Racism in Japan has been the object of many recent discussions. We have seen in the thread Just Cultural Differences?, that racism had a broad meaning, and could mean fear, discrimination or prejudice against one or many ethnic groups due to a sense of racial superiority, feeling of hatred, misunderstanding or ignorance toward that group. Racism can also be expressed in 5 intensity levels :

1) in thought/feelings only
2) verbally expressing it (e.g. calling a Black a "nigger", or saying "these Chinese are so inferior to us")
3) involving indirect actions (e.g. not recruiting someone because of their race)
4) involving direct, non-violent actions (e.g. refusing entry to someone based on their race, or the police assuming people of different races are more suspect)
5) involving direct, violent actions (e.g. beating up, killing...)

We have noted that most Japanese associate racism with (5), and to a lesser extent also (4) and (3), but almost never (2) and (1).

In this thread, I would like to discuss a typically Japanese phenomenon, which I will call "cute racism". Many TV programmes use Caucasians or Blacks for entertainment purpose. Caucasians may appear in serious discussions as well, but Black people are almost exclusively recruited as some kind of exotic animal made to be laughed at due to their strange appearance and behaviour. One of the most famous of them is Bob Sapp, who often appeared in TV shows and commercials, always looking as beasty as possible to please his incredulous Japanese audience.

Today, there was a more regular Black guy asking questions to Japanese people in the street. The interviewees were quite awkward, often laughing with their hand covering their mouth as the "strange Black man" asked them a question or made some primitive grimace he was paid to do. In my eyes, making fun of a person because they are Black, and treating them as a sort of freakish attraction, is a bit racist, even if no offense is intended. This kind of programme wit Black people show several times a week, so most Japanese should be used to seeing people with dark skin. I always feel like the hidden purpose is to show how primitive and inferior Blacks are compared to the Japanese. That's what many Japanese like about it. It says "look, this strange creature is just good at grimacing like a monkey and speak with a strange accent".

Furthermore, like in many TV programmes, there are some kind of big and colourful subtitles adding emphasis and emotions to what people say; and whenever a gaijin (esp. Black) speaks, for some reason the subtitles are all in Hiragana and Katakana. The message is clear "those primitives can't use kanji". "Of course, they are not Japanese !". In fact, I did ask several Japanese why it was so, and they did reply exactly that "gaijin can't use kanji" ! Dozens of times have Japanese people been very surprised that I could read kanji. Their common reaction is "eeeh, you can read kanji ! Sugoi ne !". I am talking about people I had know for months (some for over 2 years), and knew I could speak Japanese. It's just unbelievable for most Japanese that a gaijin could read or write kanji - even very basic ones. Kanji were one of the easiest and most interesting part of learning Japanese for me, and apparently quite a few other people who have learnt Japanese on this forum. Such assumption should in any case not become standards of how foreigners are seen on national TV. It only reinforces negative stereotypes of foreigners being unable to speak Japanese (see Assumptions that gaijin cannot speak Japanese and Should all Japanese directly address foreigners in Japanese ?). In short, no matter how friendly Japanese people are with you, and even if they pay you to show on national TV and are polite and apparently respecful and all, if they hold such beliefs, it means that deep inside them they still consider you (the "gaijin") as some sort of inferior species, a zoo animal used for entertainment.

But what I find more insulting in those TV shows is the use of Katakana when a foreigner speaks. Katakana is normally used for words of foreign origin (including transliterations of kanji). So it's use when someone speaks Japanese may first seem like their accent is so strong that they sound like they are not speaking Japanese. In mangas or in TV subtitles, Katakana is used for onomatopoeia, insults, or angry, harsh or strident language. The normal use is just one or two words per sentence for emphasis, or for interjections (e.g. コラアァー!). It's image is typically negative. So using it in half of a sentence mixed with Hiragana (and no a single Kanji) for very normal words when a person speaks on a normal tone, it feels like the speaker is a rough, idiotic person. This makes me feel all the more that the purpose of the whole show is to make fun of an exotic animal.

That is what I call "cute racism". "Cute", because the purpose is to make people laugh and enjoy themselves. It is a sort of racism as it is degrading for people of the targeted race. The fact that it is almost only Black people that are the "victims" leaves little doubt about that. Too bad some people are so much in need of money or want so much to be on TV, that they will accept to ridiculise themselves in this way, only reinforcing racist stereotypes among Japanese people.