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Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009

JUST BE CAUSE

Meet Mr. James, gaijin clown

Not everyone is laughing at McDonald's Japan's latest wheeze, a hapless foreigner who'll never fit in


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.

News photo
CHRIS MacKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

However, McDonald's Japan dropped a clanger on Aug. 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 a 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 that has long promoted cultural diversity, launching a 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 toward Mr. James has been mixed. The Japanese press has ignored it. The Western press has been nonplussed. Respectable Web sites 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 toward 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 stereotype 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 dare say that 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 the 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 back-story, but it's one of "bedazzled tourist and guest," 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, who now have to deal with the reconfirmed "Mr. first-name-outsider, speaking incomprehensibly" stereotype in public as far down as children (one of McDonald's target audiences). Besides, how many will get the online back-story? 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 — and plenty more. You watch and wonder what people were thinking back then.

Yet these characters survived for decades as mainstream icons, regardless of how over-generalizing or degrading they might have been 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 (the 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 offense was meant" (oh, so that's OK, 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' 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


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