Apparently I’m in the super minority when it comes to GACKT’s character “Sasazuka Elise,” but I’m going to write this anyway.
The first time I saw the video where he starts doing the accent, I got so angry I paused playback before I even realized what I was doing. “What just happened? Did GACKT really just do that?” It was physically painful to listen to.
It was pretty disheartening for me to read the comments on YouTube and see comment after comment in Japanese saying that the character’s accent was hilarious, original, fun, etc. There was one comment in Japanese from user All Manga’s Fault which playfully said “Please don’t make fun of foreigners’ speech, we don’t all speak with English accents LOL”. I agreed (under my YT handle LightningOrchard) and further commented the reasons why I was shocked GACKT had done that. Somewhat to my surprise the person responded that there was no need to take it so seriously. But to me, there is, because within the greater scope of Japanese pop culture and life in Japan, this is not an isolated incident, and that’s why I can’t laugh at Sasazuka Elise.
Here’s the thing: as I said, it’s not just GACKT. I’m sure that if I had never lived in Japan, I would’ve laughed at best and scratched my head in confusion at worst. But it’s one more instance of harmful, pervasive stereotypes which Japan is, for the most part, allowed to get away with.
The other thing is that this was GACKT: someone who has collaborated with at least two Japanese-speaking foreign vocalists that I can think of (Jon Underdown and YOHIO); someone who has traveled the world; someone whose clever YFC “press conference” relied on the viewer being bilingual to find half of it funny; and someone who isn’t necessarily hesitant to call out things in Japan that he himself doesn’t like about the country. So why did such a person play into that old stereotype that foreigners can’t speak Japanese? Even worse, why play into the stereotype that people who are half-Japanese can’t speak the language? Of course there are foreigners and half-Japanese who can’t, or who speak with heavy accents. But my problem with it is that since those who can speak the language are hardly ever portrayed, doing this only played to stereotypes. What’s wrong with that is that these stereotypes in entertainment can harm real-life foreigners and half-Japanese living in the country because it affects how people view and treat them.
Let me get into that as I review how GACKT’s portrayal of this character went.
At the end of the first “PS I LOVE U” video and going into the second, GACKT and the guys find out that within the story, the main character and GACKT are childhood friends. When he says「笹塚エリーゼは幼なじみ」, (“Sasazuka Elise is a childhood friend”), he and the guys laugh, like there’s just something inherently funny about having a half-Japanese person for a childhood friend. At this point, I wondered if maybe the name was some sort of joke or pun that I just didn’t get. Later I wondered if GACKT and crew actually know someone named that and it’s all a great in-joke.
When GACKT goes on to say that he would’ve chosen a “better” name for the character had he known they were supposed to be childhood friends, I started to get a bad feeling. So there is something wrong or funny about having a half-Japanese person for a childhood friend? Why?
Less than two minutes later, GACKT starts doing the accent. First he reads the line normally, then he says, “No, I think this line would actually sound like ‘honto sugoi ne‘ [said with the exaggerated accent].” Possibly to his credit, TAKUMI does say “But she’s half-Japanese,” though since I can’t catch the rest of what he says, I’m not entirely sure he was questioning the accent per se. Then, GACKT pauses to introduce the “I am Saya” and “I am Sasazuka Elise” campaigns.
I once had a co-worker at one of the high schools I worked at show me a manga with foreign characters and say to me, “Look how they write what the foreigners say in katakana to show that they’re not speaking Japanese. Isn’t that great? Japanese are so creative!” In that particular manga, the characters were abroad, so it kind of made sense; it was a way of saying to readers, “The characters are actually speaking another language.” At the time, I thought that was the only usage for that, and thought it wasn’t good, but not a big deal either. But as I spent more time in Japan, I came to see that often foreigners on TV who were speaking in Japanese, and not necessarily with heavy accents, were captioned entirely in katakana. I don’t have screenshots of that, but Googling around I found this article about a McDonald’s Japan campaign where they had a character named Mr. James; everything he said was written in katakana.
But back to Elise…
Around the 4-minute mark of the second video, GACKT starts reading Elise’s spoken lines with the silly accent, while using a non-accented voice for the narration (「心の声」, the “inner voice”). I couldn’t help but think, “But she’s supposed to be half-Japanese and your childhood friend! So either she grew up in Japan and should be able to speak well, or GACKT grew up abroad too and should have an accent like Elise!” When he says 「お疲れさまでした」with the accent, I lost it and paused the video. (“Otsukaresama deshita” means something like “Thank you for your hard work” but can also be used as a substitute “hello” between co-workers starting from the afternoon/middle of the work period.)
A little personal story: when I was transferred to another school in Japan, there was one particular person who, despite being fairly kind and who, I’m sure, didn’t mean any harm, in two years never got over the fact that I spoke Japanese. One phrase in particular which always caught her attention was the above-mentioned otsukaresama deshita. When I’d say it, she’d be really surprised. She’d say things like “Wow! You can use that phrase so naturally!” I assumed she meant it as a compliment. At first I took it as such. But after two years in the same workplace, after we’d had several conversations entirely in Japanese, it became annoying. “Why is it so earth-shatteringly amazing that I can use a phrase which I hear at least 50 times a day, 5 days a week?”
Maybe it was just coincidence that it was around the “otsukaresama deshita” that I paused the PS I LOVE U video, or maybe I was subconsciously remembering all the times I’d blown someone’s mind by speaking the office equivalent of “hello.”
