A 1943 San Francisco Examiner cartoon depicted Japanese-American men, drawn with huge buck teeth and thick eyeglasses, crossing their fingers as they recited the pledge of allegiance in a World War II concentration camp. The caption explained that “most of the Japs” crossed their fingers during the pledge—as a justification for why 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S.-born citizens, had to be confined.
The cartoon is a frightening reminder of how the news media can whip up racism. Fifty years later, the media are still promoting stereotypes and fears of a different kind of “Asian Invasion.” Whether a story concerns automobile sales, computer chip manufacturing or real estate deals, Japanese businesses, institutions and people are often characterized as sinister marauders hell-bent on making up for their losses during the war. This Asian Invasion complex contributes to a climate of resentment and hate, not only toward Japan, but also toward the U.S.’s growing Asian-American community.
One classic example was Newsweek‘s cover story (10/9/89) on Sony’s purchase of Columbia Pictures. “The Sony deal marks the biggest advance so far in a Japanese invasion of Hollywood,” the magazine warned. Under the headline “Japan Invades Hollywood,” the cover portrayed the Statue of Liberty as an Asian woman dressed in a Japanese kimono.
As demonstrated by a national media monitoring project conducted by San Francisco State University’s Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism and the Asian American Journalists Association, this kind of language and imagery appears so frequently that even many respected publications appear to condone Japan-bashing.
In some cases, the effect is deliberate. The headline for a New York Times Magazine article (7/28/85) on U.S.-Japan trade controversies was “The Danger from Japan.” Author Theodore H. White used military metaphors throughout the article, including the lead paragraph, which was featured in large print on the cover: ‘Today, 40 years after the end of World War II, the Japanese are on the move again in one of history’s most brilliant commercial offensives, as they go about dismantling American industry. Whether they are still only smart, or have finally learned to be wiser than we, will be tested in the next 10 years. Only then will we know who finally won the war.” A few other examples:
The cover of the May 1989 issue of the Atlantic features a hungry-looking sumo wrestler eyeing the globe. The headline for the cover story, a blistering critique of Japanese business practices by James Fallows, is “Containing Japan”—an allusion to the Cold War policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union.
A Frontline documentary on PBS (11/19/91), “Losing the War with Japan,” was so antagonistic that a San Francisco Chronicle television critic wrote that it “doesn’t even bother with the usual niceties of fair play.”
Nineteen installments of the cartoon strip Kudzu (2/7/90-3/1/90), by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Marlette, depicted Japanese business executives with slanted eyes, buck teeth and heavily accented English. The strips were laced with slogans like “Remember Pearl Harbor!” and “Foreign Investors Invade Bypass” (the strip’s fictitious setting).
A San Francisco Chronicle story (3/28/92) on Japanese-made condoms began, “After filling our garages with Hondas and our living rooms with Sonys, Japanese investors are invading our—well, our bedrooms—with their condoms.”
Deliberately or not, these invasion metaphors set up Japan as an invading enemy. KToyota cars, Sony televisions and Nintendo video games are all missiles fired by an enemy nation, why aren’t Jolly Green Giant frozen vegetables (British-owned), Tropicana orange juice (Canadian-owned) or Bic ballpoint pens (French-owned)?
As U.S.-Japan tensions rise, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans once again get caught in a backlash. The most infamous manifestation of this is the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by two men who assumed he was Japanese and blamed him for auto industry unemployment
The media reinforce this tendency when they report on the growth of the Asian-American community with the same cliches used in covering Japanese trade policy. Journalists have reinforced the idea that Asian Americans are invaders. Here’s just one example: The Torrance, Calif. Daily Breeze (3/24/91) published an in-depth feature on the growth of the region’s Asian-American population. The story was actually well-rounded, but the front page headline was—you guessed it—”Asian Invasion.”