Obama sells iPhone in Japan

Danny Choo is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. Danny resides in Tokyo, and blogs about life in Japan and Japanese subculture - he also works part time for the empire.

To folks in the US - how is your new president doing? Well in Japan, hes doing quite well as you can see from this photo taken yesterday. Softbank is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in Japan and it looks like Obama-san has a part time job helping them sell mobile phones. The tag line in the poster is:- "Yes We Kau!" - "Kau" meaning "to buy" in Japanese.

Obama-san also performs magic on Japanese TV as you can see from the video below.

And for you fact fans out there - there is even a town in Japan called Obama were residents celebrated the new presidents victory.

Video from Japan Probe, photo stolen from dannychoo.com


  1. “Obama-san also performs magic on Japanese TV as you can see from the video below.”

    Blackface is wrong no matter who is doing it.

  2. The photo is hilarious. Exactly what you would expect. Goes up there in the hall with the crucified Santa in the department store and the energy drink advertisement with salarymen dragging a cross a la The Passion of the Christ. Thanks for posting.

  3. @ZAN

    I’m not sure what you mean. I thought my comment was fairly clear: “Blackface is wrong no matter who is doing it” I didn’t say, “Blackface is wrong no matter who is doing it except SNL,”, so why would you even respond with that question?

    @Antinous / Moderator
    Thank you, I hadn’t seen that, but I’m still not sure it is appropriate to post that video.

  4. I’m still not sure it is appropriate to post that video.

    then aren’t you glad you didn’t? Enjoy the ice cream.

  5. “Perhaps we should put a black strip over the Yankee President’s eyes, so that we will not be liable for using his image to sell merchandise, Papa-san.”
    “Make it so, Numbuh Wun Son.”

    In graduate school I studied Asian culture for a time under one of the premier scholars of Japanese culture. That man was the late Berkeley emeritus professor of East Asian languages and cultures, Donald Shively. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan in 1982, and was a brilliant and passionate soul.

    Shively never failed to highlight and ridicule the American stereotyping of the Japanese people whenever he came across it. It would be crass to discuss racial stereotypes in Japan without also discussing how horribly their people were denigrated by American pop culture before, during and following WWII. It’s nothing new, as all polite people are aware.

    My intention here is not to say that in these particular cases the responsible parties are blameless for insensitive characterization of our newly elected, and beloved by many, President Obama. However, I thought it important to note that blackface was not invented by the Japanese. Blackface was invented here, birthplace of such clever icons as Charlie Chan and the Chinese laundry commercial (ancient Chinese secret). Any outrage should be tempered with that inmind.

  6. @Presto

    Why? Who was saying Japan invented it? It was wrong when we did it in the past. It’s wrong when it’s done now, by anyone. I’m not sure what drives comments like yours and the previous one about SNL: it’s as if you think a comment criticizing this particular instance of this behavior automatically condones or ignores the behavior done by others in other instances.

  7. I’m not really offended by the TV show with the one guy in black makeup playing Obama and the other guy in drag playing Michelle. The intent doesn’t seem malicious to me. I’m not sure the same could be said of American blackface performers like Amos and Andy. The intent there, subconscious or not, was to perpetuate Jim Crow. Intent matters.

  8. @Presto:

    I agree with sangermaine. Also, I’m curious how a foreign-born Asian American like myself all into this, should I temper my outrage because I’m practically “All American” or do I get to keep my outrage because I’m still “foreign” looking?

    And how about African Americans?

    Can I get a matrix or a chart of how American I have to be before I temper my outrage?

  9. It’s really simple MisterDarcy, if you’re not 100% white you are not from Real Americaâ„¢.


    America is divided by race while many European countries are divided by class. I don’t know about Asia or Japan. I seems to me, perhaps, that they get their cultural signals mixed up. Maybe that accounts for what I as an America perceive as Japanese quirkyness. If then, I as a Japanese send the wrong signal and it’s interpreted as racist, but I didn’t mean that, I just didn’t know what I was saying. I’m not convinced that really counts.

    If that makes any sense. Let me try again. Culture is a language. If as a non-native speaker (TV is speech) I accidentally say something taboo but didn’t really mean it. I would not put that any where near the same as Don Imus calling young AA women nappy headed ho’s. Imus should’ve known better, the Japanese performers here, not so much.

