March 1984: Ronald Reagan was U.S. president, Yasuhiro Nakasone Japan’s prime minister. Afghan rebels were struggling to rid their country of foreign invaders (deja vu!). Break-dancing was a global craze. Tokyo Disneyland was so new it hadn’t even been visited by Michael Jackson yet. Pay telephones were yellow or pink and couldn’t dial overseas. I was in my first year at International Christian University in Tokyo, struggling with elementary kanji. And for a few brief magical weeks, Japan’s foreign community was transfixed by “Happy Bob.”
The creation of artist Mark Stephen Doerrier, Happy Bob was the title character of a single-panel cartoon whose brief life in The Japan Times stoked intense controversy. The first anti-Bob missive appeared in the letters column just two weeks after the cartoon’s March 19 debut, wondering aloud why the paper had chosen to run the comic: “Do you actually think Doerrier’s grotesque drawings, with their obvious anti-Japanese slant, are humorous?” Uh-oh.
The cartoon quickly disappeared, but not before generating a storm of such letters (and a few in support) until the editor declared correspondence on the subject closed on April 27. The last cartoon appeared the next day, showing an empty commuter train seat, captioned “Happy Bob missed his train today.”
The cartoon always stuck in my mind, mainly because of the storm it managed to generate. I thought a 30th anniversary “Happy Bob” retrospective might be interesting and, given recent events, even timely.
One reader declared it to have “less than mediocre drawing, which few high school papers would tolerate” but I won’t presume to opine on the comic’s aesthetics, being in awe of anyone who can generate a daily strip more sophisticated than stick figures. (The expat cartoonist talent pool apparently wasn’t very large in any case: “Happy Bob” was the fruit of a three-month search!) As for the humor, The Japan Times has kindly reproduced some of the cartoons for the sake of this article, so you can judge for yourself.
To me, the majority simply weren’t very funny. Yeah, kotatsu heaters are a quirky piece of furniture from the Land That Insulation Forgot, and the juxtaposition of bowling with “Oh my god, shoes on the tatami!” is mildly amusing, but this is hardly Far Side material. In fact, Doerrier probably suffered from the contrast presented by Gary Larson’s wildly popular cartoon, which was also appearing in the JT at the time (though one fan declared “Happy Bob” to possess a profundity lacking from Mr. Larson’s work).
A few panels have some timeless appeal: Pachinko and hostess bars are still mystifying, and prime ministers persist in visiting controversial shrines.
Yet some really struck a nerve — a sensitive one, too — though mainly amongst people with first names like Lou, Robby and Jeff and similarly Western surnames, the letters column suggests. But were the cartoons really “anti-Japanese”? Did they “display not only bad taste, but revoltingly offensive taste,” as one irate reader put it?
I confess to having a soft spot for the “Japanese logic” cartoon that generated this particular complaint, but only because I have been asked the same question about chopstick skills many times myself. To characterize it as “Japanese” is wrong, of course, but it nicely captures a particular type of thought process. Similarly, I rather liked the debut strip’s “this is a pen” derivative, because it again resonates with my own experience of having children shouting the phrase at me from afar.
One reader was offended by the panel about old ladies looking for coins in the gutter when they bow. Unfunny, perhaps, but a “blatant attack on Japanese”? Others objected to the “hiring interview” cartoon. That may well have crossed the line, though 30 subsequent years of political correctness and supposedly heightened cultural sensitivity have not been kind to Japanese salarymen, a demographic that is apparently still fair game for generally negative comedic stereotyping — not only abroad but within Japan as well. (Perhaps they are all at the office too much to complain?)
In fact, some of the readers’ responses were funnier than the cartoons themselves, though not intentionally. One reader complaining about the “Japanese logic” cartoon asked, “By what distorted process does Doerrier call this ‘logic?’ ” (If that reader is still around, the imissthings.com domain name is still available.) Another writing to complain about the panties cartoon points out that “on the comic page there is another cartoon on girls’ panties.” Issues ahoy! One even took it upon himself to explain humor itself: “Firstly, good humor is never at the expense of an individual, an ethnic group or cultural differences. . . . Secondly, and most important [sic], good humor is funny.” Well thank you, Professor Jocularity.
I also have to take exception to this first condition: Almost all humor that is actually funny is at somebody’s expense. This is not to justify the use of humor to bully or perpetuate offensive stereotypes based on attributes such as race, over which people have no control. But if you are an expat offended by humor about cultural differences, you should probably pack up and go back to Blandsville (no offense intended to people living in actual towns of that name).
