Cultural Appropriation Cover

Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko

The recent discussion about Sashiko started on FB group following in Instagram & our FB group taught me a variety of views to look at things. In order to grasp this discussion, please read the articles of “Why Do you call it Sashiko” and “Mindful Reading“. These 2 articles would be good-to-read materials to understand who I am on top of what I do. Regardless, it was a necessary learning experience for me to keep this journey of sharing what Sashiko is. However, there was one assignment I took home with me to study: learning about Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko.

Japanese Cultural Appropriation

The word, Cultural Appropriation, was a too complicated concept for me to explain with the Sashiko we practice. Therefore, with knowing the recent discussion about the word “Kimono” and its cultural appropriation (My Kimono is not your couture), I couldn’t express my insights to the public. I wanted to make sure that I understand what I write before asking someone to read. A follower on Instagram introduced me the brilliant article, written by Ms. Maki – Japanese potter lives in Yorkshire. Her writing encouraged me to express how I feel about Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko.

Her powerful writing is must to read if you are interested in being creatively inspired by Japanese culture (or any other culture, for that matter). Please take a moment here to read through her writing, then please read how I feel about it. I sincerely respect her writing and appreciate her courage and time to share.

I encourage you to call it Sashiko

With my sincere respect to her writing, I encourage you to call your stitching Sashiko as long as you “try” to understand and respect the Japanese culture. I am not asking you to be a master of Japanese culture, nor practice the Japanese custom thoroughly. What I am asking is your attitude to understand who the Japanese are.

Do I sound like contradicting between what I write and what Maki wrote: “Naming DOES matter”? Please let me explain it here.

“Kimono” and “Sashiko” is a bit different

I came to the conclusion to not to consider “Calling your stitching Sashiko” as the Cultural Appropriation based on the 3 factors below.

  1. Sashiko may be too ordinary in the concept of Cultural Appropriation.
  2. Many Japanese also misuses the word of Sashiko.
  3. The word Sashiko is mainly used in the non-commercial situation.

(1) Is Sashiko Japanese culture?

Kimono is a Japanese clothing culture. When they try to research what the Kimono is, there are numbers of books and article to read. However, in Sashiko, there aren’t many documents published to understand Sashiko as the culture.

In fact, I am not sure if we can call Sashiko as the Japanese “culture” yet (therefore I keep asking to respect the Japanese culture in Sashiko – not Sashiko Culture). The ordinary Japanese practiced Sashiko in their ordinary life. The hand-stitching to repurpose the fabric was just too ordinary for the Japanese. We do not have enough documents and testimonies left to define Sashiko as the Japanese culture. However, I believe I can say that Sashiko has a lot of Japanese cultural characteristic – and without that, I wouldn’t want to call it Sashiko. (One of the characteristics of Sashiko and Japanese culture would be a concept of Animism in Sashiko.)

When we aren’t 100% sure to call Sashiko as the Japanese culture, it would be better to keep it as non-Cultural-Appropriation matter. Kimono is different. It is the defined clothing culture. When they disrespect the Japanese culture in Sashiko, then I would get offended. I don’t know how to call this anger or frustration yet – but probably not the Cultural Appropriation.

(2) Is Sashiko common for Japanese?

The second factor is that Sashiko isn’t so common for Japanese neither. Every single Japanese knows what the Kimono indicates. Not all the Japanese know what Sashiko looks like.

In fact, the Sashiko we practice now may be a bit different from the Sashiko the Japanese practiced a long time ago. The culture transform itself. It isn’t about good or bad. It just happens. However, there are many stories behinds each Sashiko or Sashiko related fabric. This website and our SNS accounts are for sharing those stories – like difference between hand-stitching Sashiko and woven Sashiko as well as the difference between Boro and Sashiko.

Since Sashiko isn’t so common in Japanese, it may be harsh to name someone’s stitching as the Cultural Appropriation.

(3) We enjoy Sashiko stitching with no intention.

The last factor I would like to mention is that many of us calling their stitching Sashiko do not intend to disgrace the Sashiko stitching. They enjoy Sashiko (or any form of hand-stitching) with no intention of the power of the word. I can say so because not many people use the word for the non-commercial setting.

I am aware that some companies/people use the word of Sashiko to sell their “Non-stitched” item. For that, I would get upset as the form of Cultural Appropriation (as Ms.Maki mentioned in her article). However, those who are interested in my messages are the people who simply enjoy Sashiko stitching for non-commercial purposes, so I would like to avoid scaring them to enjoy their Sashiko stitching.

