Why I Can’t Laugh At Sasazuka Elise

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.

"In that case, I should've picked a better name!"

“In that case, I should’ve picked a better name!”

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.

Not that GACKT himself wrote the caption, but notice how even in writing, Elise's speech is written in katakana. At least they left her name in kanji.

Not that GACKT himself wrote the caption, but notice how even in writing, Elise’s speech is written in katakana. At least they left her surname in kanji.

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.)

The meme is Condescending Wonka. I found out about it when I lived in Japan and just knew I had to caption if with “Your Japanese is so good!”

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.

"Dream TAKUMI"

「夢の中のTAKUMI」, or “Dream TAKUMI.”

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.


10 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Laugh At Sasazuka Elise

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    When I was watching those videos, my first reaction was to laugh, but I immediately thought, Gackt, you shouldn’t be doing that… And I watched more videos and noticed the accent getting more and more exaggerated (no, you weren’t imagining it), I started laughing less and getting worried about repercussions. I knew it would offend some people, and reading your post here, I can actually understand and agree with you.

    I’m not that offended by it, but it doesn’t affect me personally. I choose not to be mad at him for it, but I won’t forget it happened. I want to believe it was a spur of the moment thing and he wasn’t really thinking. I’m probably being naive, but well, that’s my choice.

    By the way, have you seen his latest (I believe) blog entry?: http://blog.gackt.com/?p=3913
    Basically, he went to a “japanese restaurant” in Barcelona, and it was terrible and he kinda felt offended. Half of me felt bad, and the other half just laughed. Can you say karma? =P

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for reading!

      Warning: Long reply is long. I kind of went stream of consciousness here and won’t be mad if you don’t read this. ^o^; EDIT: OMG Seriously I didn’t realize how long this was until I posted it! orz

      I think this is the sort of thing that is really hard to feel if you haven’t lived in Japan and seen these things on a day-to-day basis. For me this Elise thing brought up so many bad memories, and it’s easy for me to see the connections between this little joke and the boatload of problems in Japan regarding racism and stereotypes, even against people who are half-Japanese. Granted, I lived on Kyushu, which people say is more “old-fashioned” and “behind” than the main island, but I still see enough of this sort of thing in movies, national TV programs, games, etc. to think that this mentality is not isolated to Kyushu.

      One time I was watching the news, and the reporter had gone to an elementary school to report on something, and as soon as he steps into one particular classroom, he goes 「ああ!ハーフだ、ハーフ!!」(“Whoa! It’s a half, a half!” [They call half-Japanese people “half”]) and points to this one girl. I’m like, “Are you serious?! You’re a grown man and you’re pointing this girl out on TV as if she were a space alien?!” I also saw how 100% Japanese students who had lived abroad were discriminated against by the school system. Teachers just assume that the educational system in the U.S. is so inferior to the Japanese system that even if you get the students caught-up language-wise, they’d still be hopelessly behind in all other subjects. One of the most intelligent young people I had the pleasure of teaching had lived in the U.S. for four years as a child. By his own admission he wasn’t so good with kanji, but I was shocked to learn later that he’d only had one teacher, and not until high school, who “didn’t give up on” him. (Those are his actual words, from a conversation we had in English.)

      One of the things I put in my YT comments about Elise’s accent was “I’m sure GACKT didn’t do this maliciously.” While I do believe that, I also firmly believe that what you do without thinking—that is to say, without censoring yourself—reveals your true feelings, or your default ideas about the way things are. The Japanese portrayal of non-Japanese tends to be filled with stereotypes, and since many Japanese can’t see that or refuse to see that (the Momoiro Clover Z blackface fiasco comes to mind), I think it’s quite possible that GACKT really does have this patronizing attitude towards non-Japanese and half-Japanese and may not even be fully conscious of it. I’d written on this blog before about the similarity between the videos for GACKT’s “Secret Garden” and The Goo Goo Doll’s “Name,” but at the time I hadn’t been in Japan for very long so I didn’t stop to think too deeply about the fact that the people in the “Secret Garden” video are portrayed negatively while those in the “Name” video are portrayed sympathetically. I look at “Secret Garden” now and I see a video that was clearly made to fit into the misconceptions of its intended market. The man casually vandalizing the bus, the man who robs the sleeping woman…these things all fit into the idea that the world “abroad” is dangerous. Maybe a bit exotic and exciting, but dangerous nonetheless. You’re sure to get robbed if you go there (and probably by a black man)! I’m not joking nor exaggerating when I say that every single time I had students write skits that took place in the U.S., they ALL put a scene into their skit where they get robbed at gunpoint. In the worst instance of this, the students get robbed at the airport by their American host family. Ay ay ay…

      I have been keeping up with GACKT’s blog, half in hopes that he would mention something about this. I think he may have been shown the comment thread between All Manga’s Fault and myself, as Nestle posted a reply from GACKT to her on the next video, and our little exchange had been the most up-voted comments in the previous video. The first blog post he did after the Elise videos he did say something about “Don’t worry about what people are gonna say, just take action,” and I wondered if that was in reference to the Elise thing.