I suspect one of the reasons “Happy Bob” annoyed expats was that it skewered them as much as it did the Japanese. At least one reader appreciated this, though perhaps not coincidentally, he described himself as a visitor rather than a resident.
Looking back, the idea that Japanese people somehow needed to be “protected” from an obscure, amateurish cartoonist whose work appeared in an English-language newspaper is both ridiculous and reeks of the self-importance that can infect some expats, perhaps even more so back then. In reality, what foreigners write or draw about Japan in the local English-language press is probably irrelevant to the day-to-day realities of most Japanese people, none of whom appear to have written in to complain about “Happy Bob” anyway.
Having followed readers’ letters to the JT off and on for over 30 years, a number of recurring themes and the way they are debated — mostly between expats — have come to seem almost generic: “The way English is taught in Japan sucks.” “Japanese people don’t need to learn English.” “They should stop using kanji.” “No, kanji is great; you are just lazy.” “Why do so many Japanese people assume I can’t speak Japanese?” “What is wrong with these people?” “No, what is wrong with you?” I wrote a few of these letters myself in my younger days, but I am not going to take on any of these views here because nobody probably gives a sh-t.
“Happy Bob” may have inadvertently attracted special controversy because it touched on not one but two similar recurring themes. The first is the notion that there is some “correct way” to be a foreign resident of Japan, and if you can’t stop complaining, you should go back to your own country. I won’t say much about this theme, other than to suggest that debating it is about as productive as watching a small dog try to mate with his squeaky toy.
The second is how we poke fun at others in the society around us — the Japanese people in Doerrier’s cartoon. This in turn relates to how they poke fun at us — me, so perhaps I should give a sh-t about this one. Or maybe not.
All Nippon Airways recently generated controversy of its own through a TV commercial advertising its new international routes from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The ad portrayed two Japanese businessmen having a dialog in English, and then one of them turning into a stereotypical Westerner at the end through the addition of a blonde wig and a big false nose. Predictable outrage from abroad followed (Debito Arudou also devoted a column in this paper to the subject) and ANA pulled the ad.
The airline may indeed have made a stupid business decision, though the ad probably generated countless YouTube shares and other free publicity abroad. Either way, was it really “offensive”?
I once had a student ask me point-blank why my face was so three-dimensional (the best translation he could find for the Japanese phrase “hori ga fukai” — literally, “deeply carved”). He continued in earnest to explain how he wished he could take a clothes pin to his nose to make his face less flat.
Perhaps he was taking the p-ss, but this sort of experience leads me to see the ANA ad not as a demeaning racial stereotype but a misplaced form of idealization — one that equates us Caucasians with some sort of Holy Trinity of “international”: blond, English-speaking and nasally adequate, to which at least some Japanese seem to aspire. I am not suggesting this is a good thing, but with so much money being dispensed on English lessons, hair treatment and rhinoplasty in Japan, is ANA any worse for trying to exploit the same motivation behind at least some of this spending?
That’s just my view, and it shouldn’t lessen anyone else’s offense. That said, I think being offended involves a conscious effort: “What were they thinking?!” should elicit thought by the speaker even when uttered rhetorically. For my part, I try to limit my offense to serious depictions that seem harmful, such as simplistic associations of foreigners (of any race) with crime, disease or the inability to use a public bath.
Beyond that, as far as I am concerned, a joke’s a joke, and don’t most of us have better things to do? Anyway, ANA canceling its ad is a mere drop in the torrents of less flattering TV and cartoon depictions of big-nosed, blond, effusive katakana-speaking Caucasians that flood Japan daily. And before having a go at those depictions, I would want to think more about how the Japanese themselves are stereotyped: the harried salaryman, stubborn old man, demure housewife, buchō (department head) with the bar-code pate, and countless others.
The Japanese media is full of these archetypes, which are used to convey reality-lite to the masses for profit. Yet are any of them less offensive, harmful or negative in their reduction of complex people to a limited range of predictable attributes? Are they any better than the depictions of Japanese people in “Happy Bob”?
Perhaps we should all just get better at laughing at ourselves first. That way, when we do poke fun at each other, we will already be more than halfway to laughing together.
Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Law of the Land appears on the third Thursday of the month. Send your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.