A Japanese artist has refused to apologize for drawing a scathingly anti-immigrant manga cartoon of a Syrian refugee girl that critics say is racist and insulting.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that the cartoon is based off a photographer’s photo of an actual Syrian migrant girl taken in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
“Shocked+deeply saddened anyone would choose to use an image of an innocent child to express such perverse prejudice,” wrote Jonathan Hyams, the photographer who took the original picture, on Twitter.
“What a shameful misrepresentation of the plight of the Syrian people,” he added in reference to the cartoon.
The drawing first appeared on Sept. 10, when artist Toshiko Hasumi uploaded it to Facebook.
It shows a disheveled, slightly dirty girl standing against an arid desert backdrop.
“I want to live a safe and clean life, have a gourmet meal, go out freely, wear pretty things and luxuriate,” it says in Japanese, portraying the girl’s thoughts, according to the Japan Times. “I want to live my life the way I want without a care in the world — all at the expense of someone else.”
“I have an idea,” the girl says to herself. “Why don’t I become a refugee?”
The cartoon quickly caused outrage in Japan, a country caught up in the international debate over how to help Syrian refugees. During a Sept. 29 speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to triple his country’s aid to the millions of Middle Eastern refugees trying to enter Europe. To the anger of some Japanese, however, Abe did not commit to allowing any additional refugees to resettle in Japan.
“I’ve never seen anything this malicious,” one person commented in Japanese on the cartoon. “To think how the world and refugees will perceive this peace … I’m so ashamed.”
Critics launched an online petition calling on Facebook to remove the image as hate speech. The petition gathered 4,000 signatures in one day (as of Friday morning, it had almost 11,600).
When asked about the cartoon, Hasumi defended her work.
“It is my understanding that most of the refugees fleeing Syria this time are bogus asylum seekers,” she told the Japan Times. “Instead of traveling around furtively like before, those illegal migrants are now inundating other countries through the front door.”
“I have no problem with genuine refugees who really are unfortunate,” she added. “This illustration is supposed to be a dig at those ‘bogus refugees’ who are exploiting the world’s sympathy for those truly in trouble.”
As the controversy grew, Hasumi eventually decided to remove her cartoon from Facebook. But she has yet to apologize.
In fact, she went further, admitting in an interview with the BBC that she chose to illustrate a little girl in order to maximize the controversy her cartoon caused.
“The simple reason I used a girl is, if I drew an old man it wouldn’t have gained attention,” Hasumi said. “I am not denying that there are real miserable refugees. I am just denying those ‘fake refugees’ pretending like victims who are acting for their own benefit by exploiting the media attention on the real poor refugees.”
Last week, the controversy went international as Japanese critics of the cartoon began searching for Hasumi’s artistic inspiration. They found a photo taken earlier this year by Jonathan Hyams, a photographer and filmmaker working for Save the Children.
Earlier this year, Hyams had taken a photo of a young Syrian girl named Judi in a refugee camp just across the border with Lebanon. Once people pointed out the unmistakable similarity between his photo and the controversial cartoon, Hyams took to Twitter to complain.
“Save the Children is extremely saddened at the way this image was being used, which was done without our permission or the authorisation of the photographer,” the charity said in a statement sent to The Washington Post. “The Syrian girl’s family consented for her image to be used with the intent of helping the world to understand the ongoing horrors endured by Syrian people. To use this image out of context and in a way that is hugely disrespectful to her, her family and all refugees is not acceptable, and we are satisfied that the image has now been removed.”
Hasumi has admitted using Hyams’s photo as the inspiration for her anti-immigrant manga, the BBC reported.
“One group of immigrants that is sizable in Japan is Koreans, and Toshiko [Hasumi], who identifies herself as a conservative, posts her cartoons on a Facebook page that includes anti-Korean messages, including material that casts doubt on the stories of ‘comfort women’ – Koreans and women of other nationalities who were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese forces during World War Two,” the BBC noted.
“Hasumi has a generally conservative political stance; her other cartoons mock Korean ‘comfort women’ and the student movement opposing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” reported the Anime News Network.
Although the manga and the photo are extremely similar, there is an important difference.
In Hasumi’s cartoon, the girl is smiling, as if enjoying imagining her “luxurious” lifestyle “at the expense of someone else.”
But in Hyams’s original photo, Judi isn’t smiling.
She is glaring.
The reality of Europe’s refugee crisis, it seems, does not quite match Hasumi’s imagination.
Michael E. Miller is a foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post. He writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet him: @MikeMillerDC