      As far as the Barcelona entry, I was not surprised but a bit disappointed that he didn’t connect the dots: how can you demand respect for your culture when you don’t respect other people’s cultures? How can you demand respect for your culture when you poke fun at people who are half-Japanese even? He wasn’t so bad about it himself, but the comments were filled with people saying either “Don’t disrespect Japanese cuisine!!” or “I went to a restaurant in X country and also got served ‘Japanese’ food.” Only a few people commented things like “Maybe the foreign food in Japan is similarly ‘off’?” I myself commented and wondered if the moderators were gonna let it through, and was a bit surprised that they did. I mean, I kept it polite, basically saying “This happens everywhere whether it be Japanese food in Spain, American food in Japan, or Mexican food in the U.S. You need to study and have understanding and consideration for other cultures if you’re going to use their language, food, etc. Otherwise it just looks like you’re making fun of those cultures by using stereotypes.” GACKT of course is right to feel offended by that restaurant, but I think it’s unfair of him to go on like “Beware of Barcelona! Beware of Spain!” when a) he went to ONE restaurant and b) he demands respect for his culture while not even mentioning the need for Japanese to do the same with other cultures.

      I myself have a funny Japanese-restaurant-in-Spain story: I went to Valencia in 2012 and was taken to a Japanese restaurant. The food wasn’t 100% authentic but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what GACKT got. The thing that made me laugh was that the patrons were spreading wasabi on their sushi in much the same way that they’d put butter on a dinner roll. I kind of smiled at it and when my host said “What, is this strange?” I explained it to her. Everyone had a good laugh and learned something from the exchange.

      Later that same year I had a similar experience in Japan: I had volunteered to work over the summer at an English camp taking place in Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki, a theme park modeled on a Dutch town. We were there with 100 junior high school students. The night we had dinner in the fancy dining hall (course meal, fancy silverware, the works) the students kept looking around at each other to try to figure out how to butter their roll. When I noticed it, I buttered my roll very deliberately so that at least the students around me could see how to do it. They followed my lead, but what about the other 90 kids not sitting at my table? I suggested to the program organizers that there should be a little workshop the next year about Western dining etiquette. It’s something I myself didn’t know about having grown up very poor and therefore using the same fork and spoon for everything.

      To try and summarize all of that: I don’t expect everyone to know everything, especially not about things with which they have little experience (as is the case with Japanese people and their interactions with foreigners, or Spaniards interactions with wasabi, or my poor self’s interaction with differently shaped forks and spoons). But when someone commits a faux pas, and people call them out on it, they should try to learn from the mistake rather than get defensive and insist on their innocence. I think that the reaction in Japan when it comes to these things tends to be “I didn’t know it was rude therefore it’s okay for me to keep on doing it.” And that doesn’t lead to learning and growth, it leads to ignorance and stagnation.

      • It wasn’t that long, I always enjoy reading what you have to say =)

        It’s interesting to me to learn about all this from someone who knows how things really are, cause you live there. You know, I’ve always had this notion (and I don’t even know where it came from), that the japanese are not as nice as they seem. And even with Gackt, even though I love the guy, there have always been things that bother me. But I guess that’s part of being from such a different culture.

        • Glad I didn’t bore you!

          Well, this is just part of the way things are. Since I was genuinely interested in education and I went to Japan with the mindset “I’m here to work,” it was natural that I noticed and paid attention to many problems that people who go there on a “gap year” or to “find themselves” don’t notice (especially if they don’t know Japanese). But the flip side of that is that I may have overlooked things that people with less serious mindsets may have discovered.

          As far as Japanese not being as nice as they seem…I think that overall they’re about the same as any other group of human beings from developed countries, the main difference being that they’ve successfully stereotyped themselves and allowed themselves to be stereotyped in generally positive ways (e.g. as being smart, hardworking, polite, or…martial arts masters). “Positive” stereotypes are harmful, too, of course, but I think this is part of the reason Japan is generally given a free pass to be racist and stereotypical. People are fast to apologize on Japan’s behalf, even if they don’t know much about the country and its history, because they can’t believe that such smart, hardworking, polite samurai could ever do something wrong. I myself was guilty of this. I had a friend who insisted Japanese were racist because she’d never seen a good depiction of black people in anime. Her main example was Mr. Popo from Dragonball, who looks just like Sambo. I used to argue with her that the Japanese don’t know about Sambo, and that Mr. Popo was an alien so he’s not supposed to be black, and so on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but since all I knew about Japan then was that they made video games and cartoons and nice cars and those mean old Americans had dropped two A-bombs on them which seemed like an overreaction in comparison to the lives lost at Pearl Harbor…well, then everything Japan does must be Good! On a subconscious level, that’s what I was thinking.

