Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Championing coexistence

Had an interesting convo with my colleagues the other day that made me think about the importance of having minority groups represented in institutions and organisations, especially those tasked with addressing issues pertinent to minority groups.

The conversation was about the protest raised over a McDonalds commerical being run in Japan. The commercial uses a goofy, bespectacled white fellow called Mr. James as a mascot for a promotional campaign. The imagery is problematic because it plays into all sorts of stereotypes about Japanophile white men, and non-Japanese residents in general. Dovetailing with historical presentations of non-Japanese as weird, perpetual outsiders, with broken Japanese.

You can read an article by the leader of the protest, Arudou Debito HERE

Personally, I think that it's a little more complex than Prof. Arudou makes out. I agree with the professor that the use of broken Japanese (which has since been remedied, kinda), and the representation of this character serve to perpetuate offensive stereotypes and behaviour towards non-Japanese. Where I kinda part ways with his argument is where he asks whether the stereotyped have a chance to reply and balance views. Debito argues no, and I would agree with him in the general sense. In general non-Japanese are not given a voice in the media, and are not presented in a balanced, humanising way. However I have to say that there is a lot more balance when it comes to caucasians. I would argue that most images of whites in Japan, are presentations of a people and culture that it is desirable to emulate. Anyone exposed to the Japanese media, will see representations of white politicians, scientists, sportsmen, musicians, models. The same can't really be said of non-whites. Then again it could be argued that the positive imagery only applies to caucasians who are not known to be living in Japan. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to tackle this with Prof. Arudou soon.

One of my colleagues' response was to say that they just couldn't understand what the problem was about. "It was just like that time when the `Little Black Sambo` book came out, black people said it was racist, how was it racist? Little Black Sambo is cute."

My response to my colleague was that Little Black Sambo means something completely different to black people. The images in that book have been used to denigrate and dehumanise black people, and are part of a history of oppression. That the key is to hear out the people who are upset or offended, let them know that their voice is valued, and try to learn about their history and their views of history. Ultimately it makes your society stronger.


  1. Debito Arudou is *not* a professor.

  2. Hmm. Yes, where I'm from that position would be "lecturer" or "senior lecturer", and the person with that title would be addressed as "Dr." at most. However, not every system is the same. The university website calls him a 准教授, associate professor. Therefore, I'm not sure there's anything wrong with using "professor". This seems similar to the US system.

    Perhaps I'm overly polite, but I addressed my instructors as professor if that was their title in the course lit and the dept. website. I'm really not detailed on the conventions so I'm open to being wrong on this.

  3. The problem with calling Arudou a "Professor" is that it misleadingly implies he is some sort of authority on these issues. He's not.

    He teaches English as a foreign language in a small school. He doesn't teach "human rights" in a Politics Department in a reputable mainstream university. He hasn't won any awards or fellowships or grants to demonstrate that specialists value his thoughts on these issues.

    Nor does he have any supporting credentials. He never received a Ph.D. in this field, let alone publish a book through a university press that discusses the complexity of these issues. Yes, he published a couple of poorly written books in English through an obscure Japanese publisher that normally never publishes English books because they don't have the resources or the appropriate editors to deal with English-speaking writers. But that doesn't make him an authority, either.

    Most people take his opinions with a grain of salt. If they valued his work, they would review it in highly respected academic journals that specialize in these areas.

    Arudou gained prominence on the internet (only) by simple persistence. It doesn't mean that he's generating "work" you need to emulate. Your colleagues and professors are correct to wonder what all the fuss is about.

  4. Thanks for your comments anon.

    I'm open to the suggestion that calling him prof. may be misleading. However I think I'm a little perturbed by your argument because it seems to be based on fallacious reasoning.

    Your rationale for discounting Arudou's arguments seems based solely on a type of academic credentialism. I find this problematic because I'm not sure what relevance academic credentials have with the validity of an argument.

    You seem to be arguing that my colleagues are right to discount the problems with the ad campaign because it is Arudou who is leading the protest. Indeed your third and fourth paragraphs appear to be veiled ad hominems being used to prop up the idea that anything coming from Arudou should be ignored.

    Assessing arguments based solely on their source is known as the genetic fallacy if my memory serves me correctly.

    Your final assertion also seems to serve to downplay the offensiveness of "Little Black Sambo", since my colleague drew a rhetorical equivalence between those protests and Arudou's. This makes me wonder if your argument merely reflects your antipathy towards Arudou Debito, or empathy, or both.

  5. Feel free to be "perturbed," but let's not get into these silly debate discussions. My comments about Arudou's public acceptance were based on verifiable facts.

