Pet peeve: How media casting choices based upon ethnicity contribute to cultural ignorance.


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Hi Blog. I thought I’d write today about one of my pet peeves: people substituting ethnicity for skills, and adding to the general public’s ignorance about Japan.

What pulled my chain this time: I watched an hourlong Discovery Channel program early last Sunday morning at midnight (a show called “Japan Revealed” in a series entitled “Discovery Atlas”), and on it they had a show full of stereotypes. From where I started watching, we went for a dive amongst some underwater ruins off Yonaguni Island which are purportedly older than the Egyptian Pyramids. Then suddenly we were jerked across the archipelago to attend a series about robots fighting (along with some hooey about how Japanese religion sees souls in everything, therefore Japanese like robots more). Then next we veered into a segment about Ama pearl divers and their dying tradition, and then careened into a bit about some fisherman trying to catch his once-or-twice-a-year big tuna “by tradition” (including “traditional” radar fish tracking, of course; with little time devoted to the majority of thousands of tuna actually brought to Tsukiji by “less traditional methods” — like imports). Then we coasted into a tattoo artist’s parlor for a lowdown on how radical one master artist has become by defying tradition — mixing seasons on his Yakuza body canvasses. At this point, I said, “What’s next? Geisha?” Yup. We skimmed a few stones over a fan dance, and then concluded how Japan’s special appreciation for nature and tradition and modernity makes it a special place (oh, brother).

I wish they’d just stuck with the underwater ruins off Yonaguni (which the show claimed could “rewrite world history”), and stopped retreading the same old hackneyed (and, crucially, unrevealing) images about Japan.

But what really got me revved up were the production values. Every time they had somebody talking in Japanese, the English voiceover came across as Hollywoodesque Ah-so-istic (think Mr Moto, Mr Miyagi, Grasshopper, or a few notches below Tokyo Rose in skill level). Moreover, who was the narrator? Masi Oka, one star of TV show “Heroes“, who showed his inability to speak Japanese reflecting even a rudimentary knowledge of Japan (saying words like “YaKUUza” and “Two-ki-ji”). He was hired not only for star power, but also ethnicity. Only Asians can talk about Asia, I guess.

You might be able to justify this kind of casting for comedy or satire, I suppose. Hire a token Asian and you can get away with poking more fun at Asia. But there are limits. People like Gedde Watanabe and Sab Shimono narrated the famous Simpsons’ “Mr Sparkle” episode (where Hokkaido soap factories, natch, were prominently featured 😉 ). Fine. But their Japanese was terrible, and I mean lousy (not even “Kitchen-Japanese” level). At least King of the Hill hired native speaker Matsuda Seiko (albeit to say one word: “Dansu!”) for their controversial (and, I have to admit, very funny) “Returning Japanese” Tokyo Trip episode. And even taboo-humor South Park shows a lot of moxie (and surprising depth: obviously they were coached both in terms of content and vocals by a native, I think Trey Parker’s boyfriend) in their episodes about video games and the marketing of Pokemon (“chinpoko-mon“: Love it).

But the Discovery Channel should be held to higher standards, especially if they’re doing a documentary to help people somehow “discover” a country in an hour. Instead, the program rankled, as though I was watching a condensed version of equally-irritating “Karate Kid” (indicatively retitled “Besuto Kiddo” for the Japanese market), or, put in a different light, (British) Robin Hood being played by (a very American) Kevin Costner (which caused no end of consternation in the UK). Let’s at least have less poetic license in nonfiction, please.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll give one more inside reason why this irks me: In 1991, as I was about to graduate from grad school, I did a lot of job interviews for American companies (particularly the kitchen-sink importers around San Diego, since at the time that was where I wanted to stay, not work in Los Angeles, Chicago, or the East Coast). Since I was trained in doing business in Japan, and spoke Japanese, I was hopeful that I would be on an equal footing with other job candidates. However, the Nikkei Americans in my classes, some of whom spoke no better (or, in some cases, worse) Japanese than I did, were making the case in their interviews and cover letters that their Asian roots were an asset. “Asians don’t like negotiating with foreign faces. Wouldn’t you prefer to hire a person with the right face for the job?” wrote one in paraphrase. The (non-Asian) employers bought into it. And I lost out to the Nikkei. So for the record: Japan has no monopoly on racism; it’s just a shame that the Americans couldn’t see beyond theirs when their “culturally-relativistic” weak spots got manipulated thusly.

