The Japanicity of Hiro Nakamura: Where is Tadanobu Asano When You Need Him?

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka)Image by seiho via FlickrMy first reaction to Masi Oka‘s character Hiro Nakamura on the TV show “Heroes,” was, a phrase coined by a dear friend of mine, “ontological embarrassment.” Moreover, although I have only watched three episodes of “Heroes,” as it was only just released on DVD in Japan, I think I can provide a fair analysis of the (as used by a professor at University of Waterloo) “Japanicity” of Hiro Nakamura.

The first point of embarrassment is the overuse of the tropistic Japanese man, the Japanese stereotypes that are brutally confirmed in the character of Hiro Nakamura (and his co-worker/friend, for that matter). On our introduction to these two characters, we see Nakamura’s friend looking at pornography while at work. This is the first point of shame as it portrays the contemporary Japanese worker as pervert and, perhaps preparing us for the image of “otaku.” We then hear the overzealous spoken Japanese of Nakamura and his unabashed otaku-like character (the childlike femininity of his voice is greatly emphasized through how he speaks Japanese). In juxtaposition to all of the other characters (who emanate control and sexual power), we have just been introduced to the “nerdy” Japanese duo. It seems obvious that “Heroes” were trying to lure in the American anime/manga loving collective, but in doing so and judging by the sheer “ontological embarrassment” on my Japanese friend’s face, have completely isolated the Japanese characters from having the same kind of “coolness” exuding from the others and have relegated the Japanicity of the Japanese to an inferior position.

Also, we again see the tropes of the Japanese male as the duo (Nakamura and his friend), too afraid to talk to women at the bar (enforcing the shyness of the Japanese man in social situations), and converse about comics and science fiction (“maniaku,” “otaku”). When Nakamura’s friend briefly leaves the table, Nakamura, fantasizing about the woman across the bar (or about entering the women’s bathroom) teleports himself into the women’s bathroom (again, Japanese man as pervert). Not only that, but upon getting thrown out of the bar, he is gleeful at having gained access to the bathroom (perversion). We are confused: is his glee from having teleported or from having teleported into his perversity?

We then see Nakamura on a train where there is a poster of New York City conveniently located in front of him. We see in this scene America (more aptly the trope of NYC as being equal to the USA in the eyes of the Japanese) as the fantasy of the Japanese man. He gazes at the poster amid the dreary Tokyo train wishing he could escape his drab life by teleporting to the ultimate symbol of power and freedom: New York City. Well, he does teleport there. Upon arriving, he can be seen as the bumbling perma-grin Japanese tourist shouting out basic textbook English expressions and saying “hello” to random strangers. Moreover, in contrast to every other character, it is only the Japanese character who cannot speak good English. He appears completely silly and, again, is obviously catering to a much overused stereotype of the Japanese man as nerd. When he finds the comic book painted by the character, Isaac of which he is the main character, we are again back in “otaku” territory. We see the Japanese man as infantile in his love of comic books. Instead of him finding a comic book, why not him teleporting to a museum and gazing upon a fine piece of art?) This is even pushed further as he steals the comic book and flees like a rebellious teenager.

It was interesting to watch “Heroes,” which it should be noted I actually quite enjoy thus far despite this criticism, with a Japanese friend. Every time Hiro Nakamura appeared on screen, she cringed. Listening to his Japanese was painful to her and at times it was hard for her to even look at this heavily stereotyped depiction of a Japanese person (Nakamura, through the frame of this show) without a heavy dose of ontological embarrassment. “They are making him out to be some kind of goofy comic book character,” was her reaction.

I am not sure how they will work to change his character as he is developed in the coming episodes, but I think it should be noted that the initial set-up of his character through the first three episodes heavily layers him in stereotypes and, I think, relegates the Japanicity of his character to a kind of cartoonized flat image devoid of authenticity. So, I have a suggestion for the creators of “Heroes.” I think Nakamura’s character should be quickly alleviated, written-out, teleported to a different planet. Then, I think a new Japanese character should be introduced and my proposal is the prolific Tadanobu Asano (actor, musician, model). It seems that Asano would fit much better in the general “Heroes” aesthetic of dark dramatics and give the Americanized version of the Japanese image a much needed make over. Moreover, I see it necessary to completely disconnect Asano from the tropes of Nakamura and actually give him the same depth and cool stylization as other characters seem to receive. Restore the angle of the Japanese character with the same level of intensity given to the others and at least present him as a character who can speak English. By the way, here is a picture of my suggestion for a new Hiro Nakamura, Tadanobu Asano:

Tadanobu Asano

If the DVD sales of “Heroes” declines in Japan, it is not because “Heroes” is a bad show, but it is because of the embarrassing portrayal of the contemporary Japanese man.


9 thoughts on “The Japanicity of Hiro Nakamura: Where is Tadanobu Asano When You Need Him?

  1. doc

    hey this is doc from the itunes podcast: Heroes of Science Fiction and Fantasy, i have read your article and wanted to make a comment or two. I feel that the Japanese character on Heroes is a nerd. He is not the typical Japanese man but a nerd. I am from the USA and have watched Heroes often. I also do not begin to believe that Americans think that Hiro is the average Japanese man. I do believe we think he is a “nerd”, which every country has a share of. I was a bouncer for many years in night clubs in San Francisco and would never consider a Japanese man to be a push over. That would be a grave mistake. Heroes does not change that fact.

