Weekend Tangent: Saturday Night Live skit on Japan-obsessed American youth; scarily accurate?


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Hi Blog.  As a Weekend Tangent, here’s Saturday Night Live poking fun at American kids obsessed with J-pop culture.  I found it very funny, and from what I’ve heard it’s scarily accurate (although I wouldn’t know — been out of the US for too long).  What do you think?

Here are some stills:

Clips are not viewable everywhere in the world, unfortunately; you might have to use a proxy, like I did.  If you can’t find it, Google SNL J-pop.  More elaborate write up and stills here.

UPDATE:  Just found a Russian server playing it outside of the U.S. without proxies.  Try here:  


Arudou Debito




25 comments on “Weekend Tangent: Saturday Night Live skit on Japan-obsessed American youth; scarily accurate?

  • I’m going to say NO. Possibly for a selective few who follow the niche fashions, anime, and the belief that Japan still has some kind of technological edge over America.

  • It is scarily accurate for the niche. It’s become somewhat mainstream for kids to watch anime, but there are the few who go way overboard. I blame it on lack of a defined cultural identity in the US. It’s such a “young” country relative to others, with such a blend of cultures and traditions that many young people latch onto the defined role of another culture.

  • Not only in America people are like this. Like 90% of students enrolling in Japanese courses (and dropping out after one semester) at my uni fit the description and it’s become quite a mainstream thing over the last 10 years in Czech Republic.

  • More worthy of discussion than the skit itself is the question posed about it by some Japan-related website commenters and suggested by the straight man “professor”: Is this racist?

    Those who still insist that humans can be categorized into groups that can scientifically be called “races” are increasingly finding themselves in the same boat as, say, Biblical creationists/intelligent design advocates, i.e., without evidence to support their claims. In other words, there really are no “races” per se. That’s not to say there isn’t racism based on the way people think about race. But the way people tend to conceptualize race has no factual foundation. Consequently, you have people addressing perceived misconceptions and stereotypes using a term that itself feeds misconceptions and stereotypes.

    This PBS site is a good primer on race: http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

    — I’ll approve this, but it’s way off track of the point of this blog post.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s the representation of young Japanese in general. But, some folks are indeed becoming kidults who can’t act on her/his age. Speaking of consumerism. It’s slowly, but steadily, invading Japanese civic community.

    Anyway, it cracked me up when I saw the footage in which Fred Armisen appeared by dressing up like a shy Japanese girl. That’s too funny.

  • I, too, found this hilarious. Whether or not it is mainstream, the phenomenon is well enough recognized to warrant a SNL skit.

    Last summer I met a six-year-old in the ranchlands of the West in the U.S. who was the most fluent reader in the first grade because he had taught himself to read by reading his older brother’s whole collection of “Naruto” comic books. He knew every detail of the books and had several questions. Fortunately, one of my Japanese children was with me and could answer because I have not read through a whole comic book in my life.

  • A Man In Japan says:

    AHAHAHA! I’m sure some of you have seen “Cool Japan” on NHK and this is sort of the way they go on on that program.
    Tonight’s “Cool Japan”, like every other time it’s on, had the foreigners reading from a script going on about how Japanese fruit was more “wonderful” than fruit in Mexico, America, Uganda, England and etc.
    The way they did that sketch is a total parody of “Cool Japan”.
    I wonder what Japanese people would think of that sketch?

  • I’m sure the powers that be love the idea that SNL, a barometer of modern culture, Is acknowledging Japan’s Gross National Cool phenomenon. It’s only helping solidify this desperate attempt to stay relevant on the world stage. I mean, to open a Government office to manage this effort is almost tragic.

  • Of course it isn’t accurate. It’s a caricature of a certain segment of US society, much smaller than the otaku culture in Japan. Most Americans who enjoy anime and manga are reasonably normal people,but I think that Americans in general do get a twisted view of Japanese culture. Then again that’s true for any country’s opinion of a culture they’re not familiar with.

