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Hi Blog. Only a few days into the case of racialized advertisement from ANA, I got tapped by the Japan Times to cover it. Debito.org Readers and Facebook Friends certainly gave me plenty of food for thought, so thank you all very much. Here’s my more polished opinion on it, which stayed the number one article on the JT Online for two full days! What follows is the “Director’s Cut” with excised paragraphs and links to sources. Thanks as always for reading and commenting to Debito.org. Arudou Debito
ISSUES | JUST BE CAUSE
Don’t let ANA off the hook for that offensive ad
BY ARUDOU Debito
The Japan Times, JAN 24, 2014, Column 72 for The Community Pages
Making headlines recently has been a commercial by ANA, one of Japan’s flagship airlines. Released last Saturday, its 30-second spot shows two Asian men (one a comedian named Bakarizumu, but let’s call them A and B) standing at an airport window speaking English with Japanese subtitles.
(See the ad at debito.org/ANAHanedaAd2014.mp4.)
Looking out at the jets, A says, “Haneda Airport has more international flights nowadays.” B replies, “Finally.” Then their exchange goes, “Next stop, Vancouver.” “Next stop, Hanoi.” “Exciting, isn’t it?” Then B says, rather oddly, “You want a hug?” When A only gives him a nonplussed look, B continues, “Such a Japanese reaction.” When A explains, “But I am Japanese,” B counters, “I see. Let’s change the image of Japanese people.” And A, smiling broadly, agrees to it.
This has occasioned considerable debate and media coverage. Many commenters in the English-language online forums have called this advertisement “racist” (one even said “Debito bait”; I’m chuffed), and have made motions to take their business elsewhere. Others have said the advertisement isn’t racist, just lame. A few managed to find a deep pocket of latent irony, saying it’s actually poking fun at the Japanese people and their insular attitudes. Meanwhile, within Japanese-language forums, according to a Yahoo Japan poll, 82% of respondents see no problem with it.
(NB: Note look how the question is worded. It introduces the issue by saying that a comedian (Bakarizumu) performed the act (read: it’s a joke!), and says that the complaints came “from foreigners” (read: not from Japanese) of “racial discrimination” (read: misleading representation of the issue). So we’ve set up the question as “we joking Japanese” vs “those kvetching foreigners” “taking a madcap jape” too seriously, and bingo, you get a vast majority of people wondering what the problem is.)
It probably comes as no surprise to you that JBC objects to this ad. If ANA had really wanted to “change the image of Japan,” it should have avoided racializing their product. Instead, it’s just business as usual.
Consider some other racist marketing strategies from not so long ago (visuals and reports archived at debito.org/?p=12077):
Last year, Toshiba marketed a bread maker with an obnoxiously overexuberant Japanese girl speaking katakana Japanese, wearing a blond wig and a big nose. (Ad archived at debito.org/Toshibasuipanda.mp4.)
In 2010, Nagasaki Prefecture promoted its “foreign” buildings by showing Japanese tourists wearing—you guessed it—blond wigs and big noses. (Ad archived at debito.org/?p=7523.)
In 2005, Mandom sold men’s cosmetics with a Rasta-man motif, juxtaposing black people with a chimpanzee. (Ad archived at debito.org/mandomproject.html.)
Dare I mention the resurrection of book “Little Black Sambo” in 2005, which inspired overtly racist nursery-school songs in Saitama about black butts? (See Matthew Chozick, “Sambo racism row reignites over kids’ play,” Zeit Gist, April 13, 2010.)
And how about the Choya plum saké commercials in 2008, featuring three girls (two Caucasian, one Japanese), the latter sporting a big plastic nose and stick-on paper blue eyes? Although most of these ads were soon pulled after complaints, you can still go to Amazon Japan or Tokyu Hands and buy your own “gaijin” stick-on blue eyes and nose (with the caption “Harō Gaijin-San”) to sport at parties!
Har har. Can’t you see it’s all just a joke, imbued with a deep sense of irony subversively directed at Japanese people? Except that, as I’ve pointed out in JBCs passim, irony as humor is not one of Japan’s strong suits.
Moreover, remember when McDonald’s Japan was using a nerdy white guy to hawk newfangled burgers? JBC argued (“Meet Mr. James, Gaijin Clown,” Sept. 1, 2009) that stereotyping of this nature only works as humor if, among other things, there is a “switch test” – i.e., everyone is fair game for parody.
