of elements of a minority culture by a cultural majority are often seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity or intellectual property rights. This view of cultural appropriation is sometimes termed "cultural misappropriation." According to proponents of the concept, cultural misappropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.
Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, which means that these uses can be viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration. Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture can be reduced to "exotic" fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, "who does not experience that oppression is able to 'play,' temporarily, an 'exotic' other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures."
Seeing how many martial arts practiced today originated in Asia and the level of popularity that Asian martial arts enjoy in the west - incorrectly designed gear with Asian themes or misappropriation happens more often than one may think.
Especially, when we take into account that Asians only make up about 10% of the total population in North America (yet make-up 60% of the world's population), no one is really around to correct others when wrong elements come up in the west.
At best, these designs of "cultural misappropriation" are factually / historically incorrect or just unimaginative in design.
At worst, they are highly offensive / blasphemous, containing hurtful imagery that digs deep into besmirching Asian culture, customs, and history - depending on who you're asking.
For the purpose of this article - we've picked out a few designs from the internet and assembled a panel of judges to give us their thoughts.
The judges are as follows:
Biography: Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada. Artist and filmmaker. Over 20 years of martial arts experience with different disciplines including Goju-Ryu Karate (black belt), Olympic style Taekwondo (black belt), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (blue belt), Muay Thai (2014 WAKO K-1 Nationals Medalist), Wing Chun Kung Fu, and MMA.
Hoi Wah says: If you talk to people who know me, they'll often say I'm the type of guy that's "East meets West" - I possess the unique ability to look at something from both an eastern perspective as I was born / lived in Hong Kong, and a western one, having been raised in Canada and having traveled around the world. I'm also very well versed in films and world history. I'll be commenting on the cultural and historical meanings of most of the designs I come across from a Chinese perspective and give you my genuine reaction. Then, I'll be explaining how designs often neglect the true meaning or significance from Asian culture, and how that may be offensive to others.
Biography: Japanese American born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Earned degrees in Psychology and East Asian studies, and is currently working as a therapist reaching out to under-served populations and improving race relations. He possesses over 15 years martial arts experience including Hapkido, Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and is an active competitor in the black belt division in both regional and international karate tournaments.
Kenji says: I’m all about diversity and representation, but I believe the missing key is how accurately a particular culture is portrayed and by whom. In the case of Asian culture, it is frequently the case that it is being represented by non-Asian companies through western sensibilities and unfortunately, often inaccurately. We cannot come to a place of genuine understanding and cultural awareness if misrepresented images of said culture are more prevalent and influential than the actual culture itself.
Biography: Born in Myanmar, raised in Taiwan and grew up in the United States of America. Mechanical Engineer with a passion for the creative fields. Trains Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (purple belt).
Oliver says: This is not a review of any of the products, I’m commenting strictly on the cultural elements of the design. I was born in Myanmar but ethnically I’m Han Chinese mixed with some ethnic Karen from my grandmother’s side. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of my passions and I love seeing cool designs on BJJ gear. I’m also a fan of studying history and understanding different cultures. As such, we must respect the fact that the roots of Jiu-Jitsu came from Japan. While it’s cool to see different Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi's and rash guards paying homage to the Japanese roots of our sports, some of these were done without a full understanding of what the design elements mean. It is especially an issue in the west where Japanese influences seem to dominate over cultural understandings of other Asian cultures. That is what I’ll be commenting on.
Now that you've gotten to know our judges and the wide array of perspectives they'll be bringing, let's get started.
Hoi Wah comments:When I first saw this I thought to myself: "Really?" There are several things potentially offensive about this design.
Firstly, the panda is China's national treasure. It's the official animal of China, next to the Dragon.
Secondly, given what the panda represents, you put him in some Japanese clothing and call him a "samurai". You could have used more imagination, I think.
Like, it could've been a Kung Fu panda, a panda monk, a panda warrior... but you chose a samurai panda. How unimaginative, and culturally insensitive.
Thirdly, there's a gigantic sun at the back... which represents... Japan. Given the troubling history between China and Japan (oh you know, just mass genocide from The Rape of Nanking, biological warfare and chemical experimentation from Unit 731, and the forced systematic sexual slavery euphemized as "comfort women" by those fine folks known as the Imperial Japanese Army)... this is unacceptable.
Some people have commented that "Hey it could be a panda on a journey to Japan to become a samurai..." or "it was clearly meant for fun!" or "the designer himself was Asian!" Hmm yeah, I think that's missing the point.
It's kind of like taking the American eagle and putting a Russian flag behind it - I think that would make western people would laugh, or at least raise an eyebrow. Great thinking, TATAMI.