I wound up coming back to Japan and getting much better employment in the end, so all’s well in retrospect. But I still dislike seeing casters with high public exposure choosing people not according to skill or knowledge level, instead rather whether or not they “look Asian”. Ethnicity should not be seen as a skill, or viewed as some kind of ideological conveyer belt into “The Ethnic Mind”. It’s not. Especially when those people haven’t even bothered to learn “The Ethnic Language”. That’s a personality quirk I have which comes out every now and again, when I see just how much this dynamic contributes to further stereotyping and ignorance towards Japan, videlicet this deeply-flawed Discovery Channel documentary.

Let’s have better-informed commentary about cultural issues, shall we, by choosing properly-qualified people? End of rant. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

PS: “Japan Revealed”‘s official website at

13 comments on “Pet peeve: How media casting choices based upon ethnicity contribute to cultural ignorance.

  • Debito,

    That’s not a rant; it’s a pretty calm and lucid discussion of a very real manifestation of racist ignorance. One of the ironies of “educated” and “tolerant” mainstream society in the US is its implicit racism. Everybody (except those of Anglo-Saxon heritage) supposedly has an inborn ethnicity, which as you pointed out, is assumed to mystically possess some unique and valuable mindset and knowledge.

    Good run-down on the quality of Japanese language use in US TV. I had never bothered to see South Park, which had seemed only some ugly cut-out animation with potty jokes, until a friend sat me down and showed me “Chimpokomon”, which had the most authentic Japanese language and “cultural” content I’d *ever* seen in *any* US-produced entertainment.

    The only thing I’d say to qualify your statements would be that the employers being hoodwinked with the “right face” argument may have simply been thinking, “OK, these jokers in Asia are knuckle-dragging racists, so for the sake of the bottom line, we’d better play along”. Dunno.

    — I doubt it. I doubt many of them got beyond seeing Asia with any sophistication beyond hearing a “shakuhachi and gong” soundtrack.

  • I guess its not so different from Japanese programs about foreign countries… I think they show these stereotypes because that’s what people expect about such and such of country. Fair enough its a big joke but its difficult to really change society’s impression of it all.. i.e all Americans love hamburgers and are really loud, all Japanese wear kimono’s and that sort of thing.

    But I agree that the discovery channel should do a better job about it, nothing really to “discover” in that episode besides the fact that our sterotypes are still around

  • I thought Masi Oka spoke Japanese just fine? I saw him on talk shows when Heroes got to Japan. Wasn’t he just saying the words how English audience would understand them the easiest?

    Agree with rant though.

  • As a (somewhat) Japanophile and white dude who lives in Asia, can I just say that that “Mr. Sparkle” episode is one of my all-time favorite Simpsons episodes? Hilarious.

    As far as the topic of this article goes, you had me up until the whole Kevin Costner thing. I, personally, think there is no problem with casting an actor of different nationality/ethnicity (whatever) from the character in a role so long as they can pull it off. Couple years ago I remember the stink that was raised in both China and Japan about Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh playing Japanese in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Not just in those two countries, but also among Asian-Americans back in the old country who felt it was insulting. I don’t see what the fuss is all about since a Russian actor was recently cast in a biopic of of (Canadian) doctor Norman Bethune here in China and it didn’t bother me all that much (although that was a bit different from the point you were making here).

    Anyway, maybe we all just need to lighten up a little.

    — Sorry, but you missed my point completely. I too am arguing that anyone can be cast in a role of character or narrator if they’re qualified. Just being of a certain ethnicity does not automatically make one qualified.

    What I was getting at was the qualification of Kevin Costner. Costner does not do accents (the best he did was in “JFK”, but even in “Thirteen Days” he didn’t even attempt a Boston accent). As you said, if he could pull if off, fine. He couldn’t. Watch that movie and see what I mean.

  • Trey Parker does not have a “boyfriend” as his wife is Japanese.

    I think Masi Oka speaks Japanese just fine (certainly my wife has no complaints whenever Heroes comes on) but he grew up in the States so I’m sure he doesn’t have the “cultural fluency” you speak of. Don’t forget that when it comes to TV, a know-nothing producer may have the final say in pronouncing words that the audience might not recognize in their native form. Think of “karaoke” versus “carry-okie.”

    — My apologies for the mistake regarding Trey Parker. I had heard otherwise.

