By now you've undoubtedly read the brou-ha-ha over the "racist" ANA commercial featuring a Japanese dude wearing a huge prosthetic nose in an attempt to look foreign. Putting aside for a moment how much of a transgression the commercial represents, there's no question that "foreigners" and "long noses" go hand in hand in Japan. What IS the deal with that?
Whatever the case is, it goes back a long, long time. Here's a pefect example. Commodore Matthew Perry! My third-favorite Commodore after the "64" and "Three Times a Lady." (On the other hand, he's my first favorite Matthew Perry after, er, Matthew Perry.)
Commodore Perry opened Japan to commerce in 1854. He looked like this.
Yet contemporary Japanese portrayals tended to look like this.
Or like this.
To be fair, more accurate depictions existed as well.
But even this one has a pretty pronounced schnoz and it's obvious that the whole long-noses-equal-foreigners thing was in full effect even 150 years ago.
But is it RACIST? Or even insulting? Before answering that, consider another famous long-nosed fellow from the Japanese zeitgeist.
Tengu are enormous, humanoid yokai from Japanese folklore. They're known for their humongous, borderline phallic noses. But they're no pushovers: they're also renowned for their physical strength and their prowess with weapons.
So big noses aren't exactly a "dis" in Japan. What they really represent is an attempt to do something pretty much everyone agrees is integral to Japan's societal DNA: visually "branding" concepts in an easy-to-understand visual shorthand. In other words, making mascot characters out of things. In this case, they're making mascot characters out of the concept of foreignness.
And believe me, the Japanese are equal opportunity mascot-o-tizers. (I hereby copyright this word.) Like for instance, this is what Commodore Perry's flagship, the USS Susquehana, looked like.
Yet filtered through Japanese sensibilities, it looked like this.
I love this image - the artist essentially took a steamship and turned it into a yokai monster, complete with leering faces and eyes. This isn't really an attempt to demonize the foreigners. It's, like all yokai characters, an attempt to grapple with something unknown and potentially scary. (And Perry's Susquehana WAS scary. Its fleet was armed with 70 giant cannon that could have laid waste to all of Edo had Perry so desired.)
So there you have it. Love them or hate them, big noses and foreigners have been a big thing for centuries in mascot-obsessed Japan. They're yet another example of the country's drive to create characters out of nearly anything at all.