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My Response to the "Obama is a Monkey in Japan?" Comments

Last updated on August 12, 2013

Well the first round of feedback on E Mobile’s “Yes, We Changecommercial shown on TBS and TV Tokyo’s World Business Satellite comes from one reader that thinks Black Tokyo harbors a “bitter racist” and from the website Japan Probe:

While I respect everyone’s opinion, let me clear a few things up and respond to comments such as these:

  • “The only people who find this racist are LOOKING for racism; butthurt gaijin who need to get a life.”
  • “Taken completely out of context by foreigners, this commercial will appear racist.”
  • But hey – why would e-mobile parody a currently-broadcast weekly TV drama starring a very popular and bankable idol when they could instead enrage foreigners everywhere by a blatantly racist parody of the Obama campaign! 
These comments mischaracterize and misinterpret what Black Tokyo is all about. Black Tokyo presents information and discussions on Japan from the Afro perspective! The Black Tokyo Webmaster and Moderators have ZERO need and time to LOOK for racism. Believe me, we have better things to do! In my 27-years of dealing with Japan (as a US Marine, US GOV Civilian, businessman, linguist, actor), interacting with my Japanese spouse, in-laws, and numerous friends, and 45-years of dealing with “things/issues/other” considered Black, I respectfully disagree with the comments above. Come on now, do not insult me and my intelligence. The E-Mobile commercial is doing that just fine!
The Japan Probe Webmaster stated (and I respect his opinion), “...if you ask me if this commercial is a racist jab at Barack Obama and black people, I’d have to tell you I don’t think it is.” The Japan Probe Webmaster further states:
“The commercial clearly is a parody of Barack Obama’s campaign, which has received a lot of positive media coverage in Japan, but I don’t feel that it reflects racist ideas about black people and monkeys. E-mobile has used this cute Japanese macaque as their mascot in commercials before this one (in the last one the monkey listened to headphones while using a PC), so it would be hard to claim that they just pulled this monkey out of nowhere so they could make a racist joke (this is not the same as Mandom’s ad). The monkey’s previous commercials had him acting like a human, so it was already established that E-mobile’s mascot is a cute monkey that mimics people.”
If the word racist does not sit well with those that read my post, feel free to use culturally insensitive if that makes you feel better. Yes, the CM is a parody (and so was Amos and Andy and sailors in blackface from Perry’s Black Ships) but whether it is the Mandom CM, certain talentos on Japanese TV or in print advertisements shown with a banana, eating leaves, or as a mumbling bugged-eyed fool (sambo character) a Beast scaring little Japanese girls (when he is not in the wrestling ring or on an ice cream wrapper), or something cute that has always been used, it does not sit well with me.
Does it make it right if a person of African heritage “freely” plays the fool when the Japanese and expat television viewers take it as nothing but fun? You be the judge. Where is the balance? You can find many Blacks on television in Japan singing, dancing, doing comedy, playing sports, or when “we” do something bad. Are “we” to take Tiger Woods, Jero, and Condi Rice or back-up singers/dancers being shown on Japanese television as the trifecta of demonstrating how balanced things are? Not knocking those folks but I think you know what I mean.
If the people that commented do not understand the Japanese and their continuous attempt to deal with their own ambiguous raciocultural status in a Eurocentric world, I can recommend more than a few books and scholarly papers to help you all through the process. It is true as Toru writes, “It was White people who used the term “yellow monkey” in racist terms against Japanese (or Asian). I don’t think the most Japanese don’t even imagine using monkeys as resist expressions. (sic)” Toru seems to understand that many Japanese may not understand the broader picture (a.k.a. places outside of Japan) when it comes to history.
I am not trying to turn this into racial issue but an issue of the media and advertisers being stuck on same ignorant advertising that has continued to portray Blacks in an unflattering manner. This is why I called attention to the commercial and even emailed the Obama Campaign to voice my opinion! If the CM producer, E Mobile, or advertising agency had a lapse in judgment, so be it but everyone knows that an image is a powerful tool to use on both the consumer and others in society that tend to walk around with their eyes wide shut. Refer to the Akiba Massacre if you do not understand what I mean.
For those interested in additional information on Blacks and monkeys, in Japanese media:
“Often, the Black scapegoat is represented as having characteristics of a monkey. Ohnuki-Tierne (1987, p. 61) explained that the monkey has long been illustrated as a scapegoat in Japanese folktales in which the monkey tries unsuccessfully to imitate or become human. Moreover, the monkey continues to “project the negative side of humans” Ohnuki-Tierne (1987, p. 65). The synthesis of the monkey scapegoat and the Black scapegoat is apparent in contemporary Japan.” Here are a few innocent mistakes:
  • In the 1970’s, Sanrio Company begins the characterization of Blacks as monkeys
  • Sanrio’s Bibinba (Sarumen Kanja) character with fat, pink lips, and rings in its ears becomes popular
  • Sarumen Kanja mannequins used in Tokyo department stores
  • The baseball manga Reggie and his sarumawashi no saru (monkey performance) 
  • The popular book, Little Black Sambo (a great stocking stuffer since the 1970’s in Japan)
  • The Rain Forest Cafe next to Tokyo Disneyland selling Black Sambo dolls 
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Earthquake Pamphlet
  • The two talento known as Bobby depicted as gorillas in media and print ads
 My favorite post so far on Japan Probe has to be:
“It is not “ignorance” of anything, at least not from the Japanese side. The monkey is parodying a politician running on a campaign of “change”. Obama is running on a platform of “change”. Koizumi had a platform of “change”. The entire DPJ has a platform of “change”. Politicians trying to wrest power from those who currently hold it ALWAYS run on a platform of “change”.

