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The Accidental Confederate

Secession T-shirt

A few weeks ago, I was taking some visiting friends around Asakusa. This was unfortunately the day of the Sumidagawa fireworks, and we were trying to get out of the area in the late afternoon, before the crowds got too insane. Being 5pm, however, the yukata-clad girls and their plain-clothes boyfriends were already filing in, and we had to fight the crowds to get on and off of trains.

As we were transferring against the rush of oncoming people, I spotted a relatively average Japanese twenty-something in a white T-shirt with a huge red-and-blue Confederate flag and the catchy slogan:

If at first you don’t secede….

Try, try again.

I literally stopped in my tracks and turned to my companions to tell them to check the shirt out, but all that came out of my mouth was something less intelligible than “T-t-t-t-t-shirt.” Then a North American, a few steps behind the Japanese guy saw my look of bewilderment and said to me with a knowing smile, “You like his T-shirt, right?” I silently nodded. (Sadly, no pictures. The image above is our artist’s abstract recreation.)

For a long time, my favorite incongruous Japanese youth fashion moment was a hipster Harajuku girl wearing a “Rush is Right” hat. This guy, however, may take the cake. With the Rush hat, there was really no way the girl — even if her English was decent — could have had any idea that Rush referred to right-wing American talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. She probably was just really into 2112. Actually, as we will see, I doubt she even considered the text at all.

Now, as someone originally from the American South, I find modern day secession fetishism to be odious — at worst, thinly-masked bigotry, and at best, a desperate identity politics born from a certain population segment’s growing isolation from the 21st century economy. It takes a real mean asshole to have thoughts like, “The South should leave the United States!” and an even meaner asshole to wear a T-shirt with that message in public.

The T-shirts, of course, were produced in the United States for people who hold this ideological belief and want to exclaim it to the rest of the world (or more accurately, to like-minded members of their local community). This is what T-shirts do: they convey messages. Almost without exception, American T-shirt culture is about statements: favorite bands, conspicuous consumption logos, jokes, affiliations, artistic expression, and political statements. Nonsense or non-obvious English on a T-shirt would either be a joke in itself or meant to suggest a mood. But either way, the person viewing the T-shirt would certainly try to decode meaning from ambiguous statements.

In previous years, this author and many of the readers had engaged in the debate about Japanese punk kids brandishing Nazi swastikas. (I have seen less of this in recent years, mostly because there are less kids into “classic” punk and most other imported Western subcultures) In the case of this makeshift Harajuku SS, the issue was that they were confusing the swastika for a punk symbol, almost exclusively due to Sid Vicious. The principle here is that within Japanese fashion, whether swastikas, a gorilla head from The Planet of the Apes, or Gucci pattern, logos are an important shorthand, carrying strong meanings from one person to another. For a small minority of Japanese kids, the sign of Hitler’s genocidal regime unfortunately got filed away under modern day re-enactments of ’70s rebelliousness.

But coming back to our guy in the Confederate battle flag, he likely had no intention at all to convey the symbolism of the flag. His embrace of the Rebel flag was pure accident or abstracted aesthetic choice — an old bulk-imported T-shirt chosen out of thousands at some anonymous vintage store across Japan. Some worldly buyer likely scoured every Salvation Army in backwater Tennessee towns circa 1997, and a decade later, a kid purchased one shirt from that original haul for ¥1000. And now the guy’s wearing it out to Asakusa because it was the only thing clean in his closet. Thank you, Japanese obsession with American vintage clothing.

What is interesting to me about this case, however, is how easy it would have been for the wearer to uncover the shirt’s meaning. The entire Japanese population is familiar with the roman script. We are not talking about trying to figure out ’90s pro-Serbian T-shirts in Cyrillic or an “Eradicate Tibetan Feudalism” written in Chinese. Also, had this been 1984, trying to decode the flag and the accompanying English joke would have required long trips to the National Diet Library and a few consultations with a local professor of American history. But now we have this thing called the Internet, and our Jefferson Davis could have easily googled the phrase and in about 15 minutes come up with a pretty good idea of what the shirt was talking about. There’s even a very detailed Japanese Wikipedia page on the Confederate flags, including details on the modern day controversy still surrounding it.

But I suspect that this guy did not do the research, nor would he even think to do the research. Between this case and hundreds of others compounded into my understanding of Japanese fashion, the very idea that the English on a T-shirt could mean something may be an Anglophone concept we project onto our readings of other countries. Japanese shirt designers often use nonsensical English phrases — yes, the ones that fuel the Engrish industry — and consumers make the unconscious assumption that they do not have to actually consider the content of their T-shirt messaging before deciding to purchase. Again, logos and symbols mean a lot, but T-shirt messaging is understood to be relatively content-free. A Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt is just a fashion accessory, not an indication of liking Dinosaur Jr. — a guitar-oriented rock band with alienating vocals. So if the basic idea of T-shirt text is opposite of the American one — T-shirts convey no messages other than brand logos and the most basic graphical, aesthetic elements — then no one is likely to consider the idea that strange English expressions need decoding.

