Foreign cultures making headway in Japan

Japanese productions less insular than before

TOKYO -- Something that fascinates many about Japan is how, in spite of decades as a global economic power, it has managed to hold on to much of its unique homogenous cultural identity. This has, however, recently begun to slowly change as other cultures make their presence felt in both Japanese society and its popular culture.

While the presence of overseas films and music is of course nothing new, portraying subjects like immigrants, international marriages and mixed heritage children in Japanese entertainment, is a more recent challenge.
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Film industries around the world have faced criticism for lazy ethnic and cultural stereotypes when portraying "outsiders" and minority groups. Over the years the Japanese entertainments business has been as guilty as most, perhaps more than some; though there are signs things are improving.

Although there have been notable exceptions, such as 2001's award-winning "Go" by Isao Yukisada, which dealt with discrimination against Korean-Japanese, such issues have rarely been tackled on the big or small screen.

Last year saw though saw an 11-part drama "Smile" -- produced by Next Gen Asia 2009 honoree Katsuaki Setoguchi -- about a half-Japanese, half-Filipino youth, the prejudice he faced, and his sense of confusion about his own identity. The part was however, played by Jun Matsumoto – "Hana Yori Dango" ("Boys over Flowers") – who is full-blooded Japanese.

Still, many of the "gaijin" appearing in films, TV programs and commercials are there for some kind of novelty or even clown role. The hugely successful "White Family" series of commercials for the Softbank mobile carrier definitely contains an element of the "foreigner for novelty value" approach, though the character is far from a clown.

Featuring a mysteriously untypical Japanese family, with the mother and daughter played by well-known local actresses, the father being a small white dog, and the older brother played by a black American. The role has actor Dante Carver speaking Japanese well, and there is no particular emphasis on his "foreignness" beyond his unexplained presence in a Japanese family.

The commercials -- which even recently featured a guest appearance from Quentin Tarantino, hamming it up as "Uncle Taro" -- have propelled Carver into stardom, and landed him a part in an upcoming film, "My Darling is a Foreigner."

The movie is based on the real experiences of a Japanese manga artist (the story was originally a manga comic), played by Mao Inoue, and her relationship with an American journalist, played by Jonathan Sherr.

"The American character in the film speaks Japanese very well, and understands more about Japanese culture and history than many Japanese people," says producer and deputy president of TBS Pictures Kazuya Hamana.

"We went and spoke to a lot of international couples to find out the kind of small cultural differences that appear in these situations, and then tried to present them in an interesting way for the film," he says. "The percentage of international marriages in Japan is actually much higher than you'd think, I was really quite surprised."

Actually, one in 20 marriages in Japan now involves one non-Japanese partner, a high percentage for a nation that still sees itself as separate and homogenous in many ways.

"My Darling is a Foreigner" opens in Japan in April.
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