          All that said, it doesn’t help that Japan has a really conservative government in power right now, and conservatives anywhere tend to tout the belief that their own people are “special”. Whether it’s “American exceptionalism” or “Nihonjinron,” it’s all a bunch of BS that unfortunately sways the minds of people who aren’t thinking too hard. Not everyone thinks this way, of course, but these beliefs can sneak up on people, and they don’t question them. It’s a dangerous path to tread.

      • “One of the things I put in my YT comments about Elise’s accent was “I’m sure GACKT didn’t do this maliciously.” While I do believe that, I also firmly believe that what you do without thinking—that is to say, without censoring yourself—reveals your true feelings, or your default ideas about the way things are.”

        I’m not going to defend what Gackt did. But I just want to point out that actions “that you do without thinking” aren’t the result of peoples “true” beliefs. People can have unconscious prejudices but it’s not voluntary or “natural” for someone to have them. Unconscious biases develop unconsciously as early as childhood and are the result of the surrounding culture. So its not accurate to describe them as someones “true” beliefs.

        • Hello megaemolga, thanks for reading and commenting!

          Mmm, well, I did say “true feelings, or your default ideas about the way things are.” I think “default ideas” covers subconscious beliefs. I suppose the most accurate way to phrase that sentence would have been “I also firmly believe that what you do without thinking—that is to say, without censoring yourself—reveals which schemata are at work in your mind.” But I wanted to stay away from psychology jargon. ^o^;

          That said, I do believe that once a certain belief has become entrenched in your mind, regardless of its moral value or how it got there (whether through everyday socialization or Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing) it is your true belief as long as you hold it. If I raise a child to hate the color orange and he really does abhor it, his truth will be that the color orange is abominable. It doesn’t matter that it’s a ludicrous idea. Until someone manages to rid him of it, it will be his truth, and he will stay away from oranges, packages of Reese’s, and anything else that bears the offending color. Likewise, I’d like to believe that if I asked GACKT “Do you think half-Japanese are incapable of speaking Japanese correctly even if they grew up in Japan?” he would answer “Of course not!” But the simple fact is that there still exists in Japan the idea that only people who are 100% “pure” Japanese by blood can ever master the Japanese language, and all sorts of other wonderful (read: idiotic and racist) ideas that come to us thanks to nihonjinron. I don’t think GACKT is free of the prejudices that are so difficult to get away from in a country that is constantly telling its people how wonderful, superior, and special they are. So even though his conscious mind might tell him one thing, subconsciously he probably really does hold these beliefs. To me, that makes them a part of what his true beliefs or default ideas are.

          • I still don’t agree. The subconscious is the visceral animal part of the brain and the conscious mind is the self-aware logical rational part of the brain. Subconscious “beliefs” are just knee-jerk emotional reactions that people arrive to without any conscious reasoning or logic. Because of this people can experience a disconnect in their conscious and subconscious beliefs. For example people can watch a scary movie and feel terrified while still knowing that the events in the movie aren’t real. This is because consciously and rationally someone can understand that the events in the movie are fiction, while subconsciously their mind is just seeing scary monsters attacking them.

          • I don’t know if I’m misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you’re saying that anything that happens on a subconscious level is invalid simply because it’s subconscious. Is that indeed what you’re saying? If it is, we might as well stop while we’re ahead because we’ll never agree. ^o^b

          • I’m not saying that the subconscious is inherently invalid. I’m saying the subconscious is neither inherently valid or invalid. The subconscious and conscious mind both have their own functions and are important parts of the self. The subconscious mind is were emotions, intuitions, and impulses come from. The conscious mind is the part of the mind that can experience those emotions, intuitions, and impulses evaluate them and make decisions based on them. Sometimes the subconscious mind and conscious mind both agree. Sometimes they don’t. An example of the later is when people experience guilt over a emotion they have.

          • Ah, I see. I agree that “The subconscious and conscious mind both have their own functions and are important parts of the self.” That’s why to me, both are inherently valid. That is to say, I think we have to recognize both sides’ influence on our lives. People have the ability to examine their subconscious beliefs by exercising the faculty of their conscious mind—but many choose not to, or are completely unaware that they should be engaging in such an exercise to begin with. That’s why to me, GACKT coming up with that accent in the spur or the moment DOES reveal a truth about his beliefs. I’m willing to be that it’s not the whole truth (if it were, he never would have collaborated with non-Japanese singers singing songs in Japanese), but it’s part of his truth.

            We probably won’t agree on this, but it’s been an interesting discussion! ^_^b

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