Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column Sept 1 2009 on McDonald’s “Mr James” campaign: Why it’s a problem


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Japan Times Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009
Meet Mr. James, gaijin clown
Not everyone is laughing at McDonald’s Japan’s latest wheeze, a hapless foreigner who’ll never fit in

“Director’s Cut” with links to sources:

If you want to sell stuff, it helps to have a recognizable “mascot” representing your company.  Disney has Mickey Mouse, Sanrio Hello Kitty, Studio Ghibli Totoro.  These imaginary characters grace many a product and ad campaign.

However, McDonald’s Japan dropped a clanger on August 10 with its new burger meister:  “Mr. James”.

Fronting the “Nippon All Stars” campaign (American hamburgers with a Japanese twist) for three months is a bespectacled grinning Caucasian wearing mismatched red shirt and chinos.  Created by ad agency Dentsu, “Mr. James” is touring the burghers of Japan, offering money for photo ops.  His blog effuses perpetual wonderment at all things Japanese.  His obsession is McDonald’s:  he’s a burger nerd.



Not necessarily a problem so far.  But some non-Japanese residents have protested that this (human, not imaginary) character perpetuates Japanese stereotypes about other humans — foreigners.

“Mr. James” (defying standard etiquette of addressing adults with “last name plus -san”, reflecting how Japanese manners aren’t always applied to Caucasians) effuses in fluent katakana only.  Everything is in broken accented Japanese.  “Watakushi nippon daisuki” etc.

What’s the matter?  Put the shoe on the other foot:  Imagine McDonald’s, a multinational long promoting cultural diversity, launching a new “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?”

This would of course occasion protest from minority groups and the Japanese embassy (as happened in Hungary in 2003, regarding a racist TV show).


And rightly so.  But so far the media reaction towards “Mr. James” has been mixed.  The Japanese press has ignored it.  The Western press has been nonplussed.  Respectable websites have quoted some Asian-Americans’ acidulous Schadenfreude:  “Karma’s a bitch.”  As in, Asians have suffered Western stereotyping long enough, so this is cosmic retribution towards Caucasians.


Others fail to see beyond the weird or exotic (of course; not everyone lives here or understands what straight katakana does to Japanese speech).  Still others think it’s just humor, so let it go:  Get a life, you humorless killjoys.


But this overlooks what activists are trying to do:  Give a point of view that goes against the mainstream — because Japanese media generally stereotypes foreigners in an unbalanced and unfair manner.  Mr. James is but the most recent incarnation, and an offensive one at that.

I personally have three tests for whether stereotyping is offensive or unfair:

1) Does it suit the purposes of humor and satire, or is it just mean-spirited?

2) Has it any redeeming social value?

3) Is there turnabout in fair play?

Regarding 1), yes, I grant that “Mr. James” is disarmingly funny.  However, it still takes mean cheap shots at foreigners for a purported lack of language ability.  Allow me to elaborate from decades of personal experience what this stereotype does:

When asked if the Japanese language is difficult, I say it isn’t.  What’s difficult is talking to Japanese people.  One has to overcome so much ingrained baggage — often instilled from childhood in approved textbooks — that foreigners, particularly the non-Asians, are “guests and outsiders” — illiterate, inscrutable, and incomprehensible.  Thanks to this, I daresay in the majority of random interactions, foreigners who do not “look Japanese” have to prove every day to new listeners that they speak Japanese just fine.


It’s like having to untangle your headphones before you listen to music.  Every.  Single.  Time.  And “Mr. James” just pulls the knots tighter.

Now 2) Redeeming social value.  For example, when we see stereotyped characters on TV show “The Simpsons”, fun is poked.  But eventually the characters become humanized, part of the neighborhood in The Simpsons’ universe.  Is “Mr. James” similarly humanized and included?

Well, “Mr. James” has a backstory, but it’s one of “bedazzled tourist and guest”.  It’s not one of inclusiveness:  no matter how hard he tries (especially since McDonald’s rendered his every utterance in katakana), he’ll never be Japanese.  He is the perpetual “other”.

Nothing new, since “othering foreigners” into a skin of differences is a national pastime.  But it’s not pleasant for Caucasians who actually live here, and now have to deal with the reconfirmed “Mister First-Name-Outsider-speaking-incomprehensibly” stereotype in public as far down as children (one of McDonald’s target customers).  Besides, how many will get the online backstory?  Most will only spot his banners and full-body cutouts and see him as a flat cartoon, not a potential neighbor.