  • I couldn’t agree more with the rant. Like you pointed out, one would expect Discovery Channel to present a more
    honest picture of what the country is really like. The questions you have to ask is, Where’s the money coming from?
    I also agree with Carl regarding the point about actors in films.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Ah, the old travel documentaries. Back in my year as a high school teacher in Australia, I taped a Lonely Planet guide to show my students. Good thing I decided to pre-view it to check for content.
    “Japan, from Tokyo to Taipei” – Umm, isn’t Taipei in Taiwan?
    50% of the program was people doing ultra-traditional things which most of the population don’t do, and the rest was meeting [cue East London accent] “another British girl who works in a hostess bar”

    Of course, anything Japanese do is, by definition, traditional and unique.

  • I agree with Arduou Debito. I have mentioned this many times to my co-workers about this show and other shows that portraits the same stereotype on Japan as well as North East Asia as they do for Hawaii for the same reasons. They reply to me “that I am over reacting”, which I mentioned to them, “Do you have a North-East Asian BA and MA, working on your PhD, being of mix background, lived in Hawaii all your life, and lived in Korea and in Japan as a teacher? Worked with the US government on Asian/US relations, working in country in some cases? Not seeing history or culture from a Northern Western European/White American view? Stating a racist remark on a war that you (my co-workers) were not part of, 67 years ago? Having Korean and Japan family members to have a personal understanding of Asian culture? Not an Asia or Japanophile, from individuals who lived in one area of Japan or in North-East Asia as an English teacher or served in the military, seeing Japanese or Asian women as a sex object?” They then either realized that they do not have the understanding, academic background or objective understanding on Asia, taking back their comments or they would then state that I am in favor of Asians then Americans (either by insults or swear words, and in some cases chanting USA.). I then state to them that I am not a expert, and I am still learning about Asia, and continue to state to them, “do you know all about our own country America”, and why is it you (my co workers) do not state that same racist remark to Germans (concerning about the Second World War) as you do towards Japanese or other Western European countries on their culture or cultural behavior? While they are still thinking on my first comment, I then mentioned to them, that not all Americans come from the UK. Where by they then realize their racist ignorance and see other non-western European culture and history objectively, since all has its good and bad points.

    Mind you, I am Hispanic, for those who are wondering about my last name. I am also a conservative Republican, severed in the US Air Force for 12 years, worked with the US government for 10 years and a teacher for 8 years. Presently living in Japan.

  • Adrian Havill says:

    Re Masi Oka’s “inability to speak Japanese reflecting even a rudimentary knowledge of Japan (saying words like “YaKUUza” and “Two-ki-ji”).”

    Here’s a video of him speaking and interacting in Japanese without a script on Downtown:

    There’s another lengthy interview on “Eigo de shaberanaito,” showing extremely thoughtful reflection about nuances between American and Japanese humor.

    Debito, just because Masi is capable of pronouncing words “American style” doesn’t mean he’s incapable of speaking Japanese or understanding Japanese culture. I think you should retract you statement.

    — Thanks for that. Looks like I was wrong about Masi’s J language ability. I retract my statement. I don’t think “Twokiji” is the “American style” pronunciation of Tsukiji, however (do “Americans” say Twokuba University?). I guess he was just “phoning it in”. In any case, it’s inaccurate for a cultural programme.

  • That’s the problem watching very weak and watered down programmes like Discovery is made for lounge lizards…who’s idea of going overseas and enjoying a different culture and country is to watch one of said programmes while eating [something] from said country.

    Shows like this are always made to the least common denominator…

  • I think that even though I agree with your basic points, the fact is you are expecting too much from television. I am a historian by trade, and I have the same feeling you do when it comes to historical subjects on the television, especially the History Channel. I think people expect too much from a medium that is inherently the lowest common denominator of humanity. Though it is sad that it is erroneous and television does influence many people, I feel that this is the nature of the beast.

    Currently I am living in Japan and I feel that your views are close to the reality. There are so many things here that no one ever talk about and are much more the real Japan. Let us home that someday people can see that Japan too.

  • >What I was getting at was the qualification of Kevin Costner. Costner does not do accents

    Yeah, well, Costner doesn’t really do acting either 😉

    I found this to be an interesting critique of the show. I believe they also have the Discovery channel on cable in Japan — I wonder if they showed this program here as well and if so, what Japanese thought of it.

    This show, however, would be a really good teaching tool on “putting the shoe on the other foot” with Japanese students. In many ways they have trouble sometimes seeing the stereotypes they carry about other cultures until they get to see the stereotypes that other cultures have of them. The “Chibikuro Sambo” is an example — many of my students did not see what the problem was until they took a look at Debito’s parody — and then they got it.

    Thanks for this.

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