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Published:November 5th, 2009 08:14 EST
McDonald's Racist Ad Campaign in Japan?

McDonald's Racist Ad Campaign in Japan?

By Geoff Dean

 Living in Japan, it is hard to ignore Mr. James. His larger than life cardboard cutout smiles down at you near the counter at every McDonald`s I have visited (four at last count). He is on TV everywhere you look as well as in countless magazines and newspapers. Mr. James is the "mascot" of a new ad campaign designed to drum up sales of McDonald`s exclusively Japanese menu items such as the "Tsukimi burger" (literally "moon viewing" burger, it is a burger with a sunny side up egg on top) and "Gratin Croquette burger" (you don`t want to know!) He also appears in person at McDonald`s without prior notice and greets the customers and records it all in his blog.

McDonald's Racist Ad Campaign in Japan

 The beef that some have with him is that he is a foreigner, presumably American, and speaks bad Japanese on purpose, kind of like Pat Morita/Mr. Miyagi spoke broken English in the Karate Kid series, despite the fact that a)his English is actually flawless and b)his broken English bore no resemblance to real Japanese-style broken English (I`ve heard enough to know!) Some take this as a slight on foreigners living in Japan, as if Mr. James represents all of us expatriates and all of us are unable to speak Japanese properly.

 Furthermore, Mr. James is a cultural buffoon. In one TV spot, he meets a apprentice geisha at a temple in Kyoto and declares his love for "moon viewing", a cultural passtime in Japan. She is duly impressed until she realizes he is talking about the aforementioned "tsukimi burger".

 In another, he is enjoying his time at the public bath, singing a song about the "croquette burger" while splashing the bath water around the bathhouse and behaving generally boorishly. Subtext to some; foreigners in Japan cannot appreciate Japanese culture and/or do not know how to behave themselves in public.

 On his blog, he continues to write of his love of Japan in muddled Japanese and the blog also contains a video of him reading from a phrase book, held upside down, hideously butchering the pronunciation.

 Mr. James is also unreservedly nerdy, polo shirt with necktie and bulging pocket full of pens in a pocket protector and always had the "air head" expression on his face. Again, some see the whole campaign as offensive and even "racist".

 The ad campaign has lit a fire under some of the readers of the Japan Times, the newspaper which usually serves as the venting point for expatriate frustration. Debito Arudou, a regular pundit, compares this stereotypical treatment to "blackface" performers in the 1920`s, Amos and Andy, buckteeth mocking portrayals of Chinese in the movies and other racist behavior that the US and other developed countries have long since moved past.

 In the usual back and forth that follows every such percieved slight, the editorials break down into two camps, those who feel similarly aggrieved at Japan, the "racist" nation, and those who feel that it is much ado about nothing and that the complainers should just go back to their own countries if they feel that way.

 I, personally, have fallen into both camps at times, depending on the issue. When the city of Otaru in Hokkaido decided to ban foreigners from public baths after an incident with two drunken Russian sailors, I was strongly of the "this is racist" point of view. Punish the offenders but not all foreigners. On the other hand, when a big stink was raised about the proper designation for foreigners in Japanese, I felt like it was a lot of heat for a very small fire.

 On this issue, my original leaning was towards the side of "mountain out of a molehill" view. The ads might be insensitive but no one claimed that Mr. James represented all foreigners in Japan and the jokes seemed to be pretty tame and harmless. I might have stayed in that camp if I had never seen the "mascot."

 You see, dear Mr. James, bears something of a resemblance to me. We wear similar glasses, are about the same height, same hair color and style, and probably about the same age. While no one is going to confuse me with the hamburger hawker, it`s close enough that some of my students have taken to teasing me by calling me "Mr. James" or even "James Dean" (my last name is Dean).

 McDonald`s Japan, if you are listening, please discontinue the racist and offensive "Mr. James" ad campaign immediately or I will boycott your stores (I`m not a "heavy user" but I do go from time to time) and launch a massive protest movement. We cannot tolerate this kind of stereotyping. Or, if you need someone to play Mr. James` brother, give me a call. After all, racism is racism but money is money!