The following article was written as an assignment for the Journalism and Society class.
The Simpsons' episodes, the family traveled to Japan several times and experienced a variety of cultural gaps there. Their experience is depicted with irony and exaggeration, and often become a little too aggressive toward the targeted Japanese and their culture. The episodes clearly show how average American audience perceives Japan and its culture. In this paper, I would like to examine one of The Simpsons' Japanese episodes and analyze how it represents Japanese culture and how its ethnic jokes works for the U.S. audience.
Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo, which was originally aired on May 16, 1999 in Season 10, is also full of references to Japan and its subculture (the episode's title itself comes from an old movie called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)). Before the family members bring up any topics regarding Japan at the beginning of the episode, several words that are usually associated with Japan in the U.S. are brought into the story. One of them is a term technology referred by Marge and represented as the form of a Wired magazine that she is reading. The other term is a word monkey referred by Bart saying “I know the Internet that shows monkeys' doing it.” These words seem to coincidentally appear in the scene, but the same topics appear again in the form of an ethnic joke on Japanese just six minutes later. It can be said that the first references to the topics actually forecast the upcoming jokes that relates to the episode's main topic. They become warming up for the audience to imagine about Japan from the title of the episode. On a plane to Tokyo, Bart says, “If we want to see Japanese people, we can just go to the zoo.” It is clearly understood by the audience that he seems to say that Japanese look like a monkey when Lisa says “Homer!” to Bart right after that. Bart then replies to her saying “What? The guy who washes the elephants is Japanese... his name is Takashi... he's in my book club.” Here a typical feature of how The Simpsons deals with offensive jokes in its episodes can be observed. The family members do not actually say the offensive sentence in a word, but make the audience to imagine of it based on the context. Right after the allusion, they usually blame the offensive idea or joke from a politically correct point of view (usually it is done by Lisa and Marge), or say the counter opinion to it. In this case, Lisa corrects the idea and Bart himself shows that the Japanese is a person who has his name, occupation, and intelligence (by labeling him as a book-club member) just like the other people in the U.S., unlike a stereotyped monkey image.
South Park, but political correction or a counter opinion to it is never been shown).
Takeshi's Castle (2003) is the first one of its kind. There were many others such as Sasuke (American Ninja Warriors) (2006) and Hole in the Wall (2008). There was even an American original program called I Survived a Japanese Game Show (2008) in a reality-TV trend at the time. Before these shows aired in the U.S., the original Japanese shows had been watched on YouTube and became very popular all around the world including the U.S. One of the reasons these shows became a YouTube hit is that most of them are slapstick and did not need any words to understand, but still keep a strong story of the battle. What is remarkable about The Simpsons' episode is that it was aired way before the Japanese TV game show boom started. YouTube (started in 2004) had not launched yet when the episode was aired in 1999 in the U.S. It means that not many Americans had a chance to watch Japanese game shows on TV or the Internet at the time. It also shows that the episode eventually foresaw what came next on TV to the U.S. in the next ten years. At the end of the episode, after having a series of harsh physical challenges and finally receiving tickets to go back to Springfield, Bart says to a Japanese TV host as he leaves the stage as a competitor, “Game shows aren't about cruelty. They are about greed and wonderful prizes [...] but somewhere along the line, you lost your way. What a shame.” Right after this line, Bart watches the same show on TV in a waiting room and laughs at a Canadian couple in the show saying “Lovely show.” This part is added in order to show Bart's (and also ordinary TV audience's) ambivalent personality and to balance the tone of the episode not to become too preachy. However, his comment directly points out the moral issue of a TV game show that asks the audience if they really want to watch the devastating competitors and laugh at them.
Godzilla, Rodan, Mosura, Ghidorah, and Gamera, all of which were once popular in the U.S. They also show robotic anime program called “Battling Seizure Robots” (which also indicates Pokemon) on the TV in a hotel room and Hello Kitty factory from the window with a lot of meaningless Japanese characters all through the story. The Simpsons encounter the stereotyped American figures as well including Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Statue of Liberty, and a sheriff's golden badge in a restaurant called America Town. Here they also see stereotyped images of the U.S. and hear many ironic jokes about their culture from a Japanese waiter. In a sense, what the U.S. audience sees about Japanese culture in the episode is paralleled with the stereotyped images that Simpsons encounter in Japan. This paralleled structure of gazing at a different culture may lead some audiences to see the wider media situation from a more distant point of view and think about the media bias existing both in Japan and the U.S.
Overall, The Simpsons has many offensive jokes in its episodes, but they usually deny the idea behind them or add countering ideas. Furthermore, the family clearly shows a similar situation of a typical American audience surrounded by the biased media by referring to a variety of knowledge that they may receive from TV, which is the moment when “Parody encourages viewers to reflect upon media messages and structures” (Gray 236). The Simpsons even “invites the viewer beyond its cutout world to give critical consideration to the way society and the media engage ethnic prejudice” (Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx 17) to a certain degree. After all, what parody shows is the mere reflection of the viewers themselves.