[1 February 2007]
Say, see that pudgy guy over there? You recognize the type, right? Right away. He emits that je n’est ce quoi ‘scent’ of familiarity and immediate comfort. Everybody’s pal. The guy, like a duck: all troubles slither of his back like so much water justlikethat off the proverbial feathers. He walks into a bar, a town, sets foot on a dock or steps into a taxi cab and is allatonce befriended by one and all. He is quick with a joke (and a light-up-your smoke?), this guy. He is a great listener, and has a knack for solving everyone’s problems without even breaking a sweat.
Who is this guy? In your culture, wherever you may be, I haven’t a clue. But in Japan, where I am writing this, his name is Hamasaki Densuke, a middle-aged, mid-level salaried worker who is affectionately known as “Hama-chan”. “Chan” being the diminutive for “what a little cutie” or “our little one. This Hama guy has been the corporeal centerpiece of a series of movies that began in 1988 and now number 16 installments. Collectively they are called Tsuri Baka Nisshi, which basically translates as “Fishing Crazy Nisshi”. The “Nisshi” in this case being the Nishida Toshiyuki, the actor who plays everybody’s favorite, friendly fishing fiend.
Encountering Hama-chan means running flush into a Japanese icon: a character who communicates values, ideas and ways of situating oneself out in the larger ReDot world. On the surface, as I am about to explain, he embodies ideas and ways of acting that go way against type in everyday ReDot reality. But, underneath, he transmits ideas and ways of acting that do everything to preserve the status quo of the ReDot. In this complex, contradictory duality, Hama-chan stands as a robust and important cultural player. He serves to explain ReDot selves and ReDot lives to all of us ReDot-dwelling, ReDot-regarding folk. In this respect, Hama-chan (and other movie and music and television and Internet figures like him) are the reason why (ReDot)pop matters, why culture makes any dent in our thinking, why all of pop’s many creations generate any whit of meaningful pomp and thunder and banner and banter wherever we may be.
Okay, so who is this guy really? Aside from being married to a lovely, saint of a woman, with whom he has produced the obligatory sole male heir, Hama-chan is the guy who publicly ribs his button-down, by-the-book, section chief, by announcing to all the co-workers of the section “our head man over there? He got his wife pregnant before they were engaged. That is why he had to marry her.” True or not, the boss is left speechless, as his staff of younger males and females titter and inquire of their chief whether this is so.
This is also the same irreverent Hama-chan who walks into a boardroom in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts as his immediate superiors are deliberating his dismissal for stowing away on an American naval vessel and he blurts: “Right, I know that I am to be punished, so let’s say two weeks suspension with pay and leave the rest up to you in terms of who should do my work while I am away.” And then he turns about-face and strides out of the room.
Ah, if Japanese corporate reality was only truly like that.
The other thing you have to know – the running gag you can decipher within 25 frames – is that Hama-chan can get away with all this against-the-book insolence because his biggest boss , the company president, is himself, a fishing fanatic. Unlike Hama-chan, though, he lacks the skill for locating the scaly critters and, thus, often requires Hama-chan’s angling expertise. This role reversal is crucial to the unfolding of nearly every story: when it comes to fishing—which matters most to these corporate-sized kids—the underling is the teacher, the company president, the student. I am not sure that this makes for grand irony (or even riveting farce), but it does provide the kind of democratic upheaval that the average Japanese movie viewer secretly yearns for, given the generally unrequited portions of their insufferable work-a-day lives.
In the installment that I consumed on my trans-Pacific flight, Tsuribaka Nisshi 16, Hama-chan is assigned to assist his company in the dedicating a bridge they have constructed. He jumps at the chance, of course, because the fishing near the bridge, in Hiroshima, is excellent. The running gag, which even the initiate immediately comprehends without even knowing who the characters are or what their history of relations have been (because it is pitched at the lowest-common-denominator level of “duhness”), is that while Hama-chan is out trolling for sea bass, his equally fishing-crazy boss is saddled with official ceremonial duties which will keep him from joining Hama-chan out on the ocean. If this circumstance doesn’t seem funny, well, that probably is because it isn’t. What makes people chuckle is that this is a running gag, from movies prior the boss is ever tied to his job, while the carefree Hama-chan finds 93 different ways to shirk his responsibilities and attend to his passions (while miraculously retaining his job, often through the graces of his ever-vexed boss).