We should likely refrain from normative judgments, but this general disposition towards T-shirt text does not bode well for English in Japan being something other than a diagnostic code meant for educational testing — like, maybe, a language used as communication. I can’t believe that an engaged student of French would not make a cursory attempt to understand any French language message on his/her on shirt. We English speakers can enjoy the irony of a Japanese kid unintentionally supporting white supremacy, but we are in fact laughing at a slightly depressing provincialism. That is to say, secessionist shirts in Japan may be a “random” quirk of globalized markets but they are not completely accidental. The whole episode requires a pretty significant linguistic obliviousness on the part of the wearer. Brian Austin Green’s terrible “midori” (みどり) tattoo on his chest is nothing to celebrate, but at least the 90210 star comes down on the side that foreign languages are meant to carry meanings. I never understood how radical that idea was.

W. David MARX
August 16, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

69 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Aren’t kanji tattoos the flipside of this? The people who get them imagine that they have a certain “meaning” (ie. they are thought to correspond to certain English words, or in particularly uninformed cases, to particular Roman letters), but those who get the tattoos do almost no research into whether the characters *permanently inked into their bodies* really do have the meaning that they think they have. (See Hanzi Smatter.)

    So, the presumption is still that meaning is embedded in the work, just like a t-shirt, but no one except the tattoo possessor is privy to the meaning.

    Which is just to completely ignore the existence of readers of character-based languages and the possibility that such languages can be learned even by those with round eyes.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I think most people who get kanji tattoos think they are getting some kind of meaning. They just screw up a lot. The Brian Austin Green example is pretty much like that: He wanted it to say “Green” and he got hiragana “midori,” which I guess means Green. Some kanji tattoo customers may just point at a pretty symbol but I would assume that most intend a meaning, even though it’s not their native language.

    I saw a guy once with a tattoo that said 正直 – honesty. I doubt he was like, man I like those two characters’ shape! He probably wanted it to say “honesty.”

  3. David J. Says:

    Interesting article (and kinda funny). As someone who lived in the south (Atlanta Ga, Alexandria, Va.) for eleven years, maybe there is another angle.

    There are some in the south who try to float the Confederate battle flag with jokey statements like that as a kind of “Southern pride kitsch”. They don’t hold particularly bigoted views, but grew up looking at the flag as just a historical symbol of the south and slogans like “the South will rise again” as not an honest desire for secession or statement of bigotry, but more of a kind of quirky rebelliousness and regional pride (whether it’s still appropriate or not is another matter).

    I wonder if that particular Japanese youth would be savy enough to try to tap into that “kitschy rebelliousness”. I do recall seeing a T.V. news shot back when eastern Europe was breaking free one by one from their communist governments and being shocked to see a few people flying Confederate flags at their pro democracy rallies. I can only assume they were trying to tap into that “rebelliousness” idea to convey their opposition to their particular govenment at the time, not any affinity for Robert E. Lee.

    I don’t know if that “rebelliousness” had anything to do with that Japanese guys particular fashion choice, but in the end, the author is probably right in saying he was just clueless.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I find this scenario very interesting, but highly implausible. If there is something rarer that an intentional use of English messaging on Japanese T-shirts in Japan, it’s public proclamations of political affiliation.

  5. Tweets that mention Néojaponisme » Blog Archive » The Accidental Confederate -- Says:

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  6. Jared Says:

    I think Carl has a point: this may be about different ways of meaning, not just different ways of wearing t-shirts. Is this Orientalist of me? Americans get kanji tattoos precisely because kanji seems to them to have a deeper, less arbitrary connection between image and meaning. And the signifying system IS different, although obviously no more mystical. I think maybe the book to read is Barthes, Empire of the Sign? Not sure how that’s received among Japanese scholars.

    Also, the best point of comparison is this; the situation is similar, but the fact that it was pulled from stores might prove your point.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    A side note: The 2-ch crowds love to pick on Japanese celebrities who have dirty or silly English on their shirts. So it’s hard to say that this is a West vs. East thing.

    Some examples:

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Americans get kanji tattoos precisely because kanji seems to them to have a deeper, less arbitrary connection between image and meaning.

    So the idea is that a foreign language has deeper meaning, but still has a meaning.

    America is a special case in that (1) everyone is always looking in on what Americans are doing (2) it’s a melting pot so you may actually have Spaniards who are offended and speak up. Japan does not have this pressure, but again, I think before even that, there’s a general disinterest in the possible communicative power of the messages they wear.

  9. Terri Says:

    someone with more time then I have right now should juxtapose that flag and this photo (warning-graphic) as a shorthand way to explain that a little empathetic thought might be in order.

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  11. Charles Says:

    (1) When I first read through this, I agreed with your conclusion – that the people wearing t shirts with English text have a more or less content-free attitude towards the words. That’s been my supposition for a long time.

