Monday, August 24, 2009

What's racist?

I was discussing the "Mr. James" ad campaign at McDonald's here in Japan with some friends (see here and here), along with whether or not it should be considered racist. I thought that yes, it was rather racist, while another American thought it was all in good fun and that I was being over-sensitive. A Japanese friend thought nothing of it, just that it was amusing.

I had a long screed written about this, but it's probably better to just get the backstory from the above two links. I wonder when is something considered racist/offensive? Does intent factor into it, or can there be unintentional offense? Not to mention the international aspect of this. If something is considered offensive in one country, does it carry over to another as well? Watch this:

It's pretty obvious who the monkey is supposed to be. But in Japan, there isn't the same derogatory association of monkeys with black people -- rather, foreigners in general are associated with apes, with pretty much the same connotations as in the USA. But, monkeys are also cute. And monkeys are also considered clever: a samurai watching a monkey bathe in a hot spring was the inspiration for onsen. So, is the Obama monkey video racist? I guess in one way yes, and in another way no. Another example of this would be the controversy over Little Black Sambo here in Japan. The drawings of an odd black boy with giant red lips and big eyes has definite historical racist connotations, but in Japan that sort of thing is just cute. Yet the book was pulled in Japan about 20 years ago because some people took offense at it.

I guess stereotypes, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But a little sensitivity from McDonald's Japan would be nice as well.


Anonymous said...

I wish McDonald's would pay me to become mildly famous, travel around Japan, and learn the language in a highly forgiving, comical way. When you're big in Japan...

MG said...

Hooray! A blog update from Jeremy!

I think the monkey ad wouldn't be racist if they hadn't included the 'Change' slogan. Any random monkey in a suit on a podium giving a speech to rabid fans is fantastic. With a cellphone? Awesome.

Obama-monkey is inappropriate only given the monkey/black racist connotations in America. Can you imagine what would happen if say, Verizon tried that ad in the US? Wow.

Also, I think the McDonalds gaijin-man is offensive in that it reinforces stereotypes and encourages people to be closed-minded to foreigners.
I think it's odd how much he looks like 50's-60's era racist caricatures of Japanese people in America. Irony?

It seems like a large part of Japanese pop-culture is similar to American pop-culture in their ignorance, intolerance, and unwillingness to admire things that are different from the status-quo.