  • I’m seriously believing this is a worldwide phenomenon (Italy here) withing the realm of japanese studies. In exporting the pop culture japan probably forgot to export the japanese attitude regarding TV (everything that happens in there stays in there). I’ve been a [fan] for a couple of years, now, while i still enjoy going at cons, doing cosplay props etc. I’m seriously disoriented (and sometimes frightened) by the display of “passion” by many J-culture fans. I think it’s the byproduct of the public image of “bizzaro country” that Japan is propagating abroad. It actually encourages J-Culture aficionados to behave in a “bizzaro” way. Having a good Japanese Literature professor and a competently-made Japanese History class usually drags you out of the mess, though. I might be drifting off topic, but it’s kinda sad that everybody that wants to approach japanese studies in a competent way while still enjoying some japanese pop-culture has to deal with these people.

  • (Really) Slightly off-topic, but I’ve made a presentation around a similar topic talking about how the term Japanization changed in the course of 60 years from hard power (Japanese technology, after-war Golden Years, etc.) to soft power (i.e. via Cool Japan). If anyone is interested, the presentation is available on slideshare here: http://goo.gl/cOhZs

    Regarding the SNL parody: 1) hahaha 2) I have to agree with Dak’s comment

    “Not only in America people are like this. Like 90% of students enrolling in Japanese courses (and dropping out after one semester) at my uni fit the description and it’s become quite a mainstream thing over the last 10 years in Czech Republic.”

    I found the above to be true for many, if not most, of the students enrolling for Japanese studies at German universities.

  • Regarding:

    “Not sure I see these links as proving any comparison with Western European or Dutch youth.”

    You are right, my comment is based on my own personal knowledge of Dutch young people.

    They are not nearly as inventive in their costumes as Japanese youth.

    — Then please illustrate your point with the appropriate link.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    As a slight tangent, notice how the Japan Inc. doesn’t like to admit how a lot of their sources for “soft power” were imported, copied or inspired from overseas. The Goth look, for example.
    And how someone can be obsessed with cosplay or anime or whatever, and still not care less about Japan.

    Example in action.
    TV presenter in a Scandinavian country. Some Lolita Goths walk by. He engages them, asking about what they know about Japan. (That the Goth look is not a Japanese creation has completely evaded him)
    “Do you know any famous Japanese sports players?” (I could see where this was coming from – Matsui and Ichiro were at their peak – and the assumptions loaded into the questions)
    Quickly changes topic.

    The powers that be need to realize that a small segment of a community being interested in one small segment of Japanese subculture does NOT equate to Japan = major exporter of culture.

  • One thing that should be noted, I think, is that many young people, drawn to Japanese culture through anime, trendy dramas, J-pop, etc., actually grow to acquire quite admirable proficiency in Japanese, to the point where they certainly can carry their own far more so than the quirky stereotypical bumblers portrayed in this skit. This parody seems to be lumping all persons who are attracted by such things as being somehow natively inept at becoming fully proficient in Japanese. Does this skit not repeat the “much ingrained baggage often instilled from childhood … that foreigners, particularly the non-Asians, are ‘guests and outsiders’ illiterate, inscrutable, and incomprehensible”? Or maybe not, maybe it was just a parody, and we should accept it for what it is, find amusement in it, and not over analyze. Or is it okay because NJ are the ones making this allusion through parody about themselves, rather than Japanese doing it?

    Some time ago, I recall quite an uproar over a geeky “Mr. James” character in McDonalds advertisements. Is it less objectionable if we poke fun at ourselves, rather than Japanese poking fun at us?

    — Well, duh.

    Anyway, I think you’re overthinking it. As the teacher in the skit makes quite clear, these were just bad students, with poor understanding of social science, biting off more than they could chew interculturally.

  • Been awhile since I’ve posted. Anyway, when I saw this on TV I had laughed. As a guy who admittedly participates in some activities of that sort of nature (cosplaying, watching anime, listening to Japanese music albeit in the form of Vocaloid music) I found them horrific but sadly accurate in SOME parts. There are crazies in every group and they represent the crazies in that sort of group.

