Note: this post has been updated a couple times, and while I don’t agree with all the points in arguments I’ve seen regarding xenophobia vs. racism, some have a lot of merit, and I do appreciate constructive criticism. The major updates I’ve made are marked as addenda/editorial notes throughout.
Some things to consider for those writing about the ANA commercial:
I get that if you’re looking at the commercial from the perspective of a person who lives in a country with a white majority that the commercial may appear to be turning the tables on white racism, and that white Americans certainly have a long, embarrassing history of racism, including yellow-face, black-face, and red-face. In fact, How I Met Your Mother just had a similar issue with some “kung-fu slap” “homage” to martial arts movies, and Katy Perry’s problematic AMA performance in November got a lot of well deserved condemnation.
My main beef is that the people claiming that the commercial isn’t racist is that, in Japan, a combo racism* and xenophobia against white people, Black people, non-Japanese Asian people, and multiracial people, and well, literally anyone who doesn’t appear “Japanese” enough,” is a real, institutionalized and socialized thing that actually affects people, particularly long-term workers, permanent residents, and their families, especially their children (see: Half/ハーフ: Mixed Race in Japan and “White Japanese People”).
*Addendum: I would say that, upon closer scrutiny, white “gaijin” costumes and using white people as props in commercials is a large part of the xenophobia problem because it establishes “white” as “this is what a ‘foreigner’ looks like,” which also erases the experiences of non-white-appearing non-Japanese in Japan. However, I would draw a distinction between the xenophobia that scholars, travelers, short-term workers (like JETs), and immigrants coming from a more privileged position (in terms of race, appearance, and often finances) in their home country experience and the racism experienced by people who become permanent residents, stay long-term, raise children (multiracial or otherwise), or grow up in Japan as “non-Japanese” because of legal (non-citizens and especially non-permanent residents) reasons or appearance. I would also posit that the xenophobia directed that the former impacts the racism directed at the latter more, as it feeds the ideas of what “foreign” looks like vs. who is “really” Japanese.
Now, if people in the US and other white-majority countries are flipping out AND have never experienced racism in Japan, then yes, they are not harmed or affected by this commercial in theory.
But for those of us of all races who actually live(d) there and have/had to deal with institutionalized xenophobia and racism, like not being able to
- get a loan
- lease certain apartments
- basically do anything without having a Japanese guarantor
- apply for a credit card (which appears to have eased in the last three years)
- get a bilingual job despite being fluent in both languages because it’s “Japanese-only”
- have a real entry in your Japanese partner’s koseki as a spouse and co-parent of their children (you get to be a footnote!)
- get a cell phone without paying upfront because of the length of your visa; or pay upfront because you don’t have a credit card (see above)
- be able to keep your name upon marriage or gaining citizenship
- having your company turned away from helping with Fukushima clean-up because “foreigners roaming around…may scare the old grandmas and granddads”
- having to deal with racist cops who don’t help people who’ve been assaulted because they aren’t Japanese
- apparently unable to commute without kids screaming shit at you in the streets
- reading the signs and following all the rules better than native speakers but being treated like a child at your gym
- creepers who take your photograph without permission as if you were an animal in the zoo
- creepers who simultaneously fear and sexualize your body for being exotic
**Note that most of these are not unique to Japan, especially not the last point. That still doesn’t make it okay.
Not to mention the other specifically targeted racism: disturbing and constant rallies held by the Nationalists against Koreans and Korean-Japanese people; legal discrimination against Japanese people of Korean descent; Little Black Sambo being published in the 2000s (American and Japan media alike seem to have given no shits?!); Southeast Asian women being assumed to be hostesses or sex workers and propositioned for no reason; or the lack of interest in the proper names for minority groups like the Dowa.
Back to the commercial: it’s not just problematic because of the racist costume that, yes, you can buy at stores like Don Quixote so you, too, can be a “wacky moron English-speaking ‘gaijin'” (ugh). It also assumes that all “foreigners” (ugh) are white (nope), which further fuels racism against non-white, non-ethnically-Japanese people.
This commercial isn’t satirizing racist white people in the US, it’s perpetuating home-grown xenophobia and racism against non-ethnically-Japanese people, both non-Japanese nationals and those perceived to be foreign, in Japan.
