Will Smith’s New Movie Promoted With Blackface In Japan

Will Smith’s New Movie Promoted With Blackface In Japan

After a popular idol group’s blackface controversy this past February, somebody still thought it would be a good idea to put a TV personality in black face to promote Will Smith’s new movie.

If you go to the official Japanese site for Focus, you will see this:

Will Smith's New Movie Promoted with Blackface in Japan

This is Warner Bros. Japan’s April Fools’ Day joke. No, really. It is. The poster is also being displayed at a movie theatre as part of the “joke”. See, if you don’t focus, you might confuse the Japanese guy in blackface as Will Smith.

Wearing the fish hat and covered in make-up, that’s a fish researcher and TV personality named ” Sakana-kun” (“sakana” means “fish”). This is what Sakana-kun usually looks like:

Will Smith's New Movie Promoted with Blackface in Japan

Picture: OfficiallyJD

There is a reason for this comparison, however questionable this promotion might be. For a while now, people online in Japan have claimed that Sakana-kun looks like Will Smith.

Will Smith's New Movie Promoted with Blackface in Japan

Here you can see a Sakana-kun hat Photoshopped onto a Will Smith photo and compared with Sakana-kun.

Will Smith's New Movie Promoted with Blackface in Japan

And here is the official side-by-side comparison Warner Bros. Japan is sending out to the press. You know, the comparison between Will Smith and the Japanese guy in blackface.

Online in Japan, many people are saying that Sakana-kun in blackface “unexpectedly looks like” Will Smith.

Will Smith's New Movie Promoted with Blackface in Japan

That… doesn’t look like Will Smith.

There are not many black people in Japan — or any minorities at all, for that matter. The country is overwhelmingly Japanese (around 98 per cent Japanese). Some try to make the argument that Japanese people don’t know how blackface has been used to mock and belittle black people in the U.S. Even if you buy that excuse, this is Warner Bros. Yes, it’s the Japanese arm of an American company, but its employees should have a working knowledge about American history and culture — or at least, American movie history.

But, maybe not. Maybe they don’t know anything about the US. Still, as anyone living in Japan and following the news would be aware that non-Japanese expressed displeasure with the blackface incident earlier this year, which could be why the segment never aired on Japanese TV and the official images depicting the blackface were deleted.

Yet, here we are again. Two months after that, and not even a month after some people in Japan got upset that a half-black Japanese woman was crowned Miss Universe. This Warner Bros. campaign comes off as rather oblivious. But who cares, right? It’s just using blackface to promote an American actor.

Given Hollywood’s deplorable history with black actors, if I were Warner Bros. Japan, this is the last thing I would want to be associated with. There’s so much loaded and toxic imagery with American movies and black face. You’d think that Warner Bros. would be more savvy. You’d think.


  • I’ve always considered that intent should be king when considering if something is racist. Blackface in American history was intentionally racist, sometimes horribly so. Blackface here? I don’t see racism here. It’s just dress up, playing up Sakana-kun’s similar appearance to Will Smith from the Japanese perspective. There’s no intent to degrade black people here, nor paint them as inferior. It really is just a costume.

    It’s not really anyone else’s responsibility to answer for America’s cultural sensitivities. In America this is offensive because there’s a history of it being used offensively. In Japan it’s not offensive (or at least less offensive) because that history never happened there. Americans projecting their own racist history onto relatively innocent actions taken in other cultures is no different to groups like ISIS expecting the whole world to bow to their particular brand of cultural sensitivities. It’s projection and imperialism, and in America’s case here, smells at least a little bit of hypocrisy.

    • Dude, what are you doing? This is the internet! Common sense and rational discussion is like, not cool around these parts.

    • I think it’s probably very similar to the whole ‘hey hey its saturday’ debacle intent wise.

    • And tbh, this is an impressive ‘blackface’, though it looks more like a tan than anything else. I was expecting your cliche solid black paint faced but you can still see the original skin colour around the sides of the face thing…

      • I got the impression it was a Photoshop job personally. If it’s actual makeup work they did a good job of making it look realistic. If it wasn’t for the ‘what he normally looks like’ photo, I would have just said it was a natural skin colour. I know a few full-blooded Japanese friends who have that same darker skin tone.

        • Agree on all counts, so to get offended by this is a huge case of what. Did Tropic Thunder get any hate for Downey to look like a black guy?

    • Ditto this.

      There was all that controversy over the Hey Hey Jackson 5 thing. It was pretty lame but there wasn’t an intent to hurt anyone.
      Still, I can understand people getting offended and not wanting to see it. The problem is that there isn’t consistency. Lets not forget that at almost the same time Robert Downey Junior was nominated for an Academy Award in a role where he blacked up. People barely batted an eyelid.
      The only difference I can see is one was funnier than the other, but shouldn’t crappy comedians have a chance too?

      • Offence is one of those touchy subjects really. It’s a personal thing and often one of choice, since something can only really offend you if you let it. On the other hand, offence is often the surface-level manifestation of a dislike for inequality or unethicality.

        I think people need to look at why they’re offended by things. If there’s an underlying cause (eg. someone isn’t being treated equitably) then they should try to act on that cause and not on their offence. If the only underlying cause is ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘it makes me uncomfortable’, then it’s a personal matter and it’s nobody else’s problem but their own.

        For me personally, I don’t see any inequity in this ad. Nobody is being degraded or made fun of, nobody loses anything from it.

    • Don’t entirely agree but an important perspective to consider, hopefully people do.

  • If something should be considered controversial based primarily on its intent, it becomes a little problematic when it comes to things like “Oh, that’s so gay” or “you just got raped!” or even when a certain politician uses the term holocaust to make an argument.

    The trouble as I would see it is sure, you probably don’t mean anything intentionally harmful about it, but you trivialize an issue of potential importance.

    • My comment was more directed at racism (or sexism, or other terms for prejudicial behaviour). Controversy is a bit of a loose term that just means there’s disagreement between people, and I don’t think that’s an inherently bad thing. I don’t think this ad is trivialising anything though, certainly no more than Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard trivialises America’s obesity problem (which is to say, not at all).

  • Perhaps a poor choice on my words but essentially my argument still boils down to – if intent is king, would it be acceptable for me to ask someone to stop being a faggot if my intent wasn’t directed at the homosexual connotations of the word?

    • If you’re calling someone a faggot, you’re intending to insult them, whether you intended it as a homophobic insult or not. Aside from that, in western culture (particularly internet culture) the use of words like ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ as insults came from homophobia in the first place. The only other possible interpretation is a bundle of sticks, which given the context of calling someone a faggot, seems an unlikely interpretation. In either case, there’s an intent to cause harm, no matter how casually.

      Changing your appearance usually doesn’t have limited interpretations. A western girl wearing a kimono isn’t trying to insult Japanese, she’s just wearing clothing. Dressing up as a fortune teller for Halloween isn’t trying to insult gypsies, it’s just an outfit. There’s no intent to cause harm here. If a western girl wore a kimono and then started acting out racist stereotypes, then the intent to harm is there. If you dress as a fortune teller and then play up the gypsy stereotype of being a thief or swindler, the intent to harm is there.

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