My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 72: “Don’t let ANA off the hook for that offensive ad”, Jan 25, 2014, “Director’s Cut”


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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. 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 Arudou Debito


Don’t let ANA off the hook for that offensive ad
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

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.

Alright so far.  Except that, as you can see in the picture below, A is now wearing a strapped-on long nose and a big blond wig.  Off they fly to their destinations.

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

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


In 2010, Nagasaki Prefecture promoted its “foreign” buildings by showing Japanese tourists wearing—you guessed it—blond wigs and big noses.  (Ad archived at

In 2005, Mandom sold men’s cosmetics with a Rasta-man motif, juxtaposing black people with a chimpanzee.  (Ad archived at

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 (  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.

(Two apology letters
UK Independent on the apologies

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.”


35 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 72: “Don’t let ANA off the hook for that offensive ad”, Jan 25, 2014, “Director’s Cut”

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    7:40 PM, January 26
    Just saw the new version – just the old ad with the hug request, “Japanese reaction”, and nose gone. So “Let’s change the image of Japanese people” makes possibly less sense than before.

  • For those that think it is just the Advertising agency that is at fault, ponder this slight tangent:

    “..Japan NHK boss Momii sparks WWII ‘comfort women’ row…”

    “…The new head of Japan’s national broadcaster NHK has caused controversy by playing down the military’s use of sex slaves – so-called “comfort women” – during World War Two….The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, in Tokyo, says it was a shock when its new chairman started expressing very political views at his very first news conference..”

    The problem is endemic. The control freakery of Japan Inc to portray Japan is a peace loving polite friendly non-racist society is slowly falling apart. In the early and the later parts of the 20th century, that control was easily exerted. But now with the internet and email/twitter etc…such comments become globally known. Nice own goal 🙂


  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    @JDG #2 and John K #4,

    Odd how some people don’t realise how offensive the “comfort women” statements are.

    Asked about the women who were forced to provide sex to Imperial Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, … … such an institution existed in “every country” and that it is only considered wrong based on “today’s morality.”

    Let’s see if Momii wouldn’t find this offensive:

    Asked about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, … … research into the development of nuclear weapons existed in “every country” and that it is only considered wrong based on “today’s morality.”

  • Still going:-

    “..Japan’s NHK boss apologises for ‘comfort women’ comments..”

    Racism, discrimination, sex slaves….it just goes on and on….And of course the “stnadrad Japanese reply:

    “..Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, when asked about Mr Momii’s comments, said: “Our understanding is that Chairman Momii made the comment as an individual.”

    Oh so it is ok that he made it by himself is it?

    “…But he later apologised, saying: “It is my lack of discretion in that I didn’t understand the various rules….”

    Er…what rules are those?
    Oh, perhaps the rules of recognising you’ve made a statement that offends everyone that is not Japanese but must now try and cover it up with a lie hoping that settles matters?

    One can pretty much cut and paste his lame attempts at an apology with those of ANA’s. It is all the same all the time, everytime….yawn!


  • Devin Lenda says:

    What stood out to me in your piece, Debito, is that 82% number. I’d say the real number is higher, especially since the asking of the question (not sure how it was phrased either) is itself likely a suggestion that something might be wrong, prompting the respondee to think about it in a way they wouldn’t have initially. Even so, it’s quite a high number.

    ANA is just saying what everyone is thinking, only they’re making it a little more explicit. Arguably worse is the racism that hides, the microaggressions discussed a while back, including one that I haven’t seen discussed much, the word nihonjin itself. Nihonjin is a racist category and a racial slur against all who are not it. Tell a nihonjin that your blue-eyed child is a nihonjin by virtue of having grown up in Japan and the first point is proven by their dismissive reaction. The second is true because all racism is a slur against not-us races. Given that race is genetically baseless and that everywhere it exists it works on behalf of the in-group, there’s no other way it would exist in the first place except as racially motivated.

    Every sentence that starts out “日本人は” without qualifying that term ends up reinforcing Japanese racism. Nihonjin is a self-serving fiction and it’s everywhere. It’s at least as bad as the term “gaijin” that props it up. And they say it all the time, right out in the open. And far more than 82% (99.99%?) are OK with that.

    So I’ll try to avoid ANA just as a “screw them” but I’ll probably end up flying Korean Air, which is likely run by Korean racists.

    — I’ve appended a screen capture of the 82% Yahoo Japan poll above, and mentioned the problematic way the poll was worded.

  • How could a major world airline come out with such a dumb advert?? Beyond belief.
    Thanks Debito, great article as usual!

