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ANA caricature speaks volumes about Japan’s outdated mind-set

by Hifumi Okunuki

Last month, a new ANA commercial hit the airwaves — and quickly ran into some serious turbulence.

The scene is Haneda Airport. Two Japanese men dressed as pilots stand with their backs to the camera.

“Haneda has more international flights nowadays,” says one.

“Finally,” replies the other.

“Next stop, Vancouver,” the first man says.

“Next stop, Hanoi,” his friend replies.

“Exciting, isn’t it?”

“You want a hug?” the taller man says, out of nowhere. The shorter man stares at him in bewilderment.

The man who proposed hugging criticizes him, saying, “Such a Japanese reaction.”

“Because I am Japanese,” the man says in his defense.

“I see,” says his partner, before falling into a contemplative silence. “Let’s change the image of Japanese people.”

When the camera returns to the shorter man, he is wearing a blond wig and a false nose of Pinocchio proportions. “Sure,” he says.

A voiceover then intones the All Nippon Airways slogan, “From Haneda to the world, ANA,” and the commercial ends.

As soon as this ad aired, ANA was inundated with criticism. The thrust of the complaints was that the ad was racist and exaggerated the physical features of white people to point of mocking them.

ANA did not seem to have anticipated such a reaction. It swiftly apologized and removed the offending final image from the clip on TV and online. (Though it was only the TV commercial that received criticism, they also took down posters of one of the actors from the commercial wearing the traditional dress of various countries.)

What interested me in particular was the difference between the reactions of Japanese and foreigners who saw this ad. At my labor union there are members of many different nationalities, the large majority of whom expressed unhappiness or indignation toward the ad. “How did they fail to anticipate this would offend people?” many asked.

On the other hand, Japanese people I know reacted with bewilderment. “It’s certainly childish,” their comments tended to run, “but I couldn’t call it racist. On the contrary, since blond hair and big noses are something that in Japanese culture have long been held up as attractive, the ad is more an expression of Japanese people’s sense of inferiority.”

My personal opinion is that the ad is a disappointing anachronism, and a reminder of the parochial outlook of large Japanese corporations. The ad appeals to the facile formula that “foreigner = white = blonde and big-nosed = English-speaking = globalization.” But this feels bizarrely outdated and out of place coming from ANA, a major carrier trying to depict the airport generically — and Haneda in particular — as some sort of stage for exchange between the world’s many races and nationalities. Instead, the ad unintentionally shows that the Japanese archetype of the gaijin (foreigner) remains as strong as ever.

So why is it that so many of the Japanese people I spoke to couldn’t understand why foreigners would be angry about this “racist” ad? I think, fundamentally, it has to do with the very narrow image that postwar Japan has had of what “abroad” and “foreigners” mean. Because postwar Japan has been politically, socially, culturally and in almost every other respect in thrall to the West — and particularly the United States — the view that blond, big-nosed, blue-eyed and English-speaking are somehow “better” or the “global model” is widespread.

At the same time, the former targets of Japanese invasion in Asia, such as China and South Korea, have been largely ignored. Political leaders have avoided the question of responsibility for the war, and ordinary people have relatively little opportunity to study their own recent history. Japan has considered itself as separate from Asia, due to its status as the only Asian country that succeeded in developing into a major economic power. For postwar Japan, “foreign” has basically meant “American.”

As Japan’s own economic engine has puttered out, China has started to grow rapidly and South Korea has become a major hub of popular entertainment and industry, and many Japanese now feel threatened and see these countries as rivals.

The Japanese media have been eager to belittle their neighbors. And so, Japan, which up to now had adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” attitude to its history of war against its neighbors, is at the stage where its politicians are actively trying to make excuses for its past aggression and are even trying to apportion blame to the Koreans and Chinese.

Japan is thus far from becoming “global” in any real sense of the word. In a nutshell, the world for Japan consists of China and Korea — the objects of resentment and controversy — and the rest, who are all blond, big-nosed English-speakers.

Japanese women’s magazines often run articles with titles like “How to do your makeup for that foreign look” or “half look,” where “foreigner” obviously means “white Westerner” and “half” means “a half-Japanese, half-white mix.” No one who reads these headlines would consider that they could be referring to half-Chinese or half-Filipino Japanese, even though we inhabit a world of around 200 different countries, most of which are majority non-Caucasian.

