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Explained: Why a Nike advertisement in Japan has generated backlash

The two-minute video, titled ‘The Future Isn’t Waiting’, is Nike's latest attempt to expand its marketing strategy to focus on socio-political issues.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 16, 2020 10:30:04 am
Nike, Nike Japan, Nike ads, Nike japan ad controversy, racism in japan, zainichi discrimination, express explained, indian expressAcross social media platforms, the advertisement has racked up millions of views, featuring the hashtag #YouCantStopUs. (Photo: YouTube/Screengrab)

In the last week of November, Nike Japan released a video highlighting the issues of racism and bullying in the country. This set off a firestorm, with many Japanese social media users calling for a boycott of the company. The two-minute video, titled ‘The Future Isn’t Waiting’, is the latest attempt by the company to expand its marketing strategy to focus on socio-political issues.

Why has the video generated controversy?

On the surface, the advertisement is similar to others by Nike that feature stories of athletes overcoming odds to achieve success in various sports. But this video has an additional message — three young women athletes are shown battling racism and bullying in educational institutions in Japan and how their sports helped them find refuge.

Nike had said that the advertisement was inspired by the stories of real women athletes in Japan, and the video features one biracial woman and another who is a zainichi, ethnically Korean. While the advertisement has been lauded by many, there have been others who have claimed that Nike is exaggerating the scale of racism and discrimination towards foreigners and biracial individuals in Japan.

Who is a zainichi?

Zainichi are a minority group of ethnic Koreans who immigrated to Japan prior to 1945 and whose descendants continue to live in the country. The zainichi have faced racism in Japan for decades, attitudes that are rooted in Japan’s brutal colonisation of the Korean peninsula in the 20th century.

Exclusionary and discriminatory practices continue to exist against the community despite years of activism led by zainichis in Japan and overseas. Over the years, zainichis have been compelled to adopt Japanese names and surnames and have used other ways to hide their heritage and culture. In this video, one woman athlete is shown openly wearing a traditional Korean dress, walking down the street, while passersby stare at her.

Late at night, huddled beneath blankets, the woman browses through an article titled ‘Exploring the zainichi situation in Japan’. “Maybe I should stand out a little less and blend in a little more,” she asks in the video. Later, she walks down a corridor wearing a sports jersey featuring the word ‘Kim’, a common Korean surname, pasted on top of her Japanese surname in yellow tape.

SoftBank Group Corp. Founder and Chairman Masayoshi Son, one of the most prominent zainichi, has earlier spoken of the harassment and discrimination he faced because of his heritage.

Why are people objecting?

Across social media platforms, the advertisement has racked up millions of views, featuring the hashtag #YouCantStopUs. On YouTube, it has more than 11 million views, with almost 70,000 users hitting the ‘thumbs-down’ icon.

“Many Japanese do not like to be told by outside voices to change their ways,” the BBC quoted Morley Robertson, a Japanese-American journalist, as saying. “But if a foreigner demonstrates a deep understanding of Japanese culture or Japanese rules, then those same Japanese who would otherwise take offence will gush forth with praise.”

Naomi Osaka wearing a mask in Ahmaud Arbery’s honour during the third round of US Open. (Photo: AP)

Race is a sensitive issue in Japan and one that is not openly discussed. 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, featuring the name of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was killed in police violence in the US, Japan focussed on her win, not her activism. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Researchers trace the origins of the concept of homogeneity in Japan to the 1880s, but an emphasis on the importance of eugenics appeared only by the 1930s, during Japan’s era of colonial expansion. Post the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, concepts of one people, one race, one culture, one language etc. became more deeply entrenched in Japan, as a way of coping with and emerging from the impact of the war. While diversity has increased in the country over the decades, with a growing number of interracial families, critics say that discrimination and racism continue to exist in Japan.

Nikkei Asia quoted Martin Roll, a business and brand adviser, as saying: “Typically, Japanese consumers are less vocal and will not express it openly unless brands cross a distinct red line. Nike definitely crossed the red line with their advertisement and faced strong consumer anger and backlash.”

But the company has brushed off the criticism, and told Nikkei Asia: “The video is based on the testimonials of real athletes who, like many young people today, struggle to feel accepted for who they are. Discrimination is a global issue, and it exists around the world.”

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