Kenji comments:This “Samurai Panda” rash guard from TATAMI is simply silly, mixing in oriental things that have Asian associations but no real martial arts connection or meaning.
In addition, pandas are more closely associated with Chinese culture, while the samurai are Japanese. This design was most likely attempting to play off the popularity of the children’s movie “Kung Fu Panda”, but represents the widespread tendency for MMA apparel companies to mix up and combine random Asian stereotypes from various cultures without respect for the martial arts or accurate portrayal of said Asian cultures.
Oliver comments:This was bothering. This can be highly offensive, and the absurdity of a panda being a samurai makes me think the designer has no clue about East Asian cultures or just does not care at all.
I’m sure China would like to think of itself as a fierce dragon rather than a panda but regardless, having a national animal of a country dressed up as the warrior of another shows either a lack of knowledge or insensitivity or both.
Imagine the American bald eagle dressed up as a Zulu warrior or a Russian bear dressed up as a Norwegian Viking, actually that last one sounds pretty cool, but it is still silly. A Chinese panda dressed as a samurai is just as silly.
This... is just horribly laughably bad. First of all, what's "bushido" got to do with this? MMA brands keep putting the word "bushido" out there on every product but do they know what it means? It's crazy. I remember there was an Affliction shirt made for former UFC Fighter Chris Leben that said "bushido".
Hoi Wah comments:
"Bushido" means "way of the warrior" - as in the samurai warrior code, as in the eight virtues of "bushido": Righteousness, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Sincerity, Honor, Loyalty, and Self Control. You're trying to tell me an alcoholic, drug abusing, convicted felon for DUI somehow represents "bushido"? I'm sorry, but Chris Leben does not exemplify the martial arts warrior code. He may be a "warrior" because he goes out there and "bangs bro!"... but he is not a martial artist and he certainly doesn't represent those values. A guy like Georges St-Pierre or Lyoto Machida exemplifies "bushido" more than Chris Leben.
Back on topic, Ground Game was trying to go for the Yakuza tattoo look and they barely even scratched the surface of getting it right.
Kenji comments:This “Bushido” rash guard from Ground Game is not only a low quality, inferior, commercialized portrayal of the technique and rich history of irezumi, traditional Japanese tattooing, from aesthetic design standards, but titling the item “Yakuza Edition” is just as absurd as a Caucasian designer marketing a hoodie that says “100% Crip 4 Lyfe” in poorly drawn graffiti lettering and selling it in Beverly Hills. Artistically it does not do irezumi justice, it does not accurately represent Japanese tattoo culture, and it glorifies Japanese Yakuza as fictional fantasy characters that the wearer can pretend to identify with by purchasing the product. I dare anyone that purchases this to walk around real Yakuza in Japan and see the response they get; I doubt it is positive.
Hoi Wah comments:
I'm like, 99% sure those hand gesture signs mean "f*ck you" in Chinese culture, especially in mainland China. The middle finger is a more prominent gesture, but we know what the thumb gesture means.
In a 1993 Hong Kong comedy / drama film "He Ain't Heavy He's My Father" starring Hong Kong actors Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tony Leung Ka Fai, in one particular scene, they had to introduce themselves at a swanky party to a pair of party guests who asked them of their education background.
After the guests introduced themselves as hailing from "Cambridge University" (in an obvious attempt to show off), the two Tony's had to one-up them in return and tell them they came from "Fukien University" (Fujian, China), which also phonetically translates to "F*cking U". Then they proceed to do the aforementioned "f*ck you" hand gesture.
The scene starts at 36:54:
I guess in Japan this hand gesture must mean something else, haha.
Kenji comments:I am not sure how I feel about the Imanari t-shirt because generally speaking, what separates the apparel brand Scramble from some of the aforementioned brands is that they actually do their research and are interested in the accuracy of their designs.
In addition to actually researching their designs, they collaborate and consult with the actual source, such as their work with Kazushi Sakuraba. The act of consulting – asking permission from the culture you are trying to represent – is a significant difference than taking and misrepresenting a culture. When I was in Japan, however, the hand signal on this t-shirt stood as a sign for “sex” - haha.
Oliver comments:I’m okay with this, don’t know much about it but I believe that’s a thing Imanari does. He had some of the nastiest heel hooks and foot locks in the game when he was in his prime. As to what the hands mean, I have no idea.