    (2) An example: my wife reads piles of Japanese fashion magazines. Sometimes the models wear t-shirts with off-color or overtly sexual script, but judging by the context they likely have no idea what the shirts express.

    (3) But it is not as if people wear completely random English shirts and hats (your Rush example notwithstanding) – they do seem to break down according to the “right” age group and demographic that you’d expect to see wearing the same thing in the US. So perhaps there is some intended expression of content. Perhaps it is, indeed, not too much less content-directed than the clueless Kanji tattoos in the U.S.

    (4) A couple of exceptions: First, U.S. baseball t-shirts – especially for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners – are common (while apart from Hanshin it’s not that common to see Japan League gear on the streets). Sports fandom I guess is universal, and these people presumably do follow the players on these teams.

    (5) Second, what do you think about the all the shirts and gear with U.S. university logos? Just a general sense for the “US college student lifestyle,” or something more specific? If I understand correctly, Japanese colleges and universities don’t produce the equivalent.

    (6) Finally, we do need to be careful not to extrapolate too much from this bad example. I lived in the South in the 1970s and the (rare) sight of a Confederate flag elsewhere is indeed jarring – I doubt I’d be commenting here otherwise. But we can’t assume the non-existence of a set of Japanese people who do indeed make sure they aren’t wearing something embarrassing – or at least avoid the obvious risk of something like an unknown foreign flag if they are uncertain. Thoughts?

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    First, U.S. baseball t-shirts – especially for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners

    A bit semantic, but these are basically logos rather than messages. Same goes for university logo shirts, which by the way, have massively fallen out of favor compared to the late ’70s.

    But we can’t assume the non-existence of a set of Japanese people who do indeed make sure they aren’t wearing something embarrassing

    Yes, it’s a good point. There may have been like two kids who were like, wow, I’m not buying that! but we’ll never know.

  13. Darren Says:

    Probably it was just far too much hassle for him to look up the shirt’s meaning… this is something I’ve noticed among many of the ‘Yutori sedai’, those educated under a curriculum supposed to encourage critical thought.

    Purely anecdotal, but slightly older Japanese around me would tend to take a minute or two to enquire into something they didn’t quite understand, whereas… take this recent exchange of keitai emails, mostly rendered into English:

    9.49pm, 23-year-old recent graduate of decent-ish university and with a self-professed interest in studying English language: “What’s that mean? I don’t understand.”

    10.26pm, me: “It’s an English expression that was popular a couple of years back. Why don’t you look it up?”

    Still only 10.26pm, 23-year-old: “わかないよ” (with tearful emoji appended)

    So yeah, I think it could be down to generation. Whether or not this speaks of failings in ‘Yutori kyoiku’, I don’t know. Probably too early to say.

  14. W. David MARX Says:

    I had a part in my essay that I cut out about the attested lack of curiosity among young people now. I think it’s definitely part of the equation.

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  16. sarmoung Says:

    Not being American, I don’t really have much of an issue with the Confederate flag. I certainly don’t readily associate it (outside a US context) with white supremacist leanings. Here in the UK, it’s mostly encountered amongst rockabilly revivalists and such. Dukes of Hazzard nostalgists, even. She’s wearing dungarees, so he wears Confederate flag. It wouldn’t really turn my head.

    I have sometimes quizzed tattoo-wearing Londoners on their designs such as the Rising Sun flag and Imperial Chrysanthemum seal: “Err, dunno mate, it’s Japanese, innit…”

    They’re not too knowledgeable about, say, the key points of the Imperial Rescript on Education.


  17. W. David MARX Says:

    If it had said Dukes of Hazzard, there would have been not a lot of fun. But again, the text messaging made it pretty clear that this was a Confederate flag meant in the context of neo-seccesionism.

  18. Chuckles Says:

    […Between this case and hundreds of others compounded into my understanding of Japanese fashion, the very idea that the English on a T-shirt could mean something may be an Anglophone concept we project onto our readings of other countries…]

    This is closer to my understanding of the situation; say, not just that it could mean something, but precisely that it doesnt mean anything – i.e, it doesnt mean anything to *us* because were Japanese, forget what it means to *them*. I remember the Nazi and Swastika and Blackface debates quite well, hot just here but also on Metropolitican, Marmot and some other allied blogs (also covering Corean know nothingness) – but T-Shirts seem different. I think whats going on here is a play in alterity where the wearer affirms his Japaneseness by wearing something he doesnt know anything about, but is obviously foreign: His laissez faire approach to decoding being a dismissive rejection of the others signifiying context, while admitting use of the other purely for bolstering self identity. This goes on in the US all the time and isnt neccessarily racist: To a limited extent, when whites try to appropriate hiphop signifying and other elements of black culture, this is what is going on – one can safely maintain one’s elitist tastes in music while dismissing the context of the other, etc. But Marxy raises something else: That media is media in the context of other media – and the idea that T-shirts could never be media in Japan and hence, regardless of physical realities, could never communicate anything – their text, could never mean anything – is one I find intriguing. What is the general attitude in Japan towards T-shirts as media?

