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Nike ad showing racial discrimination faced by Japanese girls provokes backlash

Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates after her match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the women's singles final at the U.S. Open on Sept. 12. (Danielle Parhizkaran/USA Today Sports)

TOKYO — A Nike advertisement highlighting racial discrimination faced by schoolgirls in Japan, and suggesting they can overcome it through sports, has provoked a fierce debate and backlash in a nation unaccustomed to openly discussing such issues.

The video showing three young soccer players is based on the “real life experience of athletes,” Nike Japan said, conveying how they “overcome their daily struggles and conflicts to move their future through sports.”

The ad has been viewed about 25 million times across Twitter and YouTube. It has been shared or liked nearly 80,000 times on Twitter, but negative reactions accelerated this week, with likes outnumbering dislikes on YouTube only by a few thousand.

Japan’s national identity is based partly on a myth of itself as a monoethnic country. This has fueled the marginalization of the indigenous Ainu people in the past, as well as discrimination against ethnic Koreans and Chinese, biracial Japanese people and immigrants.

Many commenters said Nike was exaggerating the scale of discrimination, arguing that it was unfair to single out Japan. Some threatened to boycott Nike products.

Japanese American tennis player Naomi Osaka, who is sponsored by Nike, has helped to stir a debate about racism in Japan after speaking out about the Black Lives Matter movement, drawing a mixture of support and criticism on social media here and even reportedly discomforting some of her Japanese corporate sponsors.

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In the video, one girl is seen looking at an image of Osaka framed by the question, “Is she American? Japanese?” — reflecting the tone of some of the comments the tennis star has faced.

The girls featured in the video include an ethnic Korean and another who looks biracial like Osaka, as well as a third girl who is bullied at school and online. Footage of them practicing with a soccer ball is interspersed with scenes of them questioning their struggle to fit in.

“I sometimes think, … ‘Who am I? … Is there anything I can do?’ ” the girls ask themselves. “ ‘Am I a disappointment? Am I not normal?’ ”

The girls are stared at, singled out, shunned and bullied at school, and continue to question themselves. “I wish I could ignore them all,” the girls say.

But the advertisement ends with an inspiring message as the girls perform starring roles on the soccer field and conclude that they don’t have to conform.

“Someday we will see a world when everyone will become able to live as they are,” the girls say. “But we can’t wait for that.”

The video is titled “The Future Isn’t Waiting,” with the hashtag #YouCantStopUs.

Journalist Shuji Shinohara wrote that the initial reaction on Twitter was largely positive, but negative comments started to outweigh positive ones on Monday, possibly led by influential commentators.

“There is racism in every country, and not just in Japan,” one person commented. “I am sure you have made different versions for each of the United States, Britain, France and other countries?”

Another described the video as “awful,” saying: “It’s as if they are trying to say this kind of discrimination is everywhere in Japan.”

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Author and former police detective Tadanobu Bando said he does not deny that discrimination exists in Japan.

“But this commercial describing Japan, where there is not so much racism, does not sit well with me and I feel they are trying to impose a certain impression,” he tweeted, in a comment liked or retweeted more than 12,000 times. “I do have Nikes, but they are made by people who make a commercial that disparages people for their own sales. It’s nauseating to wear them, and I don’t think I would wear them.”

Some commentators accused Nike of hypocrisy, citing reports that the company has used forced labor by ethnic Uighurs in China, a mostly Muslim minority group that has faced mass internment.

Artist Tomomi Shimizu, who drew a manga about the persecution faced by Uighurs, said the video made her “feel sick,” and she quoted Vice President Pence’s criticism of Nike for ignoring the “abuse of human rights” in China.

But others were more enthusiastic, expressing pride in wearing Nike, or pointing out that the response to the video was “proof there is discrimination in this country.”  

“Nike’s commercial is amazing!” wrote Kumiko Mori, a culinary expert and blogger. “This is the first time I’ve see a commercial that so openly approaches the issue of racial discrimination! Got goose bumps!”

That the debate was happening at all was something of a revelation in Japan.

“The very fact that the number of dislikes and likes are going head to head suggests that this ad needed to be produced,” wrote one commenter.

Yuma Endo, who described himself as a marketing company CEO, wrote in a blog post that the response proved that “angry elderly men” were not the target of Nike’s campaign.

Nike’s campaigns in the United States featuring Colin Kaepernick — the former NFL quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and subsequently lost his place in the league — have also stirred strong responses. Its Dream Crazy advertisement won the award for outstanding commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys in 2019. It boosted sales but was criticized by President Trump for sending “a terrible message.”

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