Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Non-Japanese people are poorly represented in Japanese media: That needs to change

by Elanor Sezer

Contributing Writer

For almost a decade, the Japanese TV show “Why Did You Come to Japan?” has operated on the premise of finding foreign tourists and asking them the titular question. It might seem like an innocent query at first, but in fact this show and its ilk embody everything that is wrong with the depiction of non-Japanese in Japanese media.

Close contact with non-Japanese people in Japan, while increasing, remains a rarity for a majority of the Japanese population despite a rise in tourists from overseas (their numbers reached 31 million last year). That means most Japanese people’s knowledge of non-Japanese has been left almost entirely in the hands of the mass media — and the results have not been good.

Life as a panda

Dave Spector, one of the most well-known and established foreign media personalities, famously likened non-Japanese who appear on TV to pandas in an interview in 1980.

“They are cuddly, you can go have fun with them and throw a marshmallow, and that’s about it,” he said, adding that “since I’m making half a million dollars a year, I’m very happy to be a panda.”

Despite an increase of non-Japanese and first- or second-generation immigrants landing gigs as TV personalities it appears that not much has changed since Spector’s observation from almost 40 years ago. To a large extent, we remain exotic elements or comic relief. The exaggerated image of people from other cultures is maintained by stereotyping and caricaturing. The West become the Far West, and “foreigners” are reduced to “others” — the ones who are not “us.”

Not ready for prime time

“Why Did You Come to Japan?” became so popular when it first aired in 2012 that it got a prime-time spot on TV Tokyo the following year. The concept is simple: Find foreign-looking people, mainly tourists, and interview them about why they are in Japan. The targets are nudged to say what they find cool about Japan and what makes the country unique. These clips are then edited together and aired to the general public.

The show features appearances by Nigerian-born TV personality Bobby Ologun, who often stars as comic relief in variety shows by making banal mistakes in heavily accented Japanese. Although he is fluent, Ologun has made a living through his persona, acting the confused foreigner.

A similar show on NHK titled “Cool Japan,” named after the ongoing government initiative to promote Japan since 2005, gathers non-Japanese in a panel to discuss what is great about the country. Thus, non-Japanese in Japan are either depicted as silly (Ologun) or eternally fascinated.

On the flip side are TV shows in which a Japanese crew travels to other parts of the world in order to “get to know other countries.” However, the reality that people lead generally similar lives overseas holds little entertainment value and, instead, shocking customs and items from other countries are presented to a Japanese panel who comment on how strange they are. And this is what audiences are left with: The outside world is strange, often dangerous, and other.

The gap between reality and the manipulated reality spliced together in the editing rooms of major TV networks contributes to many misconceptions among the Japanese public, one being that non-Japanese people are all eternal visitors.

Earnest efforts toward internationalization are constantly undermined when people from other countries — or who just look like they might be from other countries — are reduced to being objects or ignorant tourists. At a time when Japan is taking initiatives to open up and increase immigration, the integration and normalization of interaction between the Japanese and non-Japanese people is crucial. Since non-Japanese are a minority in Japan, media outlets hold a great amount of power in shaping the public’s opinion and perception of them. The tendencies that can be observed in TV shows are a real issue that essentially stunts progress in real life. This kind of othering is harmful to Japan, because it builds on the idea that there is an unbreachable gap between “us” and “them.”

If Japan wishes to invest in non-Japanese people long-term, the aspect of cultural assimilation and internationalization is at least as important as decent working conditions. Linguistic and cultural barriers should be overcome rather than enforced. The foreign nationals who participate in these types of shows are within their right to take the opportunities presented to them and live as they wish. In an ideal world, everybody would just represent themselves. Unfortunately, this is not the case with media, and one non-Japanese person can end up representing an entire country — or sometimes an entire continent. Our choices have consequences, whether we like it or not, and if we hope to get past the era of “you are good with chopsticks” comments, effort is needed from all sides.

Japanese exceptionalism

These shows focusing on “foreigners” did not appear out of thin air, and Japan’s long and complicated history with the rest of the world — and particularly the West — modernization and imperialism have all played a part. Several books would not be enough to cover this topic, much less a short article, but it can be said that Japan’s ambivalent relationship to the outside world has given birth to a somewhat bipolar attitude to it.

In modern-day media items, distinct pieces of nihonjinron, which can take the form of discussions of Japanese exceptionalism, can be seen in the way “Japaneseness” is constructed through highlighting differences with other countries. Furthermore, shows that push foreign people to praise Japan are essentially creating an inflated sense of the national self.

On the other hand, advertisements have a tendency to depict non-Japanese people as cool, aloof and worldly. Japan has the world’s third-largest advertising industry and use white people in no less than 14 percent of its advertising — a demographic that compromises only around 1 percent of its non-Japanese population. The white people we see in these ads are long-legged, carefree and out of reach. In fact, this representation is oddly reminiscent of the postwar era when Westernization was considered a desirable goal. Feelings of national pride mix with feelings of inferiority and awe, but the result is the same: These people are presented as being “others.”

Television is far from the only outlet that indulges in this kind of representation. Sometimes the signs are subtle, but they’re still there.

The Tokyo Metro Cultural Foundation has run the subway poster campaign “Good Manners, Good Tokyo” for almost a year, in which non-Japanese people postulate while being either fascinated by Japanese rules and norms or ignorantly breaking them.

Bookstores include entire sections that cover nihonjinron arguments. One successful series, titled “Japan Class,” depicts foreign caricatures gawking at Japanese customs and culture. These types of media, while not as widely read, also contribute to the “othering” of a portion of the population.

The road goes both ways

A healthy internationalization progress also requires people to step outside their usual routines and environments to see new places and meet new people for themselves.

However, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of people surveyed thought that Japanese nationals having to travel overseas for work was a “moderate/very big problem.” This is also reflected in student statistics; a majority of Japanese students who study abroad do so for just under a month — and sometimes for only a few days. While there are a number of underlying reasons for this — including economic deterioration, the decline in numbers of young people, language barriers and the educational system — the result is a nation that has had little interaction with other cultures apart from seeing them on TV.

Fostering understanding, mutual exchange, and genuine and deep relationships is in the interest of everybody who lives in Japan. Tossing that responsibility to a profit-minded entertainment industry will make the creation of a diverse society an even-more distant dream.

Of course, the onus is on viewers just as much as it is on the TV networks to look beyond what they see on the small screen.