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    T-shirts are an important media in Japan when it comes to logos. It’s when it’s English that the message itself is assume to not be part of that media.

  20. Jared Says:

    Oh I see: you’re more offended at the kids disregard for the English language? You have high expectations; that’s a pretty complex pun.

    The flag IS a logo, and it DOES signify. It says “I have enough knowledge about America to know that this is a regional flag, and enough irony about my consumption of American goods to choose a t-shirt that is nominally anti-American.” Within a system where self-expression happens mostly in terms of consumption choices, this is at least as consistent a statement as a Che t-shirt is.

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    I am basically intrigued by the widespread lack of perception of English as a means of communication.

    The flag is a logo, but not one that anyone really knows in Japan. I think you are reading expressions of irony in Japan that just do not exist.

    No one accidentally buys a Che T-shirt in the West. The naive buyers though just don’t necessarily understand the full implications of supporting him other than vague notions of handsome leftism. I had a Che T-shirt I bought in Italy when I was a teenager. I wouldn’t wear it now for various reasons, but I didn’t buy it because it was a cool design. I bought it out of some kind of (not well considered) revolutionary sympathy.

  22. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > So it’s hard to say that this is a West vs. East thing.

    I have to say here in Brazil it’s extremely common for people to wear foreign-looking t-shirts without caring at all for what they mean. I mean, my mother could very well be using one of those confederate shirts right now, if she finds one cheap. So I don’t really get what the fuzz is all about.

    > But it is not as if people wear completely random English shirts and hats

    Here at least, hell yes they do. Last time I’ve seen grandma she was wearing surf slogans. I’m not sure she even saw _beaches_ ever before. Once I was visiting the cemetery in Finados day and there was an old farmer with a t-shirt saying “SKATE 4 EVER” in bold letters; I’m 100% sure old man had no idea his clothes were supposed to be some kind of statement. Once I asked a co-worker about what the nonsense English in his t-shirt stood for, and he said dunno, I’ve never noticed it before. That is, he never noticed the text as text, as opposed to decoration.

    I don’t wear any kind of clothing with visible brands, or with slogans or lifestyles that I don’t feel connected with. My family seems to think this is some kind of weird, unfathomable eccentric quirk.

  23. Nate Says:

    Jeez, man. How many native english speakers don’t know that “secede” is a different word from “succeed”? It’s asking a hell of a lot to demand that a dude second guess a native speaker’s spelling.

    For the most part I agree with the thesis, but calling a dude out for missing a pun in a foreign language? I would think anyone who has done a little bit of translation work would know how venial that sin is.

  24. lq Says:

    It’s extraordinarily common for Americans (and British people) to buy household decorations and t-shirts covered in Japanese and Chinese writing without having any idea what it means. On rare occasions, a household item will include a tag with a “translation,” but as often as not, it doesn’t. They probably have some associations with the items–“spiritual,” “exotic”–but the content may be ripped from a menu for all they know or care to look up. And I have seen lots of my former Mandarin- and Japanese-language classmates sporting such items that they hadn’t looked up (it’s bothersome to look up sentences). I fail to see the difference. A friend from Japan would gigglefit regularly while walking through the juniors’ and home decor sections of Target with me… There’s some ignorance and laziness involved, but … well, mountain-molehill at will, I suppose.

  25. TheStrawMan Says:

    Interesting post. I’ve always been surprised how, in a country with such widespread study of English, you still see children, housewives and obasans wearing T-shirts that say f**k and sh*t and stuff like that.

    As for the medium / message things. I’d largely agree with Marxy’s point about Japanese people generally not assigning much “meaning,” or even value, to written messages on clothing etc.

    I’d even go so far as to say that its not just limited to English. Very few Japanese wear T-shirts with Kanji, and if/when they do, its regarded as a joke, and sometimes slightly pathetic, by wearers and viewers.

    I think Kanji tatoos are also rare to non-existent among Japanese.

    So I agree that, for whatever reason, most Japanese consciously or unconsciously ignore English lettering on t-shirts, buttons etc.

  26. M-Bone Says:

    My wife, who speaks and reads English well, came home the other day with a hat that says –

    In the War Power
    Brand by Peace Cap

    “I have to say here in Brazil it’s extremely common for people to wear foreign-looking t-shirts without caring at all for what they mean.”

    I suspect that this is very common. Maybe the whole thing should be viewed in the context of American cultural hegemony. Japanese and others are bombarded daily with “English” names and advertising copy – Coke, Fanta, “I’m Lovin’ It!” – to the point of utter banality. Perhaps no longer giving a crap is a sort of defense strategy. In a similar fashion, an American twenty-something might care a lot about tats, but the curiosity doesn’t extend to what’s on the wall at the local Chinese restaurant. I’m feeling this myself actually – French and German all over various Japan bought notebooks but I could never be bothered to confirm what any of it means. There is just too much of this stuff to care.

