Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | September 15, 2009

Being square in a round society

After playing tennis for three hours last Saturday morning, I caved into my cravings for an Egg McMuffin and biked down to the closest McDonald’s.  When I walked in, a particular advertisement caught my eye; I looked at it for a few seconds, and then I forgot about it as I considered the words I would need for making my order.

Today, I found an interesting opinion article in the Japan Times written by a foreigner, who also noticed the ad.  Upon actually considering it and delving deeper into this ad, this writer gets ticked.  Really ticked.

Basically, the ad is a cardboard cut out of a nerdy white guy who can’t speak Japanese very well.  It’s a campaign for American burgers with a Japanese twist.  Seems harmless enough to me.  However, after reading this article, I’m reconsidering that harmlessness a little.

Here’s the author’s main point (link to full article):

Let me quote Ben Shearon, one officer of the newly registered lobbying group FRANCA (the Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association, which, in the interests of full disclosure, your correspondent chairs):

“The people complaining about this ad live in Japan, pay taxes here, and in some cases have naturalized and become Japanese citizens. We find this campaign reinforces unwelcome stereotypes that affect our lives here. I have been denied housing, bank loans and even entry to businesses specifically because of my race/nationality.

“By pandering to the ‘hapless foreigner’ stereotype, McDonald’s is reinforcing the idea that non-Japanese cannot speak Japanese or conduct themselves properly in Japan. A multinational corporation like McDonald’s should be more careful about the subliminal messages they put out, and we are just trying to bring that to their attention.”

That’s it. We’ve made our case. Still think that Mr. James is not worth protesting? That’s your prerogative. But don’t tell people who feel adversely affected by media campaigns to just suck it up. That’s not how minorities finally gain recognition and a voice as residents in a society.

I actually think often about the fact that, for once in my life, I am actually living out a part of the minority experience.  As a white, Christian, straight, middle-class male, this is just not an experience I could have in the United States.  Although I haven’t applied for a loan yet and haven’t been denied entry to a business, I have been denied housing because of my race.  I have also fallen into consumer traps regarding contracts that have cost Rachael and I over a thousand dollars…mostly because I’m still illiterate in this society (and always will be).  Ugh, it makes me sick to my stomach just remembering how that felt last spring!

I’ve probably written about this before, but when I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for six months, I had a completely different experience as a guest in a new culture.  Partly because I spoke Spanish fluently and could mimic the native accent well, and partly because so many people in Buenos Aires share my Italian heritage and physical features, I was able to completely blend in.  People assumed, even after a conversation with me, that I was Argentine.  Others, more often noting good Spanish that wasn’t quite native, asked if I was from Spain.

In Japan, this could never happen.  Ever.  Here, I am merely a square trying to fit into a round hole.  No matter how many hours a week I spend learning written and spoken Japanese, I will never be able to comfortably “fit in” here in Japan. That certainly leads to more than a handful of frustrating experiences.  Having a caricature of that nerdy white guy, named “Mr. James,” on billboards and magazines certainly doesn’t help me become any “rounder” either.

On the other hand, it’s not all bad being an outsider.  Basically, no one expects much from you, so you can get away with doing stupid things (like when we had a campfire on a beach that was not designated for camping and the cops just left us alone), or you can impress people when you actually do something right.  One of my favorite guilty pleasures in Tokyo is holding the door for people.  I know from observation that it’s really not what you’re supposed to do, but I love when people smile a little or say thanks (or “excuse me”) for my bizarrely helpful act.

I’m sure I’m the millionth foreigner to write about this feeling, but it certainly is a part of being a “gaijin” in Tokyo.  Hopefully I’m learning some important lessons about how minorities of all types should be treated back at home.  And, thanks to Mr. Arudou for thinking a little more about that advertisement than I did.

Read more about Mr. James here:,8599,1918246,00.html



  1. Great post Brad.

    • Thanks Rachel…and thanks for keeping up with us.

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