We’re one week into 2018 and it seems Japan has an image problem.
You can thank the country’s New Year’s Eve TV block for the bulk of that. The controversy marathon began with popular comedy special “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!,” which, hours before 2018 arrived, managed the rare feat of angering viewers both international and domestic.
Let’s start with the prior. This year’s “Gaki no Tsukai” boasted the already tightrope-clinging theme of “American Cops,” meaning the five comedians starring in the seven-hour-long laugh jamboree sported law enforcement clothes. Except for Masatoshi Hamada, one half of the comic duo Downtown, who dressed as Eddie Murphy from the film “Beverly Hills Cop” — complete with blackface.
This did not go over well with non-Japanese viewers, many of whom took their disgust to social media after Hamada made his entrance. Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil summed up the anger in several posts, while also pointing out the frequency Japanese comedians resort to it for a cheap laugh (including earlier in the week on another show altogether). News of the incident spread, and late last week it was picked up by such outlets as the BBC and The New York Times, among others.
Japanese netizens (and some non-Japanese ones) responded to Hamada’s gag as they had to the blackface incidents that came before it: They played it down. The Japanese, the argument goes, are unaware of the history behind blackface and many just don’t get why it is offensive. If anything, they say, Hamada was simply “honoring” Murphy with his extreme attention to detail.
Yet a large (and growing) chunk of Japanese responses to the incident online — whether expressed via the comments section on McNeil’s interview with Huffington Post Japan or as part of numerous tweets — felt different this time around. Many worried about what message these blackface gags send to the international community, with plenty mentioning the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
However, a spokesman for Nippon Television Network Corp. said the scene did not intentionally attempt to discriminate on racial grounds, adding that Hamada was just trying to portray Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop” character, Axel Foley.
“We are aware of different opinions surrounding this issue and we will refer (to the feedback we received) when producing new shows,” the spokesman said.
Hamada’s cosplay wasn’t the primary thing Japanese netizens were upset about, however. Later in “Gaki no Tsukai,” TV personality Becky was the victim of a Muay Thai-style roundhouse kick to her lower half. The “Thai kick” has long been a staple punishment in “Gaki no Tsukai,” and nearly every male comedian experienced one earlier in the show.
Becky’s turn, however, outraged viewers, who condemned it as “too violent.” Part of the anger stemmed from the idea that it was partially “punishment” for her much-discussed 2016 affair with musician Enon Kawatani. Some compared it to AKB48 member Minami Minegishi shaving her head after being caught having a boyfriend, noting how behind-the-times such attitudes are. Although the Becky incident hasn’t been picked up internationally, many online felt it sent a similarly ugly image of Japan into the world.
Flipping the channel to other New Year’s Eve programming only lead to further controversies. NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” music extravaganza may have registered its third-lowest ratings ever, but enough people saw idol group Keyakizaka46’s performance to note that three members appeared exhausted during it. Tweets and posts to blogs expressed anger at the performers’ treatment, reigniting debate about overwork in Japan’s idol-pop world.
All three of these incidents became big deals online in Japan, but were dwarfed in overseas news coverage by another Japan-based incident. American YouTuber Logan Paul ventured into Aokigahara — an area by Mount Fuji dubbed the “suicide forest” — and found a dead body, which he filmed and seemed to joke about. The video went viral worldwide, prompting social media rants and articles focused on Paul’s disrespect, exoticization and general idiocy. He later apologized on video.
While no pop culture story was bigger this week internationally, Japanese reactions were relatively muted. Plenty took to 2chan or the YouTube comments of his videos to note his stupidity, but most were simply left asking, “Who is this?” As far as they were concerned, the New Year’s Eve stories generated more buzz.
So is this a case of one demographic serving as an outlier? Japan-based YouTubers of Western origin (though not all, That Japanese Man Yuta weighed in) switched coverage to Paul’s suicide tourism only a day after Hamada’s blackface scandal. Some made video responses, while others just expressed disbelief at how he acted (or, fitting for “Black Mirror” debut week, complained about video monetization). Paul’s livelihood depends on YouTube, though, which may explain why he has tried to apologize while Hamada, as yet, has not.
So welcome to the Year of the Dog! There are only 51 more weeks to go — and it seems U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter vacation is now officially over.