Of course, this joke is pitched at a deeper order of meaning, as this kind of “me-first”, hobbyist mentality is not what a certain generation of movie-goer was raised to believe that their ReDot stood for. The social compact on this archipelago at least since the post-war era began has been to serve a company first, in the interregnum, and to the end, above all else. No fishing included.
My how times have changed. During the course of this series, the “me-ism” has been transformed from a chuckle by virtue of impossibility into a nod of recognition based on emergent birthright. And there we have the modern ReDot incarnate.
There were a couple of other things that stood out in the movie that I viewed. Things that tell us about how Japan has always been and also, paradoxically, how it has changing. Or, if you prefer, you might simply file these elements under the “something old, something new” moniker.
The something new can be dispatched rather quickly since, come to think of it, there is very little that is new about it. After all, it really emanates from the same general belly-ache that gives vent to Hama-chan’s constant roar (which is, by now, decades old). It is the idea that here in the ReDot democratization has truly taken hold. There are no classes, no real distinctions parsing people. If the son of a company owner wishes to wed the fetching daughter of a lowly guitar-strumming, country and western-warbling bar owner, then so be it. And anyone wishing to argue otherwise will have Hamachan (and hell) to pay. Whichever burns worst.
The denouement of this melodramatic trifle is all too predictable. Big surprise: embittered father, certain the world has dumped on him due to his pathetic occupational and domestic lot in life, refuses to offer his blessing to a marriage that would enable his daughter to level up out of her, hard-scrabble lower-class condition; in fact, he goes so far as deck the handsome, well-off lad who has been presumptuous enough to ask for the bar-keep’s daughter’s hand. More surprise: the bar-keep relents and even attends the wedding after a severe tongue lashing from Hama-chan. Well, of course, there was that minor matter of the kidnapping, assisted by some rough-and-ready US G.I.s.
Now that you know how “something new” translates into a cinematic fantasy of contemporary classlessness, I am sure you will agree that we can skip directly to the “something old” portion of this exegesis. That would be racism, which has existed about as long as has the cultural myth that Japanese are an homogenous people, whose first emperor, Jimmu, descended from Amaterasu, the ruler of the Plain of High Heaven and source of all light and life as our world knows it. Thanks to this mythology, a chain of unbroken succession of rulers, all emanating from God, has qualified the Japanese as a superior, if not anointed, people. As one can imagine, the notion that one belongs to a single family, presided over by an undisturbed line of emperors (along with at least one empress) since B.C. 660, can have that supercilious effect on a people.
How this point of view translates, though, is often into a kind of blindness concerning the rest of the world. “Who dey?” and “Why should we even trouble over what they think and do?” being two of the more common queries. And this predilection (rolling off another’s tongue, “myopia” perhaps?) has only been buttressed and further entrenched by the insularity bred by isolation on a remote archipelago for the better part of two thousand, five hundred years. All of which contributes to acts that, once performed, produce an external conflagration, met by a stupefied localized “Who, me?” reaction. As in: “Why would anyone think that our characterization of that person of African descent is prejudicial?” After all, what is so negative about showing a room full of Rastafarians smoking ganja and hanging out with a monkey, dressed . . . exactly like them? See that every day, right?
Oh, did I mention: this was in an ad for wet towels. Which perfectly accounts for the Rastafarians, the monkey, and the weed, don’t you agree?
No? Well, that is exactly what the large number of foreigners living in Japan who happened to view that ad said. And when they complained, the company selling the product emitted a fast succession of “Whous?”es and “What’sdabigdeal?s and “Howcouldyathinkso?”s in the form of an official press release that read, in part: “We are aiming at creating ads which customers will sympathize with . . . But we take what you have pointed out as a valuable opinion. We will consider this when we create ads from now on.” Blah blah, excuses so on, and who-would-believe so forth.
