Nike Japan faces backlash for new ad about teenage bullying

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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A recent video advertisement showcasing the experiences of three soccer players from diverse backgrounds from the global athletic wear brand Nike in Japan has sparked fierce online debate, including several calls to boycott the company.

The two-minute video titled “The Future Isn’t Waiting,” illustrates how through their soccer abilities, teenagers who are bullied for their race or other differences eventually find confidence.

The video has now racked up 16.3 million views and over 91,000 likes on Twitter. It has been watched over 10 million times on YouTube, and over 40,000 people have commented. While there are roughly 71,000 likes on that video, there are also some 50,000 dislikes.

Some social media users have described the film as “amazing” and “powerful.” A Twitter user wrote that the film “shows how unconscious acts can hurt the people in daily life.”

Angry feedback

But it has angered others, who believe it misrepresents modern Japanese society. Japan is a largely ethnically homogenous society. According to the 2018 census, 98 percent  of the population is considered Japanese. But in recent years, celebrities such as tennis star Naomi Osaka, who was raised in the United States and is of Japanese and Haitian heritage, have given people of mixed heritage more prominence in the public sphere.

This has posed concerns about Japanese culture and forced the nation to confront unconscious biases. “Nike made the Japanese their enemy. The Japanese who do not know about this ad might keep buying Nike, but I will never buy Nike. This is truly dangerous as it leads to the divide and they are making the money on top of it,” some of them said.

One of the three soccer-playing girls featured in the ad is Japanese, another is Korean, and the third is mixed race, with a black father and Japanese mother.

The Korean girl is shown reading about the “zainichi situation” which is a word used to describe ethnically Korean people who are living in Japan. The Japanese girl is bullied at school and struggles to cope with parental pressure to perform academically, and in one scene, the third girl is surrounded by a group of classmates who touch her hair.

They ultimately find their voice through soccer, and prove themselves to their peers.

A spokesperson for Nike Japan said that the ad was inspired by the testimonials of real athletes who “like many people today, struggle to feel accepted for who they are.”

“The objective of this film is to champion sport as a vehicle to empower youth to create the change they want to see,” the spokesperson said. “Discrimination is a global issue and it exists around the world. The testimonials of these real athletes inspired us to take action and speak more openly about bullying and discrimination.”

Ms.Osaka, who was named the world’s highest-earning female athlete earlier this year, is celebrated in Japan, the country of her birth. But her rise to fame has revealed problematic attitudes towards race and ethnicity in some sections of Japanese society.

Last year, noodle company Nissin, one of Ms. Osaka’s sponsors, apologized after being accused of “whitewashing” the athlete, depicting her with pale skin, brown hair and Caucasian features in an animated ad.