While it’s fairly easy to keep up the myth of Japanese racial homogeneity in more rural areas, any trip to big cities like Tokyo and Osaka will assure you that Japan is not as homogenous as it seems. Immigrants (both legal and illegal), long-term and short-term workers, tourists, children of inter-marriages – all these make up a diverse population. And for a long time, even when people of other races were portrayed on Japanese TV, it has been at best embarrassing, at worst incredibly racist.
Then Cold Case comes along, and makes me sit up because of its willingness to bring up race without it being the MAIN POINT of the show. Different races exist within the Cold Case universe, as it should, given that the show’s set around Tokyo, Kanagawa and Yokohama. So I decided to explore how this show deals with race, and what I like about its attempt to do so.
Three things to note: For convenience I’m just going to lump all these people into one broad category of ‘foreigners’, but it is too simplistic to name describe them all that way. Also, even though I think Cold Case is a sign of dramas moving in the right direction, it does not mean that I think their race representations are perfect. Thirdly, my posts are extremely spoiler-y.
1) Foreigners exist as people and not as caricatures
What immediately sets Cold Case apart is how many foreigners are presented to us, and how varied their backgrounds are. We have the illegal Filipino immigrant, the Spanish-speaking bi-racial janitor, the bright Brazilian art student who dropped out to vandalise on the streets, the proud and beautiful Korean post-WWII prostitute. Sure, not one of these are portrayals of upper class (or even middle class) foreigners, which is a shame, but we do get a greater range of people. We also get a greater range of personalities, which is important because foreigners are so often stereotyped as either evil thugs or naïve, always happy child-adults. Too simplistic.
Take for example the Filipino lady who was afraid to come out and confess what she witnessed. Essentially, she is a person who wants to do the right thing, which is why she confesses even years after the incident. She didn’t just let it be. Yet on the other hand, one could argue that she shouldn’t have withheld such important information for so long. It’s a grey area, and within the context of the show, this is presented without moral judgement.
Detective Yuri’s reaction to the situation is basically this: You withheld information because you didn’t want to be caught for illegally entering Japan? Ok, makes sense, now tell us what you know.
Then there’s the Brazilian artist. He’s compassionate and kind, but he’s also a small-time criminal, what with all his vandalism. He has valid complaints that he gets treated more harshly by police than Japanese people who break the law. However he still has to admit that just because the police aren’t fair doesn’t mean he’s in the right.
2) Foreigners are the victims of crime perpetuated by locals
Episode 6 was both difficult to watch but also praise-worthy precisely it portrayed violence in such a realistic manner, making sure that there was no doubt as to how horrific it was. But it’s also incredible in that it’s not just any violent crime – rape and murder were the subject matters. As you know, rape is a really touchy issue in East Asia, mostly due to Japan’s refusal to admit to using Korean and Chinese women as comfort women during WWII. While this episode is set post-war and not during the war, it essentially admits that there are rapists among the Japanese, despicable men who think they are great, men who think they are acting in Japan’s interests but are actually prejudiced jerks. I mean, well done show.
Sujeong as a character is doubly disadvantaged in post-war Japan. She’s Korean and she’s a prostitute – either way despised.
What’s clever about Ep 6 is that we see Suzaki Kiyoshi, a Japanese man, slowly fall in love with her and accept her despite her being a prostitute. He tries to save her against the vigilantes, but here’s the catch – the moment she confesses to being Korean he’s at a lost. In a way I feel like the narrative makes some excuses for him like – Oh, he was in shock. His life had been a lie and it was just a lot to take in. He saved her from being raped by more men…
But then in the rape scene we see Sujeong plead continuously to him and bites him when he tries to keep her quiet. Even as she’s gagged she keeps looking up at him.
Again, this isn’t a simplistic angry kid or naïve happy-go-lucky adult-child. Here I am comparing Sujeong with other portrayals of foreigners. Yokokuhan (the 2015 movie) for example, featured a young Filipino boy, but I felt like he was way to naive and forgiving to be believable. It actually felt a bit condescending.
Meanwhile this is a Korean woman – fiercely nationalistic, loving and motherly, proud and resourceful, but ultimately cruelly overwhelmed by the Japanese.
He killed her – and there’s no excuse. Suzaki acknowledges that. Acknowledges that his prejudices were wrong, and he did something horrible, both in his actions and by his initial inaction. He experiences genuine regret. When discussing race, it’s refreshing to see a character realise his wrongdoings and repent. Not forgetting that he spells out that discrimination still exists in Japan. I mean, really, well done show.
With this development, I feel mildly optimistic. Here’s to no more brown faces, black people = hip hop mentality, and embarrassing ads featuring ‘white’ men with long noses