The fear I experienced in the discussion

Yes. I encouraged you to call it Sashiko. However, I still have the fear I explained previously. Maki explained the fear I had experienced in the discussion very well. It is “言葉の一人歩き”.

言葉の一人歩き (kotoba no hitori aruki) literally translates as “word walking on its own”. It’s the Japanese expression of the state of misused and misinterpreted information, that has nothing to do with the origin, are spreading selfishly in the society.

This happens when we use the word without good understanding of what it actually means. I personally feel that the word “Wabi-Sabi” is a good example of this. Interestingly, once the word start walking on its own, there is no way to stop it – because we tend to listen what we want to listen and we use the most effective aspect of the word.

If the one who uses the word is aware of their action – let’s say Sashiko is the Japanese hand-stitching culture – the word walks toward slowly implementing the other values. However, when they start using the word without knowing the background, the word rapidly and drastically starts absorbing what they want to reflect on the word.

The word is a wisdom, not a tool. However, without an attitude to understand the culture and background, it could be hurtful for many people.

A good example of this matter would be the word of “Sashiko as the recycle method.” I have read some statement that we can use “whatever we have” because Sashiko’s core principal is to recycle what we have. I do not think so. Yes, Boro is the ultimate result of upcycling and recycling what they had. However, the core message of Sashiko is to appreciate & care what they had like blanket or Jacket. In order to mend the Jacket for better use in the future, they would have used the better thread (if they had a choice.) Using whatever we have in the box because of convenience is not the Japanese culture in Sashiko. By using the supplies designed for Sashiko purpose, not only the result will be more beautiful and long-lasting, it can help to preserve the industries in Sashiko.

The words of “Respect” and “Appreciation” requires Action.

In the FB comments, I was accused of overreacting. I do not believe that I overreacted to the issues. Sashiko is something very deeply rooted in my identity.

In Zen practice, the Japanese believed that the word doesn’t contain the truth. I followed this concept, and therefore, I also practice Sashiko on top of writing and sharing. Although the word “cannot” contain the truth by itself, the word can have the power and responsibility. It leads to the concept of being mindful in our ordinary days. I hope, by enjoying Sashiko, we can be mindful and think of the responsibility of what we say/write.

Again, I do not consider someone calling their hand-stitching “Sashiko” as the form of cultural appropriation. I worry more of the cultural transformation by quick read what is available online. Therefore, I would like you to call your stitching Sashiko especially when you have read my writing this far and trying to understand the Japanese culture. Your contribution can help to preserve the Sashiko culture, and I appreciate your action very much.

 [Editor’s Note]

I am still sad and angry about the comments I have received in the previous discussion on Facebook. I felt insulted – without them even trying to understand what I am trying to do. However, at the same time, it was very grateful to experience because I receive so many more messages to encourage what I do. I receive 100 times more positive messages in comparison to those insulting comments. These warm & understanding messages are the motivation of writing this article. Here is an interesting story. Those who “care” to understand the Japanese culture in Sashiko are the one who worried if they use Sashiko inappropriately – as a form of Cultural Appropriation, like you who have been reading this far. This is the writing for you who care what I do so that you would send me the encouraging messages when I get confused. I hope this article helped you to enjoy Sashiko more. The fear I feel is not from you.

I used to suppress the negative feeling such as anger or sadness. Now, I understand those feeling is what define us as human – when someone disgrace something I value the most, I should get emotional to protect it. With the fear, I would like to be as natural as one human being can be.

The Fear of alternating Sashiko

Above, as you know, I mentioned that I wouldn’t consider “calling a form of hand-stitching” Sashiko as Cultural Appropriation. Furthermore, when you “care” to understand the Japanese culture behind Sashiko, I would like to encourage you to call your stitching Sashiko. It isn’t about the stitching result much. It is about the mindset to practice Sashiko, at least the Sashiko we would like to pass down.

Let me share, once again, that I still have the fear deep down there: Sashiko may alter its form so rapidly, by those who try to “understand” Sashiko as their own way without caring, that Sashiko may lose the original form of what it actually is (was). Therefore, I keep sharing my view of the Sashiko we practice – mainly on Instagram- to encourage people to enjoy more than just stitching but something more than that.

By the way, I do not intend to control someone’s feeling or actions. If they want to practice “Sashiko” as they want, unfortunately, I have no control over it. Because I cannot control it, I just keep sharing what I believe in so the other will receive the core messages I would like to pass down. There are always people who twist the messages I am trying to communicate.