    There are certainly contexts where Japanese seem sensitive to English meanings – film titles are most often in katakana while they tend to be aggressively localized in areas like China and France. Japan also does not share the widespread subtitled film phobia that we see in the US.

    As well as globalized, I think this discussion also has to be historicized. In the 1950s and 1960s, a certain elite strata of readers/students did look up meanings, translate lyrics, etc. English has a long history in Japan and has been massified to the point where the great unwashed (wait, they wash in Japan) have taken it up. In North America, however, serious interest in kanji/hanzi really only comes with the 90s. It is still funky-esoteric enough for people to want to use it to show off.

    “comes down on the side that foreign languages are meant to carry meanings”

    Still, Americans and others with kanji tats are overwhelmingly concerned with what they “say” rather than what they “mean”. Orientalism / Japonisme have always been about ripping things out of context and using them as a very provincial and narcissistic way to show off. In this sense, regardless of what they “say”, kanji tattoos almost universally “mean” – “Ask me what this says and be awed by my esoteric knowledge. If I can turn it into a pick up line, all the better.” If the curiosity doesn’t go any further than self-promotion, it is certainly not a sign of engagement. 忠, for example, is a reasonably common kanji tat with lots of historical baggage. I’d hope that people getting it inked onto them for life would care, but they don’t seem to, as long as they have a cheap English “equivalent” to drop on people in the club.

    One also has to question whether this whole thing has become so lame and commonplace that it can’t even be talked about in terms of individuation anymore (this $40 faded Papa Smurf tee with “smuf” in katakana really bares my soul).

  27. W. David MARX Says:

    How many native english speakers don’t know that “secede” is a different word from “succeed”?

    No, I wasn’t saying he was supposed to get that joke. I just said he could have google’d the phrase and come up in a few minutes with a pretty good idea of what the T-shirt’s general story was. He could have at least found out what the flag was maybe.

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    Japan also does not share the widespread subtitled film phobia that we see in the US.

    Japan didn’t but now most distributors are going to move to dubbing because the kids hate reading text.

  29. M-Bone Says:

    “Japan didn’t”

    75% of the screens showing “Inception” are showing subs. What you wrote might go for Harry Potter. The subbed films are a fraction of 1% of the US box office. You can’t even run subbed anime in US theaters and that has a build in nerd fanbase.

  30. Daniel B Says:

    “What is interesting to me about this case, however, is how easy it would have been for the wearer to uncover the shirt’s meaning.”

    Am I reading you wrong or are you assuming that this shirt has one true meaning, which is the meaning that it was intended for by the producers?

    I’d say that once the shirt or the symbols are out there, they can take on new meaning, and this is an example of just that. Why would anyone spend their time researching the kanji print on their bath robe or the english print on their t-shirts? Some might do, but most probably won’t because they only care about the meaning that the item has for them in their context. Yes, I know I am being very post-modern and all, but we all do this with so many items all the time. Infuse them with new meaning that wasn’t intended from the start. Usually we only notice it when it is a swastika or a confederate flag or because we happen to be able to read Japanese script. But it happens all the time. No big deal IMO.

  31. W. David MARX Says:

    Being post-modern is fine, but this has been the Momus line of reasoning, that Japanese teens are somehow “recontextualizing” these symbols. I think we see no sign of that. They are neither being reconfigured to have a different meaning nor is that meaning even being received. That’s the issue: No one is paying attention to the message. No one was trying to make Nazi symbols mean something new in Japan. They meant them in an old meaning: as punk. With the Confederate flag, again, there was no obvious attempt to use the symbol at all. It merely existed as an aesthetic feature on a shirt, meant not to be read.

  32. Daniel B Says:

    Everybody is recontextualising, not just the Japanese. You assume that you have to be aware of the original meaning to recontextualise, but why would you need to know what the shirt means in its original context to give it a meaning of your own?
    I am not sure that I agree with you that it is ‘not to be read’. Having a particular aesthetic is a choice too and it holds meaning. By wearing the shirt and not giving a damn what the text says, and only caring about how it looks, it has changed meaning. It obviously has another meaning for the wearer than it has for you. So the message it self might not be read, but the meaning that one conveys to one’s peers by wearing a particular aesthetic expression is most certainly there. i can’t see how that is not giving something meaning?

  33. W. David MARX Says:

    Okay, I give you recontextualizing in that they are taking something with strong meaning and making have basically no meaning other than an abstract graphical element. I guess I would stop short of calling it “re-appropriation.” They aren’t putting an explicit new meaning on it. They are just stripped all meaning away from it. But some of that is on the part of the viewer, who has no reference to know what it means.

