Project Anti-Disguise
  September 22, 2004 01:59 PM
October 21, 2002
Racism Comes in Costume for Trick or Treat

By Gil Asagawa

A few months ago, I wrote a commentary for Newsweek Japan, which was translated into Japanese and published in July. The article was titled "Beneath the Surface of the Japanophile Fad."

At least for now, it's cool to be Japanese, I wrote. Japanese culture - and other Asian culture - seems to be everywhere from the TV and movie screens to clothing, food, publications, even home décor. But, I added, the unsettling problem with all this "Japanization" of America is the nagging sense that it is a surface phenomenon, a decorative flourish for one's lifestyle like past fads for deco moderne, nouvelle cuisine or preppy clothing. Fads, after all are passing fancies, and when it's passed, it won't be cool to be Japanese anymore.

And below this surface infatuation with Japonica, I warned, the specter of racism always remains. I was unfortunately reminded of this fact this week by a stupid Hallowe'en costume.

America's love-hate relationship with Asians in general and Japanese in particular goes back well over a hundred years, I explained in the Newsweek Japan article.

The first group of Japanese to arrive in America came in 1869, and by 1880, 148 Japanese lived in the United States. But Japanese laborers couldn't leave their country legally until after 1884, when they were allowed to go to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations.

From there, many made the move to the mainland, and by 1890, 2,038 Japanese lived in America. But Japanese immigration was stopped in 1907 when white supremacist organizations, labor unions and racist politicians pushed through in a "Gentlemen's Agreement" that ended the immigration of laborers from Japan, permitting only wives and children of laborers to enter the country. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely stopped immigration of Japanese to the U.S., and the law remained on the books until 1954, when a hundred immigrants a year were allowed. And during World War II, anti-Japanese hysteria led to the imprisonment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in concentration camps simply because of their heritage.

Racism isn't always overt; it can be quite obscure. Japanese Americans (as well as all Asian Americans) may grow up feeling the sting of being called a "Chink," a "Jap," or a "gook," or they may never face any such confrontation. But the hatred may be simmering within some Americans even as many others pick up chopsticks and learn to love sushi.

We live in a more enlightened, multicultural age today. Hence the trendy appreciation of all things Japanese, as well as for other Asian traditions as yoga, feng shui and a myriad martial arts. Yet, hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. continue even as society as a whole embraces the concepts of multi-culturalism. In 1998, Congressed introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, acknowledging the problem of racism in the country.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington DC, South Asians from India were mistakenly singled out as Muslim in several instances and were attacked and killed. Extremists raised the idea of rounding up anyone of Middle Eastern descent to prevent any future terrorist acts, eerily echoing the sentiments that justified the Japanese internment 60 years earlier. By the way, not one Japanese American was ever charged with an act of espionage during WWII.

Civil rights activists this year commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American who was beaten to death on June 19, 1982 by two Caucasian men in Detroit, the depressed heart of the American auto industry, who blamed Japanese car manufacturers for their economic distress and mistook Chin for Japanese.

Just a decade ago, as the Japanese economic bubble of the go-go-'80s burst, Americans took a harder stance against Japan than they had since World War II, painting Japanese business as ruthless samurai warlords determined to conquer the world through mergers and acquisitions instead of ships and guns. When times are bad, Americans look for scapegoats, and Japan, the country's onetime enemy and now erstwhile "little brother" who will always look different and be an outsider to the Euro-centric core of the United States, is an easy target for blame and retribution.

But even during the best of times, prejudice can appear out of the blue, even if the ones propagating a stereotype claims it wasn't meant to be racist. Abercrombie and Fitch earlier this year sold a line of t-shirts with images of Asians that many people found offensive, and after a slew of protests the shirts were pulled from the shelves.

This week I learned about another example of insensitivity. Disguise, a San Diego-based costume company that is one of the largest suppliers of costumes for Halowe'en (which is now considered the second-most profitable holiday in the United States), had for months been selling a "Kung Fool" costume that featured a martial arts gi, or jacket, that came with an unbelievably racist mask: A slant-eyed, buck-toothed caricature wearing a headband with the Chinese character for "loser."

A network of Asian American activists finally noticed the costume and began sending around e-mails of protests. Once the protests began, it took only a couple of days before the company pulled the product and apologized. But how many had been sold already? And, even though the company stopped production and shipping of the costume, it wasn't requiring dealers to return any stock, only "authorizing retailers who no longer wish to sell the product to return it to the company."

Just as with Abercrombie and Fitch, the company issued an apology that didn't say "we screwed up," but instead questioned why people were offended in the first place. "Disguise is a culturally sensitive company," said Disguise spokesperson Chris Wahl in a press announcement. "We apologize to anyone who may be offended by the design. No insult or offense was intended against any race, ethnicity or individual by the sale of this product."

How could anyone think it wouldn't offend Asians?

The costume made me feel ill when I saw it, and left me mulling over a bunch of big, ugly questions. Would Disguise have even considered creating a costume that stereotyped African-Americans, Jews or Latinos?

Why are Asians still the one community that seems to be open game for inadvertent stereotypes? If it's so cool to be Japanese, and so much Asian stuff is popular in American pop culture, why is it also still cool to portray us as coolies?

And, who the hell bought these costumes? What will I do if I see someone in one?

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