There's been some chatter lately about the movie adaptation of the "Ghost in the Shell" anime, and in particular the topic of whitewashing with regard to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character. I've never watched the original anime, but I have been Japanese all my life, so I thought I would share my personal perspective on whitewashing in general.
One of my earliest memories of feeling like something was wrong, way before I knew that the term whitewashing even existed, was watching the movie "Rising Sun." It featured a bunch of Japanese characters who spoke broken Japanese, as if they were just reading words from a script without even knowing the language. In fact, looking at the cast, there are a bunch of Hawaiian-born actors, so this is probably very true. These people may have been of Japanese descent, but they were being asked to play Japanese Yakuza (mafia) members, and their accents were worse than Kevin Costner's in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." It was jarring, and it made the movie unwatchable for me.
This would be a pretty consistent theme throughout my life. Japanese would be spoken by supposedly native speakers, but it would be stilted and awkward. It's been a few years since I've watched it, but "Karate Kid: Part II," a movie that takes place in Japan, is rife with bad Japanese and even bad English spoken with fake Japanese accents. Just look at this interview with two of the actors who were called upon to play Japanese characters, and try to imagine them speaking Japanese.
Speaking different languages is hard. I grew up speaking Japanese with my family, so I have a pretty authentic accent, but without much practice, my vocabulary has atrophied a bit. I could live in Japan, and immersed in the culture, I would probably revert pretty quickly. Asking actors who don't speak much Japanese, if at all, to pull off movie dialogue works out about as well as this. This scene was played for some quick laughs, but this has been my life with Japanese characters in movies. I am shown people who look like me, mostly Hawaiian actors with Japanese ancestry, but who don't speak like me.
Along comes the "Ghost in the Shell" controversy, and multiple people have posted about this street interview with Japanese people who are okay with Scarlett Johansson playing the main character, Motoko Kusanagi. It's stunning that people are holding this up as... what? I'm not even sure, but it bothers me a lot, because it feels like it is a denial that whitewashing has existed at all, or at the very least a rebuttal against the condemnation of "Ghost in the Shell." Oh, these Japanese people said it was okay. I must be wrong to feel offended.
Let's be clear. I've experienced something completely different from what Japanese people in Japan have experienced when it comes to movies and TV. They get to watch hours and hours of entertainment featuring genuine Japanese actors and voices. For the most part, I've gotten the equivalent of Brad Pitt speaking Italian, except that it has been presented to me without irony. I hope that this puts things into better perspective. Thanks for reading.