Many years ago in Japan (old-timer ex-pats will remember it well) when Mr. Bean was very popular in Japan, and wanna-be tough guys in Japan would mutter “Mr. Bean” under their breath when they passed a non-Japanese person and felt a wave of insecurity. Students would call ALT’s (AET’s? I don’t remember what they call the JETs or other assistant teacher… maybe both, but I digress) Mr. Bean to try to get under their skin. I was even called Mr. Bean from a distance one day when I was walking around downtown, and I look absolutely NOTHING like the guy.
That was a long time ago, and I wanted to believe that non-Japanese people in Japan were becoming less… how should I put this… indistinguishable? easy to personify as one being? I wanted to believe that there were more people willing to look at non-Japanese people and come without as many assumptions as in the past.
Another related personal story I’d like to mention before getting on to the McDonald’s Mr. James ad campaign is a time I was asked by the same guy, in the same short five minute span of time if I were vegetarian, and if all I ate was hamburgers and steak. The man asking seriously believed that most Americans were vegetarians, and that most Americans ate nothing but meat. He didn’t see the contradiction involved, and couldn’t understand why I thought his assumptions should take on a more logical form.
Although we see other incidences of this kind of thing almost everyday in Japan, and doing business in Japan gives you the opportunity to face and hopefully overcome stereotypes every day, McDonald’s Japan has decided to throw a brand new wrench into the works and give the the non-Japanese community in Japan a huge set back.
This wrench in the works in Mr. James… the overly excitable, katakana speaking, dorky looking, new character used to advertise the new tamago-double-burger, a double burger with a fried egg on top of the top burger. The fried egg burgers, like the Tsukimi Burger that McDonald’s release here in Japan do well, so they hardly need to make fun of foreigners in order to sell it. The Mr. James character is featured all over Japanese tv, and there are life-sized cardboard versions of him carrying a tray of food in most McDonald’s stores… all of them feature him unable to speak proper Japanese.
The story is even being featured on Arudou Debito’s blog Debito.org: “Mr James” Burger Campaign. He likens the McDonald’s Japan use of the Mr James character to if McDonald’s in another country used negative and false stereotypes of Chinese people unable to pronounce English properly.
I have seen much worse cases of racism and stereotyping during my time in Japan, but this is on a large enough scale that such things as people speaking out against it, teachers using this to teach students how NOT to view foreigners could make it a worthy topic for bloggers and others. McDonald’s is putting a lot of energy behind making this a huge campaign so it may be difficult to get them to stop, there are contests and other things involved, and I think we’ll be seeing this Mr. James character for a while, but if people speak out, maybe it won’t turn into another case of every caucasian foreigner being referred to as “Mr. Bean”… or in this case “Mr. James”.
Don’t even get me started on the lack of respect and rudeness involved if it happens to turn out that this characters FIRST name is James. Too many non-Japanese people in Japan allow themselves to be referred to in a rude and condescending way… to the point that people who ask for the courtesy of being referred to the same way Japanese people are seem like troublemakers. This is could be just another setback for people trying to just live in Japan and be treated like equal human beings. Let’s hope McDonald’s and “Mr. James” come to their senses.