Jap’s eye for the gaijin guy

I apologise for the title of this post but it was too good an opportunity to miss in this entry which is supposed to give balance to an earlier one I did on the way Western media portrays Japan, often in sensationalist and stereotypical ways. What with western media and especially American television shows being all pervasive it would seem the Japanese don’t really have such an unquenchable thirst for insights into life across the pond; all they would need to do is turn on the television and tune into Fox Japan or watch any of the dubbed American shows that are shown on terrestrial networks and learn all about the legal profession, the harsh life of aliens hiding in high schools in L.A. or the “hilarious” adventures of five friends living in suspiciously expensive looking apartments in New York. Japan has imported more culture than it has exported so there is little sensationalist television looking at American or European life, and when there is it is usually seen as something to aspire to, not ridicule.

One show, for example, sends a minor Japanese celebrity to live for a short while with a stereotypically average family in different countries and ends, formulaically, with a tearful farewell and a look back at lessons learnt, usually involving the creation of some national delicacy. Another follows the dynamic of a group of Japanese youngsters as they travel abroad, fall in and out of love with each other in true Big Brother fashion, though with a little more decorum. And in true Japanese televisual tradition foreign cuisine pops up on regular occasions too. No, what Japan is interested in is people, and with its Culture of the Celebrity it’s foreigners, not foreign lands that intrigue them most. So let’s have a look at the people that can claim to be Big in Japan.


When it comes to local foreign talent, forget people like the onerous Dave Spector, Bob Sapp or Bobby Ologun; they are naught but performing monkeys. True idolatry is reserved for people like Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu. Though he is not allowed to star in commercials until he retires he is often features on television shows, panels and shows about Bulgaria and himself specifically. One reason may be because the Japanese look up to sumo wrestlers anyway, because he had made a very promising start in his career or because he seems to be a genuinely nice chap. And though most people are very good sports about sumo, we are all secretly hoping it is Kotooshu who’ll topple the Mad Mongol’s throne.

Still showing his mug on Japanese television trying to sell us the Motorola RZOR is Mickey Mouse voiced David Beckham, still with loving affection called Be-chan by some Japanese. Whenever he and his wife Skeletor visit these shores there will be some media hype, though nothing can compare to the high of his World Cup visit, when the Japanese just went apeshit over him and saw women copy his hairstyle. The couple appear on health spa adverts, television commercials and billboards. The football, or “soccer” as they so mistakenly call it here, doesn’t come in to it. He’s just so darn cool, apparently.

He wasn’t just a character in Onimusha 3 by accident; Jean Reno is the face of cool in Japan, which may be due to his voice which is, admittedly, pretty damn gruff. Films like “Wasabi”, video game appearances, even voice-overs and television commercials, he has lent his image to them all. In fact, the Japanese DVD of my favourite Studio Ghibli film “Kurenai no Buta” boasts proudly on its cover that the included French dubbed version features the voice of Jean Reno!

The number one western star is probably Audrey Hepburn. Yes, that one. The Japanese still love her to bits and her image still appears on advertising and certain products, often with very little or no connection to her, her life or her films. “Roman Holiday” is still remembered very fondly by a large proportion of the Japanese and many will cock their heads, sigh wistfully and achingly claim how cute she is.

But at the top of the list, surprisingly after such a long time, is still Korean television drama actor Yong Joon, or Yonsama as he is known in Japan. Note the use of the “-sama” honorific! This grown-up Harry Potter and his big, trademark scarf have adorned television screens for, roughly, millennia now, and he was reported to have paid the second largest tax bill in all of South Korea last year. Where does he get all that money from? That’s right, Japan. His face is on all and every kind of merchandising you can imagine, from calendars to mugs, from key chains to mouse mats, from advertising billboards to having his own and reportedly very lucrative Pachinko machine. Though Japan usually discards its fashions within a few months, Yomsama has been with us for a remarkably long time, and though maybe fewer women travel all the way to the airport to welcome him on his visits to Japan with swooning and screams than there used to be, so high has this star risen that his inevitable downfall will have a long way to go. I fear he may be with us for a while yet.