It’s from this perspective that the trade ministry is raising its voice and calling for Japan to prepare workers with a more “global outlook” and to stop the trend of young people “looking inward” (uchimuki).

This is laughable. It would certainly be better if young people looked out at the world, provided they recognize and appreciate its true ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity — and that this diversity cannot and should not be ranked in terms of which traits are better or worse. That would be some real globalization.

Apologies for the long buildup, but I felt this commercial brought up an important point regarding the situation of foreign workers in Japan. But first, I would like to ask readers what they think: Do Japanese businesses discriminate against foreigners?

Japanese labor law has only one or two articles that touch on the subject of foreigners. The crucial one is Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act, which states that “an employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.”

This is called the principle of equal treatment. Nationality is considered to encompass the concept of race in this article.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Article 3 is the only section of the Labor Standards Act that refers to foreigners. Since every article of labor law should apply to every person working in Japan, I don’t think there’s any need to make any special mention of foreigners elsewhere.

So, if Japanese labor law protects foreigners and Japanese equally, what’s the problem? Let’s look at the Tokyo Kokusai Gakuen case (Tokyo District Court, March 15, 2001).

The defendant was a language school that employed the 16 plaintiffs in the case (of whom three were Japanese) as teachers. The case centered on claims of unpaid wages and security of contract renewals.

The foreign teachers were employed on a separate contract to the Japanese teachers (the contract was called the “Foreigner Contract”). The difference between the two contracts was that the one the Japanese instructors were on was permanent, whereas the foreigners were on fixed-term contracts. The plaintiffs alleged that this difference violated the aforementioned equal-treatment principle.

On this point, the court ruled against the teachers, finding that “the difference in contracts did not violate Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act” — the reason being, the court said, that “foreign teachers were employed as temporary, semi-regular staff and were given higher pay to compensate for the difference. The school did not discriminate in any other way.”

In other words, the court found that since the foreigners had no corresponding complaint about being paid more than Japanese in the same work, then it was not discriminatory for foreigners to be denied permanent employment.

This finding brings to mind the attitude that my Japanese friends had with regards to the ANA commercial: Sure, foreigners get a ribbing, but the racial traits exaggerated in the ad are desirable to us, so it can’t be racist. In a similar vein, according to the Tokyo District Court ruling, foreigners are on fixed-term contracts but they get paid more, so it can’t be discrimination.

I cannot agree with the court’s reasoning. High pay doesn’t make limiting foreigners’ term of employment fair. Isn’t it in principle discriminatory that Japanese are automatically put on lower-wage permanent contracts, and foreigners are automatically put on higher-wage limited-term contracts, completely disregarding the wishes of any of the individuals concerned?

Why is it that just because you are a foreigner, permanent employment is automatically off the table? And why does higher pay justify limited-term contracts? No rational reason comes to mind.

I think the principle of equal treatment established in Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act is a wonderful thing. The reality, however, is that constant violations of the principle persist in Japanese workplaces to this day.

It is important, now more than ever, for working people to fight for all workers’ rights to equality and security at the workplace. This is not something employers should be able to use to divide their employees. Instead of pandering to the grotesque caricature of globalization in ANA’s ad, employees would be better off heeding the global call of “Workers of the world, unite!”

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the second Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • montaigne1

    As a Westerner, I didn’t really have a problem with the ANA commercial. Actually, I had more of a problem with a couple of commercials that ran a little while ago (I don’t remember the company) that depicted George Washington and Isaac Newton. The commercials were trying to be funny, but depicted both men as idiots (in my opinion). Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I wonder how Japanese people would have felt if there were Western commercials that portrayed Tokugawa Ieyasu or Hideyo Noguchi as a couple of morons. Maybe a good rule of thumb is to put the shoe on the other foot before releasing commercials with caricatures of foreigners.

    • Toolonggone

      Well, whether you feel offensive or not is one way to judge the commercial. The problem is not just about racial caricature. It’s more on ignorance and delusion J-corporations are trying to infuse the viewers about international aspiration and Japanese culture(they don’t hug!?).