  10. I don’t think the blackface used in that gameshow is that offensive as it is used clearly for impersonating a particular person (Obama) rather than a racial stereotype. It’s just an impersonation of a celebrity.

  11. Obama himself met his Japanese impersonator (Noji) and shook his hand. If the dear leader knows the difference between a minstrel show and Japanese variety shows and can take it with a chuckle then so can I.

  12. Presto
    “Blackface was invented here, birthplace of such clever icons as Charlie Chan and the Chinese laundry commercial”

    Elizabethan theatre, Blackface, look it up

    On the nature of Pan-cultural Political correctness, and cross national sensitivity:

    My girlfriend spent some time studying abroad in Venice. While there she took in a production of The Magic Flute, and wrote a report on it. In that report she complained about 2 things, The overt misogyny inherent in the plot, and a costuming choice meant to invoke the Masonic symbolism inherent in both the plot and Mozart’s life. Basically the costumes looked like Klansmens outfits. She went on for 2 pages or so about the outfits and how they were culturally insensitive, and how the the opera company should be ashamed of themselves. Many years later I read this report, and as soon as I finished it I turned to her and asked why she assumed that a venetian costume designer would care, let alone know in the first place, that white robes with pointy hats where a offensive cultural phenom in the states. She couldn’t give me a reasonable answer.
    Part of being culturally sensitive is knowing and excepting that, just as you don’t know every single racial or cultural landmine for every race and culture on earth, others might not know yours. We can sit here and lambaste the Japanese for their lack of understanding or sensitivity concerning black face in our culture. But guess what, they have their own culture where black face don’t mean shit. If we really want to strive for a world of respect and tolerance, sometimes that means shrugging ones shoulders and just sayin’ “Ah fuck it, they aren’t really doin’ any harm.”

    “Blackface is wrong no matter who is doing it.”

    Ah yes, the old stand by of ill thought out hyperbolic indignant outrage.
    Black face, just as any other make up or costume choice is simply a way of communicating an idea. In japan, apparently that idea is “hey I’m that black guy”. Here in the U.S. the idea’s surrounding blackface are a lot more varied and complicated.
    The bottom line is that people should be able to communicate their ideas freely. How else are they supposed to figure out if those ideas are right or wrong, good or bad, lame or awesome? I’m not saying we should all break out some shoe polish tomorrow and minstrel it up, just that no idea, form of communication, or costume choice is ::always:: anything. Hyperbole has no place in intelligent discourse.

  13. My congratulations to those from Noen to Naharnahekim for keeping their head and using some common sense. The american guilt regarding it enslavement past runs deep. To cope with it some rituals were invented. Automatic condemnation of anyone wearing black make up is one of them. One only has to raise one’s voice loud enough and declare: “This is wrong, no matter what!” to be absolved. No need for any thought, any consideration, any nuance, it’s all bonuses: heck, for some people, when using that magic trick one doesn’t have to examine one’s own racism, only project it onto others!

    The fact of the matter is that, in a country where there are probably very few black actors, there is no way to impersonate the mulatto president of the US but by wearing make up.

    So, for one thing, no American should think that they have any right to export their guilt and to project their prejudices on the rest of the planet. Nevertheless the video makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Am I the only one who thinks that this is awfully close to the “parody” song, “Barack The Magic N…”. The Japanese should at least know that much IMO and I give them no passing grade this time.

    1. The fact of the matter is that, in a country where there are probably very few black actors, there is no way to impersonate the mulatto president of the US but by wearing make up.

      Aw, come on. They totally could have used Bob Sapp. That would have been way better.

  14. Arguably, this isn’t the first time Obama has featured in a Japanese phone ad:

    e-mobile said they didn’t mean to depict Obama, I guess they were just going for the generic chimp-representing-change image.

  15. Obama did indeed meet his impersonator Noji but at the time Noji was not wearing blackface.
    Becasue he was in America the comedian actually went through an intensive sun bed course prior to flying (seriously). He tracked Obama down at a rally and Obama smiled at the whole thing.
    When it aired in Japan, on NTV I think, they discussed the problems and associations with blackface in America and why he got the fake tan rather than blackface..
    Blackface just doesn’t have the same connotations here (in Japan) as it does in the U.S.

  16. @ Bran Flakes:

    Wow… I sure hope that the monkey is the most revered animal in Japan now, for their sake.

