I’ve hesitated talking about this for a long time, because I honestly didn’t believe that the issue would spread so far out of Japan. Then again, I’m happy to see that there are some people who are willing to talk about Japan’s relationship with race.
In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been a while since I’ve made a post on this blog. That’s because I ran away from Japan after my study abroad experience there. After over 8 years of studying the language and culture, nothing could have prepared me for what it would actually be like to live there day to day. There were a multitude of reasons why I chose to turn away from the country I had grown to know and love, but one of them was the way I felt marked as a black woman in Japanese society.
I’ve had toddlers run from me, crying and screaming, because they were afraid of my face. I’ve had people stare at me incessantly on the trains, or refuse to sit next to me. I’ve been complimented for my “model figure” and had my skin and hair rubbed and touched by curious Japanese. I’ve been told, over and over, that my Japanese is “so good,” and I’ve listened to countless Japanese people tell me they were “so surprised” that I could speak, read and write as well as I can.
And I’m not the only one who’s experienced these things. Ariana Miyamoto, the first multiracial (half-black, half-Japanese) contestant to be crowned Miss Universe Japan, is facing backlash from many Japanese citizens over whether or not she can represent Japan, since she doesn’t look “Japanese enough.” Tokyo-based author and blogger Nandie Taylor went through something remarkably similar when she had a half-black, half-Japanese child cry upon seeing her face. She notes the “no foreigners” signs on bars and the difficulty in finding apartments because of prejudice against non-Japanese. Sista in Tokyo recalls an incident where she was questioned incessantly at a Japanese bank – the same one she frequented all the time. Tia Sekiguchi, a Japanese/American Blasian vlogger, remembers being taunted by the other Japanese girls in middle school about her hair: 「そこのけみたい」。 (In other words, it looked like pubic hair.) Vanessa, in an interview with the site Imported Chocolate, notes that Japanese men tried to pick her up under the premise that black women are “promiscuous and have big sexual appetites.” Kimberly, who was studying abroad in Japan at the time, says in her video on being black in Japan that she also had Japanese guys hit on her using a variety of phrases, including, “I like your hair,” “I like black girls,” “I like hip-hop,” and the ever-so-appropriate, “Wassup, my nigga?”
These experiences of ours are not unique to Japan. I’ve gone through similar things here in the States as well – mostly coming from white Americans. I’ve had people look at me in disgust. I’ve had people ask me how my hair “works,” and it’s been touched out of fascination without my consent. I’ve been called “exotic,” and “Amazon princess.” I’ve had my intelligence denied and my entrance into university chalked up to nothing more than affirmative action. I’ve been told that my English is “so good” – which is strange, because it’s my first language. And I’ve been told that I am “the whitest black girl” someone knows – both by whites and blacks. And I’ve had fellow African-Americans accuse me of “acting white,” refusing to acknowledge me as one of them, because I’m “not black enough.”
However, I will say that I felt more marked as a black woman in Japan than I currently do as a black woman in the United States. Perhaps this is because I’m used to U.S. racism and discrimination, and I understand the complex and complicated history we have with race in this country.
But Japan’s history with race and ethnicity is just as complex and complicated as ours. And Japan has a complicated relationship with blackness, and with the black people who live there.
This controversy over blackface in Japan, and the soul-searching that has come with writing my thesis, have inspired me to take this blog in a new direction. Instead of simply the cultural outreach that other bloggers are doing quite well, I want to use this space to analyze the current state of Japanese society and examine some of the important issues concerning relations between the U.S. and Japan, and Japan and the rest of the world.
I hope that, through my speaking out about things, I can add one more voice to the discussions that need to happen in order for us to succeed as citizens of a global society.