    I got interested in the Japanese language and culture before I got into any form of pop-culture but I do admit I’ve met some people who have gotten interested in the language and whatnot because of anime. However, one friend of mine who can have a conversation to you about advanced physics in Japanese started out learning the language because of anime and whatnot.

    True, there are some out there who make me just as embarrassed as that poor professor was in the clip, but there are some who like anime and stuff without being as obsessed. But, I had no problem with the clip at all. As stated above, I laughed at it. As a slightly related tangent, has there been any similar skits in SNL Japan? I haven’t been able to catch any episodes since its come out.

  • Oh, no doubt, I am certainly overthinking things, but please, follow through with me for a bit, as I’ll go on. I would argue that you were overanalyzing the Mr. James situation.

    In your Japan Times column, you asserted that, in every case, we must first stop and apply a three-prong test to determine whether stereotyping is offensive or unfair. We can’t just laugh at something because it’s funny. We have to stop and think about why we’re laughing.

    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?

    I assume by your test that you have to pass all three prongs for stereotyping to be acceptable, or otherwise it’s objectionable.

    Let’s try applying it here:

    Regarding 1) you said, “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.”

    Isn’t that happening here too? Yes, it’s really funny. But they’re still taking shots at quirky Japanese language students (as viewed from Japan, foreigners who may or probably will go to Japan some day) “for a purported lack of language ability.”

    2) Has it any redeeming social value?

    Has it? You’ll have to convince me. In your column you refer to the Simpsons, saying that “eventually the characters become humanized.” Did that happen here? I don’t think so.

    If it failed to pass either of prongs 1) or 2), shouldn’t that be enough to conclude, according to your obligatory test, that the SNL skit is offensive?

    3) is harder, I’ll admit.

    Regarding your third prong, you said “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.”

    First, just to think logically about this, I wonder why you said “with a Caucasian in Japan.” Since the Mr. James CMs were done in Japan, the proper analogy would have been to imagine a Caucasian _in his or her home country_ poking fun at Japanese.

    Japanese usually don’t publicly make fun of non-Japanese in the NJ’s native lands. Similarly, non-Japanese usually don’t publicly belittle Japanese or satire them on Japanese soil (I guess that’s basic politeness), but ample examples exist where NJ make fun of oddities about Japanese in NJ media. Not that that makes it right.

    My suspicion is that a strong reason you were opposed to the Mr. James CMs is that they were done in Japan. In other words, I suspect that certain characters might be regarded as “simply funny” if they were performed by NJ, but might be offensive if Japanese performed them, and that our cultural starting points affect what we see as funny or what offends us.

    A thought exercise. Imagine that instead of an SNL skit done in America about Americans, McDonalds Japan had created these same two characters, with all of their mannerisms and lack of Japanese ability, and had them going into McDonalds around Japan, with the staff being just baffled by them, but somehow in the end, they manage to buy a Big Mac and everything concludes with them saying how honorable the employees are. Would that be offensive?

    This is getting a bit ridiculous, but I hope you’ll appreciate my point. If we can fathom that some stereotyping may seem very funny to us, yet it could be offensive to others, then equally, we have to grasp that stereotyping could be funny to others, while being offensive to us. Maybe we should all just develop thicker skins and learn to laugh at ourselves a bit, even when races other than our own portray it.

    — You’re right about one thing, Paul. This is getting a bit ridiculous.

  • @Andrew et all, regarding the source of Japan’s so-called “soft power” the appropriation of gaijin culture and fashion but the exclusion of the gaijin who originated it is nothing new. To quote to you again the ironically named Tanya Powers said in her book “Working in Japan” (pub. 1990, might have the title slightly wrong, sorry)

    “Just because Japan admires western art , does not mean they like you, the western artist”

    There is the head office-ostensibly a shop- of typical Shibuya fashion brands such as “Dazzlin” etc in Hiroo, on Meiji Dori. They ran a “London gothic” fashion line displayed in the window, but my visiting friend-an authentic, London goth- was refused entry! Apparently it was for “internal customers only” whatever that means. I pleaded with them and they said, “leave your email”. I then got a somewhat threatening email from the person who had given out the company name card along the lines of “Will you stop trying to come into our shop!”

