Grape Japan

“Blackface Potato Chips” Leave Questionable Aftertaste

One of the features characterizing the Japanese commercial food and beverage industry is that new variations of products, whether in flavor, packaging, or size, continually appear on the market, some lasting a whole season, others only lasting a few weeks. In other words, consumers can expect to see something new at all times.

A stroll through the aisles of a Japanese convenience store is never boring. Right now, this is what you're likely to see in the potato chips section of your local store:

source: Grape Inc.

"Wait a second? What's a Japanese man in blackface doing on the cover of that bag of chips?" you may wonder.

It turns out that this is snack brand Calbee's idea for a new variety of black pepper flavored chips. And who better to promote their latest entry in their "Pota Rich" series of rich-tasting thick-cut ridged potato chips, especially one with a concentrated taste of black pepper, than the Japanese man most often associated with the color black in Japanese popular culture, Shigeru Matsuzaki.

Or so the thinking went, according to their press release.

source: Grape Inc.

Shigeru Matsuzaki is a singer and actor, active since the early 1970s, who made his tanned skin his personal trademark. To please his fans who came to recognize him, even giving him the nickname "coffee bean," he apparently continued to tan his skin at salons and through tanning machines. He has exploited this in various commercial collaborations and tie-ups throughout the years, with his skin tone heavily edited. As you can see from his tweet promoting his 2015 album "Watashi no Uta," his real skin tone doesn't look anything like the potato chip package.

The images of Shigeru Matsuzaki seen in commercial campaigns could be considered a kind of "digital blackface" done in his name. However, other artists such as the doo-wop group Rats & Star have always performed wearing real blackface. This practice drew international criticism when they posted a picture of themselves preparing for an upcoming television appearance, and posing with idol group Momoiro Clover Z, everyone in blackface and wearing minstrel-style clothes. The picture went viral and the backlash was swift, causing the TV network to withdraw the segment.

Although Rats & Star claim that their blackface was their way of paying respect to the African American musicians they admired, the international community, as evident in the reaction to the above-mentioned incident, mostly considers such behavior to be shamefully ignorant at best and culturally insensitive.

In hopes of gaining some more perspective on these problematic potato chips, our staff interviewed Amina du Jean, African-American singer, model and YouTuber who experienced the Japanese entertainment industry first hand as a J-pop idol:

I'm really convinced an incident like this during the Olympics will get negative press. Usually, when people speak out against issues such as blackface, the response from Japanese tends to be "you don't understand Japanese culture." Even though I see this issue more prevalent in Korea, I personally don't see it changing. My issue is far more with the artist, Shigeru-san rather than the products themselves. Why is black skin itself so comical? Is Japan really that regressive?

In a different context, the notion of "trying on" other skin colors, as seen in the recent ishoku-hada, or "unique skin," trend seems to be gaining in popularity and has even begun to spread beyond Japanese borders, with an event planned in Austin, Texas, this weekend. Here, the influence of anime featuring otherworldly beings from fantasy and science fiction, as well as the intersection between cosplay and fashion is responsible.

While such fashion trends contribute to a vibrant culture, one would hope, especially with the upcoming Olympics in 2020, that they do not obscure the problem of blackface performance in Japan, a practice which we hope will soon be discarded like a bag of stale chips.

In all fairness, Calbee's new Pota-Rich chips are quite tasty...

source: Grape Inc.

Each chip is amply seasoned with black pepper, for a mildly spicy and satisfying taste.

source: Grape Inc.

So go ahead, grab yourself a bag, and take a good look at Shigeru Matsuzaki on the package...

If you follow the instructions on the back of the bag, you can even enter your name in a drawing to receive a special Shigeru Quo Card, with which you could in theory buy even more chips...

Food for thought, indeed.

By - Ben K.