  • Yosemite_Steve

    I’m Caucasian and the ANA commercial didn’t bother me – I didn’t feel mocked, just thought it was a little stupid. So I really appreciated this analysis explaining what’s deeply pernicious in the mindset of the writers and many Japanese viewers. And the article did a great job of tying that stupid way of thinking into some very faulty legal decisions which hold Japan far back from real international thinking and fair labor practices vis-a-vis foreigners. Outstanding article, Okunuki san writes so well!

  • kyushuphil

    Stereotyping others tolls most where most have limited experience of others.

    In Japan, as recent articles here have shown, students learning English could all be learning very much about the cultures of English-speaking countries — poems, novels, essays, music, cuisine, landscape, clothing fashion, film — and they could be learning very much, too, about people — about each other. That is, Japanese learners of English could be writing — in Japanese, for other classes — many types of writing which they then share with each other. They could be learning to question and quote each other, and to draw upon the best from Japanese culture. And with this learning, they could invigorate English learning by bringing real world energy and local culture parallels to language acquisition.

    Doesn’t happen.

    As, again, articles here recently have vouched, most all Japanese teaching of English aims to present it as a dead language, whose only purpose is for repeated tests of grammar and vocabulary to see only how much students can cram humanly dead information (死に絶えた 情報を ).

    Japanese are going to suffer stereotyping for a long time — at least until educators are brave enough to demand the human as part of teaching.

  • Ron NJ

    “Do Japanese businesses discriminate against foreigners?”
    Signs that say “外国人の方お断りします” are not only totally legal, but can be found in literally any city, to say nothing of the “batsu hands” you may well receive if you walk into the wrong small business whose owner doesn’t want to deal with a foreigner. Not exactly what was meant with this sentence, but it bears repeating that this is very much a thing that exists in Japan, so case closed on that aspect – but continuing, the following assumption is way off base:
    “So, if Japanese labor law protects foreigners and Japanese equally,”
    … but it doesn’t, since the law is applied and enforced unevenly (if at all) by both police and the courts, and that’s before you even throw “being a foreigner” in the mix, which just tilts the odds all the more against you.
    I really won’t believe a lick of it until the constitution is amended to remove the constant use of 国民 everywhere in the articles providing protection to people – though “the courts” may have affirmed that foreigners are, “in principle”, to use that phrase the Japanese love, afforded the same rights as Japanese (to quote Colin P A Jones’ article here on the JT, “except those rights that are by definition reserved for Japanese”, whatever that means, and without defining what those rights are), the simple fact is that when you get down on the ground, there’s just no meat to it whatsoever, and no one in power has any interest in protecting us or ensuring that protections are applied equally to all members of society. We’re still at the point yet in Japan where “let’s get rid of discrimination day” flyers feature pictures and articles on discrimination against women, the elderly, infirm, and handicapped, but completely leave out foreigners, which just goes to show you how much (or how little) the average Japanese person thinks about how anything they do affects or includes foreigners – right down to anti-discrimination materials.
    Japan has a long way to go indeed, and as it has been over half a millennium since Western foreigners first arrived – keeping in mind Japan has had thousands of years of contact with East Asian ‘gaijin’ – the ‘isolated island country’ excuse is getting a bit old.

    • wallyballou

      Now that is a lot more offensive than pointy noses.

  • Melody_U

    This article hits the nail right on the head. Actually we can often find this kind of ads which tend to be a racist. More recently, I saw an advertisement of one of the English conversational schools, which was a picture of a Japanese man and a Caucasian woman together, may be a scene of their wedding. This is the almost the same depiction of ANA’s way, and shows the image that ‘Speaking English’ equal ‘Globalization’ as well. It is good for them to have a good command of English, but they should also change their perceptions toward ‘Globalization’ at the same time.

  • Thomas Taylor

    I would like to point out one fatal flaw in this article. Foreigners are not paid more, they are paid much less. While their hourly wages may be higher they will receive no overtime nor annual bonus (a bonus (often bi-annual)is usually from 25% up to 50% of annual salary in Japan). In the case of language schools the foreigners as a whole will also be much more educated as to obtain a work visa in Japan a four year university degree is required. Bottom line is: in Japan foreigners have no rights but what the Japanese deign to give you. Whatever the “law” may say the bureaucrats just do whatever they want anyway and will constantly ignore the law in the case of foreigners. As someone who lived in Japan for over three years I experienced this in every facet of life. I have a deep love of Japan, but it is a very backward country and living there as a foreigner is akin to being a minority in the early 20th century in the United States. This is tragic enough for a “modern society,” but the real tragedy is that most Japanese people don’t know this or see a problem with it.

