Anyone who has lived in Japan for a reasonable amount of time (and many who have just visited) will have had the pleasure of visiting ‘Don Quixote’. A treasure-trove of sundry goods packed into a chain of multi-floored buildings splashed around the country. Quite central to one of the floor themes is costumes, ranging from luxurious, full-bodied outfits for cosplayers to cheap party goods guaranteed to draw a laugh at the company drinking party. And, as this post will explore, a selection of crude party jokes at the expense of foreigners.
At the cheap end of the costume scale are various masks depicting Japanese talento, overseas celebrities, movie characters and other oddities. Then right down the bottom, next to party poppers and goggle-eyed glasses, you’ll find this:
The infamous ‘Hi! I’m a Foreigner’ (ハ〜イ！外国人デス。) party mask, featuring sparkling blue party eyes and an abnormally large fake nose.
It’s important to note that this isn’t Don Quixote’s work. That honour belongs to party goods company JIG Paradise. It also certainly isn’t the only place you’ll find crude stereotypes of foreigners in Japan. The most recent mess was caused by ANA with their tactless commercial depicting a foreigner with, you guessed it, a huge nose. (ANA have since apologised and pulled the ad).
There are countless other examples, such as the McDonalds Mr James sketches and this Nagasaki Tabi-net advertisement.
The Evolution of Mr. Gaijin
What’s interesting about the Hi! I’m a Foreigner! mask is that it’s gone through several iterations, the latest of which is the most insulting yet. I’ve taken the liberty of creating a combined image to show to horrific evolution.
For those of you who cannot understand Japanese:
1) Hello Mr. Foreigner!
2) Hi! I’m a Foreigner!
3) Hi! I’m Michael!
They’ve gone too far this time. While I was never a fan of their racialised profiling of foreigners, it was always possible that one could just view them as light-hearted parody, the same way Monty Python produced countless hilarious skits poking fun at the quirks of people from different races and cultures.
In fact, in the original version, JIG were even kind enough to add -san to the end of ‘gaijin’. In Japanese, this makes the word polite, so it would be equivalent to saying ‘Mr. Foreigner’ instead of just ‘foreigner’. Not too shabby.
However, that wasn’t to last. Buckling under the pressure of activists, JIG revised the product to read ‘Hi! I’m a Foreigner’. The package illustration was also changed owing the fact that between the years of 2008-2012, the Japanese national perception of male foreigners changed to view them as long-haired outsiders. Intelligence suggests this was in part due to the falling popularity celebrities such as David Beckham and increase in longed-haired stallions such as Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
The change from ‘gaijin’ to ‘gaikokujin’ and why this was significant requires a little explanation. The word ‘gaijin’ is a contraction of the full Japanese word ‘gaikokujin’ meaning ‘outside country person’, or, ‘foreigner’. Used on its own, the word ‘gaijin’ can feel quite insulting to those not of Japanese descent. I even wrote a full article on the topic a few years ago to discuss the issue.
So, theoretically, changing ‘gaijin’ to ‘gaikokujin’ should have solved the problem. That was obviously the thinking behind imagineers at JIG. It doesn’t seem to have appeased our humourless activists though, and once again JIG’s hand has been forced to play down the explicitness of the foreigner joke, as they note in this press release.
To their credit, JIG changed the ‘Black-beard Foreigner’ product to ‘Black-Beard Men’ (although I still take issue with their sexism there), and ‘Mr. Nose-Glasses Foreigner’ to ‘Mr. Nose-Glasses’. But with the ‘Hi! I’m a Foreigner’ product, they’ve only made it worse, and far more personal. Not content with singling me out by lack of Japaneseness, it seems I, along with Michaels worldwide, are now named and shamed for our blue eyes and big noses in a direct and malicious fashion.
I shall of course be writing to JIG Paradise head management to express my displeasure at the sullying of my name and image and by making a formal complaint to the Consumer Affairs Agency in the Cabinet of Japan. At the very least I expect a disclaimer added to the packaging making it clear that not all Michaels have long, golden locks, blue eyes and abnormally large noses and it is inappropriate to market a product that begets this misunderstanding. It is my humble suggestion that they change the product to ‘Blue-Eyed-Goldilocks-san’ and be rid of all the racist and sexist undertones altogether.
In case it wasn’t been abundantly clear, this post was written in jest! Well, half in jest. I honestly do think there are issues with racial profiling in Japan that need to be better addressed, and products like ‘Mr. Gaijin’, while not what I would call ‘racist’, do reinforce deep-rooted stereotypes which are often viewed in earnest by people who honestly don’t know any better.
However, I also (shockingly) have a sense of humour! Using racial and cultural exaggerations for the purpose of parody and humour is, in my humble opinion, fair game. It can however be very crude and unfunny if not used in exactly the right way, and it will always offend somebody, somewhere, no matter how expertly done.
What is tricky however, is how far a commercial company should be allowed to go in use of racial profiles for business ends. Racism is present all around the world, but for some cultures and peoples more than others, there is a long history of racial injustice that they and their ancestors had to bear. Showing sensitivity and maintaining a little common sense in regards to these issues is extremely important.
I’m not in any position to make a judgement on what level of parody should be acceptable, only that it seems apparent to me that humanity would be losing something very important if we don’t keep our sense of humour.
Finally, kudos to JIG Paradise for listening to feedback and acting to improve their products! (And I say that in earnest with my wide blue eyes and moderately large nose).