San Francisco Chronicle on McDonald’s Japan “Mr James” campaign, and similar ethnically-insensitive sales campaigns overseas
Posted by debito on September 3rd, 2009
Hi Blog. Here’s a column to bushwhack your way through. I’m not sure whether the article is about the “Mr James” campaign or about me, but I appreciate the feedback. I also stand corrected: I thought McD’s in America would never try an Asian version character like “Mr James” in the US. Seems McD’s is a serial stereotyper. As I wrote on Tuesday in the Japan Times, protest media images if you don’t like them, wherever they occur. A letter to the company may just kick off a constructive discussion. Arudou Debito in Muroto, southern Shikoku
McRacism in Japan?
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
The blogosphere has been aflame over the last month as a group of marginalized and disenfranchised (and mostly Caucasian) individuals have fought back against a juggernaut that has, in their eyes, compromised their personal rights and cast aspersions upon them.
No, I’m not talking about health care reform protestors or tea party organizers. These angry activists are in Japan, not the U.S. — and the monolith they’re fighting against isn’t the federal government, but an entity whose worldwide influence is possibly even more potent: Global burgermeister McDonald’s.
Last month, Mickey D’s began an advertising campaign for four new Japan-only burgers it dubbed the “Nippon All-Stars.” These include the “Tamago Double Mac” (two all-beef patties, bacon, mushrooms, a fried egg and instant cardiac arrest), the “Tsukimi Burger” (a one-story version of the Tamago), the Chicken Tatsuya (battered chicken sandwich, heavy on the mayo) and the Gracoro (a cheesy, saucy deep-fried croquette on a bun).
But it’s not the taste or the health implications of the sandwiches that has led to this backlash — it’s the marketing.
That’s because the national face of the Nippon All-Stars campaign is a happy, dorky, bespectacled white tourist named “Mr. James.” Clad in regulation nerd uniform — red short-sleeved shirt, mismatched tie, rumpled khakis and a permanently stunned expression — Mr. James shouts about the deliciousness of the burgers in broken Japanese on commercials that have saturated TV, the Internet and print publications.
“What’s the matter [with this depiction]? Put the shoe on the other foot,” wrote foreigner-rights advocate Debito Arudou (nee David Ardwinckle) [sic] in a column for The Japan Times. “Imagine McDonald’s, a multinational that has long promoted cultural diversity, launching a McAsia menu in America, featuring a deep-bowing, grimacing Asian in a bathrobe and platform sandals saying, ‘Me likee McFlied Lice!’ or, ‘So solly, prease skosh honorable teriyaki sandrich?’”
Of course, in the past, McDonald’s has essentially done just that. During last year’s Olympics, it unveiled a commercial featuring two Chinese kids engaged in high-flying wire-fu combat in an ancient temple, dueling it out with fists and feet and chopsticks over the last McNugget in the pack.
Seeing that ad brought back memories of McDonald’s limited-edition “Shanghai” Chicken McNuggets, which briefly appeared on menus back in 1986. Served in a red takeout box stamped with cartoon-Chinese lettering, they came with a fortune cookie, chopsticks and three absurdly non-Shanghainese dippings: “duck sauce,” hot mustard and … teriyaki sauce.
Worst of all, to complete the pseudo-Sino experience, the chain’s employees were forced to wear conical McCoolie hats — a bit of irony given their minimum-wage status — while commercials ended with mascot-clown Ronald McDonald throwing a karate chop to faux Asian music.
Lame, ignorant campaigns like this one may seem innocuous. But they give people license to mock and exclude people based on racial or cultural difference, which in turn can lead down a slippery slope to more troubling outcomes.
(My own private Shanghai McNugget trauma came when I found myself pelted with them by a bunch of leering, gibberish-spouting fellow high schoolers while quietly eating a non-oriental menu item. Although I wouldn’t exactly assign the experience hate crime status, the pointier, vaguely Indiana-shaped nuggets could have put an eye out, and had things gone McBad escalation might have led to my getting a Quarter Pounding — or even a full-on Big Mac Attack.)
Given that, two decades later, offensive images of Asians are still common in American media, it’s understandable that some Asian Americans have reacted to the outcry against the Mr. James campaign with “turnabout is fair play” schaudenfreude rather than sympathy.
I’ll admit that my own initial reaction wasn’t far from that of the authors of the blog Disgrasian, whose gleeful post included the line “karma is a b*tch.” But upon further reflection, it’s not clear how the depiction of white stereotypes in Japan is appropriate payback for media abuses against Asians in the U.S.
Besides, asks James S., founder and editor-in-chief of the popular Japan-based blog Japan Probe, “Are we in some kind of race to win last place in the stereotyping Olympics? Foreign residents in Japan shouldn’t be held accountable for bad things other people in their country of origin are doing. Arguing about which countries have worse stereotyping accomplishes nothing.”
Here and There
Even if who-has-it-worse debates are unproductive, as James S. suggests, a comparison of cultural landscapes is an illuminating way of providing context around our own experiences. America’s diversity of race, origin and belief, and the standards that protect us against discrimination via those categories, are unique among nations. They’re at the core of our democracy, and they’re the foundation of our national identity.