    • TLD_0819

      Speak for yourself, I am paid well and treated well here. In fact, In fact, I make more here than I do in the United States or Canada with my skills.

      There are other jobs besides ‘Language School Teacher’. It’s all about supply and demand. The market is flooded with English teachers.

      • Thomas Taylor

        I wasn’t speaking for myself, I was speaking for the vast majority of
        foreigners in Japan. Nor was my post specific to language schools, except for where noted in regards to education. It was actually you who is speaking for themselves.

        If you happen to have landed a good job thats great for you, but that is not the case for most foreigners and to say you make more than you would in the States or Canada is so rare it borders on being unbelievable.

        Listen I loved my time in Japan but I will never understand the Japnophiles who can’t recognize the deep dark underbelly of that country. There is intense endemic and systemic racism in Japan; that is a FACT. For people not only to forgive but to deny the truth because they are personally content is disturbing to say the least and indicative of the exact tragedy of which I spoke above.

  • qwerty

    Whether you’re Western, Caucasian or Japanese doesn’t matter, and whether you had a problem with it or not doesn’t really matter – if it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

    • Vichy

      And in this particular instance, is it wrong?

      • qwerty

        google “racism” and make your own mind up

  • ren

    Please keep alarming us(JAPANESE) from a different vantage point. There do exist that an image of foreigner has not changed yet in Japanese society. Many are still longing for white, blond, blue-eyed. It is such a regrettable fact but it has already soaked into Japanese. Therefore it would be hard to break the idea and renew it as you could see at ANA’s commercial even in this age. That ad has also showed you a backward Japanese society in any kinds of problems about foreigners.
    However, we cannot and shouldn’t insist this shameless view anymore.
    It is necessary that we have to pay attention and discuss this kind of issue.
    I appreciate writer Okunuki to make me rethink what Japanese society should be.

  • Linda Öhlmann

    Wow I guess I’m weird cause my problem with the comercial was a completely different one. I’m caucasian and I didn’t bother about this nose and wig thing at all, just found it funny actually. But I thought there would be japanese people being offended by this for telling them this “change the way you are and become more western”-stuff. I find that much more infuriating than the stupid gaijin-costume…

  • happyjapan

    A very good post. The reality is (as others have pointed out) that Japan can pass all the laws they want, but it will make no difference whatsoever to foreigners as the Japanese do not want foreigners settling in their country long term. Foreigners have no rights whatsoever in Japan. They have privileges afforded to them by Japan which will be revoked whenever the Japanese wish. The country is institutionally racist, incapable and unwilling to change IMO. They would sooner have robots look after their elderly than humans who come from a different culture.
    All foreigners need to be aware that they are living in an apartheid state and they shouldn’t make long term plans in Japan, especially with the rightward swing and assault on the poor spearheaded by the current government/business conglomerates.

  • jake Harods

    I have yet to meet a Japanese that does not ascribe to the pernicious world view explained above. It is tiresome and shockingly ignorant. Life is like that sometimes I suppose. All these people shouting largely that they don’t find the ad offensive are protesting too much; it is offensive.

    Would AA or BA run an ad featuring short, bandy legged Japanese saying oishi to every mouthful of awful food?

    It is 2014 not 1798

    • Gordon Graham

      Ever seen an Atlanta Braves baseball game?

  • C321

    I’m caucasian, but my partner and children are Japanese, so when an advert goes out suggesting asians are inferior in some way to caucasian foreigners, yes, I am offended. Racism is racism which ever way you state it.

  • wallyballou

    I am a member of the group which is inaccurately termed “Caucasian” and I live in the USA – and I thought the ad was mildly amusing. I certainly am mot offended – by what? The big pointy nose? Asian people tend to have flatter noses than European people – big freaking deal. The grievance-mongers and professional offense-takers of all countries should just take a chill pill.