For many Japanese, racism against black people has long been seen as something that happens in the United States or Europe, not at home.
But when George Floyd’s death in the United States sparked a wave of protests demanding that Black Lives Matter, the Japanese also joined in.
The protests and marches in major cities sparked a debate over racism in the country and whether efforts were enough to confront and change things.
“Racism Paper Clippings”
In June, public broadcaster NHK aired a segment to explain to Japanese audiences what was happening in the United States, with the protests against the death of George Floyd.
The report, on a news program aimed at a younger audience, featured an animated video depicting the protesters as grotesque stereotypes, deeply imbued with racist imagery: caricatures with exaggerated muscles and angry faces, and with looters in the background.
The reaction was largely negative – the US Embassy called the segment “offensive and callous”.
Baye McNeil, an African-American teacher, author, columnist and long-time resident of Japan, was particularly critical.
He tweeted that this was an “offensive racist comment” and that it was time for Japan to stop the “lame apology” on handling black issues.
NHK later apologized and, following the widespread attention Mr McNeil’s articles received, invited him to discuss the issue.
He soon found himself giving a lecture to all NHK staff, which he said was an “extremely interesting” experience.
“There were a lot of good questions that showed a lot of people didn’t know there were issues with black face or white wash. It was really important that someone come and be able to explain it. ”
Mr McNeil has both praise and criticism for the country in which he has lived for the past 16 years. He says that in his immediate circle of friends and students, people have been very welcoming and open – and often curious and receptive to learn more about his outside perspective on the Japanese experience.
At the same time, he highlights a level of occasional everyday racism that he experiences.
“I’m safer here than in the States, without a doubt,” he says. “I haven’t experienced police brutality like you would in America, but yet there are clippings of racism every day and these add up too. Being different every day means that you keep going through difficult things. “
It’s an experience, he says, not unlike that of many so-called “hafu,” biracial people – with one relative from Japan and one from another ethnic group. And it proves the idea that there is simply a general type of xenophobia, also directed against all non-Japanese groups in the country.
“Non-Japanese people have a different experience depending on what they’re mixed up with,” McNeil explains. “The ones who are mixed with whites are the ones who get the modeling contracts and are put on a pedestal – but it’s a very different story if you’re half Korean or half black. ”
For example, when a half-black Japanese woman was crowned Miss Japan in 2015, she was berated in online comments as unfit to represent the country.
Tennis champion Naomi Osaka has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. In an ad campaign, her skin was lightened and the comedians joked that maybe she should have bleach to change the color of her skin.
Osaka itself has been very violent against racism in Japan and the United States. This week, she pulled out of a major U.S. tournament to protest police violence against blacks in the United States, after which the entire game day was postponed.
“All of these examples show that the Japanese public may not be quite ready to embrace its biracial population,” says McNeil.
Official statistics actually count biracial citizens simply as Japanese, he points out, reinforcing how people view their country as largely homogeneous, ignoring that many of their neighbors do not fit in as easily.
John Russell, professor of anthropology at Gifu University, told the BBC that anti-black racism is evident in “a wealth of imagery that permeates Japanese society.”
Japan for most of its history had been largely closed to foreigners, but when in the 19th century the United States forced Japan to open up to international trade, the US military mission offered its Japanese hosts a minstrel show: a series of skits and musical performances. by white crew members in blackface.
Going into the 1930s and Tokyo nightlife featured vaudeville performances by black-faced Japanese actors. In fact, one of the country’s most famous comedians, Enomoto Kenichi, or Enoken, used blackface on several occasions in the 1920s and 1930s.
“It’s actually a tradition that goes back almost as far as the United States,” says Russell. Although on a smaller scale than in the United States and without American social memory, the stereotypical portrayal of blacks has always existed, he explains.
Social media has helped challenge some of the opinions of mainstream media, he says, but it’s “a mixed bag.”
“It has both elevated the discourse on racism but also racism itself, creating a platform where vitriol can rise to the surface. The abuse Naomi Osaka experiences online is a case in point.
“I hope the situation is changing,” he said. “But I falsify my optimism with a certain caution. “
‘The change is still far away’
“Discussing racism is taboo. But this is the 21st century and we need to talk about these things, ”says Mutsuko Betchaku, who attended one of McNeil’s classes.
Even though she feels that a lot of people around her share the same level of consciousness, “there are others who don’t even want to think about it, or those who are not at all aware – people who think that it has nothing to do with them. ”
She says that she herself had been aware of racism against blacks before the events of the past few months, but that racism is generally only discussed in relation to xenophobia against Chinese and Koreans.
Her comrade Hitomi Hideshima agrees: “I have also known for a long time that there is discrimination, especially against Chinese and Koreans in Japan. ”
Both say the information the average Japanese receive on the media issue is very superficial, lacking in depth, context and history.
“The Japanese media presented Black Lives Matter as a simple American problem,” says Ms. Hideshima. And while recent events may have sparked the start of change, the optimism is somewhat tempered.
“There might be a slight shift in consciousness now, but a visible shift is still far away. “