Japan, meanwhile, is a largely homogenous society with certain factors that have contributed to a very strong “insider-outsider” sensibility.
“There’s undoubtedly a strong distinction between Japanese and non-Japanese in Japan, largely due to Japan’s history of isolation, its island geography, and the population itself, which is largely Japanese,” says Gen Kanai, a veteran blogger who writes about Japanese cultural and technological trends. “These aren’t factors that can or will change quickly, so I believe this distinction will stay with Japan for the foreseeable future.”
The insider-outsider distinction is integrated into Japan’s very language, as Kanai points out. “In Japanese, all non-Japanese words are put into their own writing system, katakana,” he says. “And the adjectives gai — outside — and nai — inside — are often used to indicate whether an idea or product is from Japan, or from elsewhere.”
Or, for that matter, a person: The term “gaijin,” a casual shortening of the more formal “gaikokujin,” is Japan’s default expression for foreigner — to the dismay of activists like Debito Arudou, who has publicly argued that gaijin is as offensive a term for non-Japanese as “n*gger” is for blacks.
Debito’s point is that the term reinforces a dismissive, permanent “alien” status that allows foreigners to be offhandedly discriminated against, by both institutions and individuals.
“Gaijin is not a nice word, and I have not modified my opinion that it is akin to ‘n*gger’ in application,” says Debito. “Is that stance confrontational? That’s a matter of opinion, but people are debating the issues and that’s what matters in the end.”
Debito has spent much of the quarter-century he’s lived in Japan pushing for such reactions. His most famous campaign remains his 2001 lawsuit against a hot spring resort in the small village of Otaru [sic], which displayed a “JAPANESE ONLY” sign at its entrance; the resort’s operators indicated that the policy against non-Japanese guests was due to previous problems with “drunken Russian sailors.” Debito and two co-plaintiffs won their anti-discrimination suit, each receiving $25,000 in damages.
His latest cause has been challenging the “gaijin cards” that foreigners in Japan must keep with them at all times, noting that the IC chips within the cards could be used to track non-Japanese “like the aliens in ‘Aliens 2.’” (He acknowledges that there’s a “tinfoil hat” aspect to his concerns, but as with most of his causes, he believes that doing something is always better than doing nothing.)
These flamboyant initiatives and contentious pronouncements in the pages of The Japan Times have not won him unalloyed support even among his fellow expatriates.
“I can’t really say I agree with the causes Debito chooses or many of the tactics he uses,” says Japan Probe’s James S. “His methods lead to the lumping of all foreign residents together, creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality for the Japanese. I think that any approach to fighting discriminatory practices needs to include the Japanese in the movement.”
As sympathetic as James S. is to Debito’s fight to win open access to hot springs resorts, he points to more serious concerns foreign residents in Japan face, such as housing discrimination. “It is common for landlords to absolutely refuse to rent apartments or houses to foreigners, regardless of employment status, language ability, or type of visa,” he says. “It is not a fun to have a real estate agent tell you that he or she must phone a landlord to ‘check if gaijin are okay’ before you can view an apartment.”
That’s a situation that might shock Americans, who’ve grown up with the expectation that all residents of our country have equal protection under law. And though it’s not always easy, much less automatic, anyone can become an American citizen, and once you’re a citizen, you’re an American, period.
At least, officially. One of the things that’s troubling about the state of political discourse in this country is that Americanness has become less and less absolute. Politicians of both parties, but especially the Right, have taken to reflexively invoking the concept of “real” Americans, with a greater degree of realness ascribed to those upholding their standards of religion (Christianity), residency (rural and smalltown Midwest and South), place of birth (the mainland U.S.), and class (blue-collar and working class). It’s a terrible trend, and its consequences are toxic.
Japan, driven by demographic imperatives, is slowly lowering its “outsider/insider” firewall. As its society ages and fewer children are born — Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world — welcoming foreigners in may be critical to maintaining a productive society. And with newly elected Yukio Hatayama poised to become the first Prime Minister from the reformist Democratic Party of Japan, which won a shocking landslide victory this week to break the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s decades-long stranglehold on power — it’s thought that the new regime might be open to revisiting of Japan’s absurdly restrictive immigration policies.
“I’m hopeful for the future,” says James S. “I think that Japan will gradually become more open and diverse.”
Meanwhile, America seems headed in the opposite direction, with backlashes against immigrants, a return to isolationism and even questions about the legitimacy and birth status of the President becoming surprisingly mainstream. Red-meat issues for some — but for the idea of America, a recipe for disaster.
Jeff Yang forecasts global consumer trends for the market-research company Iconoculture (www.iconoculture.com). He is the author of “Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China,” co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and “Eastern Standard Time,” and editor of the forthcoming “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology” (www.secretidentities.org). He lives in New York City. Go to http://altreviews.com/cgi-bin/dada/mail.cgi to join INSTANT YANG, Jeff Yang’s biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian / Asian American pop-culture news, or connect with him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1074720260, LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jeffcyang, or Twitter:http://twitter.com/originalspin.