"Mike Fowler Yamato Damashii gi's"
In terms of Mike Fowler wearing the "Yamato Damaishii" (Japanese Spirit) gi, I’m assuming it’s due to him being friends with Enson Inoue and walking the 900-mile temple pilgrimage around Japan. If he decided to start saying he represented "Yamato Damaishii" on his own I would definitely criticize him as completely out of his mind, but this seems to be a case of "earning street cred". I know the phrase "Yamato Damaishii" can be taken seriously by people in Japan and was once told I was not allowed to say it even in casual conversation because I was Japanese American, not born in Japan.
Hoi Wah comments:Originated from Japan although popular in Chinese culture, the "jeiu choi mao" or "zhao cai mao" 招財貓 (fortune cat) can be commonly seen in stores and shops as a sort of good luck charm, to bring in more business. It is meant to be placed facing forward (outside), so the cat "claws" money into the shop or place of business.
If placed backward, it is wrong, and "claws" money out of the shop instead. I guess having a fortune cat as the mascot for this brand makes sense as they want your money. It's a curious choice, as the cat represents money / fortune, but it isn't offensive per se.
Maybe it's an Asian version of the Lucky Gi? Haha.
Kenji comments:Hmmm I'd say it's a little silly since the company appears to use the maneki-neko beckoning cat because it's named "Nine Lives", but the belief that cats have 9 lives is (to the best of my knowledge) from an old English proverb and only a western belief, so anyone from Japan wouldn't get the connection or the point of why the cat is there. I don't find it offensive, but definitely, something gets lost in the translation. Like a joke, pun, or cultural reference that only makes sense in one place but not the other.
"Wu-Tang Shaolin Killa Bee"
This design from Enzo was totally ruined because of the red rays of light look exactly like the Imperial Japanese "Rising Sun" flag (more on that later). The product name is also a little confusing, as the real-life Wu-Tang and Shaolin clans were historically enemies, they can't really be together. I'll just assume it's the Wu-Tang from New York City who originated from Staten Island (Shaolin)... haha.
Hoi Wah comments:
Kenji comments:As much as I love the Wu-Tang Clan as a musical group, this gi looks like it uses the controversial "Rising Sun" flag of Japan. The characters of the Five Deadly Venoms are also on this design, and they're of Chinese origin, which the "Rising Sun" flag just doesn't mix well with.
And about all of those ridiculous "Rising Sun" designs...
Hayabusa with their "controversial" - no scratch that - downright offensive "Rising Sun" flag gi design that is a spit in the face to all Asians. Come on Georges, we thought you were better than that. We are surprised this product didn't completely tank Hayabusa - but it would probably need Nazi flag symbols to garner that kind of reaction in the west.
Hoi Wah comments:It seems like beating a dead horse at this point, but let me make this clear once and for all:
THE RISING SUN FLAG DESIGN IS NOT JUST THE "NAVAL ENSIGN" OF JAPAN, IT IS THE IMPERIAL JAPANESE ARMY WAR TIME FLAG AND IT IS NOT OKAY!!!Whew. I've made posts on Sherdog about this and most people just brushed it off like it was nothing, and attributed it to those "SJW's" / "Asians" overreacting again. Not only does that come off very lazy / dismissive of other people's perspectives, it's also racist.
All I got to say about that is imagine someone wearing the Nazi Swastika and walking into Israel, or around Europe for that matter. The flag represents the wartime atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army.
This is highly offensive. The rising sun flag is seen as a symbol of WWII Japanese militarism and aggression. It is akin to the Nazi swastika in Asia. The fact it isn’t a social taboo to display the rising sun flag in the west shows a clear historic bias to the victims of Japanese militarism as opposed to the victims of Nazi Germany. I believe even "The Korean Zombie" made comments about GSP coming out to the rising sun gi and headband. Now imagine a gi with a swastika on it and you can see why this design would be offensive.
Kenji comments:In 2013, UFC fighter "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung criticized then-champion Georges St-Pierre for walking out to his fight at UFC 158 wearing a gi that was decorated with the Japanese "Rising Sun" design.
Now it may be debated whether the Japanese "Rising Sun" design is intrinsically offensive due to its connection to the horrible war crimes committed by Japan during its time of invasion and occupation, but the underlying issue is that the company creating the gi (HAYABUSA) and the fighter wearing it did not know the meaning of the symbol being promoted and portrayed by wearing the product.
Rather than understanding the historical significance of the design and symbols, they created a gi that "looked cool" because of its "Asian-ness". This is exactly where the issue of cultural appropriation comes into play and needs to be addressed.
Kenji's take on cultural appropriation and "Orientalism":
In the case of the rising sun, an image or symbol may have specific historical meaning that may be offensive or disrespectful to a particular group of people. In this case, it is simply irresponsible to create a design without understanding the meaning of the symbols and images being used.
