Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Mr James" gets gaijin in a tizzy

There's an interesting debate going on about racial stereotyping in advertising right now; interesting because it is a reversal of the usual paradigm.

McDonalds have a new mascot in Japan, named Mr James. He's a nerdy tourist who loves Japanese culture, speaks heavily accented and flawed Japanese, and of course loves burgers.

This character has upset many people of Western origin living in Japan, who claim it is a derogatory stereotype of white people in Japan. Blogger Arudo Debito (aka David Aldwinckle) is running a campaign to shame McDonalds into dropping the character.

Here's an example below of Mr James. Not understanding Japanese myself, I didn't find it particularly interesting.

Meanwhile over in the US, the two authors of the Disgrasian blog have described the portrayal as a kind of karma, since Western media have long perpetuated unflattering stereotypes of Asians. Disgrasian's flippant take on it has not been well-received by some, as you can imagine.

So is this a kind of racism against non-Japanese living in Japan? Is Mr James a kind of white minstrel sellout? It seems to me to be an overreaction, but then again, I'm not a foreigner living in Japan, and perhaps I don't get some of the nuances in the ad.

The point has been made that if an equivalent Asian stereotype was portrayed in American media (as it has been and still is), then Asians would bleat about it - so isn't it wrong to stereotype gaijin in Japan?

Consider this: in Western popular culture, it's usually somewhat acceptable to poke fun at white people in a way that would not be acceptable with blacks or Asians. This may not seem fair to white people, but it comes down to power. Since Anglocentric Western culture dominates a country like Australia or the US, it is a fair target for sending up. Making fun of the culture of, say, Aborigines, who are downtrodden and relatively powerless, seems in poor taste by comparison - like kicking someone when they are down.

So, transferred to Japan, where Japanese culture is so dominant, is it still okay to make fun of the 1% of the population who are Westerners, who are denied some of the basic rights available to native Japanese? Hmmm. Dunno if I have an answer for that one.

Like this article? You may like:

Green tea is intent on world domination

Japanese entertainment - the dark side

Awesome Asian Ads: Japan

Random comic genius: Hard Gay Ramen



  1. I think at one point he says, "If there is a hole, I want to go in it"...
    He also tries a pickup line- "How bout a cup of green tea at Macdonalds?"
    "Who is Osama?"
    And a common tongue twister, which is the Japanese equivalent of "peter piper picked a peck of pickles", which he pulls off very well.

    Something about a dog in a bath...

    A once in a hundred year happiness?
    techno cut?

  2. Thanks Mr Bonobo. That increases my appreciation of the ad substantially.

    Is the phrase about "going in a hole" a follow-up to the pick up line? That would make sense.

  3. Yup, the first two phrases that Bonoboboy mentions (which Mr. James practices with glee) indicate that he's being portrayed as a sexual predator going after Japanese women (which is a common stereotype of white males in Japan). Japanese audiences probably find it amusing because they're not threatened by it. Of course, if he was a handsome, attractive man, it would be a different story.

  4. Maff, do you think that your interpretation that he is being portrayed as a sexual predator is perhaps a bit extreme?
    Like I said earlier, I'm out of my depth here so I really just guessing. But are they not merely phrases that would sound funny when said by a foreigner?

  5. Plain S. RicefieldAugust 29, 2009 at 12:40 AM

    It is interesting to see no one seems caring much about how ordinary Japanese people (who can't speak English) actually see "Mr James" in their English language discussion.

    Some of Japanese people I know even don't notice that he is depicted as "nerdy" since they don't share the stereotype or the concept of "nerdy white". Ah, there is a long history of making use of positive images of white peoples and their culture in Japanese Ads: They are in many cases depicted as advanced, wealthy, well-educated, stylish and fashionable, classy, and (especially for many women) lady-first-gentlemen. And then some peoples, both foreigner and Japanese, say with contempt "Japs are worshipping white like a god or colonial masters".

    I'm sure that the Japanese sometimes laugh at a comedian, wearing big-nose and painted wrinkles on his forehead and lines between his eyebrows, who speaks badly accented Japanese with exaggerated gestures. So, I can uderstand why foreigners living in Japan are so upset on "Mr James". However, I suspect that any discussion, leaving ordinary Japanese people's opinion and viewpoint outside, gives good result.

  6. Plain S. RicefieldAugust 29, 2009 at 2:38 AM

    Just for some clarification.

    If there is a hole, I want to go in it.

    This is a literal translation of a Japanese idiomatic phrase which means "I am so ashamed that I want to hide myself".

    I don't know why the director of this video let him say this phrase. But I just knew (thanks to google) the meaning of "a dog in a bath..." thing and am very confident that most Japanese rarely associate the above phrase (in Japanese) with sexual things (but surely sometimes we do as a joke, but a slight modification must be applied to the phrase).

    Maff said...
    a sexual predator going after Japanese women (which is a common stereotype of white males in Japan)

    I think this is rather a stereotype of white males among western peoples and a few Japanese youth living in highly populated urban area. And sexual predator stereotype is often associated with middle-aged Japanese men in the Japanese media!