McDonald's new mascot in Japan, a geeky white American named Mr. James, who speaks broken, foreign-sounding Japanese, has ruffled the feathers of some foreign-born (white) residents there. They feel that Mr. James is a racist caricature, and that he therefore constitutes another example of Japanese discrimination against people like themselves.
A human rights group in Japan named FRANCA (Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association) has angrily written to McDonald's,
We wish to bring to your attention a sales campaign launched this month by McDonald’s Japan that we find extremely problematic.
The “Mr. James” character, representing the “Nippon All Stars” hamburger campaign, features a spectacled Caucasian narrating his love for Japan and Japan’s version of McDonald’s’ hamburgers. Our association finds the following things problematic:
* 1) The character speaks broken accented Japanese (using the katakana script, one used for foreign loanwords). The impression given is that Caucasians cannot speak Japanese properly, which is simply not true for the vast numbers of non-native (and Japanese-native) foreigners in Japan.
* 2) The character is called “Mr. James” (again, in katakana), promoting the stereotype that foreigners must be called by their first names only (standard Japanese etiquette demands that adults be called “last name plus -san”), undoing progress we have made for equal treatment under Japanese societal rules.
* 3) The image used, of a clumsy sycophantic “nerd” for this Caucasian customer, is embarrassing to Caucasians who will have to live in Japan under this image.
To illustrate the issue more clearly, would McDonald’s USA (or McDonald’s in any other country, for that matter) choose to promote, for example, a new rice dish with a “ching-chong Chinaman” saying, “Me likee McFlied Lice!”? Of course not.
Likewise, we do not think these attitudes perpetuating stereotypes of ethnic minorities within their respective societies should be promoted anywhere by a multinational corporation with the influence of McDonald’s. We ask that McDonald’s Headquarters review McDonald’s Japan’s “Mr James” Campaign and have it discontinued immediately.
My response, especially to the last point is: "Really?"
I often see ads like that airing in Australia without significant or even noticeable protest. The primary difference is that the stereotypes are about non-whites. And really, since when did Caucasians corner the market on the nerd stereotype? A lot of nerds are also portrayed as Asian Americans, and African Americans. Urkel, anyone? William Hung? Stevie, from Malcolm in the Middle?
I also find the outrage over the McDonald's 'Mr. James' caricature misplaced not only because the rest of us have had to put up with media-generated stereotyping for years and years, but also because most ads in Japan that feature Caucasians usually depict them in a highly positive light, as the central god or goddess-like icon of the commercial. Japanese companies routinely pay large amounts of money to top Hollywood stars for commercial appearances that portray them in very flattering ways. This fact makes the complaints about one such stereotyping a bit...well, petty.
How often do people who look Japanese get depicted in a positive light in U.S. ads? And did any of the foreign-born in Japan protest when a Japanese English school perpetuated the stereotype of native speakers of English as blue-eyed blonds like Cameron Diaz?
What’s that? This is harmless, you say? Tell that to the Asian Americans who speak nothing but English and still get passed over for an English teaching job in Japan because the school preferred, say, a blond German who speaks English as a second or third language.
The problem, you see, is not so much that one negative caricature harms the image in Japan of white people. The real problem is that the media-generated image of white people there, as in most of Asia, is already a stereotype -- an enormously positive one. It's an image of adored perfection, created by a barrage of thousands of ads like this caressing portrayal of Cameron Diaz (who, despite her last name, undoubtedly comes across in Japan as another white goddess).
One portrayal of a geeky white guy named Mr. James is not going to put a dent in the generally positive image of white people created by Japanese media. In fact, I wonder why FRANCA and other white residents of Japan don't complain about the other, seemingly positive images of themselves. Don't those images end up creating an even more unrealistic image of white people, one that is very difficult for most white people to live up to?
These complaints about Mr. James also sound hypocritical when the West is made out to be doing a much better job of not presenting stereotyped images of their migrant population. Whatever. You just don’t notice it when it’s being done to someone else. When Westerners go to Asia and complain about ‘racism’, the implied argument is that the West is more enlightened, civilized, and advanced because ‘it just wouldn’t happen back home’. And Asia is backwards, so we need to ‘educate’ them.
For example, white students who come back to Australia after finishing an exchange program in Japan complain about minor inconveniences there; that leaves me thinking, ‘You’re complaining about that?’ One such student told a Japanese lecturer to go watch Lost in Translation because it oh-so-perfectly describes what it's like living in Japan as a foreigner, as though she had just endured the most difficult thing at the hands of these Japanese beings.
I heard about this. So I went and watched that movie, wondering what in the world the student meant. After watching it, my conclusion was: I don't need to watch this movie to know how that feels -- its portrayal of life as an outsider in a foreign country is the story of my life. And it's a much milder version of the story of many migrant lives.
Obviously, life in a foreign country is hard and everyone deserves to be cared for. But it's hard to sympathize when white residents of Japan frame it as, 'Oh-my-gosh, the Japanese people are sooo [insert negative adjective], and oh-my-gosh, our struggles are oh-so-unique and difficult.' It’s hard to sympathize when they have little understanding of how many more foreigners, migrants, and POCs in their own country go through it too, often in much harder circumstances. Tell me your experience and I’ll empathize, but don’t try to ‘educate’ me about it because I already know.
But of course, over in the West the blame falls on POCs if we fail to assimilate. In Asia, if Westerners don’t feel comfortable, the blame falls on the host society…POCs can never win the argument, it seems.
Then there are the white folks who come back complaining about how the Japanese term 'gaijin' (foreigner) is derogatory. When someone tries to ‘educate’ me on this, it's an automatic give away that they have a superficial understanding of Japan. 'Gaijin' sounds awfully rude in Chinese due to the Chinese characters it uses. It means 'outsider' in Chinese. And the Chinese in Japan do have a hard time in Japan (considering their disadvantaged status in terms of power relations as defined by the current global economic structure), so it’s understandable if they get upset at it.
However, it makes little sense for Westerners to get upset about it. In Japan, 'gaijin' is used as a short form for the more formal 'gaikokujin' (person from a foreign country). And 'gaijin' is often synonymous with ‘white person’ (and all the positive images that come with being white) and is rarely used as a derogatory term in Japan, especially not when referring to white people. It has a completely different meaning from how it sounds in Chinese, even though they use the same characters.
The same goes for the word 'bule' in Indonesian. It means 'faded' and is used to refer to white people. But again, it is rarely used in a derogatory way. 'Bule', or ‘white person’, carries positive connotations, thanks to all the white-worshiping that Asia is so very good at.
I find that some white people who know how power relations work never complain about these things. They know that the general Asian image of them is not derogatory. But as the crocodile tears shed over McDonald's Japan's Mr. James mascot demonstrate, those who don't know how power relations work seem to bite deeply the first chance they get. They do so, in my jaded opinion, because for once they get to be the ones who cry, 'That's racist!'
Disgracian: "In McDonald's New Japanese Ad Campaign, The Wacky Foreigner Joke's on Americans" (reposted at Racialicious) & "We Don't Care about White People"
(Coco Masters) Time: "Not Everyone Is Lovin' Japan's New McDonald's Mascot"
Japan Probe: "Mr. James: McDonald’s Japan has a gaijin clown"
Jeff Yang (San Francisco Chronicle): "McRacism in Japan"
The official blog of Mr. James