Similar controversies could be seen in apparel companies Hoelzer Reich and Silver Star’s use of the “Iron Cross”, “Prussian Helmet”, “SS" logo and other German military symbols evoking Nazi imagery, and more recently Reebok’s infamous “design error” releasing a shirt cutting out the six countries of Northern Ireland with the tagline “show your territorial allegiance”.
While these other controversies made headlines and appear easy to understand why they were offensive and incorrect because they are western, why is it that apparel companies continue to produce designs featuring controversial or incorrect Asian designs?
"Orientalism" continues todayIt is impossible to answer this question without a discussion on the meaning of "Orientalism".
"Orientalism" is a term derived from Edward Said’s historic book Orientalism (1978) describing not an accurate representation of Asian culture, but rather an exaggerated and often incorrect fantasy of the fictional "Orient" as seen from a Western perspective and skewed by self-serving intentions.
It becomes problematic when viewing a different culture from your own perspective becomes more important, influential, or widespread than an actual, accurate view of the culture. This allows for the superficial appearance of symbols (such as the Rising Sun design) to be more important than the actual historical and cultural significance.
Orientalism and exaggerated Asian fantasies allow for loose and incorrect associations for all things Asian, such as the mindset that “I do Karate (or insert martial art), Karate is Japanese, so, therefore, I am closer to understanding and being Japanese because I do Karate”.
And additionally, “because I understand and am more Japanese, I have the right to wear the Rising Sun flag”. This is as absurd as someone believing that listening to hip-hop music or wearing a particular clothing style made them any more African-American.
Often, MMA apparel brands are not only selling the image or design but its "Oriental Asian-ness". It is the same underlying principle of non-Asians tattooing random kanji characters on their body such as “Strength” or “Wisdom”.
The meaning is just a loose association or general idea, but the visual effect is “Look at this big exotic mysterious Asian thing"! The allure of Asian culture as seen as an exotic fantasy land and not an actual place with real people with real history allows the viewer to erase culture and rewrite as they see fit.
This allows for gross inaccuracies and the mixing of many different Asian cultures into one Oriental fantasy, treating all Asians as if they were the same. Examples of this can be mixing Ninja and Samurai (Japan) with Kung Fu or Shaolin monks (China), or simply throwing in random items or objects that have a stereotypical Asian association such as bamboo, lanterns, dragons, waves, etc.
Sadly, when companies try to sell Asian-ness on their Oriental products as a look or as a trend, they fail to respect or acknowledge the fact that images and designs represent actual real people from an actual place and culture.
Just wearing clothing doesn’t make you automatically into a yakuza, a samurai warrior, a ninja, or a Shaolin monk - and it is important to understand that the figures and symbols being approximated are real cultural figures.
It may be fun to fantasize about pretending to be one of these identities, however, respect should be had in understanding that the figures being portrayed share a rich cultural history with bloodlines, lineage, traditions, rites of passage, and social class. So don’t wear it just to look “cool” or “badass”, but understand the historic undertakings involved.
Just as it is no longer acceptable for musicians like Katy Perry or Madonna to dress up as an "Asian Geisha" (hint: there's no such thing as an Asian geisha), or people dressing up as a Native American with feathers in their hair for Halloween, careful consideration should be had when people are wearing or designing clothing attempting to represent Asian culture.
The concept of researching and asking for permission or consultation is a huge factor for cultural appropriation because it relates to the issue of exploitation.
Often it is members of the mainstream culture taking elements from another culture, in this case, Asian culture, and portraying it however they see fit – often inaccurate and misrepresented.
This brings up the final issue of not only the misrepresentation of Asian culture by western apparel brands but the lack of exposure for Asians to accurately represent their culture themselves.
Whether in media representation or popular culture, Asians are dis-proportionally invisible, replaced by stereotypes of how the west sees them. With this in mind, promoting awareness and increasing the availability of Asians accurately representing Asian culture is a necessary change to improve diversity and cultural awareness.
Oliver's conclusion on cultural appropriation and pop culture:
But they do show a lack of understanding of Asian history and culture.
There seems to be a fascination with Japanese cultural elements like Samurai and Ninja in the west, and designs incorporating those two seem to be prevalent.
Which is strange to those familiar with history because, from a historical context, there were much more impressive groups of fighting men from Asia, such as the Mongols under Subatai or the Han Chinese Imperial Calvary.
Both of which can claim military achievements that the Samurais never came close to. Yet they are rarely seen, discussed or even known by the general western public.
George Lucas' entire Star Wars film series was a homage (although depending on who you ask, the series may be seen as total rip-offs) to period era Samurai films, more specifically The Hidden Fortress.
