This month, cup noodle maker Nissin served up its animated “Hungry to win” ad campaign, drawn by “Prince of Tennis” artist Takeshi Konomi and featuring actual tennis prince Kei Nishikori and our newest bona fide global star, Naomi Osaka.
I’d been anticipating Osaka’s appearance since it isn’t often that a high-profile woman of color is featured in a major Japanese ad campaign. So when I cued it up on YouTube I was truly disappointed to see that there was no woman of color to speak of in the commercial. Instead, I found a white-washed representation of Osaka that could’ve easily been based off a TV personality like Becky or Rola. Everything that distinguishes Osaka from your typical Japanese anime character was gone, and what was left? Your typical Japanese anime character.
Come on, Nissin. Was this a business decision? Did you have concerns that your customers might be forced to uncomfortably ponder issues of race or ethnicity while slurping down a bowl of U.F.O. Yakisoba?
Sure, anime fans aren’t used to seeing women of color in the genre so … a few shades lighter on the skin here … a debroadening of the nose there … the de-exoticization of her hair … and, voila! The perfectly palatable girl next door. Not for this fan, though. Osaka’s de-blackening is as problematic to me as a Bobby Riggs tirade against female tennis players.
Osaka unapologetically professes to be the gumbo of all her disparate ingredients; not Japanese, not Haitian, not American — she’s just Naomi, a human being who desires nothing more than to be identified by her character and abilities in a world longing to label her. It’s this fact, as much as her athletic acumen, that has made her a role model for a great and growing number of mixed-heritage and biracial youth everywhere, but particularly here in Japan. These are people whose young impressionable hearts and minds are struggling to forge a positive identity and build a healthy sense of self-esteem in an environment that too often isn’t conducive to that because of factors beyond their control. And, hey, they’re also potential customers.
Such a small decision in an ad campaign can have larger ramifications. Nissin may be targeting the ad at its Japanese audience, but the commercial is on YouTube and that audience is global — a whole world of potential customers. Japan has recently been welcoming in more tourists — 31 million in 2018 — and is hinting that it is open to more immigration, but is Nissin telling us that the Japanese prefer their brown people to be slightly white?
In a world that already informs people of color in so many ways that their lives are of less value because of something as superficial as appearance, I implore Nissin — or, hell, the country — not to continue down that path.
Perhaps the noodle maker doesn’t want that weight, doesn’t see itself as a factor in how Japan is viewed. Well, when you sponsor a top tennis pro, and one of the most popular athletes of color in the world, you’ve got to expect the world, particularly the people of color in the world, to take notice of how you utilize her.
For its part, Nissin has said that Osaka was involved in the ad’s creation, but how are we to know to what extent? In the end, Nissin blew it. Here was a chance to show that Japan is striving to be increasingly inclusive, diverse and forward-moving — with companies like Nissin leading the way.
This current ad campaign, though? It says something entirely different: You’re not “hungry to win,” but playing to lose.
Since this article went to press, Nissin issued a public apology in which a spokesperson for the company said: “There is no intention of whitewashing. We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to the diversity issue in the future.”
After media outlets around the world picked up the story, Nissin took the video down and it looks like the ad campaign is done. This is not what I wanted.
Why wouldn’t I want to see Naomi Osaka, a fine example of multicultural excellence, receive her well-earned due? What Japanese companies need to take away from this is to just do it right, that’s all. Reconsider some of their presumptions and preconceptions, talk to the communities they are reaching out to.
It’s sad to think that, instead of looking at the structures and ways of thinking that left us with a whitened Naomi in the first place, Nissin and any other company watching might see this whole episode as an excuse to become more exclusive and entrenched in their cultural foxholes. Opportunity is still knocking, let’s hope Nissin answers.