Anti-Asian racism protest organiser condemns Joe Wheeler's 'belittling' remark about Kazuki Himeno

An offhand comment from a Sky Sports presenter has re-ignited the racism debate.

Joe Wheeler made fun of the Japanese accent after a Super Rugby Aotearoa game. What followed was a social media storm of public protest.

Wheeler quickly apologised, but one advocate is hoping his blunder can start an important conversation. 

It was a memorable victory for the Highlanders, but a racist gaffe from former player turned Sky Sport host Joe Wheeler has left people upset for all the wrong reasons.

"Just a word on Kazuki Himeno, first start for the Highlanders in Super Rugby - he was 'leally' good wasn't he, 'leally, leally' good."

Japanese player Himeno had a fantastic game but Wheeler, who'd lived and played in Japan for four years, chose to praise him in a mock-Asian accent. 

A recent Human Rights Commission report found 49 percent of Asian respondents had experienced discrimination since the start of the pandemic.

Steph Tan, who organised a recent anti-Asian hate protest in Auckland following the increase in anti-Asian sentiments across the globe, said comments like Wheeler's are "painful" and "belittling".

"It's really hurtful hearing rhetoric such as 'China virus' or that our people are the fault for this pandemic," she explained. "It definitely feels really horrific, and I feel like a victim in that - and we certainly don't like feeling that way."

Joe Wheeler has since apologised, admitting in a tweet that he "stuffed up".

"I've spoken with Kazuki Himeno)and apologised to him and the Highlanders and our Sky crew," he wrote. "I absolutely accept this is not the standard expected of the sideline team. I've got some work to do, but I'm absolutely committed to doing better."

And Sky CEO Sophie Moloney said his comments were "very disappointing".

"They are not who we are at Sky, and we need to do better. Joey Wheeler has apologised sincerely and is genuinely very sorry and remorseful for his mistake; and we are working closely with Joey and will continue to reinforce what is expected of all of our team.

"We will learn from this, and we will keep striving to reflect and respect everyone in our community."

But the mispronunciation is not just a one-off mistake. In 2017 Wheeler recorded a tribute song about his good friend and former Highlander Fumiaki Tanaka to the tune of 'Hello' by Adele. 

"Haro from the Japan side, at least I can say that I've tried," he can be heard singing. 

We will leave it up to you to decide whether Joe Wheeler really has tried, but current player Kazuki Himeno has accepted the apology saying: "It's okay Joe".

Steph Tan says a public apology like this reflects the level of awareness she was trying to create with the rally. 

She believes the speed at which Wheeler apologised shows that he is genuinely sorry.

"I don't ask him to hate himself, I ask him just to look at it and understand 'where did this come from?' and what can I do to strive to be more inclusive and have less animosity towards Asians."

Because a little self-reflection can go a long way - something the Crusaders will be doing for another reason today.