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Barret Racism Demonstrates American/Japanese Cultural Gap

by Jeremy Parish 

Anyone who disagrees with the notion that Final Fantasy VII's depiction of Barrett is racist is either insensitive or naive. But before we go pointing fingers at the games' creators and say "You racist jerks!" perhaps we should take into account the matter of cultural translation. Now, I'm certainly no expert on Japanese culture and I may be speaking way the heck out of line, but I'm willing to stick my neck out just a teensy bit here.

It is my understanding that the nation of Japan has an extremely small black population, correct? ...as in, a tiny fraction of a percentage. So it can be safely assumed that most Japanese have little regular contact with blacks (this is certainly true of my Japanese friends). You don't see many blacks in Japanese films, anime, manga or videogames. In fact, I suspect the Japanese are mainly exposed to blacks through imported Western media, such as movies and television.

Osamu Tezuka's "Jungle Emperor Leo" had to be edited when it came to America because it depicted stereotypical spear-shaking witch-doctor tribesmen as gag characters - characters as offensive to blacks as a short, camera-toting, bucktoothed gag character would be to the Japanese (I hope to god they don't read Beetle Bailey over there). But those witch-doctor characters didn't appear in the series because Tezuka was a racist, but rather because he was familiar with those stereotypes from American "Tarzan" films of the 30s. He thought they were perfectly acceptable, not realizing that America had become (at least superficially) more enlightened since the creation of those films. (Anyone who would like further info on this matter should read the excellent "Dreamland Japan" by Frederick L. Schodt)

I suspect something like that happened with Final Fantasy VII. Who does Barrett most remind you of? Why, none other than Mr. T of "The A-Team" fame. America's sordid history lends itself to racial tension of a type that people of other nations don't fully appreciate, just as Americans cannot fully appreciate the animosity between, say, China and Japan, or the dynamics of India's caste system, etc. I would go so far as to say that Square tried to make Barrett a character that would appeal to Americans by using a "shorthand" we would recognize - after all, Mr. T was huge here (in terms of popularity I mean), so of course it would follow that we should love Barrett, right?

This is not to say Square and Sony don't deserve blame for the result, but I think the fault is not so much racism as it is ignorance and the half-assed decision not to have Americans handle the localization of the game. Barrett's "authentic slum-speak" would never have happened under Ted Woolsey. In fact, the whole translation of Final Fantasy VII is awkward and at times pathetic (I half expected someone to shout "You spoony bard!"), especially compared to Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger.

The difference is that Americans handled the translation of those games, but not of FFVII. It's not just language that is poorly translated by those who aren't indigenous to the market, but also idoms and at times, unfortunately, values. If SaGa Frontier (featuring a character bearing a potential powderkeg of a name: "Coon") doesn't show a little more sensitivity, someone deserves (at least) a swift kick in the rear.

Perhaps I'm being an apologist, but I think these matters are best approached from a standpoint of sensitivity and understanding. Assigning blame to people is never as effective as finding a problem's root.

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