The last week of November this year saw controversy being generated around a video titled ‘The Future Isn’t Waiting’ released by Nike Japan. The video highlighted the issues of racism and bullying in Japan which set off a firestorm. A lot of Japanese social media users expressed their outrage on the same by calling for a boycott of the company. The two-minute video is one of the latest and most controversy attracting attempts launched by any company to expand its marketing strategy to focus on socio-political issues. One such case was also seen in an advertisement released by Tanishq earlier this year.
Why are people reacting this way? Why has the video generated so much controversy and calls for a boycott?
Technically, on the surface, the advertisement video is kind of similar to all other videos earlier released by Nike. It features stories of athletes in various sports battling odds and overcoming them to achieve their goals.
But, the trigger here is that this video has an additional message. The video depicts three young women athletes (features one biracial woman and another who is a zainichi, ethnically Korean) overcoming racism and bullying in Japanese “educational institutional setup”. It basically talks about how these women used their sports to find refuge. One woman Zainichi athlete was shown walking down the street, wearing a traditional Korean dress openly, while passers-by stare at her.
Another woman athlete has been shown browsing through a news article on tennis champion Naomi Osaka who is a biracial Japanese national.
In the video, one woman athlete browses through a news article on tennis champion Naomi Osaka who is also a biracial Japanese national. When Osaka wore a face mask earlier this year at the 2020 US Open, Japan focussed on her win, not her activism against discriminations by featuring the name of Ahmaud Arbery. He was a black man who was killed in police violence in the United States.
Nike made a statement claiming that the video script was inspired by the real stories of real women athletes in Japan. The video has received both chiding and lauding. The advertisement has been lauded by many while some claimed that the company is exaggerating the scale of racism and discrimination in the country towards foreigners and biracial people, especially women.
But what is the big deal and why are people objecting?
The advertisement has had several millions of views across all social media platforms. The video is featured with the hashtag #YouCantStopUs. The statistics from YouTube show more than 11 million views and nearly 70,000 the ‘thumbs-down’ icon hits.
the BBC quoted Morley Robertson, a Japanese-American journalist, saying “Japanese do not like to be told by outside voices to change their ways, But if a foreigner demonstrates a deep understanding of Japanese culture or rules, then those same Japanese will gush forth with praise.”
Race hits the nerves of the Japanese making it a sensitive issue that is not openly discussed.
According to researchers, the concept of homogeneity in Japan was originated in the 1880s. However, an emphasis on the importance of eugenics appeared only by the 1930s when Japan was rapidly focussing on colonial expansion. After the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War the concepts of one people, one language, one race, one culture etc. became more deeply rooted in the minds of Japanese people. These feelings emerged as a way of coping with the impact of the war as diversity increased in the country over the decades, with a growing number of interracial families.
Martin Roll, a business and brand adviser, was quoted by Nikkei Asia claiming that Japanese consumers are not much vocal and expressive openly until and unless brands cross a distinct line which Nike definitely crossed with their advertisement and thus faced strong consumer backlash. However, the company denied all the criticism and told Nikkei Asia that the advertisement is based on the testimonials of real athletes who faced deep struggles to feel accepted for who they are.
What is a zainichi?
Zainichi refers to a minority group of ethnic Koreans. These people immigrated to Japan prior to 1945 and their descendants continue to live in the country, having faced racism and discrimination in Japan for decades. This psychological disparity and discriminatory attitude is perhaps rooted in Japan’s brutal colonisation of the Korean peninsula in the 20th century.
It is not unknown that exclusionary and discriminatory practices still exist in Japan, hampering the community peace. Despite years of activism led by zainichis, many of them have been compelled to adopt Japanese names and surnames. They have used several other methods to clandestine their identity, heritage and culture.
The video shows a woman openly wearing ethnic Korean dress who is being stared at by the other people around and once she gets home she huddles up in her blanket and browses through an article titled ‘Exploring the zainichi situation in Japan’. Then she says, “Maybe I should stand out a little less and blend in a little more” and walks down a corridor wearing a sports jersey with the word ‘Kim’ written over it on top of her Japanese surname in yellow tape. ‘Kim’ is a common Korean surname.
Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. Founder and Chairman is one of the most prominent zainichi belonging from Japan. He has also raised his voice several times in the past talking about the harassment and discrimination he faced because of his heritage.