    A vert weird set-up, anyone nearby go and have a look. It looks like an up-market clothes shop on the ground floor, and you can walk in and look around, but you might be asked to leave if you don’t fit their demographic (female, Japanese, Shibuyaette, etc).

  • Taikibansei says:

    Brilliantly reasoned, Paul!

    I mean, yeah, some liberal do-gooder will probably now write in to point out such things as the power differential, noting how a racial majority mocking a part of itself is a completely different phenomenon from when that privileged majority mocks a relatively powerless minority class. These do-gooders–citing Barth, Cixous, Gates, Jenkins, Kristeva, Ma, Said, etc., etc.–will probably whine and whine about how historically, when one ethnic group seeks to dominate another (or to justify that continuing domination), the process invariably entails categorizing the latter with reference to their supposedly inherent and immutable difference and inferiority.

    But you, Paul, don’t buy into any of this–which is great! (Indeed, about time somebody took a stand and made this point publically!) I mean, you’re absolutely right, white people mocking other white people in the United States is exactly the same thing as Japanese people mocking a non Japanese minority in Japan. Which got me thinking, you and I should probably combine on a research project demonstrating, say, that such things as “othering” or “racial profiling” are in fact cool, that racial minorities and/or differing ethnic groups actually dig the attention.

    Here’s my plan: How about you go out tomorrow and approach a series of black individuals and/or families, calling out to them in greeting, “Hey, N!gger!” Maybe follow it up with some personal comments based on common stereotypes–you know, their supposed love of watermelon, fried chicken, welfare and prison. Don’t worry, as you note above, the fact that you are white and they are black should have NO affect on how your comments are received–after all, blacks use the N word among themselves all the time, and anyways, context counts for zilch.

    When you’re done proving that this one minority group is completely cool with your attempted appropriation of the N word, not to mention your comments intended to demonstrate their inherent and immutable difference and inferiority, then you should move on. E.g., try the same thing with the local Hispanic population, the Chinese population, etc. Oh, and if anybody ever gets uppity with you–and even though they have U.S. citizenship–be sure to tell them, “You don’t like it? Why don’t you go back to your own country then?!” They’ll like that comment a lot, trust me.

    I’ll be supporting you 100% from here. (Actually, I’d love to be out in “the field” with you, but unfortunately I have to floss my cat’s teeth that week.) Oh, and be sure to have your efforts videotaped–we’ll need the video as evidence later, you know, for the naysayers.

    Good luck to you, bro.


  • Like said above, this sketch is about a very small, but visible, Japanese pop culture fanatics in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, etc. You can find quite a few on Youtube who look and act much like this, and I assume some of those people on Youtube were the inspiration for this. I think very few who actually come to live and work in Japan are actually like this, or aren’t anymore by the time they’re at an age they can. If you hang out in Harajuku all day, you’ll probably see some there, as tourists.

    This is a subculture that has taken a life of its own outside of Japan that doesn’t match what’s happening in Japan and has sustained itself despite Japan’s decline in coolness, which reached its peak in the early 2000’s.

    There just hasn’t been any big things that make Japan seem so cool now like there was then: cool bands, explosion of crazy subcultures, anime and manga still being relatively fresh to westerners, new wave of Japanese horror, dominance of Japanese videogame, automobile, and electronics companies. They were also still seen as as a relatively strong country, where as the rest of Asia was still leagues behind as far as westerners could tell.

    Now much of that stuff is stale to westerners, the subcultures have been replaced by everyone dressing trendy, but normal, fast-fashion style, Japanese companies have been on the decline, while Korea’s companies are rising up, and nothing really big musically is being exported from Japan right now. I think when young people think of Japan now, they’re probably as much likely to think of a country plagued by an ongoing nuclear disaster and declining importance as they are to think of the stuff that used to make it appear to be a mecca for geeks and adventurous cool kids.


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