I am an idealist but I know the reality. We have all our view to look at things. One called me that I am arrogant, and accused me of acting as the authority of Sashiko. Another commented that I am intimidating to others. Well, again, I cannot control how they receive my messages.

(However, I hope, when they read what I have been writing, the words of “Arrogant”, “Authority” and “Intimidating” are the opposite terms for what I have been doing. I can say that confidently because many more of people encouraged me to keep sharing them with appreciation. I hope you understanding my point here. If I wrote something arrogant or intimidating, please let me know with the specific part that I wrote so I can self-reflect and edit them. I am a human. I make a mistake. )

It is okay that they take my message in a different way. However, for those who do not like what I share, I don’t want them to learn the Sashiko from what I write, upload as videos, or provide workshops or supplies. If they learn the Sashiko from me yet thinking that I am arrogant, then it is the fear I am worrying the most; alternating the Sashiko culture. “Convenience” isn’t the first principal of Japanese culture.

(It is fair… right? I always provide the 3 politeness replies before I get offended. Again, everyone makes mistakes and we all deserve a chance to re-do things.)

After all, Sashiko is like my family. When I see the intentional action of alternating the Sashiko culture like above, I will fight back no matter what.

Oops. The editors note got so long. I am here to share & support the Sashiko you would like to enjoy – unless you try to “care” others. Thank you for your time to read this far.


Video about Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko

I made a video about the topic of Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko. As an additional materials to learn, please check it out. Thank you!

24 thoughts to “Cultural Appropriation in Sashiko”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful article and the links for further reading included in the article. I join others who have encouraged you to continue sharing the historical and cultural context of Sashiko, and, of course, the traditional Sashiko stitching technique that you teach. I found your website after reading about a 2018 workshop you would be teaching at Purl Soho, NYC. When I read in your website “about” section that you had been “born in a surviving Sashiko Family in Gifu prefecture, Japan,” I thought how splendid it would be to live near enough (which I do not) to Purl Soho to be able to participate in the workshop and learn from someone who actually has such a depth of experience with the art/craft and cultural origin of Sashiko! I began reading articles in this website and watching your youtube videos and was especially interested in the Sashiko Stories where you explain what Sashiko is, the difference between the terms Sashiko and Boro, and more. That historical and cultural information greatly enriches the experience of learning Sashiko stitching for me. When the opportunity to enroll in your online class arose, I was so pleased to be able to learn your traditional method of Sashiko, as well as to learn more about the historical and cultural context. Your sharing of more than just the “bare bones” of how to hold and move the needle and fabric has stimulated me to read more about Japan generally, look up the location of Gifu prefecture (being rather ignorant of Japanese geography), find out what the term prefecture means, etc. So from my perspective you are a great ambassador for creating interest in learning more about Japan and Japanese culture through the gateway of “real” Sashiko! Your and Ms. Hastings’ observations about a “word walking on its own” sums up the way words can and do morph into concepts that can dilute or change original meanings. However, as you also observe, the listener will hear what s/he wants or is ready to hear, of course. For now, enjoy knowing that your sharing of the wisdom and background of Sashiko is welcome to many. Thank you for generously sharing your articles on this website and for your youtube videos.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been trying to learn more about sashiko so that I can appreciate it properly and have been concerned about cultural appropriation. Your article has been very helpful in clarifying how to be respectful when using the term sashiko and to be respectful and mindful of the practice of stitching! Thank you for your courage to be vulnerable in a public place. I admire you so much!

    1. Interesting read!! I did a quick Google search on CA re sashiko while I enjoy a coffee, and of course way too late to find the original discussions on FB.
      It amuses me somewhat that the usual vocal Karen’s have jumped on sashiko as a chest thumping cause. Though it doesnt surorise me. Goodness knows they need a new daily cause of offense.
      Sashiko is not a recognised art form in Japan. It is not a finely honed skill passed through the generations. Even the most common designs are not, and cannot be, copyrighted. Those very same designs have been used extensively for over a century in many forms.
      Sashiko is simple running stitch embroidery. Period. How would you react to the Pennsylvanian Dutch declaring hand quilting at anything more than 8 stitches to the inch to be THEIR culture? Stupidity!
      It’s about time we all stop trying to find things to be offended by, just because weak minded whingers are demanding a new cause. It is below a progressive race!
      But thank you for posting this, I really didn’t think I would find anything. Sad really xx

      1. I would say, this comment is one example of “Cultural Appropriation” I understand.

        Ignoring the voice by saying “Weak minded whingers” is rude & insulting when the one is not a part of the culture. Without one understanding the language fully, defining the word with saying “Period” is extremely dangerous in the Cultural Context.

