Jay Leno apologizes for past anti-Asian jokes: ‘I knew it was wrong’

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“Cancel culture” is not to blame for Jay Leno’s change of heart.

The former talk-show host has issued an apology for making a series of anti-Asian jokes made during his career.

Amid renewed outcry following the shootings at an Atlanta spa, the former “Tonight Show” host expressed his regret over his racist comments during a Zoom call with Guy Aoki — leader of the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans. 

Leno’s offensive jokes prompted MANAA to undergo a nearly 15-year-long campaign to pressure NBC to cut ties with him. The comedian’s most recent offense came in 2019 on the set of “America’s Got Talent,” where he made fun of Koreans eating dog meat.

“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless,” the 70-year-old said during the Zoom call. “I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them.”

Leno added, “At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it. Whenever we received a complaint, there would be two sides to the discussion: Either, ‘We need to deal with this’ or ‘Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.’ Too many times I sided with the latter, even when in my heart I knew it was wrong.”

“I am issuing this apology. I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part. MANAA has been very gracious in accepting my apology,” he continued.

Aoki called for Leno to apologize for his actions in 2012 when he wrote an open letter to “The Tonight Show” advertisers. Aoki wrote at the time, “Many Americans are unable to distinguish between persons of Korean heritage living in North Korea, South Korea or the US, or between Asians and Asian Americans generally.”

“Therefore, when Mr. Leno jokes about North Koreans and the consumption of dogs and cats, he perpetuates a persistent belief held by many Americans that Asian-Americans and Korean-Americans are perpetual foreigners who bring their objectionable dining habits to the US,” Aoki continued. 

He added that the “Jay Leno’s Garage” host’s repeated comments were part of a larger problem that meant Asian-Americans were “subjected to ridicule, disdain and abuse” and that “resulted in a rise in racial profiling and hate crimes against Asians, Asian-Americans and immigrants.”

Aoki has accepted the apology. Leno also said he hopes that “the Asian-American community will be able to accept it as well, and I hope I can live up to their expectations in the future.”

MANAA President Rob Chan released a statement on Wednesday, applauding Leno’s words. “I’m happy that Jay came around, and that we will be working together in the future,” Chan said. “We look forward to supporting Jay’s efforts to do a better job at using his public platform to stamp out systemic racism towards the [Asian-American Pacific Islander] community.”

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