Will McDonald’s ever wink to the audience that it’s “all in fun”, and let on that “Mr. James” is a member of this society after all his hard work fitting in and fawning?  Highly unlikely.  Because by design he doesn’t belong here.

That leads us to 3) “fair play”.  Is everyone “fair game” for stereotyping, and do the stereotyped have the chance to reply and balance views?  I would argue no.  The Japanese media very rarely gives a voice to non-Japanese residents, offering their perspective on life in Japan unadulterated.  In fact, the image most often transmitted is that Japan is that of the hackneyed “unique island society” — and foreigners, however long-established, even married to Japan, have enormous difficulty fitting in and expressing themselves.

To test “fair play”, imagine if roles were reversed, with a Caucasian in Japan unilaterally poking fun at Japanese?  I can, from experience.  Outrage, even cries of racism.  Domestic media isn’t fair, and most non-Japanese who try to balance their praise with critique or criticism get tossed aside as “Japan-haters”.  Only “Japan-lovers”, as “Mr. James” is to the core, need apply as foreign shills.



In sum, the “Mr. James” character is a “gaijin” — the embodiment of an epithet.  Something for Japanese to feel comfortable with, even if non-Japanese bear the brunt.  McDonald’s Japan is pandering to Japanese stereotypes without offering any sense of balance or inclusion.

You are welcome to disagree and see this as not worth protesting.  I’m just making the case for protest and beginning a discussion.  What I don’t quite get is why people, especially those affected by this campaign, snarl:  “I personally don’t find ‘Mr. James’ offensive, so shut up.”

That’s the thing about how one “takes offense”.  It’s not just subjective.  It’s subliminally contextual as well.  Read history.  Any number of media icons once seen as inoffensive now cause cringes:  The Yellow Kid.  Gollywogs.  Minstrel shows.  Jose Jimenez.  Aunt Jemima.  Little Black Sambo.  Stepin Fetchit.  Fu Manchu.  Charlie Chan.  Mr. Moto.  Plenty more.  You watch and wonder what people were thinking back then.






Yet these characters survived for decades as mainstream icons, regardless of how overgeneralizing or degrading they might be to the ethnicities they portrayed.  That’s because those ethnicities did not speak up, or were not heard when they did.  So apparently nobody “took offense”.

Times change.  Minorities assembled into pressure groups and shifted the very parameters of the debate.  Raising public awareness of how stereotyping affects them is precisely what made the stereotypes cringeworthy.  Even when there are lapses, such as Abercrombie and Fitch’s “two Wongs can make it white” Chinese-laundry shirts in 2002, minorities complain and product lines get discontinued.




Protesters want the same thing to happen to “Mr. James” in 2009.  That’s what’s so weird:  Did McDonald’s seriously think there are no Caucasian minorities in Japan who might be affected or bothered?  That a multinational company, with decades of experience selling goods to other societies, can show this degree of insensitivity?  That nobody would cringe at the very sight of “Mr. James”?

Let me quote Ben Shearon, one officer of the newly-registered lobbying group FRANCA (Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association; which, in the interests of full disclosure, your correspondent chairs):

“The people complaining about this ad live in Japan, pay taxes here, and in some cases have naturalized and become Japanese citizens.  We find this campaign reinforces unwelcome stereotypes that affect our lives here.  I have been denied housing, bank loans, and even entry to businesses specifically because of my race/nationality.

“By pandering to the ‘hapless foreigner’ stereotype, McDonald’s is reinforcing the idea that non-Japanese cannot speak Japanese or conduct themselves properly in Japan.  A multinational corporation like McDonald’s should be more careful about the subliminal messages they put out, and we are just trying to bring that to their attention.”

That’s it.  We’ve made our case.  Still think that “Mr. James” is not worth protesting?  That’s your prerogative.  But don’t tell people who feel adversely affected by media campaigns to just suck it up.  That’s not how minorities finally gain recognition and a voice as residents in a society.