  • Maybe part of the whole ‘problem’ with Japan, not just ANA, is that “omnipotent gerontocracy” at every level of decision making and power (control) across the whole spectrum of society? There doesn’t seem to be any kind of cultural or economic entrepreneuring spirit among those of younger years. Or if there is, they’re not rocking the boat hard enough. Once travelled and then returned to the colony, they seem to be entirely unscathed by their overseas experiences, and content to fit back into the regimented society which produces ads and attitudes like this.
    The old guard were oh-so-wrong so often before, yet there are no emerging challengers, bright lights with new ideas to share the inspiration of a better way. Relations with the PRC being a perfect example. Could it be that the majority of Japanese people are happy as clams with this status-quo? Or just resigned to ‘the way it’s always been’?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Ah, and here’s Hashi-moron coming out to support the NHK chiefs sex-slave denial.

    If, like Germany, Japan had any laws against this kind of thing, Hashimoto would have got the boot last year. But instead of learning from his experience (which did Japan no end of good internationally, right?) last year, he wasn’t taught anything, and is free to keep mouthing off.

    I can’t wait to see the international opinion of Japan by the time of the 2020 olympics if they keep this up!
    I can see at least 2 countries boycotting at this rate.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Jim, rental gaijin, WTF? I had a look and was annoyed to find ハワイ人(USA)、25、英会話教師 only 2000 yen (noticeably cheaper than the others on the site!)

    This is a cute, but non-Caucasian, girl so the site seems to think they have to “explain” her background like she is not from the fictionally white country USA, but from Hawaii (actually, USA).

    As if to say, hey we know she looks “Asian” but hold on now, she is from USA, and the reason she looks like that is she is from Hawaii (plug for the gaikoku most Japanese have been to).

    Having said that, I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who would rent themselves out on this basis.

    — I have the feeling that site is a piss-take.


    Debito, have you not seen this ad recently? Especially the youtube commercial? Honestly, I feel the ANA ad is offensive, but this ad is both offensive AND sexist as well.

    Not sure why this hasn’t been mentioned, it is all OVER Tokyo

    — I was going to mention this earlier, but I decided to wait until after ANA, where it will segue nicely. But then I got a bit busy this past week. Should have it up very soon. Thanks for notifying.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    @ Gman #14

    I agree the ad is annoying (the poster version on the trains proclaims in Japanese “the world is your rival”), but it is harder to convince people that it is racist. No-one is resorting to fake accents, wigs, false body parts, grossly exaggerated gestures, etc.

    As for sexist claims, well, the “flip test” would prove that. Swap the genders of the bride, groom and jilted boyfriend, and see it that causes offence. My own guess is that the older males in the offices who actually give ads the green light would find that situation problematic.

    — I’ve just created a separate blog entry for this issue. Please feel free to repeat this comment there. Thanks.
    Discussion: How about this ad by COCO’s English Juku, learning English to get a competitive advantage over foreign rivals?

  • A slight tangent, but a “shoe on the other foot” aspect.

    “..Japan’s wartime sex slavery featured at manga festival in France..”

    Don’t you just love this comment:
    “..Japanese Ambassador to France Yoichi Suzuki expressed regret over the event, titled Festival de la Bande Dessinee d’Angouleme, and the Japanese government planned to hand out brochures to visitors explaining its stance on the issue..”

  • Jim di Griz says:

    Well, the new NHK boss just doesn’t seem to want to learn from his mistake last week. Now he’s saying that the Nanking Massacre never happened, and all sides carried out atrocities anyway.

    I’m beggining to suspect this guy is a Chinese sleeper agent, planted inside the Japanese establishment for the sole purpose of embarrassing Japan at every single opportunity! Although, sadly, I know the truth is that he is a clueless old right-wing fart.

  • I just read a different report that says the Nanking comment wasn’t made by the same guy who made the sex-slave comment last week, but by another of Abe’s friends who was given a seat on the directors committee at NHK.
    Does anyone know for sure who said this?

  • #17 JDG
    Slight tangent.
    I wonder whether the real reason for installing this ancient relic of the past that should really be in a museum for people to gawk, is that Japan with its constant denials has painted itself so far into a corner and is searching for a “diplomatic” way out whilst saving face amongst the faithful. Since he (NHK boss) can now be used as a scapegoat (to pacify C) to initiate “talks” of sorts between J and C, on such contentious issues, rather than have Abe and his Hawks ignoring history and its neighbours feelings. It would then be a “sign” to the US, suggesting an olive branch to China, see…we come in peace, we don’t mean to offend!! Typical kabuki/noh play in action….or I could be completely wrong and the whole administration of every layer within Govt has the same mindset of denial and ignorance on history.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @JDZ, #17

    Actually, that’s a different one from NHK CEO Katsuto Momii. The guy in the BBC article is Naoki Hyakuya, one of the governing committees (don’t know why he’s called a governor, it’s confusing) of NHK.
    I enjoyed watching Momii being grilled and reprimanded by a NHK-friendly questioner Kazuhiro Haraguchi(DPJ). Note: he’s also pro-Yasukuni.

