Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

Cultural (re-)appreciation

They are all over the media - in the poster ads, tv commercials, game shows, movies and dramas: Japan is fixated with the foreign face. But what's it all about? KS dons its prosthetic nose and snoops.

It was shampoo as cultural bell-weather: when Shiseido unveiled a stunning group of Japanese models to front its new Tsubaki hair product line, the rebuke to competitor Lux (whose shampoo commercials commonly feature Western actresses like Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway) was obvious, and Tsubaki's very direct slogan – "Japanese women are beautiful" – drove the point home. "[Shiseido's] message has struck a chord at a time when Japanese women are increasingly looking to role models in their own ranks, rather than stars from abroad, for definitions of their self worth," the AP wrote in 2007. "Advertisers are beginning to catch on to the trend."

Author Roland Kelts details in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US the West's rising inter- est in Japan; it can be argued that the West's heightened interest in Japan coincides neatly with Japan's heightened interest in itself.

"The heavy postwar influence of Western pop culture in general, and American pop culture in particular, probably peaked in Japan in the 1980s, amid the economic bubble and the boomer generation's yearning to acquire the accoutrements of 20th Century 'modernity,' which largely meant Western modernity," Kelts said via e-mail. "In pop cultural terms, the eighties were the years when the Elvis-impersonating greaser types were still gyrating on weekends in Yoyogi Park and women's fashion maga- zines featured monthly spreads devoted to the latest street wear spotted in New York, Paris and London."

The times, however, are a' changing.

"In the past ten to fifteen years, Westerners have begun look- ing towards urban Japan for original street styles, with Western fashion magazines featuring spreads on Harajuku in Tokyo or Amemura and Shinsaibashi in Osaka," Kelts said. "The Japanese kids and designers today are not imitating Elvis - they don't even know who he was.

Before American pop singer Ashlee Simpson started wearing Harajuku T-shirts (just after Gwen Stefani started singing about it), Japan was a place truly, madly, deeply in love with the idea of modernism and internationalism through importation. Hollywood actors cashed in (Nicolas Cage's manic pachinko commercial is still the stuff of legend); news organizations hungrily sought out mixed-race personalities like Norwegian-Japanese TV presenter Mona Yamamoto (in the news for lots of other things these days, unfortunately) to 'internationalize' the nightly broadcasts; chain eikaiwa schools like Nova couldn't open native speaker-staffed schools fast enough.

Indeed, for all of the brown hair dye (don't mention pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki!), eye-widening surgeries (don't mention pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki!) and quasi-English pasted on every menu, restaurant and T-shirt in sight, even Westerners - particularly anime fans puzzled as to why so few Japanese manga and anime characters actually 'looked Japanese' - began to wonder if something was amiss. (One fast aside regarding the latter: "In manga and anime, wide eyes are less an attempt to render Western ethnic backgrounds than a technique to convey emotion," Kelts said. "In a rather perverse twist, the narrow-eyed characters in anime are almost always the ones you ought not to trust.")

Inevitably, however, the Cool Foreign Import boom finally came to an end (just ask former Nova president Nozomu Sahashi), just as the Cool Japanese Export boom began in full. Mariners batting genius Suzuki Ichiro is an endless source of pride in Seattle; Kurara Chibana dazzled worldwide audiences on her way to a second-place showing in the 2006 Miss Universe pageant, a year before compatriot Riyo Mori won it outright in 2007. (And, for good or ill, thousands of cosplay-ing American adults now see nothing wrong with spending an afternoon dressed up as characters from, say, the ninja anime Naruto,)

The worldwide admiration for all things Japanese has, obviously, not gone unnoticed in Japan. While there are still plenty of love for foreign faces in Japanese popular culture (why is Ewan McGregor selling luxury wagons for Toyota, again?), there is an increased – and, maybe, long overdue – pride in everyday Japanese-ness. Miss Universe Japan National Director Ines Ligron endlessly waxes poetic about the gorgeousness of Japanese women; pop star Tomohisa Yamashita - striking - strutted with natural black hair this year in the hit film Kurosagi; and, of course, supermarket aisles are filled with Shiseido's red-bottled offerings of shampoo, conditioner and cultural pride. Lux sham- poo spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones may be the betterknown brunette internationally, but Tsubaki model Yukie Nakama is giving her a hell of a run in Japan.