McDonald’s Japan should have known better, and it is reacting to the pressure:  A letter in English (responding to FRANCA’s letter sent in Japanese, naturally) has Director of Corporate Relations Junichi Kawaminami claiming, “no offence was meant” (oh, so that’s okay then), but not apologizing or promising any changes.  Meanwhile, certain restaurants in areas with concentrations of non-Japanese don’t seem to be carrying the “Mr James” campaign.


And suddenly “Mr. James’s” blog has hiragana too.  Maybe after enough complaints he’ll be a quick study in kanji.  If he’s not cringed out of commission.  And rightly so.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

18 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column Sept 1 2009 on McDonald’s “Mr James” campaign: Why it’s a problem

  • … Who knows if this has opened the doors for other “foreign” mascots to be featured by other companies. We care, but why should Japanese companies care if they only offend perhaps 0.5% of their customers? Does anyone have any input into what the average Japanese person thinks about this ad campaign? Its funny, cute, non-threatening? or something else?

    Debito, after witnessing all this ingrained, institutional racism in Japan (and even becomming a citizen) any regrets over that decision? Can you honestly see a change for the better?

    — No and yes.

  • Really good article Debito, hits all the nails on the head, very concise.

    Is there a Japanese version of this article? It strikes me that a lot of Japanese would benefit from reading this article as many seem to genuinely find it hard to understand why people complain about this kind of thing, what with so many Japanese not even having left the country.

  • Debito, you know I am against stereotypes meant to hurt and offend. And “Mr. James” was put right on the borderline—in that typical Japanese style.

    But I also think “Mr. James” offered an insight to Americans in particular as to what we’re thought of here. http://wp.me/pAT5P-Qa
    <—-More on my blog. But the basic idea is that Americans are seen as affable fools who are easy to make fun of. Especially if they show up here.

    There is definitely more to this than simple anti-foreigner sentiment. It's really saying something about East-West relations.

  • To those who just don’t see it, now you got it cristal clear why we are protesting this campaign. It’s going to be a long, long crusade to make people understand that we demand equal treatment as citizens and taxpayers and that we are not confortable being portrayed as funny cute characters that somebody can address on first names basis (unless he or she is my very close friend) and that we are very much capable of understanding what is going on here, in economics, politics or whatever and when we criticize, it doesn’t mean that we hate Japan but only that we have a personal opinion on matters that very much are our concern. Thank you Debito for having your voice to represent us in the search for a better future as residents of Japan.

  • most countries make/made an effort to rid themselves of this sort of inherent discrimination. japan never will.
    good luck to debito and franca in their efforts, but i’m afraid that after 20 years i’ve given up….and left the country.

  • Great read. I love the article cartoon, too.

    You know, as a 2nd year Japanese student, I’m highly amused/insulted at how “Mr James” is both so useless and proficient in basic Japanese at the same time; he can use tenses in grammar etc, yet can’t type a single kanji (which IME will practically force you to do anyway)? It almost feels like it’s mocking the effort I try to put into everything I write in Japanese.

  • “Why should Japanese companies care if they only offend perhaps 0.5% of their customers?”
    In a capitalist country money moves around like the cogs of a great wheel. The more places money comes from by far the better, even 0.5% can make quite a difference given the ability of a capitalist’s money to multiply or divide with great speed so on the contrary they should keep a close eye on proceedings.

  • I have a Japanese student who told me she thought this Mr. James character was a clown. Like Ronald, like Bozo, like a circus clown.
    I just wanted to mention that because someone asked what do Japanese think of this ad campaign. I don’t really have anything to contribute to what I’ve already read. Don’t watch TV, haven’t ate at McDonalds for many many years. Didn’t know about this campaign until I saw this website.

  • quoting (“Why should Japanese companies care if they only offend perhaps 0.5% of their customers?”)
    Because in the era of information technology you can count that offending just 0.5% of costumers is gonna multiply that a hundred times, we are looking how media from around the world is paying atention to this case, but then again, still some people find it hard to understand.

  • Debito, good article and your decision to follow up McDonalds on its poor advertising is important. The reply from McDonlads Japan was pathetic to say the least.The Japan Times article makes a number of strong points 1 “What’s difficult is talking to Japanese people” – gaijin shock is a terrible thing to experience as a foreigner in Japan and everytime it happens it makes you really wonder what planet you are actually on, it is really hard to believe it still exists as with gaijin cards. [illogical and hyperbolic assessments deleted].

