The Racial Confines of Wrigley Field

By Gordon Wittenmyer
Updated: April 19, 2008

CHICAGO — Kosuke Fukudome didn’t have to wait long for the ugly American part of his welcome to Wrigleyville.

A Fukudome T-shirt with a racist image is the hottest-selling item at a souvenir stand that sells unlicensed Cubs-related merchandise across Addison Street from the ballpark, according to Mark Kolbusz, who’s in his fourth season operating the stand.

On the front of the shirt is the traditional Cubs cartoon bear face but with slanted eyes and wearing oversized Harry Caray-style glasses. It’s accompanied by the words ”Horry Kow,” scrawled in cartoonish ”Japanese” script. Fukudome’s name and number are on the back.

”That’s the No. 1 seller this year, by far,” said Kolbusz, who estimates one in 10 customers complain about being offended.

While Kolbusz was answering questions, two white guys stopped by the stand and pointed at the shirt, with one affecting a 1960s B-movie accent while reading aloud the words on the shirt.

His friend responded in a similar offensive accent, ”Oh, you tink dat funny?”

They walked away laughing.

Apparently, it’s not only the Cubs’ World Series form that’s stuck in a 100-year time warp.

For all the innocently mistranslated signs, bows and zealous cheering from right-field bleacher regulars for the franchise’s first Japanese major-leaguer, the mere creation of this shirt — but especially its popularity — sends a raw, vulgar message about Fukudome’s new hometown.

”I don’t know what the creator of the shirt meant this to be, but they should make it right,” Fukudome said through his interpreter after being shown one of the shirts Thursday. ”Maybe the creator created it because he thought it was funny, or maybe he made it to condescend the race. I don’t know.”

Regardless, it’s not funny. The image feeds not only ugly, arrogant and ignorant Japanese stereotypes, but also the stereotype of the obnoxious, profane, drunken, booing, garbage-throwing Cubs fan.

How much truth is there in either image? And how funny is either one? Kolbusz said he’s ”indifferent” to the image on the shirt.

”I’m making money,” he said. ”It doesn’t offend me. If other people are offended by it, it’s just a silly T-shirt. Nobody is trying to offend anybody.”

Which is probably true — and, if so, sadly ignorant.

Kolbusz went as far as pointing out that the shirt’s creator is ”an Oriental guy” and also pointed out an Asian woman he sold a shirt to. But the customer in question, Laureen Hom, had no intention of wearing the shirt, she said.

”I bought it for my mom, who has a collection of racist images of Asian Americans,” she said. And, she added, the fact the creator is Asian ”is no excuse.”

Both of Hom’s parents are Asian-American Studies professors at San Francisco State University, and they’re in Chicago this week for the annual conference of the Association for Asian-American Studies. Hom, originally from San Francisco and now living in New York, met them in Chicago and attended the Reds-Cubs game Thursday with her friend Kimberley Ma.

”It’s always weird buying that stuff,” said Hom, who was startled to see the bear image on the shirt with the slanted eyes as she walked toward the ballpark. ”And then I got closer and saw the lettering and thought, ‘Oh, my God.”’

Ma called it ”shocking” and ”insulting.”

Hom compared the shirt to a series of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts five years ago that stirred outrage and controversy before quickly being pulled from shelves. One version featured caricature faces with slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats and a slogan that said, ”Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White.”

Cubs officials made it clear they have nothing to do with the creation or marketing of the image, which also is being sold on headbands. The team had no official comment.

Fukudome did not seem shocked.

”I knew I was coming to a different country, so I expected something like this,” he said. ”Maybe not necessarily racial, but that anybody could take any context of my words and degrade me if they wanted to. But if I make a big deal out of it, it’s not going to benefit me, so I’m not going to make a big deal of it.”