A Toshiba commercial, which may or may not have made it to air, has been branded racist. The commercial, which is for a rice cooker that also makes bread, features a Japanese actress in a blond wig, with a large fake nose (another stereotype), speaking heavily accented faltering Japanese, while showing Katakana subtitles. Katakana is the writing system that is used for foreign words, the implication being that the subtitles are being written for foreigners who cannot understand Hiragana or Kanji. Yet, there seems to be some debate as to whether this is “racist.”
As a Caucasian, in many countries of the world I have been dealt what many would consider to be a good hand – as far society goes, us white folks have had it pretty good. There is plenty of humor directed at white people that some would consider racially charged – but not what I would consider racist. In countries where I am a member of the “majority” – I have no problem with comedians considering me fair game. Even if things get uncomfortable, it is just a taste of what I would experience on a regular basis as a member of the “minority” – even in these enlightened times. This point may not be something that we vocalize, but it is the primary reason why Dave Chappelle can get on stage and make jokes about white people – while a white comic making jokes about black people would be skating on very thin ice.
What we need to remember about Toshiba’s commercial is that it was made for a Japanese audience. Japan is a nation of approximately 125 million, of which which approximately 2.5 million is made up of people from other countries. That 2.5 million includes, according to Wikipedia, “1 million North and South Koreans, 0.6 million Chinese, 0.5 million Filipinos, 250,000 Brazilians and 200,000 Peruvians.” The balance includes: Americans, Canadians, Australians, British, Indonesians, Thais, Africans, Iranians, Russians, Turks, and Indians. While the blonde wig and large nose (a common stereotype for Caucasians) seem to be aimed at a specific ethnicity, the language issues take a square shot at pretty much everyone in that list, with the exception perhaps of the Koreans and Chinese, because they have a very big long-term population. At any rate, you get the picture – there are not that foreigners here and Toshiba is making fun – that isn’t cool.
I have lived in Japan for the better part of 13 years. I have more or less settled here: I am a permanent resident, I own my own home and I have job security. For the most part, I do not encounter anything in the way of racism. It is a pleasant country in which to live and that is a big part of why I stayed. Racial insensitivity, on the other hand, is something with which I have quite a bit of experience. I live in a rural part of the country and am the only non-Japanese person in my workplace. In going about my day-to-day life, it is not uncommon for me to go a week without seeing another foreign face. That makes me something of an oddity – and leads to the occasional awkward, or weird attempt to break the ice. At times it also leads to mildly offensive remarks, but I have never felt that I was being vilified. The only time I ever get upset is when I hear things like that from friends or colleagues – people who interact with me on a regular basis and who should know better. That is primarily why I find the Toshiba commercial so offensive: Toshiba is a company with international reach and as such, they should know better. Whether or not the Toshiba commercial is racist is not really a matter for debate. Of course it is racist. Did the people who created it think that they were being racist? Probably not, but intentions are not tangible and outcomes are. For the record, I have never seen the commercial on television here and I suspect that it will never see the light of day.
The depiction of an outspoken, “amusing” simpleton with horrible pronunciation really grates but what I find more offensive is that kids will watch it, and it carries the subtext that it is acceptable to mock a person based on annoying cultural stereotypes. This is precisely the sort of thing that becomes inspirational fodder for school-age bullies. Realistically, the impact of this commercial will be very minimal, but if things like this keep popping up because people with advertising budgets think they are cute and funny – then they could have a very destructive cumulative effect.
Why the creative department at whichever advertising company made this commercial decided that the obnoxious caricature depicted in the commercial was acceptable, I will never know. I could argue that it might have something to do with the popularity of certain entertainment personalities that have made a good living acting in this manner – but that would be mere speculation. If they were trying to create something tasteless and mildly offensive, they hit the nail on the head. I think that they were going for tacky and silly and got lost somewhere along the way. It was written to be cute and stupid, but came off rude – that is usually how it happens. The only way it could have been worse would be if the advertising agency in question hired a foreign actor and asked them to speak like they had a serious intellectual disability. If my seven-year-old son can look at that commercial and see that something is wrong, why did a bunch of creative types sitting around a table at an ad agency get it so wrong?
I have no issues with freedom of speech – even to the point that it allows bigots to air their views, it makes it easier to spot assholes. If I find a movie or television show to be offensive, I will turn it off. There is little way of knowing when a particular commercial is going to air – save from keeping your TV switched off, you are going to be stuck with it until the commercial gets replaced… or complain about it until you it gets pulled or you come to the realization that you were being unreasonable. I do not think that I am.
Personally, I think the idea of a bread-making rice cooker is pretty cool. For the most part people do not eat rice and bread in the same meal, so a single appliance that nails two staples that rarely appear on the table together is clever – but the temperature sensor on my Toshiba microwave lasted about six months longer than its warranty and looking for cheap laughs in a commercial is not a good way to get me to part with my money either now or in the future. Sorry Toshiba, but for the both the short and long-term future, we are done.
I will have my rice and bread without a side helping of humiliation.