AFP: “Tarento Rola changing DNA of Japanese pop culture”. I wish her well, but the hyperbolic hype is not warranted


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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 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

11 comments on “AFP: “Tarento Rola changing DNA of Japanese pop culture”. I wish her well, but the hyperbolic hype is not warranted

  • Oh dear ….well, an old English saying “a single rose doesn’t make it summer” comes to mind.

    It also flies in the face of “openness” and “acceptance” and “prejudice”of art(ists) when one, whom is Japanese, is trying to push similar boundaries herself.

    “…Japan ‘vagina artist’ arrest sparks debate…Tokyo-based artist Megumi Igarashi, 42, was arrested on Saturday for sending data that could be used to create 3D models of her vagina…The arrest made headlines in national media and triggered discussion on Japan’s obscenity laws.”*

    So here we have again the evidence of the lack of “openness” and simple control, that is typical of Japanese society that does not conform to their social norms. The former, being “kawaii” and “wow, she looks different”…is an image that can still be “controlled” by the media, despite the fact they open note their own racism but “hey its ok…because she is ‘cool’…”. But when one treads a different path, one that cannot be controlled like Rola, it’s business as usual. What is Art(itistic)….it is whatever the Japanese social police/media deem acceptable or “controllable”… since as Mariko Oi notes “..Others have questioned why the image of a vagina is seen as obscene when images of penises are not seen as causing offence….”. Ergo one must still conform, if not…one is ostracised or worse, arrested for having a different opinion to the masses. The wonders of a monotone society, neh!


    — I was wondering if the Igarashi Case would somehow surface on It is a very worthy debate on stunning degrees of hypocrisy, but I couldn’t see what kind of a peg to hang it on here. Looks like you found one.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    This whole story is a meaningless fluff piece.
    I mean, good luck to Rola, she been totally commoditized;
    “Nationality isn’t important,” she said, dressed in tight blue jeans under a floral one-piece.
    See? She’s just another aspect of Japanese fetishization of ‘non-Japanese’ woman. She’s a disposable toy.

    What other examples have they got? Interestingly, despite all the examples of ‘double’ or NJ entertainers in Japan that Debito lists, the article avoids all of them (because that would show that Rola is nothing especially new, and undermine the premise of the article), and focuses on Becky (who looks like a model, according to the article, so what’s she selling?), and Christel Takigawa, whose claim to fame is that she helped Abe lie to the international community to secure the Tokyo Olympics (for a news reader/journalist, doesn’t that represent a moral hazard?).

    In short, the article doesn’t list any double or NJ entertainers who are raising the level of intellectual public debate in Japan, because in Japan, they would be forbidden from having the opportunity to do so (hell, even Japanese talent is not allowed an opinion on anything that really matters), no, what we have instead is a (short) parade of sexually objectified women who are being used to reinforce the notion that somehow ‘Japan is changing’, and that’s something we’ve all heard a million times before. I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    As for Igarashi and the vagina (vulva, surely?) boat, well I remember just a few weeks ago that male manga and anime artists were protesting to high heaven that child rape manga should not be made illegal because it’s the artists ‘freedom of expression’. Seems that doesn’t apply to Igarashi’s work, which IMHO has none of the seriously disturbed overtones of kiddie rape comics. But hey, ‘this is Japan’.

  • A bunch of empty-headed teens think she is this week’s definition of “cool”, so they follow her every move. The pimps who run the media are quick to tune in to this idol-worship, and put her in print and on tv to sell stuff. She, in turn, is good looking, and people are listening to her (right now). But don’t expect any deep thinking coming from her or the vultures feeding off of her celebrity.

    If she softens some long held Japanese attitudes about race, this in and of itself is a good thing, no?

    — It would be. Let’s have an example of what long-held attitude she is (willfully or unwillfully) softening.

  • has there ever been an example of a foreign born, or “half” entertainer in Japan who has openly campaigned against racism or discrimination? Not to my knowledge. I think they all know not to bite the hand that feeds. If one of them suddenly felt a pang of conscious or integrity during any of the mindless shows they usually appear on, you can bet whatever they had to say would be edited out and the offender mysteriously disappear from TV altogether.