    If Tokyo fails to get the Olympics this story will become a classic case study

  • Just read the “Have your say” JT article about your Mr James article. Don’t you just wish you could throttle people over the internet sometimes? Using how things in the USA etc as an excuse to dismiss Mr James, saying “if you don’t like it go home”… did they just miss the whole “Debito = Japanese” bit? Gah! My head hurts…


    — Yes, and how about the landlord in San Francisco who openly says that he refuses foreign tenants just because they’re foreign? He’s certainly a great witness for the defense. Wouldn’t the local human rights organizations in love to hear that one?

  • I see KFC are not as reticent as McD to act:

    KFC advertisement in Australia sparks race row
    Friday, 8 January 2010
    By Nick Bryant BBC News, Sydney
    KFC faces different pressures in many widely different cultures
    The Australian arm of the fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken has had to withdraw an advertisement after accusations of racial insensitivity.
    It showed a white cricket fan trying to pacify a group of rowdy West Indian fans by handing around fried chicken.
    When the advertisement reached America via the internet there were complaints.
    It was accused of reinforcing a derogatory racial stereotype linking blacks in the American deep south with a love of fried food.
    The advertisement from Kentucky Fried Chicken features a white cricket fan dressed in the green and gold of the Australian team surrounded by a group of West Indian supporters, who are dancing and singing to a calypso beat.
    He decides to quieten them down by handing around a bucket of fried chicken.
    Picked up by the American media, the advertisement immediately stirred controversy, because it was alleged to have perpetuated the racial stereotype that black people eat a lot of fried chicken.
    The fast food chain’s head office in America said it was withdrawing the advertisement, and apologised for what it called “any misrepresentation” which might have caused offense.
    It is the second time in three months that something broadcast in Australia has caused a racial stir in America.
    The last flare-up was over an entertainment show on the Australian network Channel Nine in which a group of singers appeared with blacked up faces to impersonate the Jackson Five.

    — Quite. Now what say you folks who said that Australian and American values were different therefore…?

  • – Quite. Now what say you folks who said that Australian and American values were different therefore…?

    I say that KFC should have dismissed the complaints as misinformed, and continued to broadcast it in Australia, but not in America, where the stereotype in question prevails. I think they’ve cowed under pressure from malcontents unable to see past their own cultural perspectives.

    — Oooh, I see that argument being applied ever so effectively here by the cultural relativists, Team Japanners, and xenophobes to dismiss anything we say…!

  • Gilesdesign says:

    I think the projection of racial stereotypes is a problem in Japan or anywhere in the world. Regardless of any social history which has brought or not brought awareness to the general public. Its just a common decency issue, if you are insulting even a minority of people then surely there is a better way to promote the product without causing offense?

    To a caucasian visitor I agree Japan is a lovely place to visit and everyone is extremely kind and tries to help you or even ask the occasional funny question about if you eat raw fish or how tall you are or even compliment you on your chopstick skills or hand you a english menu before you even asked for it.

    Try reliving that everyday for 5 years and the novelty soon wears thin.

    So the NJ that dismiss this as harmless fun and say we should stop making a fuss obviously have no intent to be anymore than a passing visitor, They should let the people that define this as their home fight for acceptance.

    The point is in Japan if you look foreign you can never graduate beyond the status of a tourist. I dont think the same is true in the UK, I studied with Japanese and British people of a variety of races nobody would compliment someone’s english who does not look caucasian or say well done to someone using a knife and fork.
    Conversely, when a foreigner in Japan uses chopsticks it is viewed as some kind of accomplishment to adopt Japanese ways and somehow overcome your own foreign nature.
    I was once in a business lunch with some chinese clients and my Japanese boss complimented a chinese client on his chopstick ability, It was the most awkward experience ever, I wanted to crawl under the table and die.

    This is pure speculation but I think Japanese parents must pass on the myth that simply being born japanese gives you certain characteristics and social traits or even abilities. They are effectively stereotyping their own kids as Japanese. If you have ever seen a outburst on a train where someone gets angry, clearly it is not in “Japanese” nature to be courteous, however much you try to teach Japanese kids what being “Japanese” means of course all Japanese are different just like NJ and inevitably some have bad tempers.


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