    Beaudelaire once said: “C’est par le malentendu universel que tout le monde s’accorde.” which I’d translate by: “It is only thanks to our incapacity to understand one another that we can all come to an agreement.” Under the stark light of realism this might be our only hope.

  17. bran flakes/iaminnocent:

    Check out Chimpan News Channel.

    They love monkeys. I interpret the ad’s central character as an ambitious monkey, not as depicting any particular human. After all, there’s not too many animals who could hold that phone plausibly..

  18. I think I just saw Obama hawking king crabs in Susukino tonight at the Sapporo Snow Festival.

    Really, I’m seeing the guy everywhere here. He’s like some kind of meme virus. “Yes We Can!” used by a black guy on TV to advertise Pachinko at Vegas Vegas, giving thumbs up over and over.

    I’ve seen a lot of variants on it too- the “Yes we 買う” one is actually clever. It’s always “Yes we ____”. They’re running mad with it. And they have a looped CD playing all of his speeches, in English, inside Kinokunya book store near Sapporo station, in the now ubiquitous “Obama corner”, as I like to call it, in every bookstore in town, full of speech books translated into Japanese, and his picture plastered on everything.

    I won’t be at all surprised if this whole “Yes we can” meme continues in Japan for a decade, even subtly, like the whole “Boys be ambitious” quote famous in Sapporo too.

  19. +2 for the really (and I mean REALLY) bad pun.
    -2 for the use of Comic Sans on a public display.

    They’ve about broken even.

  20. A little OT, but there’s a car dealership in my area that has been using Obama’s likeness to hawk their wares since before the election:

    It’s just surreal to me.

  21. America is divided by race while many European countries are divided by class.

    Noen, while I agree in general with your comment, America is divided by class, every but as much as any other country. That we see ourselves as divided by race instead of class is just good marketing.

    The difference is it is easier for the leading upper economic class to hide class warfare by preserving the old division of race. The false distinction of race is exploited by the rich to convince poor whites they are all in this together.

    Racism is a tool, a wedge, used to win support from those who would never, otherwise support the agenda of the wealthy. Homophobia and religious bigotry are used in the same manner. The Trinity of Fear is trotted out at every election.

    BTW, racism/bigotry is alive and well in Europe, just ask the minorities of race and/or culture.

  22. There’s nothing racist about making yourself up to look black as long as you’re doing it just for impersonation reasons and not specifically to mock a person’s skin color. If we’re ever going to move beyond the race thing, we have to collectively stop going “zomgz RACIST” at some things without considering the circumstances.

  23. IAMINNOCENT @21: You make a couple of really good points. That which shields us from seeing our own prejudices can’t be good.

    I am reminded of The Wooster Group’s production of The Emperor Jones

    That show made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t condemn it. Discomfort can be a useful tool, in the end.

  24. FoetusNail, Noen. A bit offtopic but I think I’ll weigh in on that, seeing as I’ve lived roughly half my life on each side of the pond.

    The USA likes to think it’s ‘classless’ in contrast to Europe. In most cases, it’s not. That was perhaps true a century ago when Nobility still meant something in most European countries. Which is not the case today. I think it persists because US perceptions of Europe are strongly colored by the UK, which is pretty much the last bastion of ‘traditional’ class society.

    Many European countries view themselves as classless now for the same reason the USA originally did. Class is determined by wealth alone. Most continental EU countries now have a more equal distribution of wealth than the USA and could well claim to be more classless.

    Second, the idea of racial versus class divisions doesn’t work with the US, because blacks, as slaves and then as workers formed a class of their own. Racism became the means of class struggle for the class just above blacks – poor whites. So they’re completely inseparable.

    This is also why racism in the US can’t really be compared to racism in Europe. With the exception of a few specific minorities in specific countries (Jews, Gypsies) there simply weren’t any class divisions on ethnic lines. European racism is more diffuse (‘immigrants’) and structural in nature. And in that way, a lot more difficult to fight, since there’s no ‘obvious’ problem to fix, like abolishing Jim Crow.

    The problem is differently defined as well. The USA doesn’t consider ghettoization to be a problem to anywhere near the same extent. Chinatown, Little Italy, etc. Every large group of immigrants to the USA initially formed their own ethnic enclaves. The ‘solution’ to the ghetto problem is to move out of the ghetto, is a prevailing attitude. True to the individualist spirit of the US.