  2. jgrefe Post author

    What interests me is the portrayal of the Japanese man as “nerd” and not as a character with the dark depth that other characters seem to have. However, I also think that in the context of the other characters, his character provides a nice warmth.

  3. Heroes in Japan

    I just want to say that am I living in Japan right now and have been for 4 years and in my experience Hiro Nakamura is not an unusual portrayal of a Japanese man. I would never say that all Japanese men are like that and I don’t think anyone would be so stupid to think that. I do however, believe that he portrays a stereotype that has a strong basis in reality.

  4. jgrefe Post author

    While I do admire the character and the development of the character, I think that it was the choice to perpetuate that stereotype that was frustrating for me. Oka’s character could have been stretched in so many different directions, but the choice to show him in scenes such as described in the article seemed weak to me. The power of a famous show like “Heroes” to foster and perhaps even develop stereotypes may be something to take into consideration.

  5. Mike

    I agree that he is a nerd, but his character does get fully developed with romantic, tragic, and action scenes.
    If you watch episode 4, we see the Future version of himself which is very different from the nerd stereotype, showing the potential of the character.

    When else do you get to see a Japanese character who speaks really good Japanese (his friend is abysmal however) portrayed by an actual Japanese actor and who saves the world?

    I think all the characters in Heroes are stereotypes/comic book archetypes but as the series goes on, we see that they’re very rich human beings. Hiro, though is comedic relief, has a lot of great moments that many Japanese would be proud of. It’s about beginning as a stereotype and breaking free from the mold.

  6. lily

    I did a search regarding Hiro’s character as perpetuation of a stereotype and was glad to read this. I couldn’t agree more. As a white American female, I also cringe at much of the speech and behavior of Hiro and his friend. I feel they’re emasculated and made overly comical, and that what we’re seeing is the 2009 version of the buck toothed Japanese stereotypical character of the 1940’s. It’s not just Hiro, either. The black man is a criminal, the blonde Texan is a cheerleader, etc. Disappointingly predictable stereotyping from an otherwise great show.

  7. James

    Question to JG or others who lament Nakamura’s image- have you evidence that the Japan entertainment media treat non-Japanese characters with similar respect, depth, coolness and avoidance of stereotype?

    I too have found Hiro Nakamura more than a little annoying, in no small part because of Oka’s forced sounding ‘Japanese-English. (‘Mahto Pahkoman, meeto Mahto Pahkoman!’ )’

    Nevertheless, my suspicion and experience is that Japanese media enforce and cling to comfortable stereotypes of foreigners (especially non-Whites) at least as much as their American counterpart. In America, at least there are a range of voices and images of Asians on TV. Criticizing American racism from Japan is the ultimate stone-throwing-from -glass-house.

    Disclosure-I’m in my last of seven years living in Japan. -jmad

  8. jgrefe Post author

    Thank you for the comment.
    Being involved six-days a week in Japanese television, I would have to say that the Japanese image of foreigners is riddled with
    stereotypes. You are definitely right to say that America has a better depth of voice in terms of characters from different cultures. I would
    not want to disagree with that.

    Although, the blog entry was written in haste, I think even living in Japan (disclosure: last of five years), my roots are in American television. I’m sure
    it is not only “American” television, but perhaps the medium of television itself that should be called into question.

    Some questions for consideration, might be:
    How much of what you see on television, especially “popular” shows are more scripted than not? How much off-camera instruction from the producers are involved in the manufacturing of anyone’s image on the television? Can a character NOT be “stereotyped” in some way through the medium of television? Also, and the sad part, is to think about the complicity of the performer. No actor/actress can perpetuate a stereotyped character without being complicit in the developing and acting out of that character, no matter how much bargaining they do with the producer(s) involved.

    Anyone in the business of selling a show to an audience will have to spin the show a certain way and the person being spun must be complicit with that.

    How is criticizing American racism from Japan the “ultimate stone-throwing-from-glass house?” In what ways could I have better approached this subject? How would you approach and better help me to articulate this subject of (as a non-Japanese living in Japan) addressing foreign media?

    Thank you again for the stimulating comment!

  9. random surfer

    “Nevertheless, my suspicion and experience is that Japanese media enforce and cling to comfortable stereotypes of foreigners (especially non-Whites) at least as much as their American counterpart.”

    And that would be relevant if the theme of this discussion was comparing and contrasting American media stereotypes vs Japanese media stereotypes, or racism in Japan vs racism in America. But it isn’t.

    The quoted poster seems to be under the impression that challenging a possible stereotype in American media is tantamount to claiming that American media is overall racist (which it might or might not be, but that’s a different topic), hence the “But-but-but Japan does it toooo!” defensive counter-argument. (A fallacy which often comes up in discussions of racism or other bigotry, i.e. “but white people get treated badly toooo!” “but men get prejudice tooooo!”, ad nauseam)

    Whether or not Japanese media stereotypes foreigners is irrelevant to whether or not Hiro is a stereotype. I know that as an American who watches American (and some British) media, I’d rather criticize what it’s in my own backyard and leave it up to my Japanese counterparts to read their own the riot act.

    tl;dr version: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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