    Arudou is not an authority on these issues as professional society commonly measures them and to assert he is by calling him a "Professor" is misleading the public and your readers. To your credit, you already acknowledged the point so I would be happy to let the matter drop.

    I have no doubt that many young people think he's some kind of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, but that makes it all the more fascinating why a small minority of internet readers find his writings so important that they feel the need to cite him. Perhaps it has something to do with a limited perspective on the range of world problems. I'm not sure.

    As for "discounting" Arudou's arguments, you have to wonder why someone who has been arguing the same things over and over again for 15 years has managed to achieve so little, politically.

    Perhaps the majority of people who don't see what all the fuss is about (including journalists, academics, professionals, etc) are stupid. Then again, maybe they aren't.

  6. Hello again anon.

    It does not necessarily follow that by refering to him as a prof. I am "asserting" that he is an authority on these issues. You're over-egging the custard with that claim.

    Worse still, you have yet to demonstrate what relevance his academic credentials or level of political success has to the veracity of the arguments he makes in the article. If you can bring yourself to address the Mr. James/Little Black Sambo/empathy issue in my post without reference to Arudou, I'll be more inclined to take you seriously; because right now I'm damn near convinced that your beef with the whole "prof." thing is based solely on your dislike of the man.

    Finally, I would appreciate it if you didn't minimise this discussion to avoid addressing the problems with your reasoning. This may be just one of thousands of blogs on the internet, however this is my space and I have standards for the level of discussion here. Don't come here with some weak-sauce arguments and then compound the issue by trying to duck out of being called on it.

  7. This is an interesting comment: "...right now I'm damn near convinced that your beef with the whole 'prof.' thing is based solely on your dislike of the man."

    Why do some people dislike others? I suspect that it has something to do with their inability to connect with certain commonly accepted standards of logic and evidence.

    For example, you clearly dislike me because in your world (read: blog) you want to talk about the "veracity of [Arudou's] arguments" -- although it's still unclear to me why you think they're so important to be raised in the first place.

    In my book, I have no idea what "veracity" means from an empirical standpoint without first verifying the assertions in your own blog (not to mention Arudou's) and work our way up the ladder of inductive reasoning to formulate modest conclusions based on solid findings.

    We're not there yet.

    You're making arguments, but you're not taking the time to demonstrate to the reader that your assumptions are both verifiable and accurate.

    A few examples...

    "Non-Japanese are not given a voice in the media". Really? According to whom? Where is the rigorous evidence of this assertion?

    "They are not presented in balanced, humanizing way." Quite a strong assertion. Again, according to whom and how are you sure? How is "humazining" defined? Where is "balance" necessary in a vague reference to the "media" (which you haven't defined yet either).

    Does that assertion apply to every newspaper article? Every television program? Every "media" depiction -- and how can you be so sure? Does it apply to only commercials or news? Are we discussing entertainment, too? And if so, should there be "balance" in entertainment? Is parody and satire and deadpan humor and a host of other genres not allowed to promote stereotypes?

    But let's assume for a moment that the assertions don't need to be verified and we're only talking about commercials. All that matters, according to the argument, is that the terms "lack of balance" and "(de?)humanizing" are valid descriptors of a perceived nationwide problem simply because in the mind of one individual they are found to be subjectively unplesant. Must businesses (and let's face it, the media are a business) increasingly cater to the least common denominator in the room? How will that work in practice if each subjective interpretation is different? In short, in a democracy (and Japan is thankfully a democracy) who gets to decide what can be broadcast?

  8. You seem to be making a lot of assumptions yourself.

    I've been thinking of how to respond.

    You address my post, which is good. I also think that your request for sources is fair enough.

    On top of my limited experiences with Japanese television and newspapers, and my conversations with Japanese activists. Here are some articles that helped frame my thinking:

    Tsuda, Takeyuki "Domesticating the Immigrant Other: Japanese Media Images of Nikkei Return Migrants" Ethnology fall 2003 42/4

    McNicol, Tony "Color Blinded" Japan Inc. April 2004 (Though you may discount him because he quotes Debito)

    Iwabuchi, Koichi "Multinationalising the Multicultural: The Commodification of Ordinary foreigners" Japanese Studies 2005 25/2

    Shipper, Aipichai "Criminals or Victims: The Politics of Illegal Foreigners in Japan" Journal of Japanese studies 2005 31/2

    I thought to address your arguments, maybe concede I could have been tighter but that I'm writing out my thoughts not a thesis, or just call you an ass for the veiled ad hominems.

    I think however that I need to step away from the keyboard. It is unlikely that you're actually interested in an honest discussion because of your beef with Debito and anyone you consider his acolyte. Sorry if you feel robbed. I just not longer trust you to argue in good faith.