  34. Chuckles Says:

    Marxy is right. You cant claim re-contextualizing here because there is no evidence that the dude is either pursuing or providing meaning with the T-Shirt. If I had a T-Shirt with a bunch of Hieroglyphics on it that said “Death to the Nubians” it would pretty much be irrelevant – I dont know, you dont know, I dont care: The use of the text, according to Marxy is graphical and flat. It doesnt convey meaning – it is more like an architectural feature on the entire construct of the persons appearance – theres no message in the text – the text is collapsed into the T-shirt medium and the medium is the message. Marxy is claiming that this is structurally Japanese hence,

    T-shirts are an important media in Japan when it comes to logos. It’s when it’s English that the message itself is assume to not be part of that media.

    and so,

    I am basically intrigued by the widespread lack of perception of English as a means of communication.

    so the text, because it is English is stripped of meaning by default – couldn’t possibly have meaning. This isn’t re-contextualizing. I don’t want my Hieroglyphics to have meaning! I just want them to stay as pictures of birds and rats and stuff: Marxy is saying that English on T-Shirts in Japan is logographic not alphabetic – and furthermore is aestheticized as a mere feature of a larger medium-message construct. Its not communicating.

    Its fascinating. Lets move this really quickly into logographic (hiragana / katakana / kanji) cultures of writing versus alphabetic cultures of writing territory. Then we can do evo-psych cultural evolution mind moulding – and ultimately collapse it into innovation of technology / world empire / “will china ever be number one” territory, then round it all up with one huge cultural / historicist East versus West sprawl brawl. Srsly though – I think the logographic bias of the Far East lends a hand to the devoiding of meaning that occurs with alphabetic messages.

  35. W. David MARX Says:

    I would like to think, however, that there is something more radical about making English — the world’s lingua franca — into meaningless graphical elements than say, hieroglyphics — a dead script that almost nobody around the world can still read.

  36. Chuckles Says:

    Perhaps. Point is that theres a message and people dont care about it. Absolutely no basis for claiming recontextualizing.

  37. ccjapan Says:

    It’s fun to pick this all apart and speculate about why he chose this particular t-shirt and whether or not he knew the true meaning behind the flag or the text.

    My take on the matter is that he saw a cool looking t-shirt with a cool looking flag and bought it. He didn’t care what it said. He just liked the flag. He probably has a bunch of other t-shirts from the same shop.

    The only way to truly know is to hunt him down and interview him. Keep your eyes open and let’s find this guy. We need to at least warn him not to wear it if he travels to the U.S!

  38. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I think you’re arguing semantics. You all seem to pretty much agree on what the Japanese (and, I’d add, people elsewhere outside the Anglosphere) are doing with the t-shirts. Whether we call it adding a new, empty, visual “meaning” or just stripping off meaning doesn’t seem a productive distinction to me.

    I tend to side with M-bone here, that

    > Perhaps no longer giving a crap is a sort of defense strategy.

    You can’t fight, or even comprehend, the invasion of strange icons, brands, texts and cultural references. So you reduce them to something you do understand: decoration, not really different from cloth embroidery or obi patterns. It’s not like these people don’t even look at their shirts; they do evaluate them, only it’s a purely æsthetic evaluation. If my mother gave my kids one of the Confederate t-shirts (again, a way-too-plausible scenario), she wouldn’t say, or indeed even think, anything about meaning. She would, however, say it “looks great”, it’s a “pretty shirt”. She might not know anything about American history, but she knows what’s (in her society) a great-looking shirt. Whether you call it recontextualizing or not, I do think it’s a form of appropriation, of incorporating otherness into your context.

    I grant Marxy’s point that, yes, it would be way easier for the Japanese teen to find out about the intended meaning than for my mother, and it’s a curious fact that they don’t in a country with (in theory) English-language education. I think they are simply following the path of least resistance. Why bother learning about other contexts – and trying to put that stiff examination-English to actual use – if you can just appropriate their objects into your own? Hey, we’re all guilt of this in some level :)

  39. W. David MARX Says:

    Perhaps no longer giving a crap is a sort of defense strategy.

    This is interesting if brought back into the historical context that M-Bone also mentioned. It was the elites — who have always been better at English and more interested in overseas — who are responsible for bringing in foreign culture to Japan, and now the rest of the population has to live with it. So maybe this is a defense strategy of those who have to deal with the product of the elites’ foreign obsession without having the personal context for being able to understand it.

    Hey, we’re all guilt of this in some level

    My intention was not to assign guilt for anything, but this is a reminder that English for the Japanese is not well understood on a broader conceptual level even though it’s nominally taught. This, as we all know, is pretty obvious. There is no country that spends more money every year on English lessons and has a worse TOEFL score.

  40. dzima Says:

    A bit off topic, but still sort of on topic:

  41. W. David MARX Says:

    Kinda totally on topic. I am guessing Australians have an idea of what the flag means? Or not?

  42. dzima Says:

    My pet theory is that Australian/New Zealanders are the true Fake White People of world – they appropriate Western cultural artifacts just as Japan would (though to a Japanese person it’d look ‘authentic’ because… they are white people doing it).

    I think that that shop owner has some vague idea of what it means (because he has never experienced it) and probably has a vaguely xenophobic stance (in his head. Though there’s almost no racial violence in antipode land).