As you can see, fame abroad doesn’t necessarily equate to fame in Japan, nor vice versa. Though they like to copy and import western tastes and culture they do have their own ideas about what makes a celebrity. Making it big in Japan is no guarantee of making it big world-wide, nor is being famous abroad any guarantee of a doting Japanese audience. But with the right amount of marketing and the right look and fashion-sense, who knows?

11 comments:

  1. The rule about sumo wrestlers appearing in commercials was lifted a few years ago. Kotooshu has been in yogurt and nooodle soup commercials in Japan on Japanese TV channels. So have the current Mongolian Yokozuna, Asashoryu - he's been in about 6 or 7, and few of the Japanese guys, all of whom are still active.

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  2. I don't see how using the term Jap is okay, in any sense, and relating it to Gaijin is not comparable. Jap, is inherently derogatory, but Gaijin is not. It may be used in many derogatory ways, but its a word thats birth was not out of racism nor hate.

    The difference between Jap and the N word is that there aren't enough people vocaly against the use of Jap. Try putting in the title of your blog the N word and see what your response will be.

    I'm sorry, but I had to speak up.

    I still love your blog..keep writing!!

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  3. Jean Reno is cool. I liked Wasabi, and actually most of the appearances he makes in movies. Leon of course. He's just one of those characters I really like in the filmstar landscape.

    Also, this topic reminds me of those hilarious ham commercials by Stallone. They're so fantastically ordinary, unlike the outrageous Schwarzenegger extravanganzas.

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  4. Lighten up, anon. AFAIK "Jap" is short for "Japanese" which, if anything at least pays hommage to their own tendencies to shorten long words. Besides, it was only used here to make a purile joke ("jap's eye")., simply because the language set it up as an inevitable punchline. I couldn't resist.

    Roderick, today's gaijin talento adverts are a lot more mundane and boring. Beckham standing there trying to look cool to sell phones, Richard Gere driving around the countryside. Nothing as mad as Stallone's ham, I'm afraid.

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  5. Two years ago I was hauled over the coals by the Japanese training arm of my company for writing the words 'Jap Student' and 'Foreign Student' in my lesson plan to refer to the roles people played in a conversation lesson although I was shortening the words they labelled me 'a racist' (for the 'jap student')and threatened to sack me unless I wrote a letter of apology to the chairman of the company...............

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  6. Ignoring all of the discussions of racism...

    "Whenever he and his wife Skeletor visit" made me laugh :)

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  7. Try J for shortening. I mean, J-pop is called J-pop for a reason, no?

    Rationalizing the use of a racial slur is very common, however unintentional, the word is what it is, and means something very different to many people. Trying to justify the use of it...now thats a whole other issue.

    One can try to ignore racism, but those who do simply have not experienced it IMO.

    Imagine whatever experiences you've had as a Gaijin in Japan that you took as a blatant Japanese xenophobic ignorant act directed toward you. Now imagine all that embodied in a single word. That is what a slur is to me.

    Granted I truly believe JC's intentions in using that word wasn't out of hate or malign intent, but people need to know that "Jap" however written in any context is a very loaded and hateful term to some.

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  8. I hear what you're all saying, and it's not a term I use myself because even ignoring its connotations, linguistically it is unpleasantly harsh, but "J's eye" is not a funny slang term for penis, is it? That and only that was my intention in the title of this post.

    I do agree with anon above that the term is bandied about too much. Read any gamer forum and the word "jap", probably out of laziness rather than racism, is used a LOT, and people probably shouldn't.
    Personally I think it's just words. Some foreigners get terribly upset about the word "gaijin" rather than "gaikokkujin" but it's not something I can get worked up about.

    Can't we all just get along?

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  9. I hardly think Jap is an egregiously harsh slur, as some comments have painted it. It's often used in laziness, such as black or white, because of its monosyllabic ease. Maybe it could be equated to 'negro' : awkward, but never used offensively.

    Anyway Jean Reno is pretty cool, but he's never been in a good film.

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  10. Jean Reno never been in a good film my arse. Leon was cool, though I can't remember what happened in it (though I heard there was a version in which his relationship with the little girl got a bit too close, which I don't think was ever shown in the UK).

    Anyway, I am pretty sure that Yonsama used to be a porn actor in Korea, so maybe that's why the ladies like him so much. He also has slightly androgynous looks, which seem to be popular here.

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