In any case, I try to keep an open mind in general. I’m always aware of the possibility that I’ve misunderstood something, overlooked something, or taken something more personally than it warrants (though I don’t think taking things personally is a bad thing in and of itself; more on that later). So I took a deep breath and restarted the video.
If I didn’t understand a word of Japanese, I may have laughed at GACKT’s voice for TAKUMI. But since I can understand it, I knew what GACKT said: “This picture is the dream TAKUMI. In real life, he’s actually super fat.” He holds his arm out around him to show just how big “HAGEMI” is (“Hage” = “bald,” often used as an insult.) I already wasn’t laughing. This didn’t help.
In the third video, even Elise’s inner voice takes on the exaggerated accent, as well as the “Fans.” Okay, the fans might be foreign. Honestly, if he hadn’t done that with Elise’s voice, and did it only with the fans and said they were foreigners, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I probably could’ve just eye-rolled and kept watching. Instead, I decided to stop watching the videos in this series.
But…I still had hope. So I eventually watched the fourth video. The inner voice goes back to normal, but the spoken lines seem even more exaggerated than before. Maybe that’s just my imagination.
And then, we come to this, the announcement of the contest to find Saya and Elise. If I have time I’d like to enter for Elise, though I figure I stand no chance of winning considering that my accent isn’t nearly as heavy as Elise’s and isn’t English based (my native language being Spanish, which has almost all the same sounds as Japanese); I weigh more than 50 kilos which automatically makes me a fat slob as far as Japan’s concerned; and I’m not willing to do the equivalent of playing Sambo for the amusement of anyone. I fear that there will be plenty of non-Japanese who don’t mind. If the winner of this contest ends up being a Japanese person wearing a gaijin-san costume I will seriously stop being a GACKT fan. The possibility of such an end to something that’s been a part of my life for the past 13 years is very saddening, but I know I wouldn’t be able to look at him the same way again if that happens. I’m crossing my fingers for Sasazuka Elise’s redemption.
As for taking things personally…is it really a bad thing? I think that when a lot of people take something personally, whatever it is that offended them deserves a second look. Of course, the thing is that there are so few foreigners in Japan that it usually doesn’t matter if Japanese companies stick big plastic noses and blond wigs on Japanese actors to “cosplay” white people, caption foreigners entirely in katakana, or act like half-Japanese people can’t speak Japanese. Meanwhile, in the States, the moment Katy Perry does nearly anything the offended group calls her out on it. Yeah, some people say “Don’t take it so seriously!” but the debate happens. I feel like the debate is often not allowed to happen when it comes to Japan, or it happens, and the conclusion is “If you don’t like it then leave.”
I’m going slightly on a tangent here, but I had this thought as I was working today. (I’m doing freelance translation for a certain mobile game company.) Along with the very first project I got from them, I received a file with translation warnings. Some of the warnings were about making sure to neutralize things that could be potentially offensive to Western audiences, such as referring to black characters as “dangerous looking” or lines which made fun of gay people. Today I came across a line that basically said “No one would love a fat woman.” (To paraphrase.) I mulled over the line for a bit. Initially I deleted it entirely and made a note of that in my translation notes. But then I started thinking… “Is this one of the reasons people can become blind Japanophiles? Because they consume translations which have been cleaned up for Western audiences, and if they don’t try to learn about Japan from anything other than pop culture, they remain completely ignorant of the issues Japan faces, both in relation to the rest of the world and itself?” Ultimately I have to abide by the company’s request that potentially offensive lines be changed, so while part of me wanted to translate the line faithfully, I spent some more time thinking about it and found a way to mention “big girls” without being as utterly dismissive of them as the original line had been.
Interestingly, this Sasazuka Elise thing happened right after I’d sent a former student (a GACKT fan, at that) something he’d requested: On the Front Lines, a collection of Disney’s World War II propaganda. I got a used copy and watched most of it before mailing it off to the school. I’m watching Donald Duck destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy, which consists of ships with buck teeth and glasses; imagining an incoming battleship equipped with a pagoda on the deck; and I’m starting to feel bad about sending this to a Japanese person despite the fact he’d requested it specifically because the anti-Axis stories are (apparently) not on any collection available in Japan, and despite the fact that I of course understand those cartoons were made during wartime. So I’m watching those PS I LOVE U videos and I’m like, “Why am I so worried about not offending others when others apparently don’t give a flying eff about offending me?”
I hate it when I start to sound like a Republican.
Oh well. I hope I don’t have anything to be angry about come March. (汗)
EDIT: Just now noticed this in the comments section of the McDonald’s article I linked to above, and I thought it’d be nice to add. A commenter, “Asian American,” comments that Asians aren’t portrayed well in Western media, and implies that it is therefore okay for Asian media to make fun of Westerners. In reply, Debito (I assume) writes: “So instead of fighting discrimination whenever it occurs, discrimination is justifiable when it serves your sense of revenge?”
I said that in my gaijin-san blog post I linked to as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and one fact does not cancel another fact just because it’s a fact too.
I got an idea for the contest after writing this blog post, and while it is very sarcastic so I know it won’t win, I hope I can achieve the careful balance of getting my point across (“That accent thing was really stereotypical”) without being so heavy-handed everyone dismisses me as some butt-hurt gaijin.