Gaikokujin television

Stateside, it took 42 years to get from Mickey Rooney immortalizing himself in humiliating, buck-toothed ignominy as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's to Chinese actress Lucy Liu earning $4 million as an ass-whupping American sex symbol in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

Though far less dramatic, the evolution – and acceptance – of foreign faces on Japanese television is equally heartening. Consider the portrayals of Africans and African-Americans over the past five years, and the awesome dignity gap between Nigerian Bobby Ologun (who really isn't a bug-eyed, slack-jawed simpleton, but greatly enjoyed playing one on TV) and American Dante Carver, whose stone-faced Onisan (big brother) in Softbank's 'White Family' commercials have turned him into one of the most popular figures on television.

Still, given the dismal state of Japanese television - where watching a roomful of people watching another roomful of people eat dinner can actually constitute a show - the bar's been set depressingly low for foreign and local TV tarento (performers) alike. Author and 20-years-running Daily Yomiuri TV columnist Kathleen Morikawa, aka Wm. (Wilhelmina) Penn, discusses the state of the industry, the desperate buffoonery of hungry young comedians and just how large a pass foreign TV tarento actually get.

Kansai Scene: From when you first started covering Japanese television up until the present, do you think things have gotten better or worse for foreigners, in terms of opportunity?

Kathleen Morikawa: It's hard to generalize. In some ways, things are much better. In other ways, the foreig- ner is still an exotic stage decoration. But there are more opportunities avai- lable now for those with real talent and a good working knowledge of the lan- guage, as the recent rise of [African- American enka singer] Jero demonstrates.

Do you think that foreign talents are called upon to play the buffoon more or less often than their Japanese counterparts? Additionally, are foreign talents given more or less leeway on TV to give their real opinions on things?

Less often than their Japanese counterparts. A great majority of these despe- rate young Japanese talents and comics really are willing to put their health and safety on the line to get work or notoriety. I find it quite sad.

Foreign talents are sometimes given more leeway to express opinions but, in part, it is also because they are not taken as seriously as Japanese performers. They can add a little spice to a discussion without being threatening. And if a foreigner does say something considered too controversial, the emcees can quickly defuse the situation and make them inconsequential again by falling back on one of the old standard gaijin jokes.

Do you think that Japanese TV is past the point where foreign entertainers and entertainers of mixed parentage are presented as 'talking dog'- style novelties, and instead are regarded as talents in their own rights?

We have gotten past that point to some extent, although offhand I can think of only two foreign entertainers - Dave Spector and Pak-kun (Patrick Harlan) - who have the talent and language ability to really deal with the Japanese media on an almost even playing field. I give Harlan a lot of credit for taking the NHK eikaiwa lesson format and creating Eigo Shabe- ranaito, a really entertaining program. But, as I mentioned earlier, the old stereotypes are always still lurking in the background and can be trotted out if needed.
As for bicultural entertainers/anno- uncers, they really shouldn't be put in the same category as most are Japanese citizens, who just have a multicultural background. All the debate over whether they are "half" or "double" just obscures the fact that they are Japanese citizens and should have the same rights and opportunities as other Japanese citizens. That said though, they have many more opportunities nowadays. Back in the 1980s, the idea of a bicultural woman, or any woman, serving as a network's main news anchor was pretty much unheard of.

Some foreigners are puzzled by the dichotomy between the worship of shows like 24 and personalities like Billy Blanks, and the tendency for Japanese entertainers to don blackface or prosthetic noses to portray non- Japanese. Do you feel that blackface, prosthetic noses, wigs etc. is a heartfelt homage, a way to make fun of non-Japanese, or both?

Neither really. It seems to be a symbolic way to emphasize and draw lines between inner and outer, 'them' and 'us' and a childish way to get an easy laugh but I wonder how many comedians really think much about what they are doing. What concerns me more nowadays is how respect for Japanese society and culture itself is being destroyed by comics who are tearing down all the old boundaries of good taste. Few role models or elements of Japanese culture are safe or sacred anymore. These comics will do just about anything for a laugh. Things really have pretty much reached rock bottom and rock bottom has become the norm. Constant exposure to this can't be good for the nation's children.

There are an increasing number of non- Japanese living in Japan, but still not particularly many on television. Do you think that Japan's TV landscape will evolve like that of other countries, with minority groups clamoring for - and receiving - more and better representation on television, in movies, etc.?

Will people be clamoring to get on a sinking ship? I don't know. Right now Japanese TV is floundering and stru- ggling to maintain its audience. So many viewers now prefer overseas dramas on satellite TV, the internet and Korean dramas. The way Japanese TV viewers have embraced Korean dramas is really the biggest and most positive change I've observed in the medium in the last thirty years. Things change. Japanese TV will continue to change in unexpected ways.

Kathleen Morikawa's new book, The Couch Potato's Guide to Japan: Inside the World of Japanese TV, is available from www.forestriverpress.com.

Text: Jeff Lo • Images: KS

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