    Another one, confederates meets rockabillies in Osaka:

    And there’s always that Primal Scream album cover.

  43. dzima Says:

    Like I was saying (anecdotal but still):

  44. Mulboyne Says:

    I don’t think the controversial associations of the confederate flag are particularly strong in many places outside the US. Certainly not the flag on its own without any accompanying slogan. As sarmoung says above, The popularity of the Dukes of Hazzard, with the flag painted on the top of their car, means it is viewed as fairly harmless by many in Britain. If I see it flying in the street, I’d expect to find something like a motorcycle shop, tattoo parlour or American import store.

    Peaches Geldof wore a confederate flag T-shirt to a party a few months ago and it probably wouldn’t have been covered at all if she hadn’t been in Hollywood at the time. I doubt whether she thought she was making any statement.

  45. tiger x tiger » Midweek Roundup of Links, 8/18/2010 Says:

    […] The accidental confederate and t-shirt culture in Japan vs North America. Néojaponisme put up an interesting post a couple of days ago sparked by a Japanese youth wearing a t-shirt with the confederate flag on it. I think it’s safe to assume the guy was not actually a racist confederate, so why exactly did he wear that shirt? Interesting thoughts both from the author and the commenters. […]

  46. M-Bone Says:,8998/

  47. M-Bone Says:

    In Canada, I definitely associated the stars and bars with the Dukes until I started to study history seriously in college.

    Through a combination of TV docs and (bizarre in retrospect) museum displays on visits to the US, I managed to get the idea that the Civil War was all about state’s rights and a cultural difference between the honor-bound warrior society of the South and the pansy industrialism of the North. I knew all about slavery, but since the Canadian system generally taught it as a nationalist thing (yeah underground railroad! we were so much better than Americans!), I wasn’t at all aware of its political dimensions.

    It really only sunk in that the Confederate Flag is offensive to many during the South Carolina controversy in the late 90s. Then I saw “Birth of a Nation” and read “Confederates in the Attic” and that was that.

  48. W. David MARX Says:

    If I saw a Confederate flag alone on a T-shirt in Japan, I would probably also think Dukes of Hazzard. It was definitely the text that contextualized the flag in Southern nationalism and triggered all the other associations.

  49. M-Bone Says:

    “definitely the text that contextualized the flag”

    Indeed. I think that your interpretation of the English, as it applies to fashion and a certain (mainstream) group of consumers, is spot on.

  50. ELSN Says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. It felt timely when I noticed a young Japanese guy with a souvenir T-shirt on the train today:

    USS Missouri Memorial: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    While a Confederate flag T-shirt worn in Tokyo is probably viewed as content-free by the wearer, it would take an awful lot of concentrated indifference to throw on a Pearl Harbor T-shirt in the morning, right? Or is he just bragging that he’s been to Hawaii?

    I don’t know if there’s a message or any semantic content here. Perhaps a message of aggressive indifference? As a sleepy American on the train it went straight to my head and I couldn’t focus on anything else.

    And the graphic design was shite.

    Again, maybe he’s just saying he’s been to Hawaii.

  51. Durf Says:

    I am still kicking myself for not getting a photo of the group of protestors who were walking east from the Foreign Ministry toward Hibiya Park on August 6, yelling angrily about the need for America to atone for the A-bombings. They were carrying Confederate flags with skulls in their center. I tweeted something inane about the need to review my history books since I couldn’t remember whether it was the Pirate Confederacy that dropped Fat Boy on Hiroshima, but the more I think about that choice—imagery that was obviously intended to function as a meaningful symbol, since it was being brandished in a political protest—the weirder it seems to me.

    If I can think of some good search terms I will try to dig up a photo of the group.

  52. Durf Says:

    Score! It was these people. A few photos on that page show the flag in question.

  53. M-Bone Says:

    Durf, those @ssholes are far rightwing “keep the foreign hordes from our shores” types anyway. They probably had a few confederate flags just kicking around from the time they went driving around in pickup trucks hunting Koh-reans.

    Seriously, can’t expect much in the way of coherence, either in imagery or arguments, from people who are trying to play up American a-bomb cruelty in order to make a case for Japan getting its own a-bombs so that it can stand up to those who would besmirch the honor of the wartime heroes who did nothing wrong in their crusade to free Asia from the grasping pasty hands of white imperialism.

  54. M-Bone Says:

    On the subject of cultural recoding, here is my WTF Japan find of the week –


    An all Moe art Cthulhu Mythos encyclopedia.

  55. Durf Says:

    Yeah, the slogans they were chanting left little room for debate about where they placed on the political insanity spectrum. The flag was a strange thing to see, though, coming as it did from a state that was defeated and dismantled 80 years before the bombs in question fell. (The skull and crossbones were a nice touch though.)

  56. M-Bone Says:

    “The flag was a strange thing to see”

    No doubt.

