ANA's "Racist" Commerical and Japanese National Identity

There has been a little bit of a hubbub over a new TV commercial that the Japanese airline ANA has put out. Some news organizations have reported complaints that it is racist, and ANA has responded by apologizing and is changing the ad. Here is the original CM: 

It's a disturbing commercial, but not exactly for the reasons some have stated. Since the issue of audience is important, it might be good to think about how the average Japanese viewer might see this. FIrst note the casting. The actor on the left is Nishijima Hidetoshi, a very good actor in straight dramas like Kitano Takeshi's Dolls who I like a lot (whom I've met, by the way). The one on the right is Bakarizumu, a popular comedian who has done some great routines (you can check out one here). The cut to Bakarizumu with the gaijin get-up is then intended to be comedic, both because of the casting (most Japanese would know who the two are) and the extreme get-up. You don't see that kind of get-up in Japanese TV comedy much any more, but when you do, it is rather self-conscious, emphasizing not only the stereotyped "gaijin" image, but also the slapstick, vaudeville-like nature of the comedy. That's the case here as well, with the rubber bands attaching the nose being quite visible. So on one level, the CM works by allowing the viewer to laugh not just at the "gaijin" but also, in a meta way, at the comedy. They thus laugh at the get-up as ridiculous, as patently false and comedic—perhaps even understanding it as old-fashioned and a stereotype. 

In the end, the joke is not very good (some of the Japanese net comments I've read also note it's just a poor gag). But what I think is the real problem with the CM for a Japanese viewer is that this cut occurs at the narrative point of requesting that Japanese change their image. The commercial first essentially quotes foreign reactions to Japanese behavior ("Such a Japanese reaction!"), which themselves can be stereotypes forced on Japanese. Bakarizumu then reacts defensively, "But I am Japanese," as if confirming the stereotype, as well as unwittingly the fact that many images Japanese have of themselves are a form of self-orientalism. The subsequent proposal that Japanese change their image could be read as an effort to counter these Western stereotypes, but then the cut to the gaijin get-up (which could have been a way of confronting one stereotype with another) ultimately functions to mark the proposed change in Japanese national identity as itself ridiculous. The change becomes just as artificial and absurd as the long nose because it is simply an image, a logic that in the end reinforces Japanese identity as being more than just an image—that is, an unchanging essence.

The CM thus insidiously allows viewers to have their cake and eat it too: to laugh at the artificiality of racial markers, making themselves cosmopolitan (an image reinforced by having all the dialogue in English), while reasserting the impossibility of changing identity, and thus reinforcing the stereotypes Japanese have of themselves as being a-historical essences.

The irony of the commercial is that it proposes Japanese become world travelers, but it doesn't imagine the CM itself could become a world traveler, and be viewed by other audiences. It rather presumes from the start that only Japanese would watch it at home. This seems all too typical of the "internationalization" (kokusaika) that many Japanese institutions put forward: have Japanese and their goods go abroad, or foreign goods and tourists enter Japan, and then play with being cosmopolitan. But the ability to think and see from the standpoint of the other— the crucial facet of a transnational existence, one that can really render Japanese identity "international"—is refused in the end. That myopia is unfortunately confirmed day after day by Japanese politicians doing and saying things without any regard for how others outside Japan may see it.

So who's to blame? The CM is complex enough that it is hard to simply label it as "racist" or to assign blame. The performers certainly should not suffer for this because both are excellent and have proven they can do very sensitive or incisive work (though their talent agencies should have known better). ANA and the ad agency probably should be spanked for their ignorance, but the real problem is a political and media culture in Japan that is increasingly unable to see beyond its closed world. The CM is not a sign of Japanese who have "always" been homogeneous or racist (as the foreign press too simplistically states it), but of a contemporary situation that is contingent, not inherent, and thus open to change. But only if it opens itself up to perspectives from outside.

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