Rina Sawayama in STFU - pointing to head
Still from 'STFU!' by Rina Sawayama
Stories & Ideas

Tue 22 Aug 2023

Colourful wall - external authors

Noah Lowry

Senior Ticketing and Bookings VX Guide, ACMI

Rina Sawayama sticks a middle finger up at casual racism, misogyny and the fetishisation of Japanese women.

Rina Sawayama’s 2020 song ‘STFU!’ is a cathartic release of exhaustion and frustration, with a streak of silliness in it. It roars with distorted nu-metal guitar before pulling back to make room for early 2000s sarcastic poppy beats as Rina repeats in exasperation “shut the f*ck up!”

In creating the song and its music video, in which a battle rages inside Rina’s head as she deals with a baffling scenario, the Japanese-British singer drew on her own experiences of dealing with racially-charged microaggressions: "The first time I encounter a particular microaggression is special because it stuns you, makes you grow."

The 'STFU!' video opens with Rina on a date with a white man (Ben Ashenden), who, as they eat sushi, delivers a litany of tone-deaf, racially-insensitive comments – “I was quite surprised you sang, y’know… in English”. “Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamama’s?” – while mimicking sword-fighting with chopsticks and comparing Rina’s appearance to Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh. Most notable is the comment: “I’m currently writing, like, a fan fiction piece… from the perspective of, like, a little Japanese woman. It’s kind of a new age Memoirs of a Geisha”.

Speaking in 2007 about her film Sakuran (2006) and how it challenged portrayals of Japanese women on screen, director Mika Ninagawa explained: “I’ve always been frustrated by geisha and oiran movies. Women are not as weak as shown… and I wanted to show that it’s quite fun for women to live [in a] girls-only world.” On Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), she observed that the film “was a very orthodox story: Patience, patience, patience and good things will happen… it’s a bit like a Disney movie… Americans have a fantasy that Japanese women should behave patiently and quietly”.

Ninagawa’s Sakuran and Sawayama’s ‘STFU!’ are borne out of their creators’ experiences of racism, misogyny and fetishisation as Japanese women. Both works explore rebellion and fury in retaliation to these experiences of oppression that, as noted by Ninagawa above, contradict common portrayals of Japanese women in Western media.

On writing ’STFU!’, Sawayama explains: “I hope that people see this song as being quite funny. When you’re growing up, you don’t understand all these things happening to you. Perhaps you don’t live in an area where there is, for instance, other gay people – or other Japanese people, for me – and you still haven’t made sense of how the world views you. I’m at a point where I’ve got communities of people where we can just laugh at all the ridiculous things that people say to us”

– Noah Lowry

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