VOX POPULI: Cultural Insensitivity at Little Tokyo Design Week


By J. Nunokawa
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on July 28, 2011.)


If anyone managed to “get” the message of the Food Futures Pod by the USC School of Architecture, please kindly share it with me.

I became incredibly annoyed and upset after seeing this exhibit placed just outside of the Japanese American National Museum. This pod consisted of an “artsy” display of rice strung on nylon string along with rice strewn all over the floor of the display. You, the observer, must walk through this rice floor to interact with the messaging. In front of the entrance is a goza mat, with industrial shoe covers on the side to enter the exhibit.

Note — You MUST WALK ON THE RICE to get whatever message this exhibit is trying to convey inside the pod as the print is too small for you to read it from outside.

If you are Japanese, the act of walking on or over food is a major faux pas.

It is a sign of disrespect and is simply not done.

And yet I am in Little Tokyo, in front of the museum helping to preserve my culture and heritage, and I have to walk on rice to get a message about food futures?

Why step on rice? Rice is a staple of Asian culture and is especially symbolically significant in Japanese culture. Our many ceremonies in the Shinto and Buddhist traditions revere rice. If the exhibitor really wanted to make a point about food futures, why not tackle GMO corn and confront Monsanto or Cargill? Or are those companies great contributors to USC and you don’t want to offend and have funding cut?

Again, why rice? Why not tortillas or Wonderbread?

JANM has the history of the Issei and Nisei wrongfully interned, and having to “prove” their Americanism/patriotism.

Is walking over rice yet another way that we must prove that we are American in the 21st century?

Little Tokyo Design Week: Future City had made a point to highlight the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The aftermath of those combined disasters, as well as the ongoing nuclear fallout, has made sections of Japan unfit for rice planting this year.

As rice is of utmost symbolic importance in Japan, this was yet another blow to the Japanese psyche in the affected areas.

Yet, here in this art pod, we are encouraged to tread over rice.

This exhibit’s curator is an assistant professor at USC. This truly distresses me. A person in academia should know better. Was this an innocent case of cultural insensitivity or is this something more overtly sinister with racist undertones? As part of this art experience, mochi ice cream was also to be distributed to “ponder further the fragility of our food supply.” This quote is taken directly from the USC website explaining the exhibit.

Again, why pick mochi ice cream? Mochi ice cream is a hit product coming from a minority-owned business that had to start all over again after the family was interned during WWII. Why didn’t this exhibit target companies like Nestle or PepsiCo? Why not go after products that use palm oil (associated with rain forest destruction) or corn products (subsidized empty calories)?

In our culture of “mottainai” with respect to waste of food, I ask again, why step on rice?

Hunger is a real issue steps away from where this exhibit took place.

Food insecurity is real NOW for many people, including the homeless that are in downtown.

The act of stepping on rice for the purpose of this exhibit of food FUTURES is in my opinion, arrogant and vulgar.

I write today on this matter because as a Nisei, I embrace my Japanese culture and did NOT step on/walk on rice.

I also am American enough to voice my opinion and not have my heritage trampled on.

This is no time for gaman on cultural insensitivities and ignorance, especially by something sponsored by an educational institution.

To those who put Little Tokyo Design Week together, what exactly were the criteria for vetting the artwork?

Why showcase something that takes cheap shots at my community, both Japanese and American?


J. Nunokawa writes from Los Angeles. Vox Populi is a forum for the community. Contributions to Vox Populi may be sent 138 Onizuka St., Los Angeles CA 90012 Attn: Editor, or emailed. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.





  1. Taiyo Watanabe on

    Do you go on bitter rants like this when people pour soy sauce or stand chopsticks in their rice? If you’re trying to make a statement of cultural insensitivity, such phrases as “Again, why rice? Why not tortillas or Wonderbread?” sounds hypocritical to me. I agree with the advice given above.

  2. This post especially lost its credibility when it brings in the “Japanese Americans asked to prove their Americanism” part. Its just an overreactionary rant thats derailed and needlessly prolonged.

  3. As Taiyo mentioned above, hypocracy convolutes this post. Don’t let personal negativity toward forward thinking overshadow a message which the writer completely missed. If the aim of the installation was to pose questions concerning the uncertainty of the future of food, then it was completely successful in doing just that: it created a reaction. By critiquing an art form purely based on subjective qualifications about was is respectfully Japanese, American, and specifically Japanese-American, in reference to what is culturally acceptable, the argument which classifies the artwork as “arrogant and vulgar” becomes completely invalid and I suggest that it be disregarded.
    The problem here is that the writer of the post didn’t take the next step in questioning what the installation might have to do with the future of food, but simply fabricated a direct transcription based on personal reaction. Perhaps the installation speaks of the disconnect between american abundance and the current japanese situation. Or maybe the mass quantity of rice forces us to think of its origin and the process it took to get all of that rice into such a small space. Either way, its installations like this which ask us to question our daily environment in an abstract way.

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