Aren't Foreign Last Names Strange? Ha. Ha. Ha.

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Sony's latest PS Vita commercial is set in a junior high classroom and features "an exchange student with a mysterious name".


The exchange student's name is Permetalpower Velersmiku (ペルメタルパワ ベラーミク). It's more of a mystery why a 40-something year old man is an exchange student, but that's not what is on display here. Having a middle-aged man appear in the commercial is a distancing technique that allows the commercial's creator the freedom to take a very real setting (here, a classroom) and make it unreal.

The man's name, Velersmiku Permetalpower, is said with great (and exaggerated) gusto, and the name itself is also unreal—or rather, surreal. Each part of the name refers to PS Vita games, and this is likely a series of ads. In this spot, the teacher introduces the new student, who enters the classroom and introduces himself. Since he's a foreign exchange student, I guess that's why he's moving his mouth around in a funny way? Not sure!

In the past few years, Japan has been using foreigners in new ways—as well as old ways. The old ways tend to have foreigners speaking funny Japanese (or not speaking Japanese at all). They are the other, and the commercial is often built around the clash between their foreignness and Japan. These ads seem very pedestrian.

The newer way is far more interesting. Instead of casting foreigners as outside Japanese society, these commercials put them smack dab in the middle of it. Take Konami's "Yoshida" spots for Pro Evo. Yes, the commercials play on Indian stereotypes (Curry iPad, um?), but at the same time, the foreigner in the commercials has a Japanese surname and speaks Japanese. He's foreign, but not. Thus, he gives the commercials a yosougai (unforeseen) element.

Softbank's long running series for "White Family" commercials feature American actor Dante Carver as a member of the White Family—once you can get past that ("White family", black guy, geddit? Uh...), the ads actually depict foreigners in a more favorable light. While he is the unforeseen element in the commercial, his character is just...a family member. He interacts with his mother, who is Shigesato Itoi's wife, and his father, who is a dog, in a normal way. The commercials do not refer to him as a foreigner.


Noting how Japanese commercials have been trending for the past few years, this Sony commercial comes across as slightly old fashioned. The set up is that the exchange student has a funny sounding name, and the unforeseen element is that the foreigner is actually an older man. But for the vast majority of Japanese people, all foreign names sound funny (Sony's YouTube video calls it a "mysterious" or "curious" name).


Many Japanese names use similar kanji, so unless a Japanese person has a really rare name, folks have probably heard it before. That means there's an element of Japanese people getting used to a variety of names, and when they hear names that don't fall into the standard subset, they tend to be bewildered. Foreign names, which are written in katakana, complicate this, as they essentially are sounds. Just sounds.

So, if you live in Japan and have a foreign last name (hello!), you probably get bewildered looks from people on a regular basis, or even people unable to read your foreign last name when it's written out in Japanese as if their brain has locked up and shut off completely. This isn't only a Japanese thing—if you have an unusual last name anywhere, you know what I'm talking about.


But in this commercial, it's not just that he has a funny name, he has a funny name that's completely made up from game titles. It's as though Sony stripped this character reduced this foreign character's name to noise and then the only substance that he's given is through product placement. This is only an ad, you say! Correct, it's only an ad. And unfortunately, it feels like a step back.

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I usually find when I over-enunciate and speak slowly when I say my last name (say on the phone), people have less of a problem. When I say it at the speed of normal conversation, there's no chance in hell.

Also, I have it easier than my wife. I speak with an accent, so people can guess I'm a foreigner, and that my name will be.. foreign. My wife's Japanese, and people rarely see it coming that she has a foreign name.