localisation and cultural appropriation
A phrase that was first used in the 1980s, cultural appropriation has made its way into the modern lexicon and remains the subject of intense debate.
Cultural appropriation probably isn’t a concept that is discussed across many dinner tables around the world. But it is a hot topic amongst academics and marketeers, not least because many experts don’t believe it exists.
What is cultural appropriation and why is it an important consideration when localising content?
Theft or compliment?
Cultural appropriation could be described as social plagiarism. It is the use of an element or elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture and in a way that benefits only the user, especially when no respect or understanding is shown.
Examples of what could be characterised as cultural appropriation can be found almost everywhere and certainly in the realms of fashion, popular music and sport. From Madonna wearing an outfit inspired by the North African Amazigh people to American football teams calling themselves the Redskins and the Braves, cultural appropriation has caused significant controversy, not to mention offence.
However, there is a very fine line between appropriation and appreciation. What may be interpreted as appropriation could be intended as a tribute or may be nothing more than someone showing their love of a culture, even if they have got it wrong!
It could also be argued that cultural appropriation isn’t possible anyway because all cultures are to a lesser or greater extent influenced by other cultures. In the contemporary, connected world, this is surely truer than ever.
But the fact remains that people are sensitive to how their cultural themes, icons and attributes are depicted and used by others.
Walking the line with localisation
Localisation is essential if brand messages are to resonate with international audiences. Research has shown that content, including imagery, must show an understanding of and empathy with the target audience if it isn’t to offend and alienate that audience. Choosing the right imagery and words could be the difference between market domination and losing that market forever.
The principal issue is how to utilise themes and imagery appropriately and respectfully. It’s easy to see that depicting someone eating fish and chips with chopsticks would be crass and inappropriate. But in many instances, the potential to offend isn’t quite so obvious.
It is vital that messages feel inclusive and representative. Localisation requires deep knowledge and considerable skill if it is to be effective. Natives of any culture or society won’t overgeneralise or make dangerous assumptions. They will understand the nuances of the themes and ideas concerned. They can tap into the subtle differences between cultural norms and choose the right words.
As the line between appropriation and appreciation is so thin and often blurred, there is always a serious risk of crossing it. That line sits between representation and stereotyping.
Cultural appropriation and Japan
Some cultures are particularly rich, unique and fascinating. This ensures that they are especially prone to stereotyping. Japanese culture certainly falls into that category and is often stereotyped or even caricatured in the West. Representations of Japanese culture are generally well-meaning but can demonstrate a complete lack of understanding and empathy.
Online content and movies could leave the uninitiated believing that everyone in Japan eats sushi every day, loves sumo wrestling and is unfalteringly polite. The reality, of course, is very different.
All nations are stereotyped. The people of England don’t all ride on red busses and live in chocolate box villages. Not all Germans are humourless, and the Swiss don’t confine themselves to making watches and cuckoo clocks. But Japanese culture is probably misrepresented more than most.
For brands that wish to gain traction in Japan, it is extremely important to be mindful of the unique challenges they face in demonstrating appreciation and not appropriation. Those challenges are perhaps greater when marketing to a Japanese audience than when tackling most territories.
Deep localisation together with contextual and social relevance is required if brands are to become big in Japan. It is necessary to cast aside any assumptions about Japanese culture, buying behaviours and expectations.
Avoiding appropriation with Word Connection
Whether you believe that cultural appropriation is a thing or not, stereotyping certainly never helps when tackling new markets. It is vital that any content or marketing materials demonstrate more than merely a superficial knowledge of the target culture.
At Word Connection, our translation and localisation professionals are Japanese natives. They possess the cultural knowledge and understanding to produce localised content that is free of unfortunate stereotypes and misrepresentations. They can deliver words that attract rather than alienate the Japanese audience. Our professionals produce relevant and representative content that breaks through cultural barriers.