In a famous scene in Fawlty Towers, a British comedy series from the 1970s about a blundering hotelier, the lead character played by John Cleese reminds himself repeatedly not to “mention the war” while speaking to German guests, inadvertently proceeding to mention it in every sentence.
Cleese’s character appears to have inspired Toshio Motoya, the president of APA Group, a large Japanese hotel and real estate company. Motoya first came under fire in January when Chinese guests posted a video about a book by Motoya, placed in their (and every) room, which denies the Nanking Massacre. He is now in the global spotlight again for apparently anti-Semitic comments made in a magazine distributed at group hotels in Canada.
Jewish groups took umbrage to Motoya’s apparent suggestion that the US is the victim of Jewish exploitation. Motoya expressed regret but said his comments had been misinterpreted, which failed to satisfy Jewish leaders. He stands by the revisionist book, which has led Chinese and South Korean athletes to boycott APA, where they had planned to stay during the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo. Both incidents are potentially damaging not just to APA but to Japan's national brand, taking into account wide international media coverage and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes in countries where relations with Japan are already strained.
APA does not seem concerned: Motoya has been quoted as saying Chinese tourists make up just 5 percent of the hotel’s customers, so he does not expect any major impact on business. But what about the perception of the brand among Japanese consumers?
Coverage of the incidents has been limited in domestic media, in particular that of Motoya’s remarks about Jews. One Japanese communications professional told Campaign that while the Nanking Massacre is a sensitive topic in Japan, “people have very little knowledge and few opinions about Jewish people”. “Anti-Semitism is even more foreign to the Japanese than Christianity,” he said. For this reason, politically incorrect gaffes that appear anti-Semitic are relatively common (last year, the pop group Keyakizaka46 caused international outrage by wearing Nazi-style costumes).
In the West, any action that can be construed as anti-Semitic is suicide for a brand or celebrity (though oddly not for presidential candidates): witness the demise of YouTube’s most successful content creator, PewDiePie, who just lost a lucrative contract with Disney after the Wall Street Journal reported he had posted a series of anti-Semitic videos. Similarly, many more liberally minded travellers might be inclined to avoid Trump hotels in the US on ideological grounds. But things are different in Japan, even if there is an unwritten rule that brands should steer clear of political statements.
“I think the extent of damage that ultra-conservative political views give to brands is far less than in the West,” the source said. “The Japanese generally see a company’s political or religious views as a separate thing from their businesses.”
Two other PR industry observers Campaign spoke to in Tokyo had a similar perspective. “Eight out of 10 people would probably say ‘I don’t agree with it, but it’s got nothing to do with me’,” said an agency head. “A lot of people probably don’t agree, but it doesn’t get in the way of purchase.” Another in-house communications head indicated that the general public tends to leave right-wingers to their own devices.
In the end, APA seems unlikely to see any drop in bookings from Japanese guests. But its outspoken stance is clearly unwise given Japan’s soaring inbound tourism and the heightened global attention on Japan as Tokyo 2020 approaches. “Once you upset Chinese people, it takes a lot of work to repair things,” said the agency head. “As for the anti-Semitic comments, it shows a remarkable lack of control process. Why wasn’t it caught in the editing?”
The source noted that APA is “not an outstanding brand to begin with, so there’s not too much to damage”. At the same time, if a company is trying to grow, it makes sense to appear ‘friendly’ to as many people as possible. In 2007, APA faced criticism for failing to meet earthquake resistance regulations, but has since improved its image. With its positioning of affordable quality, APA has helped change the concept of hotel travel, the source said. “It has a good product, so it’s a shame they tarnished it.”