In other words: “Help, get us out of here before we trip over our feet any better.”
Or, in short, S-O-P over here in the ReDot. People need only look to the case of Little Black Sambo to know this is so. Titled Chibikuro Sambo when first published in the ReDot in 1953, the book was a pirated version of the original, Little Black Sambo written in 1899 by Helen Bannerman, a Scot living in India. In the tale, the little boy named, you guessed it, Little Black Sambo, is given a coat and trousers made by his mother named, you guessed it, Black Mumbo. And, after a trip to the Bazaar for an umbrella and shoes, Little Black Sambo heads off to the jungle. There, he encounters a string of tigers who, one by one, threaten to eat him unless he sacrifices one or the other of his garments, accessories or accoutrements. Each encounter has the effect of leaving each tiger cock-sure that he has been transformed into the grandest tiger in the jungle.
Of course, we all know that “grandest” means “most” and, thus, that there can only be one of those (“most” being a measure of exclusivity and superiority). And, thus is it that, when the tigers all happen to encounter one another, a ferocious dispute transpires. “Who is the grandest” becomes a philosophical dispute that is quickly transmogrified into “Who is strongest or most tenacious” or, simply, the last one standing. And in chasing one another around a tree, tail of one locked in the mouth of another, the tigers move with such rapidity as to convert one another into a pile of butter. Sounds plausible, huh? But what the hay, it’s a kid’s story, so one supposes anything is possible.
At this point, Little Black Sambo’s father, whose name is, you guessed it, Black Jumbo, happens to be passing with a large brass pot (convenient, that) which he fills with the pool of tiger-cum-butter and delivers it to his awaiting wife, Black Mumbo, who is more than happy to use it in cooking up 251 pancakes, 169 of which the famished Little Black Sambo scarfs justlikethat.
Cut to the present.
Over the years, Little Black Sambo has caused no small amount of furor for its depictions of people of color, to its gender roles, to its treatment of animals. But controversy has never really cut into its popularity, and certainly not in Japan. In 1988 over one million copies were sold before the book was yanked from the shelves amidst claims of racism. Then, in June 2005, when it was re-issued by another publisher, the 16-page volume quickly moved 95,000 units in two short months, shooting to the top of adult fiction lists at five major Tokyo booksellers. Even today, the LBS character now an embodied plastic figurine adorns cell phone straps and is available for purchase on-line. At the height of the critical chorus—which was extensive, but primarily of Western issue—the psychologist Mori Kazuo was quoted as saying: “The Japanese people can be racist when it comes to Koreans living here. But racist against blacks? We have no experience in dealing with black people. Where would we get it from?”
Um. Well, sure . . . some of my best friends are . . . right Herr Doktor? Why not place those words under a microscope and subject them to a little closer scrutiny, then your answer might miraculously materialize! Which is another way of saying: “hoist by your own petard.” N’est pas?
In any case, now maybe one can better appreciate the nature of the problem the timbre of this tune the contours of this muddle-headed cloud of insensitivity. It is not that Japanese hate people of color it is more like they haven’t a clue how to regard them. That accounts for why they tend to place their feet in their mouths whenever the matter of ethnicity or race arises. They spend so little time interacting with “others” that they rarely really regard them at all. And, when they are asked (or compelled) to consider those who are non-Japanese, the only thing ReDotPoppers seem to be able to muster are simplistic ordering devices—like lines on a color bar. Thus is it that ethnicities tend to get prioritized into various strata, then from there, caricaturized.
At least this is the conclusion Michael Prieler has come to in his study of Japanese advertising. Having systematically collected and coded over three thousand television ads, Prieler has uncovered, among other things, the existence of a hierarchy of the various peoples of the world. There are the Japanese, Caucasians, then Asians, those of African descent, and finally (though almost entirely invisible) other ethnicities, such as South Asians and Pacific Islanders. This is an invariant pattern.
