Politics

Malaysian "Ultraman" cartoon mocks Japan's tsunami

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A scan of a cartoon mocking Japan's March tsunami in Berita Harian, one of Malaysia's largest newspapers,

Two days after an earthquake sent destructive waves onto Japan's coast, and the body count was already estimated at more than 10,000, one of Malaysia's largest papers ran this cartoon.

It depicts Ultraman, a well-known Japanese sci-fi hero, sprinting madly from a tsunami wave. Houses and boats bobbing atop the wave evoke the first televised images of the carnage, which consumed whole towns with water.

Tasteless? Sure. But every tragedy inspires shock value humor. After the 2004 Asian tsunami killed more than 230,000 -- a small number of them in Malaysia -- New York hip hop DJs were fired for mocking Asians drowning on air.

The Kuala Lumpur paper, called Berita Harian or "Daily News" in Malay, has apologized and insisted it "did not mean to be insensitive." Goodwill between the two countries is essential for Malaysia's economy, which trades more than $31 billion with Japan each year. The risk of diplomatic fallout is increased by perceptions that the paper is a government-aligned mouthpiece.

But it's likely this will be written off as a one-off embarrassment, thanks to Malays who almost instantly formed Facebook groups to condemn the cartoon. A large number of comments reflect shame that the cartoon might reflect Malaysia in a bad light.

UPDATE: In the comments, Thai-German journalist Saksith Saiyasombut points out another tsunami cartoon in Bangkok's The Nation newspaper.

Here it is -- a sumo wrestler/grim reaper riding the tsunami. On a surfboard shaped like Japan. The only hack reference missing is the Karate Kid.

It would be cheap to assume actual malice in the heart of either cartoonist. This is a time for sympathy, not self-satisfying moral outrage over a drawing in a newspaper.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to know a fellow North Carolinian, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette, before his death. He was great at drawing cartoons that left people cringing. But he made you cringe for a reason.

Here, I'm cringing as well. Not because either cartoonist touched on some uncomfortable truth, but because they made a stab at gallows humor and missed wildly.