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Hi Blog. I’m coming to this issue a few days late, but this article has made an enormous splash in media worldwide. It’s about the latest “haafu” celebrity phenom, Rola, or Satou Eri. Read on, then I’ll comment:
Rola changing DNA of Japanese pop culture
By Alastair Himmer
AFP/Japan Today/Japan Times/et al. ARTS & CULTURE JUL. 15, 2014, courtesy of TJL
Rola changing DNA of Japanese pop culture
Japanese fashion model and TV personality Rola poses for photographs during an interview with AFP in Tokyo on May 20, 2014
In celebrity-obsessed Japan with its conveyor belt of 15-minute stars, fashion model and “talent” Rola is blazing a meteoric trail at the forefront of a galaxy of mixed-race stars changing the DNA of Japanese pop culture.
Turn on the TV and there’s no escaping the bubbly 24-year-old of Bengali, Japanese and Russian descent—she even dominates the commercial breaks.
A marketing gold mine, Rola smiles down celestially from giant billboards, her wide eyes and girlie pout grace magazine covers and she even greets you at vending machines.
But Rola, who settled in Japan when she was nine, has done it by turning the entertainment industry on its head, her child-like bluntness slicing through the strict convention that governs Japanese society.
“Whenever people told me to speak politely, I never worried about it,” she told AFP in an interview. “I’m not talking down to anyone. I’m not a comedian, it’s just how I am. It’s just being open-hearted and trying to make people open theirs.”
But it is not just her quirky charm that is breaking down barriers. Japan’s largely mono-ethnic society—a culture where skin whitening creams are still huge business—has long been mirrored by its entertainment industry.
Rola and host of others are beginning to change that.
Half-British singer and actress Becky is another superstar with model looks and a huge fan base in Japan, while half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympic vote as the city’s ambassador for “cool”.
Their rise to fame mirrors a shift in attitudes in Japan, which only opened its doors to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century and where foreigners—those without Japanese nationality, even if they were born here—make up less than two percent of a population of 127 million.
“Being of mixed race was once looked down upon,” said sociologist Takashi Miyajima. “Now foreign entertainers are admired in Japan as something untouchable. You could even say they benefit from positive discrimination.”
Rarely now do you see TV shows without at least one “haafu” (the Japanese pronunciation of “half”, meaning “mixed race”), such has been the shift.
“Young Japanese women want to be like Rola,” said psychologist Yoko Haruka, a regular on Japanese TV. “They buy the same clothes, bag. It’s like a cartoon world, the baby-face effect.
“She has the foreign look: long legs, small face, but because she is ‘half’, she’s not an object of envy at all. She’s an idol like Madonna was, but closer and easier to relate to.”
Rola’s trademark puffing of the cheeks, ditzy catchphrases, infectious giggle and carefree charm have helped make Japan’s most famous ‘It Girl’ a smash hit with legions of adoring fans.
She believes the shifting landscape has had a positive effect on Japan.
“Nationality isn’t important,” she said, dressed in tight blue jeans under a floral one-piece. “I used to think Japanese people weren’t open and should lighten up. But Japan has become brighter.
“People copying me is cool,” she added in her helium voice. “If I can do one thing to help bring a tiny improvement to Japan, that’s great.”
Born of a Bangladeshi father and a half-Japanese, half-Russian mother, Rola’s eccentricities helped overcome the language barrier when young, once turning up at elementary school in pajamas she mistook for her new uniform.
“Normally if you can’t communicate it’s frustrating but I only have fun memories of childhood,” she said. “When I was small I’d play with Barbie dolls and the next day I’d jump in the river with boys catching crayfish or playing with turtles. Maybe that’s why I use a lot of hand gestures. I naturally just made friends.”
In a culture that once might have passed over her darker tone, Rola’s exotic looks have clearly helped—she was scouted by a modelling agency on the streets of Tokyo when she was in high school.
Following in the footsteps of mixed-race glamor girls such as Jun Hasegawa and racing driver Jenson Button’s fiancee Jessica Michibata, Rola has also taken peak-time television by storm.
Japan can take its celebrity worship to extremes, David Beckham once having a giant chocolate statue dedicated to him in Tokyo while his mohican hairstyle triggered a personal grooming craze among local women during the 2002 World Cup.
“I don’t get stressed (by fame),” said Rola. “People come up to me on the street and go ‘Hi, Rola!’ as if I’m their friend.”
When not shooting commercials for everything from cosmetics or beer to headache pills or battered octopus balls, Rola is at the gym—or fishing.
“When the next trends hit, the ‘half’ (mixed race) boom will calm down a bit,” said Haruka. “But that might take a while.”
For now, Rola’s girl-next-door innocence continues to bewitch.
Asked to sum herself up in one word, she closes her eyes and offers: “A salmon, maybe. They’re not just tasty, they swim hard up rivers, so they’re tough little critters.”