        Learn more.
        Your understanding is based on the information translated by those who filtered culture for their convenience.
        It is really sad that Cultural Appropriation happens in the blog that I explain (opned my arm) what Sashiko is.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I am a white American and have been practicing Zen for a long time. I sewed a rakusu to take the precepts, and I wear samu-e to my temple. I also enjoy all kinds of embroidery, and I have been learning sashiko for a few years. I started wondering about how cultural appropriation plays into all of these practices of mine. Of course, I study Zen with great respect and care, and sewing is a type of zazen to me, but I still think it has been good for me to think carefully about my intention, and how to show respect. I really appreciate hearing your perspective

  4. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughs. I am interested in Japanese crafts/art BECAUSE of the history behind. I have spent two months in Japan and have read a lot of books about japanese society, art, history…. I understand that for Japaneses, a lifelong of practice is necessary to always develop better skills and techniques in any for of art. It is why I respect and admire your culture. I also think that it is important to respect traditions. I am also happy to see that more and more foreigners are interested in Japanese art and craft. Maybe they will be more interested to learn more and visit your beautiful country. I think that art and craft is an excellent way to create links between people, between culture. Your text is really touching. Maybe we, beginners in Sashiko, can call our work “inspiring by traditional japanese Sashiko techniques”?

    1. Hello Mary,

      Thank you for the comment. I am also happy that many non-Japanese are interested in Sashiko & its culture. As I mentioned in this article, I am perfectly fine to call their stitching Sashiko when they care for the culture & mindset behind the Sashiko regardless of the levels & skills of Sashiko. I am happy if you decide to call your stitching Sashiko since this comment surely show your caring for Sashiko and Japanese culture.

      1. I may not be as well prepared to write to the extent as others.
        In the past (I won’t be so bold as to give a time line) I have have been in awe of you culture and arts.
        Pleas accept my thanks for what you share.

  5. I am so grateful for you Sharing of your knowledge and teaching of this beautiful stitches. And the history you keep informing us of.

    When I found you on YouTube and started watching and then I started doing the Sashiko stitching. And needless to say I’ve fallen in love with the look.

    Sometimes I don’t do strictly traditional pieces but I incorporate a lot of the other type of work I like. I’m currently working on a jacket kimono type that is my own design.

    I look forward to possibly meeting you at AYA studios in Stuart Florida

    Thank you again for your great videos

    1. Dear Valerie,

      Thank you for your comment here.
      There are no problems with trying something non-traditional. I am happy to see the alternation of traditional. When one cares for the tradition, the “modern” piece will carry its tradition. That’s what I would like to tell throughout Sashiko.

      It would be my pleasure to meet you in Florida.
      Enjoy Sashiko!


  6. Hello Atsushi,

    Thank you for your careful attention to your writing here. I am new to Sashiko, so I’m delighted to have found your writing and other materials. Thank you for all of the links to more resources as well. I am an American visual artist who uses stitching, and I’m interested in and inspired by other cultures such as Japanese, Korean, Mayan, and Indian textile cultures and practices. I want to understand well about cultural appropriation and make sure that my work is respectful to other cultures’ traditions. I look forward to learning more.

  7. Thank you for your beautiful and clear explanations, I came here because I wanted to understand better how to enjoy sashiko-style embroidery and how to avoid cultural appropriation or offense. I feel much better informed now.

  8. This is important to read for all students of Sashiko. Although I’ve been a Buddhist priest in the Chinese Ch’an train for 30 years, I’ve just begun to learn Sashiko. I understand the words of the Great Atsushi who I call “Sashiko Sensei”. If I avoided learning properly, I could not do Sashiko. I’m only a beginner in life!

  9. I have been enjoying this discussion very much. I can see where cultural appropriation can also be applied to so many other types of hand work. For me, I enjoy learning about different types of hand work but would never say that this style or that was mine. I don’t come from a particular “culture” – my families came from Scandinavia and western Europe to the U.S. so I guess you could say it’s a blended culture. We don’t hold on to culture the same way our ancestors did thinking we don’t need that past only what we create as a future. And we also seem to like to lay claim to something in order to boost our sense of importance. For example – my father (western European side of the family) used to claim we had Cherokee Indian in our bloodline. Turns out that was false. A lot of people used to claim they had native American blood because it gave them an identity they had no right to claim – made them seem more important than they were – it was a popular thing to do. I did not want to claim something that wasn’t rightfully mine so I did the research. No native Americans on either side of my family. So I don’t claim that. It would be disrespectful to do so. I think this is what happens to so many things we can’t rightfully claim – we try to seem bigger or more important than we are. For me I love to learn about other cultures and the wisdom they have to offer. I have only recently learned about Sashiko and Boro and both in their own ways offer a beauty only found within them. Boro may only be a mending stitch but some of the examples I have seen have shown a simplicity and elegance found nowhere else. Telling me that you can create beauty with anything you put your hand to if you have time and attention. Thank you for discussing this.

