Sunday, 18 October 2009

I Hate Mr. James.

Racism is an ugly word. It’s a word that conjures images of bigotry, hatred, lynching, internment camps, heavily armed and heavily ignorant folks.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never been the victim of racism; true, most of it is the not-so-offensive ‘positive discrimination’ kind (people stopping their cars at green lights to let you cross the road, or store-owners giving away extra stuff seemingly randomly, schoolgirls screaming “I love you!” As you go by. etc.) Occasionally though you also get less welcome prejudice: the black vans driven by the ultra-nationalists are a great example, driving by and calling for Japan to be made ‘pure’ through the expulsion of foreigners. It’s not exactly what you’re longing to hear as you wander the streets (although they do often become mysteriously quiet if you smile and wave as they go past).

I don’t think Japan has a problem with racism on the whole, but I’ve often thought the nation does have an issue with racial and lifestyle sensitivity. I can’t believe that TV broadcasters get away with using Bobb Sapp as a ‘substitute gorilla’, or that ‘Hard Gay’ is allowed to continue unchecked. Just about anywhere else, ONE appearance of these characters would be enough to cause a sociological fit.

This is Mr. James. Eating McDonalds for every meal since the mid 80's hasn't made him fat, but it has made him iconographic of modern Japanese xenophobia.

The latest cringe-worthy media phenomenon to make me wince is ‘Mr. James’, the star of McDonald’s newest advertising campaign. Mr. James is American, he dresses and acts sort of like a cross between the Steve Carell’s character from ‘The 40 year old virgin’ and Mr. Bean. He wanders Japan basically looking and acting stupidly and speaking mangled Japanese. Basically he’s a caricature of a ‘foreigner’.

Usually I would have taken the whole campaign and dumped it into the ‘so dumb it’s funny’ basket, where a good 80% of commercial media over here lie anyway. But then I happened across an article in Time magazine, complete with a note that an organization had complained about McDonald’s ‘portrayal of foreigners’. I started wondering if I should be genuinely offended; is Mr. James really an unofficial spokesman for every English-speaker here? Admittedly the fact that there’s a competition that encourages people to act like the man doesn’t really help.

One of the burgers that James-san is trying to sell. It might be an attractive alternative to cannibalism in some cultures I suppose.

Personally, I’m less bothered by Mr. James than by the products he’s pimping; My friend gave me a promo-voucher for a free Mr. James burger, so I decided to try out the cheese-croquet special, which basically turned out to be a crumbed block of liquefied cheese with pieces of shrimp and corn floating in it on a bun. No Mr. James, you will NOT be getting my return business.

Now go back to Oregon, you dirty foreign dog.