Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Try Again, ANA

So this ad’s been generating a lot of discussion.

(If the link isn’t working or it’s been taken down, here’s a brief summary. Two Japanese men speak in English about how ANA (All Nippon Airways) now has flights to many international destinations. One guy says “You wanna hug?” The other guy says “no,” and the first guy says that this is a very “Japanese reaction.” First guy says “Let’s change the image of Japanese people.” Cut to second guy wearing a blond wig and and an oversized nose.)

A bit of background. This “gaijin (foreigner) costume” is commonplace on Japanese TV. The person wearing it will usually affect a thick accent and speak Japanese poorly (or just speak gibberish). You can buy the “gaijin costume” in costume shops in Tokyo like Tokyu Hands and Don Quixote. It almost always consists of a big nose and large ears, plus maybe a blond wig.

ANA apparently got enough complaints about the ad that they’re planning to change it. I’d just like to address a few of the more common reactions I’ve seen:

“It wasn’t intended to be racist.”

Putting aside the issue of whether or not the ad is racist, when was the last time ANYONE–other than a few grand dragons of the KKK–actually INTENDED to be racist?

With a tiny number of exceptions, no one ever INTENDS to be racist / sexist / homophobic. But people are, some more often than others. It’s not a capital offense. Most of us are guilty of it at some point, and we all tend to dig in our heels when people accuse us of it–“But that wasn’t what I MEANT!” It really doesn’t matter what you MEANT–what matters is how it’s received. The point isn’t what this ad INTENDED–it’s  the effect that it had on its audience. In this case, plenty of people were offended, and plenty of people weren’t. But if you’re ANA, and the WHOLE POINT of your ad is to show how “international” you are, you might want to rethink the use of an old, tired trope that more than a few people don’t care for.

For me, that’s the main point of all this. If I see a Japanese person wearing a “gaijin” costume on a silly talk show, I tend to just roll my eyes. But when that same image appears in an ad from a company that was actually trying to tout its international-ness,  I get a little more frustrated.

“You’re overreacting. Don’t be so sensitive, just laugh it off.”

The last time I checked, saying publicly that you don’t like an ad, criticizing the choice of the people who made it, or even judging it offensive hardly counted as “overreacting.” It’s a public ad–people can be offended or not. Being offended doesn’t mean that you think the ad’s creators should be strung up by their heels and flogged, it just means the ad had a negative impact on you. And in this case, enough people were offended that ANA decided to change the ad.

As for sensitivity, sure, if you’re foreign you can choose to handle stuff like this however you want. On a regular basis in Japan and in the world at large, I have to make decisions about when I’m going to speak up about something and when I’m just going to roll my eyes or laugh it off. In this case, I was just sad to see that even when they tried to get it right, they got it wrong. That even when a Japanese company is apparently trying to re-brand itself as being inclusive and “global,” it still falls back on tired, stereotypical images. Which shows, yet again, that attitudes are really, really slow to change.

“I thought it was funny.”

I thought it was kind of funny, too–right up until the end (I loved the “You wanna hug?” bit.) Yet another reason to be disappointed–it was so close to being good, and then it went lame. But funny’s subjective. I’ve laughed at plenty of stuff that others might have found offensive. This time around I wasn’t laughing at the end, though.

“Come on. White people are hardly an oppressed minority.”

No, we’re not. But this ad wasn’t just about “whiteface” or making fun of white people–it was about the Japanese idea of what it means to be an “international” (non-Japanese) person. Which apparently still means blond hair and a silly-looking big nose. Goofy. Different.

Little things like “gaijin” costumes and repeatedly seeing foreign nationals portrayed as clownish / weird contribute to the mindset that foreigners should be treated differently, and that foreign nationals and Japanese are essentially separate species. And this mindset has real-world consequences–if you’re foreign in Japan, it’s still hard to get an apartment, get a bank account, get a housing loan, get a job in a Japanese company that “doesn’t hire foreigners” (even if you were born here and have a Japanese passport), or in some cases even get into a bath house. In the grand scheme of things, the ANA ad might not be a big deal, but it’s a symptom of a bigger problem.

I’ll actually be really curious to see the revised ad, and to see if ANA takes any of the feedback to heart. I’d love to see an ad that really does follow through on a message of inclusiveness while still being funny.


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This entry was posted on January 21, 2014 by in Japan and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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