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Pop star gaffes no sweat to Cool Japan

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Whatever you want to say about Justin Bieber’s lack of common sense, as either a pop star or a mortal, you have to admit he has incredible timing. He managed to capture the attention of the world with his impromptu visit to Yasukuni Shrine by posting photos of it the day after more than 100 Japanese lawmakers acted on the same impulse, thus overshadowing the latter’s stunt as far as the foreign press was concerned.

So this time it was a Canadian idol who attracted the wrath of China and South Korea rather than the usual bunch of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers. In fact, the wrath was intensified tenfold since much of it was expressed by Asian fans who said they would never listen to his music again.

Of course, fans are a fickle bunch. You bad mouth an idol in public, you risk the eternal enmity of followers who will come after you with every weapon in the social media arsenal; by the same token if that idol is seen to betray the trust of those fans by crossing a line of propriety more fundamental to their self-image, such as one delineating national identity, then he will see those followers fall off by the tens of thousands.

Or maybe not. After all, one person’s faux pas is another’s reason to “Like,” and as most media have noted, Bieber’s notorious Yasukuni Instagram photos earned 660,000 “likes,” the equivalent of cyberspace boosterism.

It’s impossible to know if all these approving clicks are from Japanese fans, and with 15 million Twitter followers, it’s merely a drop in the Bieber bucket, anyway, but comments of support from Japanese users formed a significant front, and they weren’t necessarily from his fans. Many, it seems, had never even heard of him, and at least one said that he will now listen to Bieber’s music.

Of course, Bieber doesn’t want to lose any of his Korean and Chinese fans, and any new Japanese additions aren’t going to make up for that. He probably gained more Korean followers with his Hangul tattoo than Japanese fans with his Yasukuni jaunt, but in any case it’s difficult to get new followers in Japan if no one is paying attention in the first place, and while the visit may have earned him notoriety outside Japan it was mostly met with shrugs from the domestic press.

The two big conservative newspapers, Yomiuri and Sankei, hardly even reported it. The Mainichi’s brief piece was mostly a precis of the tabloids’ coverage.

The only daily that did anything even close to what might be described as “in depth” was Tokyo Shimbun, who asked the media’s favorite American TV personality, Dave Spector, “an expert on Western show biz,” his take on the Bieber brouhaha, but the article quickly veered off into yet another discussion of how the Chinese always overreact to these kinds of things, the implication being that the world takes them way too seriously because of their supposed economic power.

In other words, the article doesn’t really talk about Bieber very much except to say that, like most people who become superstars too young, he’s now reaping the fruit of his arrogance and naivete.

The Internet news service J-cast at least went out on a limb and conjectured that the pilgrimage proves “he obviously likes Japan.”

However misguided Bieber was in visiting an institution that is notoriously dedicated to people who wage war, there’s no sense in the J-cast piece that he did anything wrong or untoward. The tone is decidedly neutral.

Spector gave Bieber the benefit of the doubt and said he probably didn’t know the difference between a shrine and a temple (most Japanese don’t know the difference, either, at least theologically), and certainly had no political intentions, but that’s beside the point. What we want to know is: Did the media approve? Did the authorities approve? The silence would seem to indicate they do.

Coincidentally, another Canadian pop star, Avril Lavigne, got blasted a day later because of a very different Japan-related stunt. The video for Lavigne’s new single, “Hello Kitty,” shows the singer in a Japanese setting singing some lines in Japanese in front of a chorus line of Japanese girls dancing robotically. The title is certainly a reference to the cute Sanrio mascot, and during the video Lavigne is seen dining at a sushi bar and strolling the streets of Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district.

A number of critics labeled the video “racist,” saying that Lavigne was exploiting Japanese culture in a crude and disrespectful manner. Lavigne laughed the criticism off, tweeting, “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”

Regardless of any perceived awkwardness in Lavigne’s appropriation of Japanese style and ideas, the video has been warmly received here. Even the Japanese Embassy in Washington weighed in, saying that the promo is not offensive to Japanese sensibilities.

A spokesman told TMZ.com that Lavigne “had only good intentions when making the video” and that Japan hopes “discussions surrounding her song and music video results in more people discovering the beautiful and rich culture of Japan.”

Though the two actions were very different in terms of execution, the purposes of the principals were identical — to curry favor with Japanese fans.

Moreover, the reactions were similar enough to invite scrutiny: outrage on the part of people outside Japan, calm acceptance inside. The fact that anger over the Lavigne video was notionally a form of defending Japan from stereotyping doesn’t make it different in character from the anger over Bieber’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. In both situations, the response was reflexive.

In contrast, Japan’s much less excited response comes across as more thoughtful, and maybe even grateful: Thanks for paying attention.

  • GBR48

    There is an unpleasant tendency amongst some groups to label all stereotypes as racist or sexist or something-ist. Stereotyping is fundamental to a good deal of humour and to many childrens’ stories, as it helps small children develop an understanding of the world around them by simplifying it. Whilst there is an inherent danger in this, the vast majority of people, as they mature into adults, become capable of understanding the difference between the real world and stereotypes.

    Incessant and trivial accusations of racism are counterproductive and devalue genuine campaigns against racial hatred.

    You get the same sort of thing from ‘grammar nazis’ who seem intent upon forcing people to abide by artificial laws, when language is a fluid and ever-changing construct based as much upon common usage as taught rules.

    Or to put it another way, people who simply like the sound of their own voice might be better off concentrating on serious issues, than taking every possible opportunity to publicly explode with indignation. And we would all do well to learn to ignore celebrity ‘attention whores’ who seek to consume rather more of the oxygen of publicity than their talents justify.