Have you met Mr. James?
by eileen tse
He’s an interesting guy; you could spot Mr. James a mile away wearing his signature black rimmed spectacles, red polo shirt, and khaki slacks. Mr. James is a 43-year-old white man who hails from Ohio and is currently on a tour through Japan. What brings him to Japan, you may ask? Well, persuaded by his inquisitive daughter in pigtails and black rimmed glass (it must be hereditary) to move to the land of the rising sun, Mr. James is on a mission to satisfy his cravings for his favorite hamburgers of his youth (when he himself was a college student in Japan) and spread the mutual love for McDonald’s Nippon All Stars. He may not speak proper Japanese, but he sure knows a thing about a mean hamburger.
…Or so the story goes for McDonald’s marketing campaign in Japan. Nippon All Stars consist of four sandwiches that are currently available as a limited time offer between August and November. Concocted by one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world, Dentsu, Mr. James, with all his “Anglo-nerdiness” included, is the official mascot for Nippon All Stars. So far, he’s been featured in five commercials, where he yells “Tamago (egg)” instead of “Tamaya” during fireworks and professes his love for a chicken sandwich at a geisha. It would seem likely that even without this self-deprecatingly endearing fellow, the hamburgers would have sold well because they are after all “All Stars,” and who doesn’t love a Big Mac with an egg in it?
The problem of the matter is that Mr. James portrays Caucasians in Japan as “gai-jin,” which is a derogatory term for foreigners that implies being distinctly alien and humiliatingly unable to assimilate into normal Japanese society. The Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association (FRANCA) is offended by Mr. James and argues that he embodies a lingering prejudice against whites in Japan. It’s understandable that FRANCA would feel this way because, especially in rural regions of Japan where citizens may have little to no contact with actual Caucasians, Mr. James perpetuates a specific image of white people. Mr. James is a nerdy, fast food loving simpleton who can’t grasp the language and speaks katakana (Japanese alphabet typically reserved for foreign words) all the time.
Yet at the same time, Japanese media is often littered with images that put Caucasians on a pedestal, having them speak perfectly articulate Japanese—such images could easily squash the “negative stereotype” of Mr. James out of people’s minds. Another particular McDonald’s advertisement features Caucasian models dressed in typical red and yellow Ronald McDonald garb, looking not like fools, but glamorized individuals. There is no doubt that Caucasians are at least viewed with a certain level of novelty, although not always in an overtly “racist” manner.
So it is no stretch of the imagination that Japanese people are in fact loving Mr. James. Dentsu isn’t one of the top ad agencies for nothing; this marketing campaign is quite meticulously crafted. Mr. James, though fictional, is marketed as a living, breathing person who comes out to your local McDonald’s store for meet n’ greets, and even keeps his own frequently updated blog. The character of Mr. James posts about his travels in Japan and all the nice people he meets who love to give him fan art projects and dress like him with glasses and red shirt in tow. Going through the blog history, his early posts are written in embarrassingly vast amounts of katakana, but his more recent posts seem to possess a more elevated command of Japanese with hiragana and kanji, albeit still in simple diction. Is Dentsu trying to illustrate a gradual improvement in Mr. James’s Japanese due to his immersion in it during his travels? That is some thorough insight right there.
I don’t see American advertising campaigns going beyond the one dimensional “sushi chefs” dancing around for grilled chicken (I’m looking at you KFC). It may sound like I’m defending McDonald’s marketing strategy, but in actuality I’m not. Although effective, this campaign is a misstep for Japanese McDonald’s, as it does illustrate that there is still a profound amount of political incorrectness in this modern era of globalization (I’m still looking at you KFC). Like when the APA community gets riled up over misrepresentations of Asian peoples in the media, the fury of FRANCA over this particular advertising campaign is not to be taken lightly and dismissed as a group of people just being overly sensitive. In incidences like this, a necessary light is shed on the universal plight of any ethnic identity being profiled as a caricature for the sake of selling something. I realize it is supposedly “all in good fun,” but people need to wake up and realize it’s not just “satirical” to poke fun at someone’s race.
The way I see it, Mr. James is a little more than the two-dimensional “gai-jin” that some are accusing him to be. I can’t deny that I do like Mr. James, as the smiley Japanese children featured on his blog seem to genuinely like him. He’s not on the same level as your run-of-the-mill mascot like Ronald McDonald. While Ronald McDonald is iconic, he’s creepy and I wouldn’t even sit on a park bench with a statue of him. Mr. James, on the other hand, makes me want to be his friend and practice Japanese with him because not only is he enthusiastic about other cultures, he looks like he’ll treat you to a Nippon All Star hamburger.
Nippon All Stars will end in November, and so likely will Mr. James and his love for McDonald’s hamburgers in Japan. His brief stint as a quirky mascot came with a little more controversy than they could have bargained for.