  10. I find myself quite hesitant to accept borrowing anything from Japan as cultural appropriation*. This may be since I haven’t once stepped on the USA soil and met the Japanese diaspora that had to experience the ww II and its aftermath there. I have, however, lived in Europe and in Japan. In my eyes, Japaneseness is not something that needs the same type of protection as, say, indigenous people’s cultures – Japanese are not discriminated against the same way Ainu or Sami or similar groups are.

    Cultural appropriation has to do with colonialism, with power imbalance, with a majority taking from a minority without giving equal value back. And guess what? Japan was/is an empire with its colonies, it’s a powerful nation with lots of say in the world’s matters, it copies and borrows and has always done that with numerous other cultures. The Japanese people are in charge of their own, rather powerful (soft power, culture, economy, tech… -wise) country after all. Just like you can’t appropriate mainstream US or French or Swedish cultures: they’re not discriminated against, they in fact want foreigners to buy their cultural products (just like most Japanese kimono makers living in Japan hope to attract foreign customers to get more customers and to encourage Japanese youth to appreciate the art themselves, too). This mindset might not be shared by the diaspora around the world, who have been bullied due to their ethnic background and otherness…. But in this matter I think it’s the opinion of those working on the field, making their daily bread with it, like the many struggling kimono makers in Japan, whose opinion matters more.

    If you disagree, I’m sure you’re upset about the Japanese “appropriating” from other cultures as well – thinking about sauna, curry, raamen, maid costumes used in maid cafes and AVs, parfait, sailor-style uniforms….

    That being said, when borrowing from other cultures one should always be respectful and study the context around the cultural element they’re interested in, so they may enjoy the world’s cultures without appropriating or otherwise causing harm.

    * Except for cultural elements from the Ainu, the Ryukyuan etc.

    1. Another entitled comment based on just the word of “Cultural Appropriation”. If you want to tell someone something, read what I write & watch what I say.

  11. Thank you, Atsushi, for your thoughtful and sincere words on this difficult and complex topic. Your website is a very good resource for learning more about the Japanese practices of Sashiko and Boro. I come here as a person born and raised in the USA, who learned about these practices while seeking for a way to rescue my favorite denim jeans. I am not a starving farmer, but I also can’t afford to throw out a good pair of pants with one wear hole. I was drawn to the practicality of Sashiko and Boro, but also to the opportunity it provides for decoration. I see some similarities to mending and decorative practices in other cultures, but also some features that make it particular to Japan. I think it’s really good for us to share knowledge and appreciate the best parts of each other’s culture. Wishing you the best!

  12. I’ll echo the majority of comments here: Thank you for putting so much time and effort into explaining, sharing, and treasuring your craft, and into balancing encouragement with firmness. It’s so difficult to want to welcome people in to your heritage while protecting what makes it what it is. I will endeavor to put as much care and respect into my practice of Sashiko as I can, and I hope that my capacity for that care and respect will only grow.

    You mentioned that it’s against the spirit of Sashiko to “just use whatever”, and that part of its core is to extend the life of beloved garments, if I’m understanding correctly? The sentiment seems similar to what I’ve heard about tsukomogami, though I’m not sure if they share an origin. I think it’s a beautiful concept that may have been lost or never really existed in many western cultures; we have the concept of family heirlooms, but rather than love them through use, it’s usually considered more appropriate to keep them locked away and “protected” — if you need to repair them, it means you’ve been a poor steward. I personally prefer the sentiment behind Sashiko, which feels warmer, but I suppose they can live in tandem — extending the life of a beloved garment as long as possible, and then retiring it into protection when it can’t withstand any more use.

    I currently can’t afford Sashiko-specific tools and I don’t have a garment that I think would be appropriate for proper Sashiko, but I’m comfortable with not calling my stitching Sashiko while I’m using scrap fabric and supplies of convenience. At most it’s “practice for Sashiko”. I hope that’s acceptable and respectful of your lessons; if I’ve misunderstood anything, I’m happy to learn and correct myself. I look forward to the day I can put my practice to use and make Sashiko bloom on a meaningful garment.

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