Violent Image Becomes Radical Chic after Drawing Criticism in the US, Provocative Logo Finds Favor in Japan

Article excerpt

A few years ago, a southern California entrepreneur named Sal Rocco Jr. introduced a new line of skateboards and sportswear. The brand's logo featured figures of a man and a woman, rendered in the geometric style sometimes used to identify restrooms.

The male figure points a pistol at the head of the female. Above the scene is the word "bitch." The logo drew criticism from Americans upset about its violent implications, and for various reasons it is no longer being marketed in the United States. But a Japanese company, which licensed the logo and began selling the goods here in late 1994, has encountered no such opposition.

"It's a big hit," proclaims the amiable Fusahiko Yoshino, managing director for Crown F. G. Company Ltd. His target customers are Japan's junior high school and high school students, who have been avidly buying T-shirts, gloves, mechanical pencils, and other items emblazoned with the logo.

Retail sales last year were $50 million and should reach $70 million this year, he says.

Sitting in an office whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a downtown Tokyo intersection packed with snowboard and sportswear shops, Mr. Yoshino explains that the label had a better first year than any other foreign brand he has handled, including the popular British label Kangol.

The only complaint has come from an American woman who saw an advertisement in a Japanese magazine in New York, he adds. Despite copious advertising in magazines, the wearing of these items by tens of thousands of young Japanese, and the appearance of the clothing in a similar number of laundry hampers in Japanese homes, no one else has complained about the logo to Crown.

The word is of course indecipherable to most Japanese, who see it as just another bit of English. Clothing manufacturers frequently use English words and phrases to embellish their goods, and the meaning of the words is usually inconsequential to the look they create.

The significance of the diagram in the logo may be lost on many wearers, since young Japanese, unlike young Americans, grow up in a comparatively crime-free society with few guns.

The contrast between the responses of the American and Japanese publics to the logo says something about the differences between the two societies. Just what it says is open to interpretation.

The lack of opposition here suggests that the Japanese are not as uptight as Americans are about the power of certain words and images to offend people. To put it another way, political correctness has not gripped public discourse.

Neither is there a tradition of individuals engaging in loud protest. Like many countries in East Asia, elders and rulers in Japan have claimed the responsibility for maintaining order and equilibrium in society. During Japan's feudal era, those who wanted to complain to a ruler sometimes had to prove their sincerity by committing suicide.

Generally speaking, individuals do not take it upon themselves to right perceived social wrongs - it is understood that the government is constantly on guard.

At the same time, however, the logo case may be an indication of how Japanese society is moving away from this age-old order. Yoko Tajima, a feminist and social critic, looked aghast as she examined the logo for the first time. "It's shocking," she says. "I hate it."

Sitting with two of her students in a lounge at Tokyo's Hosei University, where Ms. Tajima is a professor of English literature, she asks the two young women what should be done. …