It's easy to see that Darth Vader had a Samurai helmet, the Jedi were wearing Japanese kimono (or Chinese hanfu, if you want to get specific), the Jedi themselves were inspired by Shaolin monks and Japanese samurai elements, their lightsabers were Samurai katana, the Jedi code was the Bushido code, Yoda was your Asian Kung Fu master (although played by a green alien), the "force" was your qi gong / ki life force superpowers in Chinese wuxia films, and Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi were clearly meant to be Chinese and Japanese, respectively. The series was heavily influenced by Asian culture, yet at the time of this writing, no actual Asians exist in these films.
Since the time of this writing, Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen and mainland Chinese actor Jiang Wen appeared in Star Wars: Rogue One - but they are not main characters of the main saga of Star Wars or are they Jedi. One could make the argument that they were only included in the Star Wars universe as side characters to tap into the behemoth Chinese box office market - but were not important enough to be cast as Jedi Knights or Masters.
Samurai and Ninjas have been turned into pop culture icons (in America) very much the same way Pirates, Vikings and Zombies have. As such there is a lack of care in their usage, forgetting they are based on real-world warrior classes from one single nation at very specific time periods and do not represent any Asian civilizations other than Japan.
This lack of care and understanding by the designers can lead to inappropriate usage as we see in the examples above, some of which were quite serious mistakes that are only levitated by the fact that most customers have no idea what the design elements actually mean. Still, the lack of understanding shows a lack of authenticity and that is the real issue.
Hoi Wah's conclusion on cultural appropriation, "Japonism", lazy "Asian" MMA / BJJ brands, originality, and authenticity:Due to the intertwining historical and military history between the United States and Japan, and the subsequent sharing of cultures and martial arts between the two nations over the better half of the last century (not to mention the Japonism days in late Renaissance Europe where Japan opened its shores and was the early adopter of western cultural elements and vice versa), Japanese cultural elements have been propped up in western pop culture, almost fetishized to the point where it overtakes any other Asian representation when it comes to culture and representation.
Japanese culture, as a result, becomes the default "go to" Asian culture to exploit and replicate by westerners - fetishized to the point of exhaustion and often times silliness.
Seemingly every MMA / BJJ brand out there is quick to pay homage to Japanese culture - and that's the only thing they seem to know that's "Asian" - and not much else.
You'll often see brands that center their name or logo around a random kanji (Chinese) character or phrase, and add the term "fightwear" (or some other similar term) at the end of it.
How many companies are guilty of this? How many "me too" type of brands are out there? I'm not about to name them, but I could probably code an "Asian" brand name generator for you and it would match 90% of the brands out there.
It's almost as if very little thought or real research was ever put into it - and the truth becomes obvious once you take a look at their products.
Where's the originality and creativity here? Do we really need a 500th brand doing the same thing offering the same products just with a slightly different name?
A true understanding of Asian culture is not present in these brands, and they more often than not fall into the category of being another uninspired facsimile, or an imitation of the real thing.
Is Dynasty any different?
As one of the few (maybe the only) truly Asian-owned and Asian-designed brands in the world of MMA / BJJ, we here at Dynasty feel we have a social obligation to the martial arts practitioners of the world, and to the MMA / BJJ community, to not just make sure Asian culture is represented faithfully, but also to provide an alternative to culturally appropriated designs so commonly seen in the MMA / BJJ world.
The Patriot Yue Fei Rash Guard
Yue Fei 岳飛 was a famous general and patriotic hero who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty. He bravely defended the Song Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom during wars against the northern Khitan Liao and Jurchen Jin invaders.
Kung Fu Master Rash Guard
We pay tribute to the real-life character of 馬永貞 Ma Yongzhen played by Hong Kong martial arts star 伍允龍 Philip Ng in 惡戰 Once Upon A Time In Shanghai.
God of War (Guan Yu) Rash Guard
Paying homage to the legendary Chinese military general of the Three Kingdoms era (AD 220-280). As one of the best known Chinese historical figures throughout East Asia, Guan is respected by both the law and by the underworld as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness.
We also try to design pieces that are totally unique to the MMA / BJJ market and give the world our take on what we think are true authentic Asian designs.
We try to uphold our cultural values, our perspectives, and let others know how we feel when we see Asian culture being used inappropriately in designs for BJJ / MMA clothing. We felt like we needed to write this article to let our voices be heard.
Thanks for reading and we hope you liked this article. If you liked it, please share it with your MMA / BJJ friends and spread awareness of cultural appropriation and misappropriation, and the need for proper representation of Asian culture in MMA / BJJ designs.