Mobile Phone Monkey Business: A Japanese Primate Plays Obama

This presidential election has already generated unprecedented interest overseas, and if this week's events in Japan are any sign, that interest will only increase, along with all of the cultural baggage, misunderstandings and mashed up references that come with it.

The ethnic tensions stretched taut by the campaign and that have roiled U.S. culture for the last half year rippled across Japan when reports surfaced that a television ad for Japanese cellular telephone provider eMobile starred a monkey as Barack Obama.

In the spot, a large crowd at a political rally is surrounding a speaker, who is firing up the crowd from a podium. Members of the crowd excitedly cheer and hold up placards with the word "change" emblazoned upon them. The speaker, leading the chants at the podium and dressed in a nice blue suit, is a monkey.

The response from black people in Japan and others, once news of the ad spread, was swift. Cries that the depiction was raw racism and an insult to Obama and all Blacks drew a denial of any knowing wrongdoing from eMobile. Spokespeople for the company assured the press that there was no racist intent on the company's part and it meant in no way to demean Obama or Black people. The company pulled the ad within hours after the story broke.

One of the first outlets to key on the ad was the website and blog Black Tokyo, which is edited by Zurui, a Black American who has lived in Japan for many years. "While change is good, having the candidate depicted as a monkey is not!" he wrote soon after the ad first aired:

In an update:

...Am I crazy to think that the monkey is supposed to represent Barack Obama? Given the track record for companies in Japan that use monkeys and blacks or monkeys as blacks in advertisements...maybe not!...It is in poor taste to use the monkey in a parody of Senator Barack Obama's election campaign. Even the guy in America that made the 'racist' buttons and t-shirts (he lost his venue with the Republican Party) understands this. At the end of the day, a monkey will still be equated to representing a Black male. If a few in the Republican Party get it, maybe a few Japanophiles will too!

eMobile defended itself by pointing out that it had used the monkey in previous commercials. It added that some of the flap might be accounted for by cultural misunderstanding.

"We had no bad intentions but this is a cross-cultural gap issue and we have to accept it," eMobile CEO Sachio Semmoto told the British Telegraph.

The monkey in the ad is the snow monkey and is actually considered a holy animal by some Japanese. Popiular American TV show Animal Planet reports that "Snow monkeys play a prominent role in Japanese culture; they are considered to be messengers of the Shinto gods and symbols of success and good fortune."

One poster at "Animal New York" named Aaron, who claimed to be familiar with Japanese culture, wrote that

Barack Obama is well-liked in Japan...the Japanese are not at all conscious of anti-black racism or European-American born stereotypes against those of African descent. That is not to say that here is a lack of racism in Japanese culture, because there certainly is toward non-Japanese in general, but rather to insist that the manifold racist connotation of monkey/black is entirely of Western origin, and that association would be entirely lost on the vast majority of Japanese citizens...

Others commenting on the site, as well as comments from people on the street done by CNN indicate there is some truth to his comments. Many of the Japanese stopped on the streets in Japan seemed to make no link between Obama and the monkey. Indeed they were surprised when informed of the outcry linking the two.