And beyond the ranking of attention, there is the one of competence. While research I published on Japanese advertising some years ago revealed a tendency to portray Caucasians in overly sexualized and occasionally demeaning ways, that is nothing compared to actors of African descent. For the latter, apparently only two categories apply: athletes and musicians. There are no black bankers, no black physicians or dentists, no black chefs, no black teachers. And, true to form, this absence among the skilled professionals goes with nary a recognition by Japanese television viewers. Just more life as they know and live it. Which is to say bleached over black, brown, tan or red.
This may help account for the treatment Bobby Ologun gets in Tsuribaka Nisshi 16. And, through Bobby Ologun, all members of his racial group. Who is Bobby Ologun? you ask. More often known in the ReDot as just plain “Bobby”, he is one of those foreign flavors-of-the-month who tend to burn bright then exhaust themselves in fumes of hyper-celebrity lasting a Warholian half-life of no more than fifteen months of fame. A strapping Nigerian (hey, an African the real deal!), who, it has been reported, comes from a family of 30 children, Bobby emigrated to Japan to assist in his father’s trading company. For whatever reason, he ended up working part-time in a kitchen where he happened to be discovered and then featured on comedian Sanma Akashiya’s popular TV program, Sanma’s Super Karakuri TV. In less that a year, Bobby rode a wave of popularity to a regular gig on the weekly skit called “The Funniest Language School”.
Bobby’s enduring charm lies (well, at least, until his trouble with the law, which took him out of commission so perhaps we should say “lay”) in his multiple malapropisms. Whether intentional or not, his continual mangling of the Japanese language in the style of Manzai artists whose puns are often based on the substitution of similar-sounding non-sense words or else non-sequiturs in place of the correct word hit the hilarity nerve among ReDotPopsters.
Among Bobby’s common gaffes is the confusion of “pervert” (hentai) and “genius” (tensai) and “enema” (kancho) with “nervousness” (kincho). All in good fun, one supposes, except when that fun is directed beyond the speaker, toward the class of people he or she ostensibly represents. For, in the role of signifier, Bobby cannot be said to cast a very noble silhouette on people of African extraction. Beyond the tone of voice he adopts when speaking Japanese (which makes him sound like a slow four-year-old on sedatives), there are the constant bugged eyes, and his seemingly awed wonder about nearly every facet of the ReDot world of his encounter. It is not Bobby who comes across as bumpkin the easy inference is that all people of color may be that way.
Such symbolism was not lost in Tsuribaka Nisshi 16, where Bobby plays a minor, but featured role. There, the running gag he buys into is that whenever he enters a scene, he is depicted running from a toilet, exclaiming with apparent pride for all within earshot to hear: “I just took a dump!” Now how funny is that? And what kind of positive image does that send about folks from Africa? Although, actually, in this installment, Bobby’s character is a member of the United States navy, which . . . may make it all right? Viewed thus, one naturally wonders about latent Japanese feelings toward their former colonizers. But, of course, such hostility is not new news. There is, after all, the matter of Okinawa and America’s continual, oppressive occupation, simmering just under the surface of everyday Japanese political reality.
Thinking about it this way, this installment of Tsuribaka Nisshi does not only have something old and something new it manages to inscribe both in the same element: here, the hulking African-American military man who is companionable enough, but (not surprisingly at all) uncouth, as all ReDotPoppers appreciate Americans are wont to be. And in the denouement, too, there is more of this recombinant signification at work. For when Hama-chan inadvertently stows away on Bobby’s frigate, the fallout from his conservative Japanese company is the perception that he has nearly precipitated an international incident yet from Hama-chan’s laid-back, happy-go-lucky, what-the-hey perspective it is closer to: “come one, guys. Loosen up! What can all the fuss be about? After all, I got a tan, was able to do a spot of fishing, and even made some new American buddies.”
In this way Tsuribaka Nisshi 16, as much as any other ReDot production, provides a gander into the internal contradictions embedded in Japanese society. Enduring elements of closeness and distance between Japan and the US, endemic attitudes of superiority and equality among races, and volatile notions of convention and propriety pitted against emergent, maverick, fun-loving difference.
Which goes to show: don’t dismiss ReDotfluff so quickly. You go fishing, you might even pull some pearls of profound social analysis out of the ReDotdepths.