A Japanese mobile phone firm said today it had pulled a TV advert depicting a monkey as a political candidate amid accusations that it was a racist reference to Barack Obama, who is seeking to become the first black US president.
The ad, for eMobile, shows a monkey in a suit addressing an election rally, surrounded by supporters carrying placards with the word “Change”.
The apparent intention is to persuade subscribers to other mobile phone carriers to transfer to eMobile.
But the combination of the monkey, and the resemblance of his message to the theme of Obama’s campaign – “Change we can believe in” – prompted bloggers to accuse the company of making a racist slur against the Democratic hopeful.
The company, which stressed it had used the macaque mascot in several other adverts, said it had never intended to insult Obama but had decided to pull the “Change” ad in response to criticism in the blogosphere.
“We had no bad intentions, but this is a cross-cultural gap issue and we have to accept it,” eMobile’s chief executive, Sachio Semmoto, told Reuters. “There are African-Americans in Japan, so we decided to take prompt action and shut down the ad.”
Semmoto went further, describing the senator from Illinois as the kind of leader who could benefit not only the US but also Japan. “For two years I’ve been saying Obama has the capacity to change America, the kind of capacity that Japan needs,” he said.
Monkeys are revered in Japan, and their image can be found at numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but eMobile’s choice of animal for this ad did not impress the foreign blogging community.
Zurui, in a message to the Black Tokyo site, wrote: “Well it seems like the ugly head of racism has reared its big head again on Japanese television.
“Am I crazy to think the monkey is supposed to represent Barack Obama? Given the track record for companies in Japan that use monkeys and blacks or monkeys as blacks in advertisements … maybe not!”
Writing on Japan Probe, James disagreed: “Is this ‘the ugly head of racism’ in Japan, as sites like Black Tokyo have written? I don’t think so.
“The commercial clearly is a parody of Barack Obama’s campaign, which has received a lot of positive media coverage in Japan, but I don’t feel that it reflects racist ideas about black people and monkeys.
“I doubt that most Japanese people would even understand how a pink-faced grey monkey native to Japan could be equated with African people.”
It isn’t the first time a Japanese firm has found itself accused of racist depictions of black people.
Three years ago a TV commercial by Mandom, which makes men’s grooming products, drew condemnation because it showed a Rastafarian accompanied by a chimpanzee that had been made up to resemble him.
Obama is hugely popular in Japan, not least among the residents of a fishing town on the Japan Sea coast that shares his name.
The residents of Obama – “little shore” in Japanese – formed a supporters’ group to follow his progress through the Democratic primaries.
His Japanese supporters made sweet-bean buns bearing Obama’s face and “I love Obama” T-shirts, as well as similarly themed chopsticks, which the town’s mayor sent to the candidate along with a message of support.
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Friday June 27, 2008
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Friday June 27 2008.