    The vapid Rola is the unlikeliest candidate to comment on discrimination, let alone spell it correctly.

  • Baudrillard says:

    “half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympic vote as the city’s ambassador for “cool”.

    So there you have it; Tokyo got the Olympics by using an international face. I like Christel, but its ironic that she was at the center of a controversy a while back at her place of work where some insensitive Oyajni director referred to her as “the foreign girl”- still no concept that she is Japanese, reads the news in Japanese no less!

    Just because she looks a bit different. But then postmodern Japan has always been about IMAGE. And the predetermined relations between these images.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Bob #5

    You’re quite right.
    All NJ/double talent in Japan have made a career from playing up to and reinforcing Japanese racist preconceptions of ‘the other’.

    Damon Carver is a case in point; he is the knowingly token black man in the Softbank ‘family’. There’s nothing subtle about it; he must be as fully aware as the viewer is of his role as such, with no other function than to fulfill a stereotype. Good luck to him, I hope his career in Japan hasn’t fizzled out, because with that CV, he is pretty much unemployable back home as an actor; ‘Oh, Mr. Carver, take a seat. Looking at your resume, and the commercials on youtube, I see that you were the ‘funny black guy’ in a Japanese family….’

  • Baudrillard says:

    Identity fetishism is an important part of postmodern Japan, as it searches for an identity. Dovetailing with commodity fetishism, imagined by Marx but never quite in the way it would come into being in Japan in the 21st century, celebrities are fetished commodities. As postmodern philosophers have also noted, we see the relationships between images not people.

    Thus, one cannot really expect someone like Rola who gets a job based on image to break the mold and say something incompatible with that image.

    “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.”

    It is like stereotypes of blacks as entertainers, and that is OK to racists, that is their role, as entertainers.
    As Cartman says to Token in South Park, “Ok you can play bass in our band”. When Token objects, Cartman says “Youre black, of course you have a bass…”

    “Youre a good looking gaijin- of course you can model/be a tarento/sit mindlessly in the background of a comedy show to make it appear glamorous and international.”

    Damon Carver is cringeworthy-especially the ad where the mum says to him “You look like Obama”. She later changes her mind but come on, they look nothing alike, just the same race (actually, not even).

  • Baudrillard says:

    p.s.“People copying me is cool,” is so lame and ego driven.
    Pride comes before a fall.

    Also sad that Japan is still the land of “copying”. At least in her mind.

  • A comment on the Megumi Igarashi scandal. Sorry, but I am completely cynical on ANY form of publicity/self expression promoted in contemporary Japan. Igarashi’s point seems to be that she wants to sell images of her body parts for money: The argument really isn’t about the commodification of sexuality; that’s a given. If their is any thought gone into this, it’s that Megumi Igarashi is trying to shift the debate over WHO profits from said commodification. In the long run, it’s not women or “haafus” who currently profit (outside of the short term), it’s the Japanese insider patriarchy. It’s still commodification for money at the end of the day, whether it’s someone selling their dignity on TV or mass producing their body parts to buy a kayak. Is it really a step up from schoolgirls selling whatever to old lechers so that they can buy nice handbags? It’s not really challenging the dominant narrative.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Japan’s fake behavioural Theatre of the Absurd again, with BURIKKO role-playing, as opposed to Uncle Tom (James?) Gaijin. “Her odd behavioral tics, meant to enhance her adorability, include puffing out her cheeks and pursing her lips in an exaggerated fashion. Like her inability to speak polite Japanese and the resulting embarrassed effusions, they betray innocence and earnestness at the same time. Unlike other similarly talent-challenged female model-idols, whether wholly Japanese or mongrel, she gets away with the act because she doesn’t use it to suck up to her interlocutors. Three years ago, when she made her first appearance on the talk show “Odoru! Sanma Goten,” the host, comedian Sanma Akashiya, asked her bluntly, “Did your agency tell you to act that way?” ”

    All this, plus trial by media at:

    Incidentally, on one has bothered to comment on this article. Neither can I.


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