Folks who say “Look, a monkey advocating change – this must be about Obama” are revealing a lot more about themselves than they are about Japan, Japanese and this commercial.

“we have had enough of understanding japanese culture”
I would say you have not had nearly enough.

“let`s see them understand other cultures for a change.” In their own country? Why?”

I guess my quick response to the last question would be: Ask the Nazis or other people that are culturally stuck on ignorance  and not being tolerate of others (non-Japanese) living and working in Japan! Many Japanese politicians run on a platform on change but they are not depicted in a demeaning manner. If the poster knew so much about Japan then (s)he will understand that I sense the stench of selective reasoning when I read the reply. I mean come on, even Coca Cola cannot slam Pepsi on a television commercial. No corporation does this to another in Japan. I can ask my contacts at Dentsu and Hakuhodo if I am wrong.

The “what if” scenario has some viewers watching the E-Mobile commercial and “maybe” thinking of Obama while others bring to mind Kimutaku whose “acting” like Obama on the campaign trail. Either way, it stinks! 
It is in poor taste to use the monkey in a parody of Senator Barack Obama’s election campaign. Even the guy in America that made the “racist” buttons and t-shirts (he lost his venue with the Republican Party) understands this. At the end of the day, a monkey will still be equated to representing a Black male. If a few in the Republican Party get it, maybe a few Japanophiles will too! 
Many Japanese corporations promote a positive image of African-Americans in the Japanese and American media (e.g., DoCoMo, Mazda, and Kirin) but there is still work to be done. Black Tokyo is concerned with increasing and improving public awareness of Black/Afro and multicultural issues in Japan.  Black Tokyo believes in holding those in the Japanese media and public eye responsible for creating negative portrayals of Blacks and asking them to correct their wrong and be more responsible with their power by helping improve public awareness (Keyser, 1993).
As I mentioned in my first post: “To end on a positive note, I previously posted that it seems like the majority of Japanese believe in change and in Obama. Hopefully other people will also believe and change.” 
View the video below and feel free to play with the Obama sock puppet if you still do not understand that “Whether it was on purpose or not the implied racism is there.”
As always, I welcome your feedback! Time for sushi and beer!


  1. zurui zurui June 20, 2008

    I decided to post my comment from Japan Probe here in the hopes to furthering the discussion with those that see things from an Afro perspective:

    “@ JB: Your comment regarding “pre-existing, indigineous culture of any country is under no obligation to understand other cultures nor need to change to accept those new cultures nor compromise the existing society’s core values” is scary! How do you explain the Ainu, Zainichi, America, the problems in the EU in regards to immigrants being accepted in societies that yearn to keep “their” way of life. What should Japan do in their quest to bring in more international students and workers to make up for a decline in the work force?

    Would your cry be the same as that those of your ilk that would promote leaving “your” land and “settling” into Africa or some Far Eastern or Asian land? Tame the natives, Christianize the savages? Jeesh! Should I yell, “Sono Joi” and run for the hills? If you are not Japanese, are you deemed Japanese or “equal” by proxy or is that a give me?

    If the “onus is on the newcomers to adapt to the local culture they placed themselves in,” then you (especially if you are not Japanese) owe many a folk around the world an apology. MANY foreigners of all backgrounds assimilate but that does not mean that you have to accept behavior that is not appropriate. Would you like it if the Japanese police stopped you constantly and asked for your passport or other forms of identification. How about being refused a bank loan, permanent residence, mortgage, promotion, acceptance into a family due to “ethnic” make-up or status in society? Me, I am fortunate to not have those issues but that does not stop me from looking at the bigger picture and helping those that face hardship.

    Japan has mainly been my home since 1981, so there is no “barging into Japan as a foreigner” for me. I do not play into new forms of gunboat diplomacy nor do I play into the assumptions of folks thinking that my comments are “racist” or arrogant.

    Cultural imperialism is taking “your” norms and using them as a basis for how the non-Westerner thinks. Having folks adapting bad habits consciously or subconsciously is not an excuse for ignorance. Ignorance knows no color!

    I stand by my comment that most Japanese have a distorted perception of Africans and African Americans which is derived from ignorance about the race and ethnicity of Japanese monoracialism and the Eurocentrism based on a long European hegemony of the history. If you need “visual” clarification, pick up a magazine and look at the advertisements, visit a clothing store, hit up an eikaiwa, or ask a young Japanese female who their favorite actor is! I should also add that some of the ig’nant brothas and sistas that need to represent are not helping the cause for presenting the rest of the story.

    If you would like to throw out your theories, please feel free to visit Black Tokyo and post a reply! The so-called cultural context that does not exist in Japan is probably buried beneath the ura-Nippon that you have yet to understand. The significance of Afrocentricity for people of non-African descent is something that you may need to understand in order to examine the importance of reconstructing harmful perceptions by distorted knowledge of people, especially from the countries that do not have African descendants and tend to yield to Eurocentrism.”

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