No Monkey Business for eMobile

October 24, 2008 at 10:11 am

Have you seen that video about a monkey waiting tables in a Japanese restaurant? It’s the cutest thing, so I’ve been passing it along to everyone on my IM list.

Japanese people must have a fascination for our primate cousins because you’ll find them on billboards, in TV commercials, and even hanging out at high-end bathhouses.

Just a few months ago there was a commercial using a monkey to promote a cell phone company called eMobile. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he stood at a podium holding the cell phone as the crowd fervently waved signboards emblazoned with the word “Change.” It obviously alluded to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign slogan, but the question is, was there an intent to belittle the African American candidate?

A handful of African Americans residing in Japan went to the press in protest of what they believed to be racist, and eventually eMobile respectfully pulled the commercial though denying any racist intent.The ad was no more than a nod at the senator’s popularity, its company president said.

Growing up both in the U.S. and Japan, I see both sides of the issue. Though in this case, I’d probably come to the cell phone company’s defense. Historically speaking, monkeys, as well as other animals, have a spiritual presence in Japanese culture. In Japan’s native Shinto religion, gods and goddesses take the form of animals, and monkeys are the protectors of homes, fending off evil spirits and intruders. Admittedly, in modern day Japan, monkeys are thought of as cute and cuddly rather than as noble guardians. But still, ask your average Japanese citizen and I bet they’ll have little understanding of why monkeys and African Americans should never be in the same commercial.

Sometimes I get irked by Japanese friends living here in the U.S. who don’t wince at the use of the word “oriental.” I try my best to explain why it’s such a horrible word only to get a blank stare and a shrug. As much as I want them to be angry, I know they can’t. They weren’t raised here.

I know that eMobile meant no harm in putting a monkey behind the podium. Their company mascot happens to be a monkey so it was simply a ‘natural selection’ to put him in the commercial. Little did they know the flak they would get.

Something like this just goes to show that we’re no longer just citizens of our own country; we’re citizens of the world. And as Japan grows as a popular destination for scholars, businessmen and geeks alike, it’s things like these that companies like eMobile should be aware of from now on.

Himawari

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