But in Japan it’s not fair game. Japanese society and media takes quick umbrage to being lampooned by the outside world, especially in a racialized manner.
Case in point: To commemorate the publication of “Little Black Sambo,” I drew up a parody called “Little Yellow Jap” to put the shoe on the other foot (debito.org/chibikurosanbo.html). I made the protagonist as stereotypically exaggerated as the ink-black gollywogs in the book: bright yellow skin, round glasses, buck teeth, and clad in a fundoshi loincloth. I pointed out on every page that this was a parody of Japan’s Sambo, and contextualized it with a full explanation in Japanese of why racialized books for children are bad.
Yet for years now in the Japanese version of Wikipedia’s entry on me, this parody is cited as an example of my “discrimination against Japanese.” Clearly turnabout is not in fair play.
Or consider the case of British TV show QI (Philip Brasor, “Cultural insensitivity no laughing matter,” Media Mix Jan. 30, 2011, discussed here). Producers were forced to apologize for a joke about a recently-deceased Japanese who in 1945 unluckily travelled to Nagasaki, after experiencing the first atomic bombing, to catch the second one. A panelist had dryly quipped, “He never got the train again, I tell you.”
That’s not funny! That’s insensitive. And insulting! And racist, according to the more unified online communities in Japan, backed up by protesting Japanese government officials, all of whom clearly understand irony. (For the record: I’m being ironic. Please laugh.)
Back to ANA. I bet the omnipotent gerontocracy at corporate headquarters didn’t think anything amiss (obviously; they approved the ad), because, as is often claimed in these situations, Japanese in fact “admire” (akogareru) white people. This ad is, if anything, a paean. After all, look at him! He looks like Robert Redford, one of the prototypical kakkō-ii foreigners of our generation! (They could do with a Brad Pitt update, I guess.)
In tepid apology letters, ANA uses the standard disclaimer: “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.” Okay. And I’m sure many of your potential customers didn’t “mean” to be offended either. But many were. And if you have any pretentions to being an international company, you wouldn’t get in these sticky wickets in the first place.
To be fair, this campaign was probably cooked up not by ANA, but by one of Japan’s advertising oligarchs (no doubt Dentsu, with nearly a third of Japan’s market share). Anyone with an eye on the Japanese media knows how they make silly amounts of money on silly stereotypes (including the one that Japanese don’t hug), while reaffirming the binary between “Japan” and “the rest of the world.”
Nevertheless, ANA deserves its lumps, because reps simply don’t know what they’re apologizing for. In fact, they clumsily reinforced the binary, stating in press releases that complaints have “mostly come from foreign customers” (as opposed to real customers?), before finally pulling the ad last Tuesday.
Now consider this: Gerry Nacpil, Supervisor of ANA Sky Web, wrote in his apology: “The intention of this commercial was… to encourage Japanese to travel abroad more and become global citizens.”
So… “global citizens” equals White people?
Now the ad is even more problematic.
To quote a friend, in an open letter to ANA:
“Dear ANA: Are you aware that most of your foreigner customers are from places like Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur? And that most of them probably don’t have blond/orange hair? Oh, and even the ones with blond hair probably don’t have noses like a tengu goblin. And pretty sure that Japanese people enjoy being hugged and have emotions. Well, at least the Japanese who aren’t sticks-in-mud CEO boardroom types with no sense that the world doesn’t really resemble their 19th-century, ‘we are so different from you funny-looking white gaijin’ Meiji-Era mentality.
“Look forward to seeing your 2020 customers. They may surprise you. Sincerely, A Big-Nosed White Guy who speaks Japanese.”
Touché. Look, Japan, if you want to host international events (such as an Olympics), or to have increased contact with the outside world, you’ll face increased international scrutiny of your attitudes under global standards.
For one of Japan’s most international companies to reaffirm a narrative that Japanese must change their race to become more “global” is a horrible misstep. ANA showed a distinct disregard for their Non-Japanese customers—those who are “Western,” yes, but especially those who are “Asian.”
Only when Japan’s business leaders (and feudalistic advertisers) see NJ as a credible customer base they could lose due to inconsiderate behavior, there will be no change in marketing strategies. NJ should vote with their feet and not encourage this with passive silence, or by double-guessing the true intentions behind racially-grounded messages.
This is a prime opportunity. Don’t let ANA off the hook on this. Otherwise the narrative of foreigner = “big-nosed blonde that can be made fun of” without turnabout, will ensure that Japan’s racialized commodification will be a perpetual game of “whack-a-mole.”