    Naoki Hyakuya is a book author and very conservative on Japanese politics. I found that this man made an utterly disgusting tweet about young Japanese girls, and a stupid rant on the Asahi news writers last week.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @John K,

    No, I don’t think there is any clever manipulation going on. This is just the real Japan that dared not speak it’s name, until emboldened by a revisionist PM, and encouraged by seeing no one being punished in any way for making similarly outrageous comments. ‘Let all the poison that lurks in the mud seep out’, (or whatever it was that Claudius allegedly said).

  • I have just finished watching the German 3 part Generation War, about how ideological

    extremism has not only immediate personal but ongoing historical consequences.

    While there has been criticism about the program, to put it into a Japanese context….

    “Is Japan capable of not only making but also openly screening a similar scenario on its past ?”

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    In a ‘shoe on the other foot’ moment, I’d like to present this;

    The citizens of Hiroshima are demanding that Obama recognize that the atomic bombing was a ‘war-crime’ because they believe (in a moment of mass delusion) that if the US owns up to it’s ‘war-crime’, then the Japanese government will too! (poor Nagasaki, forgotten again!).

    There is a lot I could say about the bombing of Hiroshima, but all I want to say is; What if Obama responded the way Hashimoto, Ishihara, Abe, Aso, Tamogami, or the NHK governors did, and said something like:-

    ‘The atomic bombing of Hiroshima never happened. It’s all an anti-American lie, spread by the Japanese. There is no agreement amongst serious academics as to the exact number of casualties, and the Japanese always claim a number much higher than that estimated by other countries. In any event, the bombing is only wrong by the morals of today. All countries did the same thing anyway’

  • #22JDG

    Well, if this is anything to go by, it could be the other way around:

    “..A top US diplomat has called on China to clarify or adjust its territorial claims in the South China Sea in accordance with international law…”

    Since may be this would finally (may be??) clarify for the whole world, what the “legal” issues truly are and who really owns/claims what and under what arguments. As China maintains it is theirs under the Cairo Agreement, but Japan side swiped the “let sleeping dogs lay” with selling the islands, thus breaching the terms of the agreement.

    Interesting times ahead 🙂

  • Bitter Valley says:

    The acid/ acidic test is always, how does the boot fit on the other foot, isn’t it?

    So, imagine a hitherto hic/ provincial U.S. airline doing a commercial featuring (bad joke intended) two blokes in aircrew costumes talking about the extension of Utah Air, formerly just only servicing the denizens of the good ol’ U.S. of A (“USA! USA! USA!”) extending its frights to the “Far East.”

    Our internationalist hero puts on his sarariman grasses and buck-toofo and says: “We fry to Orient, Jap sexigirurando now! See, wee international.
    You do good deal, Far Easto!”

  • Baudrillard says:

    @Karjh12, TV Asahi did make quite a good dorama about the brother of China’s last Emperor and his Japanese wife- in 2003, before the current right wing revisionism really kicked in;

    A bit sappy, but it got favorable comments from Chinese viewers, even though all the actors were Japanese (a weakness of the drama, along with their dodgy Mandarin speaking at times).

    I do remember one scene where a horsed Pu Chieh-an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army-stops a Japanese foot soldier committing atrocities on a civilian Chinese couple, and the soldier sneers at him and makes disparaging, racist comments about the Chinese before slinking off.

    This bit was quite cutting edge for Holocaust Denialist Japan, I thought at the time, a welcome bit of fiction that told the truth (in yet another postmodern irony).

  • Jim di Griz says:

    In the wake of the ANA scandal, this is interesting;

    Japanese netizens scream ‘racism’ at Air France poster that has Caucasian model in Japan’s national dress!
    Seriously? You have to be Japanese to be a geisha now? Last I heard, THAT was racism!
    After all, it’s not like they taped her eyes back and tried to make her look like she was faking Japanese ethnicity.
    Does this mean that next time I see a Japanese guy in blue jeans, I can scream racism because he isn’t an American? No, it does not! It is not racist to wear another countries national dress!

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Oh, and here we have Japanese screaming racism at a music clip. “She uses Japanese words in a meaningless way in her song!” “She has expressionless back-dancers implied to be Japanese!”

    日本で撮影のアヴリル・ラヴィーンMVは人種差別的? アヴリル本人が批判に反論



     だが批判に対して、アヴリルはツイッターで「人種差別的? LOLOLOL!!!(注:爆笑の意)わたしは日本の文化を愛しているわ」と反論。「わたしは日本のファンのことを考えて、このビデオを撮るために東京に行ったのよ。日本では日本のレーベル、日本人の振付師、日本人の監督と仕事をしたわ」と日本へのリスペクトが根底にあることを説明した。


    And the video in question


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