January 23rd, 2009


Nisemonobama is worse than Fauxbama!

Nisemono means fake, imitation or counterfeit in Japanese. Nisemonobama is a word I've made up -- on the model of "fauxbama" -- to write about the storm-in-a-teacup surrounding Japanese comedy impersonations of the new American president. Have a look at this photo:

It's a still from this Japanese TV comedy sketch in which a bunch of kuroko stagehands assist comedy actors to impersonate a game of Super Mario Brothers. Halfway through, a man dressed as Barack Obama crosses the screen. Blink and you'll miss it. But, according to some, this (together with people from the Japanese town of Obama dressing up as their namesake) is "totally inexcusably awful" and "truly terrible".

In an entry entitled Japan: Obama is the guy with the black face, so blackface, Marxy demands: "How many more of these are we going to have to see? Comedians and yuksters want to look like Obama, so they darken their faces. Does no one know that this is not okay outside of Japan? And more to the point, do people understand that putting these images on the internet means that non-Japanese will view them and say, wow, this Japanese man in blackface in imitation of Obama is a total bummer and a blight on the Japanese nation?"

Marxy continues: "Obama will be president for at least four years, if not more. Someone needs to drop the hint now — in some kind of well-orchestrated national campaign — that Japanese comedians and actors can’t do their Obama imitations in blackface (or even worse, crappy blackface) for the entire span of the Obama administration. Otherwise, this problem is only going to get worse."

We've been through this before. In 2007 I wrote an entry entitled Yes, Kate Moss is not black about the similar controversy surrounding Nick Knight's image of a blacked-up Kate Moss in The Independent's AIDS in Africa special issue. In response to Hannah Pool's Guardian article saying The Independent should have got a black woman to do the image instead (preferably, Pool said, Iman), I said that if this image of Kate Moss was unacceptable, so was Tibor Kalman's famous 1993 image of Queen Elizabeth as a black woman.

"The "why didn't they go the whole hog and employ a black person instead?" argument is like saying an impressionist shouldn't play the prime minister if the prime minister is available to do it himself, or that all drag queens should be replaced by real women," I argued.

Marxy's perspective is that Japan is letting itself down in the eyes of the world, and that this would never happen in today's America. A couple of his commenters take it further, saying that Japanese people dressing as Obama mark Japan, in the eyes of the world, as "a backward, isolated, vaguely authoritarian state", a sort of North Korea with BO.

And yet Americans do exactly the same thing. In February 2008 US sketch show Saturday Night Live cast mixed-race team member Fred Armisen to play mixed-race candidate (and self-described "mutt") Barack Obama in a skit. The Venezuelan-Japanese Armisen, with the application of a little make-up and some cantilevering around the ears, looks a lot more like Obama than black SNL team member Kenan Thompson does, so Armisen got the Fauxbama job.

Now, true, some commentators on blogs and in newspapers did object. "Call me crazy," wrote Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune, "but shouldn't 'Saturday Night Live's fictional Sen. Barack Obama be played by an African-American?... I find 'SNL's' choice inexplicable. Obama's candidacy gives us solid proof of the progress that African-Americans have made in this country. I guess 'SNL' still has further to go on that front." A reader poll in the same paper the same week, though, showed that most readers disagreed. Asked if Obama should be impersonated by an African-American, 74% ticked the "Doesn’t Matter" box.

In Marxy's view, when someone (anywhere in the world, mind) who is not black applies makeup to look black, that's blackface, and blackface is minstrelsy, and minstrelsy is racism. It's basically the same argument Debito uses when he parlays a sento owner in Hokkaido banning whites after problems with Russian sailors into apartheid and slavery.

We could call this argument "Godwin's Law of metonymy" or "the metonymy of the worst": it turns a non-German speaking with a German accent into a reference to Hitler. The argument doesn't seem to realize that it is, itself, inherently racist. If a non-German speaking in a German accent is making a reference to Hitler, there's a built-in assumption that all Germans are essentially Nazis. In the Fauxbama example, this argument performs a whole series of questionable essentializations: it essentializes the mixed-race Obama as black, essentializes black people as victims, and essentializes all masquerade as minstrelsy.

The argument is also racist insofar as it blames Japanese people for something Americans do too, not just on SNL but in art. Above you see Cindy Sherman in blackface as part of her Bus Riders series, for instance. Below, Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura blacks up as part of his series Self-Portraits as Art History. One of these artists is letting down Japan, right, Marxy?

To exclude black people from representation by others is rather like excluding them from restaurants or hotels; it performs, basically, the same series of reductions and stereotypes as the thing it claims to be against. It would also condemn us to four, or eight, years in which representations of the most powerful man in the world would either be banned, or coded, or performed by actors more black than he himself is.

In a comedy re-run of the argument that you shouldn't use Kate Moss when Iman is available for the work, Obama (who found the Armisen sketch funny) temporarily solved the representation problem by appearing on Saturday Night Live as himself a couple of months later. I'm told he may have less time for the role in future.