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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 09, 2009

Emulating our heroes- and 'Mr. James'

Way off (the usual university English teaching) topic today.

I don’t get the hate for McDonald's Mr. James.

OK- I’ll admit that there’s one place in which I agree with the naysayers. Representing every and any Japanese syllable that comes out of a foreigner's mouth in katakana, as though a foreigner's Japanese- whatever the level of competency- can’t possibly be “real” Japanese is annoying and frankly, tired. (Not to mention that some of Mr. James’ vocabulary is not the kind that a Gaijin familiar only with katakana- as though hiragana would be beyond him- would be likely to use. "Tamaran!” anyone?)

(Late edit- It seems that Mr. James has in fact graduated to hiragana. Good.)

But the rest of the protest escapes me. Somehow Mr. James is supposed to ‘represent us’. I suppose this is because he is a white man in Japan (I’m sure some readers of this blog are not white but I’m pretty sure you see where I’m going with this). Funny though- I have never thought of Mr. James as representing me- and I am also a middle-aged white guy who wears glasses and has increasingly poor metabolism (albeit with a much better haircut than Mr. James- and matching clothes!).

In fact, when I see a white male character in Japan I never think that he somehow is supposed to represent me. Sorry, but I don’t think in those terms (and I'm pretty sure most Japanese don't either). Perhaps I’m insensitive to the vagaries of the pernicious Japanese media but I certainly don’t feel that those famous Gaijin actors and athletes who appear in Japanese ad campaigns are meant to represent me. Neither do those strapping handsome young Gaijin models who grace the TV or the papers. So why Mr. James, (apparently a visitor) should be viewed as representing white male residents of Japan is beyond me. There certainly may be some NJs who resemble Mr. James in style and manner but not yours truly (checks mirror again to confirm). In short, if you think Mr. James is supposed to represent you, you’d better check how high you wear your chinos.

However, according to the naysayers Mr. James is ‘a stereotype’ of a Gaijin. Now, the word ‘stereotype’ implies that the character represents a widely held, but possibly harmful and erroneous, view. But are white Gaijin in Japan really widely viewed as awkward but lovable, harmless buffoons? A look at the history of the comments posted by many James-haters indicates that Gaijin are more widely stereotyped as ‘dangerous criminal types’. Now you can’t have it both ways- either we are viewed, and subsequently stereotyped, as dangerous rogues OR as lovable harmless buffoons, but not both. Maybe anytime a Gaijin appears in a Japanese ad campaign he/she will be viewed by such people as a ‘stereotype’ who is supposed to ‘represent’ us- in which case any type of character ascribed to them is set up to fall short of the everyman ideal.

Anyway, what I find particularly disturbing about the naysayers’ logic is the binary us vs. them racial uber-consciousness that underpins it all. The naysayers associate themselves with James solely on the basis of having the same skin color (and, presumably, not because they wear ties with polo shirts or wear their chinos pulled up around their midriffs). James is white, I am white. Being ‘white like me’ is apparently the crucial factor (blinded by the white, we might say). So, the way THE JAPANESE (cue standard minor-chord ‘oriental’ musical motif here) have portrayed him must represent how THEY view US. Racial politics lurk behind every sofa cushion.

But it doesn’t stop there. In supposing that Mr. James represents what ‘the Japanese’ think of Gaijin (note how a singular monolithic view gets ascribed to the entire nation) or that Mr. James will influence or reinforce ‘the Japanese perception of gaijin’ (as if ‘The Japanese’ are so throughly naïve and gullible, and have no other experiences of viewing a foreigner) the naysayers unwittingly reinforce the very us vs. them racial dichotomizing they pretend to oppose- with no shortage of stereotyping applied to ‘The Japanese’ in the process.

There are other criticisms. Let’s check them out one by one.