    Oh for the simple days when you could tell if a Japanese person was on the left or right by how pissed they were at America.

    With these guys, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is actually a logical explanation for the flags. Some of this type are anti-American at the same time that they make a fetish of American military power and all of the tank photobooks and paraphernalia that goes along with that.

    Apparently the skull and crossbones on the rebel flag is a common Aryan prison tat. These guys might be knowingly using it as a symbol of “American criminality” or whatnot if one of them picked it up in some “fascist nerd” source somewhere.

    There is also LOTS of junk like those flags being sold near the war freak surplus stores in Okinawa so maybe they were down there to protest something and decided to fashion coordinate.

    There is also the off chance that the rebel flag and skull and crossbones popped up as an unofficial unit logo (Vietnam?) and they got it from there.

  57. Darren Says:


    ‘And there’s always that Primal Scream album cover.’

    The Eggleston photo… oft criticized, but that the rear cover sports a nice big portrait of Funkadelic’s (black) guitarist Eddie Hazel goes almost unmentioned.

  58. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    “Now, as someone originally from the American South, I find modern day secession fetishism to be odious — at worst, thinly-masked bigotry, and at best, a desperate identity politics born from a certain population segment’s growing isolation from the 21st century economy.”

    I find the 2nd part to be true, but perhaps not in the way that you think. A lot of active Neo-Confederates today follow the Austrian school of economics and has become quite libertarian. They’re sick and tired of how the economy functions today and believe that a return to sound economic policy of real free markets and a dollar backed by gold which will bring prosperity. I believe the Confederate flag is just a symbol they use for the hell of it. Libertarians tend to be supportive of secession. So they believe in creating a new state on the foundations of the old one (the Confederacy) based on a completely different philosophy. Yes, there are still many racist and bigoted Neo-Confederates, but there’s definitely a shift away from that. With constant war and bailouts it seems your average person is warming up to the idea of secession.

    I wonder how a Japanese person would feel if an Ainu or Okinawan flag was on it instead and the writing on the back was in Japanese.

  59. statiq Says:

    > Very few Japanese wear T-shirts with Kanji

    I think this is the interesting part: Why are kanji T-shirts almost nonexistent in Japan?

    In the west, T-shirts are like blackboards and we have carte blanche to use them to express cultural/political affiliations. They are essentially an independent media divorced from our other pieces of clothes. Your shoes don’t have the power to say that you consider yourself a white supremacist, an atheist or an anarcho-syndicalist but your T-shirt can.

    Whereas in Japan T-shirts are just one of the accessories (among many) that are used to construct a proper look/identity/message. They are only a part of the whole thing, they don’t stand up on their own. I guess Japan more holistic/formal approach to clothing makes them less important.

    Wearing a political T-shirt in Japan is a bit like listening to a record of nothing but guitar solos.

  60. M-Bone Says:

    Kanji t-shirts abound in the inaka / yankee taste culture.

  61. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    And in certain other subcultures too. Ok, not t-shirts, but still.

  62. Scout Says:

    Along the vein of unexplained-or-offensive-elsewhere things in Japan, I recently stumbled across this billboard in Shibuya:

  63. M-Bone Says:

    @Scout Chaplin!
    Leo 夜露死苦!

  64. peony Says:

    Well, I am not sure about the argument–Am back here in LA and surrounded by French words on T-shirts, products and people wearing Chinese coins as necklaces. I even saw a imperial chinese coin affixed to a print– and it was glued on upside-down. So, I think it is much the same-same on both sides of the Pacific. And that Confederate flag t-shirt is less bigotry maybe as it is humorous? “try, try again”… kind of funny? You have to see things in context and like the guy from Britain said, it is unlikely the guy who was wearing it was serious… more likely he liked the idea of it. I think it’s great.

  65. Aceface Says:

    Japundit should invite you as a guest blogger,David.

    I was travelling South Africa for five weeks with a Japanese dude wearing “Dartmouth college” T-shirt and “Special Olympic supporter Ohio”who has no dealing with both institutions in anyway and also with a South African dude with a “忍” tatoo on the back of his neck.
    This phenomenon is undoubtfully global.

    Too bad that the dude in confederate flag wasn’t wearing one of those “X” baseball cap pretty much ubiquitous in Shibuya when the film”Malcom X” came out.

  66. W. David MARX Says:

    Dude, forget this post. I want to hear your memories of Shibuya HMV.

  67. Aceface Says:

    I just came out with this idea of selling Tshirt”アメリカ人は単細胞”with “I-heart-US” on the back.

    Is HMV that important?They did sell shibuya-kei CD’s,but not that important as “creating”the movement itself,me think.

  68. Mulboyne Says:

    “I just came out with this idea of selling Tshirt ‘アメリカ人は単細胞’ with ‘I-heart-US’ on the back.”

    I don’t think it will be too long before Club T enters the market.

  69. M-Bone Says:

    The guy I saw at the Warhammer store in Jinbocho with a Life of Brian t-shirt on totally gets it.