Fetishizing German Ad “Based on Japanese Culture” Draws Fire Across Asia

Is it Dolce & Gabbana all over again? German company Hornbach’s attempt to lampoon a sexual fetish has sparked an online protest across Asia calling for its removal.

By Jay Andrew Allen

It seems there’s little these days that people in China, South Korea and Japan can agree upon. So it’s refreshing when something happens that brings everyone in these countries together.

But it’s unfortunate when that “something” is prejudice.

German DIY store Hornbach released a commercial recently celebrating “the smell of spring.” In it, a bunch of older men engage in yard work, after which they strip and hand everything they’re wearing to a couple of waiting scientist-types. (One of them has to be gently reminded they want his undies, too.)

After the garments are collected, they’re run on a conveyor belt, where they’re packaged and vacuum-sealed. (If you pause the video around the 27-second mark, you can clearly see the Japanese words 春の匂い (haru no nioi), or “the smell of spring,” written on the side of the conveyor.) The final stop for the clothing is a vending machine in some non-designated “Asian” country, where a woman in business wear that also seems oddly cultural neutral takes a whiff from the bag and nearly passes out from joy. The commercial closes with the words: “This is the Scent of Spring.”

The campaign was unveiled on March 15th. As it seeped throughout the Internet, Twitter users in South Korea and China began calling it out as “creepy,” and for mocking Asian culture, and Asian women in particular. The online unrest eventually spread to Japan as well, where it’s started making national news as an example of Western discrimination towards Asian countries.

Gang Song Un, a South Korean living in the German town of Cologne, was upset enough to start a change.org petition. The petition has a goal of 25,000 signatures; as of Monday afternoon US Pacific time, it’s already received over 16,000 signatures, and is adding more every hour.

In an interview with the Huffington Post Japan, Gang explained his motivation. In his view, the commercial has two key problems. First, it commits the typical Western faux pas of lumping the distinct countries, cultures and languages of Asia into a single, undifferentiated mass. Such treatment is definitely a problem, and is something that people of Asian heritage deal with constantly in Western countries. (I’m reminded of a Chinese-American friend who was volunteering at an anime convention when some dude came up to the table and shouted, “Konnichi wa!” at her.) Second, it stereotypes and sexualizes Asian women, whose “exotic” looks are already sexualized and objectified by Western culture.

For its part, Hornbach is pushing back, insisting that it made the commercial a non-distinct Asian “fantasy city” in order not to slight any single group. It’s a thin excuse that few people seem to be buying. As Twitter user seu6santse put it:

Hornbach is replying to the people who’ve pointed out its prejudice not just toward Asians, but towards women, that “this isn’t Asia, it’s a fictitious country.” And that’s why this commercial is so dishonest: while saying, “This is Asia,” it’s using “it’s not Asia” as an escape route.

On his own Twitter account, Gang Song Un, who’s tweeting about this issue in three languages, shot back at this interpretation in a Japanese tweet:

German DIY store Hornbach made a discriminatory commercial about Asian women, but really, it’s clear they’re humiliating Japanese women. The vending machine from which this woman from somewhere in Asia buys a German man’s clothes that are soaked in sweat has “Smell of Spring” written on it in Japanese.

The practice of selling used clothing — particularly used undergarments — is also a clear reference to what in Japan is called ブルセラ (buru-sera), a contraction of the words “bloomers” and “sailor” (a reference to sailor-suit style school uniforms for young women). There are numerous sites that sell what purport to be used undergarments online. For a number of years, an urban legend circulated in the West that you could even buy used panties from vending machines.

According to HuffPo JP, Hornbach’s creative marketing company insists it wanted to turn this standard image of men buying women’s undergarments on its head by depicting a woman doing the same thing of her own free will. And the company itself hasn’t pulled the campaign, and remains adamant it has nothing to apologize for.

Reading this news, it’s hard not to be reminded of Dolce & Gabbana, which was deluged with criticism last year when it ran an ad in which a Chinese model tried to eat Western food with chopsticks. The video — which also featured “mansplaining” and mock Mandarin accents, as if aiming for prominent wall space in the Discrimination Hall of Shame — was pulled within 24 hours, and the company founders recorded a personal apology.

But while Hornbach runs the risk of permanently pissing off all of Asia with the commercial, the fact is that, unlike D&G, it’s a German chain with no presence in Asia whatsoever. So there’s little to no economic risk in remaining defiant unless a good portion of the public in Germany and neighboring countries join the chorus against the company. If online polling is to be believed, that doesn’t seem likely: a poll on Frankfurter Allegmeine shows 60% of respondents don’t believe the ad’s racist.

On the other hand, if the outrage continues to grow, it could escalate into a diplomatic issue, with Japan, South Korea, China and perhaps other countries lodging formal complaints with the German government.

Hornbach should consider that, the more it doubles down, the more it proves its critics’ point: that its only interest in Asia is as a source of derogatory humor, and that the thoughts and feelings of actual Asian people are of no consequence. Regardless of the company or their ad agency’s intentions, that’s racism and discrimination in and of itself.

(JP) Link: Is German Company’s Commercial a Slight Against Japanese? A Flood of Criticism Over Asian Woman Sniffing a White Man’s Used Undergarments

I’m the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.

Originally published at unseenjapan.com on April 2, 2019.