    Europeans don’t tolerate ghettos. It’s a new thing to them (except for Jews and Gypsies where applicable). Which is why you hear so much about the problems plaguing immigrant-rich suburbs to major EU cities.

    So in short. Racism and class can’t really be compared between the EU and USA because not only are the problems very different, the attitudes on what constitutes a problem is also different.

  25. Has anyone seen Spike Lee’s great examination of blackface, Bamboozled? This montage is why so many, often rightfully and quite understandably, view any blackface act as derogatory and bigoted.

  26. My impression of Japan is of their own doing. Japan is not homogeneous, and it is filled with prejudices, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia like much of our world. Some of it aimed at Koreans and Asians, and even Africans.

    My image of ethnic based bigotry or racism in Europe, is based on divides that masquerade as Nationalism, such as the Serbs and Croats. Protestant and Catholic religious bigotry as seen in Ireland, where Catholics were treated little differently than African-Americans are treated in this country, or the bigotry between the Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Eastern Europe.

    Racism is profound if you’re an Indian or Pakistani citizen in many areas of the UK and Europe. While some areas of Europe are not racist towards people of Central or Southern Africa they can be racist towards people from North Africa or the M.E., Eastern Europe or Asia. While the divide is not strictly along Caucasian vs. African ethnicity, that in no way means all of Europe without ethnic bigotry.

    This divide in the U.S. is also not just between Caucasians and Africans. People come here from all over the world and bring with them their prejudices, this includes Europeans. I’ve known many Europeans in business and they were often little different than Caucasian Americans when it came to their prejudices. I’ve also known people of African descent who were born and raised in other countries and they were just as fearful of Caucasians as many African-Americans. My impression was they too brought their experiences with them.

  27. oO, every six months or so, it seems there has to be the great “blackface debate”.

    Do we not learn from the past!?

  28. OK, look…
    as a long-time fan of Japanese pop culture and advocate of shared popular culture amongst all peoples of all nations and ethnicities, I am well aware of the cultural considerations that may or may not have gone into any President Obama impersonations. The same applies to any ‘blackface’ depiction in cultures of any other nation or society outside of the north American culture that I was raised in. It doesn’t have the same meaning to them. They may not be doing it with negative intent. They didn’t grow up with the negative connotation in their lives, or in their communities. Not everything is racist. I get that.

    That being the case, as a Black American in the 21st. century, it still bugs. Even just a little.

    I find the attitude that ‘any anger felt is some white/liberal guilt over slavery’ or ‘you people just want to be the victims’ to be more offensive than some Japanese comedian in black face acting as Obama. Just as they have the right to perform in their nation, none of you have the right to tell me or anyone offended, even a little, little bit, to ‘get over it’.

  29. Who cares about all the race stuff, he’s how the card trick was done for those wondering!

    The magician plants the torn 2 of hearts in the lemon before the show, he also makes sure that another 2 of hearts in on the top of the deck, the rest of the cards don’t matter. When the host cuts the deck the magician has the host put the top half of the deck to the side and starts shuffling the other half. The magician then says something along the lines of “So here’s the card you cut, pick it up without me looking” pointing to the half still on the table. Everyone just assumes that is the cut card, but it’s not, since it’s the top half of the deck it’s the card the magician placed on the top of the deck, the 2 of Hearts. Now this trick has a variation with the tear. Most likely while the host is showing the card to everyone and the magician turns his back to us he is placing ANOTHER 2 of Hearts on the top of the deck, this one already half torn. The host places his card in the deck, the magician moves the cards around a little bit and then pulls up the card he has planted with the tear. He then tears it about 95% of the way and hands it to the host and tells him to tear off the rest, making everyone think that the host created a unique tear having influence over the outcome, when in fact it will match the planted one in the lemon close enough to fool people.

    It’s a fun trick to try at parties, buy two decks identical decks, take a common card out of one of them and when you arrive at someone’s house plant it in their shoe by the door when no one is looking. Have the owner of the shoes “cut” the same card off the top like mentioned above, have them put it back in the deck, shuffle the deck, and then throw the whole deck into room with the shoes. Have him or her look in their shoes and viola, you not only picked the right card, but you made it fly into their shoe. The key is following through correctly, quickly, don’t repeat the trick (because people will just try to pick it apart), and don’t say how it’s done, because it’ll then be lame instead of impressive.

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