Black Faces, Japanese Spaces

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On February 11, 2015, a tweet by journalist Hiroko Tabuchi brought the blackface controversy out of Japan and into the eyes of the U.S. public.

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.

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Adventures in Tokyo: I climbed the Tokyo Tower. [PICSPAM]

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It would be a shame for me to go all the way to Tokyo and not climb this pinnacle of tourist attractions. (I’m already in trouble for not going to Electric Town, let’s not add anything else to the list.)

Built from 1957-1958, Tokyo Tower stands at 1,093 ft and looks a bit like a white-and-orange version of the Eiffel tower (it’s supposed to). The tower is a support structure for an antenna that was planned to be used for television broadcasting, but now broadcasts signals for major Japanese media outlets.

Until 2012, the Tokyo Tower was the tallest structure in Japan; however, when Japan began making plans for the analog-to-digital television switchover, they realized that the Tower wasn’t tall enough to support digital broadcasting. As such, a new tower, the Tokyo Skytree, was completed in 2012, relegating Tokyo Tower to second place.

But that doesn’t mean the Tower is any less popular; a well-known tourist attraction and date spot, the observation decks were full of foreigners and young couples gazing out onto the beautiful cityscape of a Tokyo night.

The city of Tokyo from the Tower.

The city of Tokyo from the Tower.

A view of the moon from the observation deck.

A view of the moon from the observation deck.

It's a looong way down...

It’s a looong way down…

There's a glass hole in the floor that let's you see straight beneath you!

There’s a glass hole in the floor that let’s you see straight beneath you!

I found the Rainbow Bridge!

I found the Rainbow Bridge!

A panorama view of the city :)

A panorama view of the city 🙂 Click to enlarge!

If you haven’t yet, make sure to take a ride to the top next time you’re in the area. It may no longer have the moniker of “tallest structure in Japan,” but the view is still breathtaking and definitely worth your time.

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Adventures in Tokyo: I slept in a manga cafe.

Comfy cozy.

Comfy cozy.

My friend Deanna and I decided that we were going to take an overnight trip to Tokyo to see an Alice 9 concert.

We’d left around midnight the night before and rode a bus six hours to Tokyo, reaching Shinjuku station at around 7 am.

While we had reserved a room in a hostel, we realized upon arrival that we couldn’t check in until 1 pm, because the staff needed five or so hours to clean the room in preparation for our stay.

Again, it’s around 9 am on a Friday, and we had just spent six hours sleeping terribly on a bus, and now we couldn’t even get into our room for some well-needed rest.

Resignedly, we left our bags at the hostel and headed out into the streets of Tokyo to look for a place to sleep.

Luckily, the wonderful powers of GPS told us that there was a manga cafe nearby!

漫画喫茶 (manga kissa, or manga cafe) are places in Japan where people can read comics. You pay by the hour, or however long you decide to stay. While they’re supposed to be for reading Japanese comics, they can pretty much evolve into a make-shift home if you need a place to stay. This is due to all of the other services the offer: internet access, vending machines, private rooms to stay in, and even a place for you to take a shower.

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It’s really not that bad.

This was a perfect solution for Deanna and I, who really only needed just a few hours to rest up before the concert later that evening. The room we got was very small but was still able to fit two people. We left our shoes outside the space. The swinging door locked from the inside so you wouldn’t have to worry about intruders. There was no ceiling, and if you stood up I’m pretty sure you could see into other people’s pods; but you’d have to deliberately peek over the wall and that’s just to creepy to do (though I’m sure no small amount of people have tried). Once we lay down, we could hear the quiet sounds of dozens of other people in their own tiny rooms all around us.

Both of us managed to fall asleep for an hour or two, and we woke up feeling much better than we had when we arrived that morning. The experience wasn’t at all creepy like I had expected it to be. If you’re ever out late (or early) in the streets of Tokyo and you need a quick place to stay, find yourself a manga kissa; it’s definitely recommended.

Adventures in Tokyo: I found America in Japan.

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One night during our stay in Tokyo, my uncle took my aunt and my sister and I to this out-of-the-way restaurant for dinner.

It took us forever to find the place – our taxi had to turn around several times, and eventually we had to get out and walk. We followed the instructions from our GPS, but the building it kept taking us to was definitely not a place to get food.

Finally after stumbling around in the dark for half an hour we found the place, and it definitely wasn’t what I had expected.

It was an American restaurant that served fries and hamburgers and all the other glorious foodstuffs from the land of the free. American flags hung from the ceiling and lay spread out on the tables, and peace sign garlands and blocks of wood that read “Free Love” decorated the walls. In the back, there was a picture of a star-spangled gun; next to the bathroom, a plaque that read “God Bless This Home.”

The offending piece.

The offending piece.

Strung lights - what is this, Christmas???

Strung lights – what is this, Christmas???

God bless you, too, Japan.

God bless you, too, Japan.

It looked like something straight out of a 70s movie; it definitely had that last-century feel, what with the 90s music blasting from the speakers. Songs I hadn’t heard in years echoed throughout the small space, and I had the widest grin on my face as I sang along with everyone else who knew the lyrics.

A group behind us was having a birthday party, and halfway through dinner the owner dimmed the lights and brought out a cake sparking with fire. We all clapped our hands and sang happy birthday for this stranger we didn’t know, in true American fashion.

With such a laid-back atmosphere and delicious food, it was definitely a nice surprise for the night.