COMMENT: First off, I wish Rola well. I hope she continues to make the media splash she’s making. I of course prefer that people think that “Haafu” (or rather, “Doubles”) are desirable rather than derisible. On this note, a commenter on Japan Today offered a very erudite comment, so let me quote it:
jpn_guy JUL. 14, 2014 – 09:46AM JST
The positive reaction to mixed-race models is certainly better than not wanting them on screen. It’s “anti-racist” and to be welcomed. To a certain extent, I guess it does show Japan is becoming more open and tolerant.
But like most things, it’s not that simple. For one thing, all these women are stunning beautiful. Everyone loves a good-looking girl. We knew that already! But not all mixed race people in Japan could, or even want to be, celebrities. Kids like mine just want normal lives. They might want to be a lawyer, a pilot, a shipbuilding engineer or a dental technician.
As I said, the high visibility of mixed-race people in better than being vilified and ignored, for sure. But it’s also a sign of fetishism, and a refusal to see mixed race people as just “one of us”. Celebrities are “special” by definition. Ironically, that’s why visible minorities have less difficulty breaking into this field.
The complex impact of mixed-race celebrity is well illustrated by the fact that “half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa” is actually a fully Japanese citizen by the name of Takigawa Masami – the name she used when she began her career. Apparently, so many people rang in to ask why someone with a Japanese name did not “look Japanese”, the producers forced her to use her “foreign-sounding” middle name, so that it better matched her face.
In other words, Takigawa’s success is dependent on people setting her apart as foreign even though she is Japanese. A few years ago, another TV presenter (Yutaka Hasegawa) referred to her disparagingly as “that foreigner” (ano gaijin), although to be fair he was heavily criticized by her fans (though not reprimanded by his employer).
Another example is the comedian and fully Japanese citizen Horita Seiki Antony who markets himself as “Antony”.
I remember reading about cases of mixed-race people with traditional Japanese sounding names being asked “where do you get off having that name with a face like that?”
It’s great to see all sorts of people on TV. When you get to know people, Japan is generally a warm and friendly society. But we should be very careful in making the broad claim that that Rola and her colleagues are “breaking down barriers in Japan’s largely mono-ethnic society”.
Through no fault of their own, they are sometimes perpetuating the stereotype of the exotic other.
When local people treat mixed race people and foreign people in non-celebrity fields just like anyone else, then we will have true progress.
Complete agreement, especially with the sociology. As for the media angle, I think the longer people like us have been here, we become skeptical of the “latest thing” after seeing so many “tarento” fizzle out without much impact. As another Japan Today commenter put it: “Back in the ’60s it was Karmen Maki and Ann Lewis. In the 70s there were Linda Yamamoto, Kathy Nakajima, Saori Minami and a cutsie singing trio with the stage name Golden Half. In the 80s, Rie Miyazawa, Anna Umemiya, etc. Nothing new under the sun.”
Of course, most “tarento” blaze and then fizzle without making any real impact, least of all “changing the DNA Japanese pop culture” as this article and its pundits claim. Rola in particular does not seem to be consciously promoting any increase in social tolerance of “haafu” — she’s just doing her thing, entertaining with a new (or actually, not all that new, but for now fresh-sounding) schtick as an ingenue. Of course. That’s her role as an entertainer. This has been the role of so many other entertainers, including the Kents (Kent Derricott made his pile and returned to the US to buy his mansion on the hill in Utah for his family; Kent Gilbert did much the same and lives in Tokyo with a residence in Utah as well), Leah Dizon (remember her?, already divorced from the Japanese guy who made the baby bump the speed bump in her career; she’s trying to make a comeback in Japan while based in Las Vegas), Bob Sapp, Chuck Wilson, and many, many more that I’m sure Debito.org readers will recount in comments below.
Sadly, none of these people have really made or will make a long-term impact on Japan’s mediascape. The best long-seller remains Dave Spector, who is a very, very exceptional person in terms of persistence and media processing (not to mention stellar language ability), but even he makes little pretense about being anything more than an “American entertainer” for hire. Other impactful persons I can think of are Peter Barakan and perhaps these people here. So it’s not non-existent. But it’s not powerful enough to permit “Doubles” to control their self-image in Japan, either.
Again, I wish Rola well, like I wish any broad-minded entertainer well, but I believe she is just riding a trendy wave at the moment. Her schtick is as filling and substantial to consume as cotton candy — take one bite and you get nothing left in your mouth. Especially since any little-girl act has a very short shelf life. That’s why the headline of “Changing the DNA of Japanese pop culture” is simply too high an expectation. Celebrating Rola as if she’s the next Beatles is a bit hollow and ahistorical, when Japan has never had a Beatles in terms of gaijin tarento.
This overhype (even the academics cited are going along for the ride, one of whom carelessly errs by calling her “foreign”) can be fatal for many an entertainer when people eventually tire of her current incarnation. Even if Rola becomes “successful” by revamping her act to become more substantial, she’ll just be as subsumed and co-oped as Miyazawa Rie or Becky is. Or as forgotten as Leah Dizon within a few years. Let’s hope not, and let’s hope that she becomes a long seller. But I doubt it. Because the ingenue trail she is blazing (or rather, is being blazed for her by her agents) of the “sexy-baby-voice tarento” genre has never really allowed for that.
Bonne chance. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito