By Alec Jordan

The plot is more than familiar: an overseas celebrity comes through Japan, works on an ad campaign they’d never think to do—or be asked to do—in their home country, rakes in a sizable paycheck, and heads home, personal brand unscathed. In fact, even if one were to catch a clip of Richard Gere slinging Orangina or Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up in a BOSS coffee ad on YouTube, enough of us have seen “Lost in Translation” to know that this is the sort of thing that famous foreigners often do in Japanese ads, and we don’t think any worse of them for it. It might even be liberating for an actor: a step or two removed from their cultural context, they can take on a different persona, or make a playful jab or two at their own carefully cultivated self-image.

This is the way it works when we’re talking about a performer—what about when it’s not an actor, but one of the most respected civil rights leaders in recent history? Would you imagine, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would be the best choice of endorsement for a job-search company? This was the opinion of the DODA employment agency, as part of a campaign they’ve been running since last year (most recently, a set of ads have been up on trains around Tokyo recently as well).

[The YouTube ad has been pulled.]

To say that the speech is inspirational—in almost any context—is a truism. But this doesn’t mean that it can’t be repurposed, and this isn’t the first time that Dr. King’s words and images have been remixed (take electronica group The Orb’s use of the “Dream” speech in a live performance) or reemployed (take a certain purveyor of lifestyle electronics). And, as a recent New York Times article points out, disputes among Dr. King’s children about how his estate and its intellectual property rights should be administered are a persisting blemish on his legacy.

As the small print indicates, the use of Dr. King’s words are used with the permission of the family. It isn’t certain that they had a look at the final products

Regardless, when his words are used skillfully, they resonate, and when they aren’t—as is the case here—the result is jarring and clumsy. The ad may not have meant to offend, but its cluelessness rankles.

The same can be said of author (and one-time consultant to the Abe administration) Ayako Sono, as she brought up an equally charged topic—the practice of apartheid—in her column in last week’s Sankei Shimbun. In her piece, she puts forth the proposition that Japanese immigration policies should be eased to allow more foreign workers to come to work in Japan, particularly in the nursing care sector. However, she makes it clear that these workers shouldn’t be allowed to live in the same places as native Japanese, because “it is next to impossible to attain an understanding of foreigners by living alongside them.” Where did Sono learn this unfortunate lesson? From foreigners in South Africa, as she observed them, from afar, living in what she believed to be the ideal way that blacks, whites, and Asians could coexist peacefully—separately. Had she actually lived in South Africa with open eyes and a truly catholic perspective, she might have seen differently.

It is necessary, though, to take these remarks with some sense of perspective. Sono’s article comes in the wake of the murders of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS and while Japan debates its own role as a more assertive foreign power. If one were to look back, it would be not hard to find instances of much worse things said and done in the US following 9/11. And finally, we may have to consider the possibility that an 83-year-old—or her editors—is not above a bit of trolling.

But what if what seems to be common sense isn’t, necessarily, commonly understood? How does one begin a discussion of how to wisely use a famous figure’s likeness in a respectful manner, and why an unjust and outdated system of racial division never needs to be revisited?

These discussions begin with proximity. For example, most foreign visitors to Japan might not understand that sticking one’s chopsticks straight down into a bowl of rice is not the polite thing to do while eating, and even fewer would know the reason why. It’s exposure—working, eating, and yes, living together—that creates an opportunity for understanding to arise, and what seemed foreign at first becomes less so.

History and current events alike show us that integration is never an easy process, and no nation can say that it has integrated perfectly. Furthermore, Japan is never likely to transform itself into a highly diverse society. But as the country looks to play more of a prominent role on the world stage, it should expect that world to be paying attention to what it says in its political discourse, and even in things as simple as ads on the train.

Main Image: Wikimedia Commons