For another look at the marketers, the commercial, and also the Sambo, check out Debito Arudou‘s article on the subject. I don’t always agree with him, but I think he hit the nail on the head.
A Note Regarding Beauty Standards
To the people who write that about white people not caring about skin-whitening lotions and eyelid surgeries for Japanese to appear more “Western” but getting mad about ANA, two points. First, there is a lot of talk about how skin-whitening is problematic (see a brief summary here from a student from Ritsumeikan University), and even though there’s plenty of countries in which light skin is considered favorable, it’s a mix of classism and colonialism driving it–it’s not “white-face.” [Ed. in case this sentence is unclear, doing skin lightening, etc., for "beauty" is not the same as doing white-face to ridicule white people, but it is impacted by colonialist and classist ideas about beauty; this is two paragraphs down and could have been structured a little better.]
Furthermore, in Japan, bihaku (美白) plays out as lighter skin being favored to a point, but if you’re too white or have other “exotic” facial markers like big eyes (also generally “favorable” by mainstream contemporary beauty standards), a nose with a high bridge, or curvy hips, you’ll get accused of not being Japanese enough. No one can win in the beauty industry, and “white” as a beauty standard is incredibly problematic.**
Second, eyelid surgery and bihaku is not the same as doing white-face (or any other -face). Yellow-face and its accoutrement in the US, was/is used to degrade and belittle Asians and Asian Americans; currently, it seems to have evolved into “didn’t want to hire an actual person of color because racism,” which is still racist.
The same thing happens in Japan: characters in live-action dramas who are “foreign” are often Japanese people in wigs and contact lenses–think “Miruhi” in the drama Nodame Cantabile, who was terrible mostly because of the costume, prosthetic nose, and the katakana-speech (though the manga wasn’t much better on that point). Whereas Suoh Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club was a character in the (awesome) manga and anime who just happened to be biracial (white-French and Japanese), he was played by a Japanese actor with blue contacts in the (terrible for other reasons) drama because there are apparently no biracial actors in Japan. That’s part of the reason My Darling is a Foreigner was such an amazing film, despite all the narrative flaws: Jonathan Sherr, an actual bilingual non-Japanese actor, played Tony, and the character wasn’t a stereotype. (I highly recommend the manga, by the way.)
In summary: you have to consider the context of the ad. The people in the English-speaking news media/blogs who say the ad is not racist [ed. here I mean major news agencies like CNN and big blogs] don’t seem to understand that the US (et al.) and Japan are not, in fact, the same country. This is not deserved satire of a white majority but a racist/xenophobic depiction of one minority in Japan.*** While this does not affect white people who do not live or work in Japan, the commercial represents the continued racist bullshit directed at non-ethnically-Japanese people living long-term in Japan, particularly permanent residents, long-term immigrants, and those born and raised in Japan who will never be considered legally or socially Japanese.
For another take on the xenophobia vs. racism issue, see here.
***Addendum: Yes, there is a hierarchy of racism against perceived Others in Japan, and yes, white people have privilege in that hierarchy, both in terms of visibility in the media, in beauty standards (discussed above), and in holding more positive perceptions (white people asked if they’re English teachers or students, not hostesses or gangsters; white people considered to be the default for “foreigner”). That still doesn’t make costumes okay, and it doesn’t make any sort of narrative sense in the commercial. To quote scalesoflibra from the comments on that point:
I thought they were going to hug too! It was the more logical choice given the flow of the conversation. If that wasn’t dramatic enough for a commercial, why not show the guys enjoying themselves in Hanoi and Vancouver, where they’re supposedly going? Isn’t that more exciting than strapping an obtrusive nose to your face? And do Japanese going to Hanoi not need to change themselves physically? (emphasis mine)
Changing the image of Japan might mean losing nihonjinron, but it sure as hell doesn’t mean needing to look “white” to do so.
Addendum 3: The little thought that’s in the back of my mind: “where are you from?” and the people I know who were born, raised, and live permanently in Japan but are not of Japanese descent, and where the line between asking me that (which is xenophobic) and asking them that (which I’d say is racist) falls.