1. Mr. James speaks awkward, broken Japanese whereas in reality some NJs speak Japanese extremely well.

True, but most NJs, certainly short-time visitors like Mr. James, don’t. This is an indisputable fact, not a slap in the face of those of us who have made the effort to become competent and would like to have our efforts recognized. Given that James is supposed to be a tourist with a limited amount of experience in Japan, his awkward Japanese would seem to be par for the course. So, if McDonald’s were to use a fluent NJ as their mascot it could be argued that this does not accurately represent Gaijin in Japan either. That some long-time residents, naturalized citizens et al might speak Japanese very well is beside the point. Mr. James is simply not meant to be one of those people. And hey, it’s not as if Japanese people are not aware that foreigners have varying levels of competency in Japanese (unless one wants to stereotype alleged ‘Japanese beliefs’ once again).

2. Using a first name with ‘Mr.’ is disrespectful.

When people say things like this it seems to me that they are hoping to be disrespected, that they are actively seeking out disrespect because that would justify their righteous indignation. Being disrespected can be strangely empowering. But in fact the analysis (if one wants to call it that) here is wrong. When one does not use explicitly respectful language in Japanese it doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect. It usually implies familiarity, a sense of lightness or playfulness. Surely Mr. James falls into this category. He’s a McDonald’s shill for crying out loud, not a visiting Cambridge Fellow!

3. The character is reminiscent of Steppin Fetchit, the buffoonish generic ‘Negro’, or Mr. Moto, racial mockeries from the past that virtually no one in North America would endorse now.

But wait a second. The Fetchit characters were nothing but buffoons, they had no deeper identity, not even the slightest pretense of being anyone except an anonymous ‘negro’. Popularized during a time in which many believed that black people were little more than buffoonish golliwogs at best this was unquestionably a negative stereotype. Moto too represented nothing but the collected oddball characteristics ascribed to Asians in general, and Japanese in particular. But Mr. James is presented as an individual. The blog he ‘writes’ gives him a history, a family, a personality, a home (Ohio). He is hardly the generic white man. He may be a lovable buffoon (he loves Japan with an unbridled giddiness- which I sense may be the real catalyst behind some of the critical commentary) but at least he is given a personality. He was never meant to embody some generic Japanese notion of Gaijinhood en masse.

People like to emulate their heroes. And are there any who are more universally accepted as heroes than the likes of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King? These heroes overcame oppression and discrimination, fighting their way up from the bottom of their respective societies to eventual dignified places of honor. So, to be like these heroes one has to paint themselves as oppressed victims. They have to see themselves as marginalized, as underclass victims. But why would anyone deliberately take this route- particularly white Westerners who made the choice to come and work in Japan, and not out of economic hardship? Why would such people actively, even proudly, proclaim themselves to be members of the lowest strata of Japanese society (ignoring the illegal workers, homeless, burakumin, etc.) in order to try and legitimize their claim that they lack rights and representation. Well, for one thing you can try to score pity points this way. Hey- some chicks might really dig it! But more poignantly, in some pathetic way they may feel that they are emulating their heroes!

This also means that you start seeing everything in representational terms- us vs. them, Gaijin vs. Japanese. It means that you start looking for reasons for being offended, that every perceived slight is based on the default premise of your being a visible minority, allowing you to forget that being offended is a choice, and need not imply an actual offense. But, if you are trying too hard to be oppressed to justify your sense of offense isn’t that disrespectful to those who really have been on the skinny end of the justices carrot throughout history? Sometimes, trying to emulate your heroes can actually be insulting to them.

Isn’t claiming victimhood by proxy, or by actively seeking it out, and then ‘finding’ it in representations of ‘your people’, an affront to those who are truly victims? And what about crying wolf? When some poor NJ is the obvious victim of discrimination and the naysayers take up his or her case, don’t you think someone might look at their previous record of actively seeking out victimization? “Oh, aren’t you the people who protested vehemently against a McDonald’s ad campaign character? You guys say this stuff as a matter of course, right?”

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As someone who shares the same first name as Mr. James and wears glasses I'm dreading the return to university for the second semester. I just know the wits that I teach are going to tell me I look just like him.

I suppose looking on the bright side it's a teachable moment. I told all the students in April not to call me Mr. James because Mr is used with family names but we'll see how many students remember that lesson.

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