Japan Travel

Ignorance or Racism: Blackness and Black Imagery in Japan

January 10, 2016

Many moons ago, a participant of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in Okinawa (OkiJET) posted a series of YouTube videos explaining racism in Japan. He addressed the issues concerning Okinawa-Japanese residents, Burakumin (those at the bottom of the Japanese caste system), and the indigenous population, such as the Ainu. He also translated a documentary of a teacher conducting a social experience in the 70’s, where  students were segregated by the color of their eyes. It’s a powerful video, one that he shared with his Japanese students in the hopes to raise awareness.Unfortunately, the OkiJET was harassed to the point where they contacted his supervisor, who begged him to remove the videos. No go!

You see, their argument was that there is no racism in Japan. There are countless scholarly works that debunk that theory, but what I found interesting during my time in Japan was their general ignorance towards diversity and race. To be clear, ethnic Nihonjins make up 98% of the population. This is scientifically proven by me (and other non-Wikipedia sources) as I was the only non-Japanese personnel in my three schools. Moreover, there were only six Japanese-American students in all three schools; two those six were half Black. Therefore, if someone were to ask a Japanese person to describe a time they were inconvenienced due to their race, they would probably remain quiet.

The first time I noticed this general ignorance was during lunch at my Monday/Tuesday school. At that school, it became a habit to watch TV and there was a segment where a famous model/dancer, named Mendy Sekiguchi, raced against the nation’s top middle school runners. My principal commented, “He looks dark today. I guess he’s been out in the sun recently.” I was a bit taken aback, but I replied, “He’s not sunburned. He’s Black (person).” My coworkers were in disbelief. I asked, “Does he look full Japanese to you?” A teacher’s assistant shyly answered, “I thought he was Okinawan.”

I couldn’t help but feel bad, because they truly had no idea. But was this ignorance or racism?

Mendy Sekiguchi, supposedly dark because he's sunburned

Mendy Sekiguchi, supposedly dark because he’s sunburned

I posted this Facebook not too long ago:

I encourage everyone to get out of your comfort bubble. You won’t grow as a person if you’re always with people who look or think like you. How boring is that! My Muslim friends and coworkers have helped me be open and inclusive, so thanks to them!

 If 98% of the population is Japan, how do you get them out of their comfort bubble? Who is to help them be open and inclusive? Who is going to tell them that books like:

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“Little Black Sambo”

that contain images like this:

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and were published in 2005, are considered racist?

You’re probably wondering how a book like “Little Black Sambo” still exists in Japan. You have to understand that Japan was not part of slave trade and thus never went through an apartheid or Civil Right’s-like movement. Therefore, taboo imagery like Black face and Blackie cartoons holds no meaning, that I know of, in Japanese society. In short, it’s not party of the history or culture. However, I did have an interesting yet awkward discussion with a young assistant teacher who asked me to explain the difference between n***a and n****r. In Japanese, the phonetics for “er” often change to a long “a,” so he didn’t understand the differences between the two words or the rules of their use, but knew the two words existed. Very curious. 

During my time as an OkiJET, the #BlackLivesMatter movement emerged in the wake of Treyvon Martin’s trials, Eric Garner’s last words of “I can’t breathe,” and the Baltimore riots due to Freddy Gray’s death. All of these stories landed on the front pages of Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo, Okinawa’s major newspapers. During this time, I felt like I would have done a huge disservice to the role of a JET and to my friends if I did not talk about these events with my coworkers. For my students (3rd grade and up), I dedicated my February lesson to the United States’ Black History Month. Despite being unable to speak on what it’s like to be Black, I presented on the slave trade and slavery in the United States, showed them images of segregation in the schools, recommended movies such as Hairspray, Remember the Titans and The Help, as well as post a translated version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The images of segregation in schools really caught their attention, because they began to look around the classroom and imagine if the front half of the room was only reserved for only race.

This important topic increased in relevance when a Black Japanese-American was crowned as Miss Japan for 2015.

Unfortunately, it can not be all attributed to ignorance. There is more to discuss on the topics of race and diversity in Japan but for now, I leave you with this question: Can you describe a time where you were inconvenienced, harassed, mocked, judged, etc. due to your race? Comment below!

Enjoy!

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