Even in the 21st century, the Land of the Rising Sun still is a source of bewilderment and suspicion to much of black America.
Japan is one of the world’s great travel destinations, but a tricky one for any independent traveler. For black Americans, though, there’s an added, uncomfortable question:
How do the Japanese feel about “us”…really?
The question actually could apply to nearly all of Asia, but it comes up first in any dscussion of Japan.
We’ve all heard about the Sambo dolls and “darkie toothpaste,” racist comments made by certain Japanese politicians, and so on. We see Japanese kids getting into hip-hop (along with the rest of the planet), and then see Japanese entertainers resorting to modern-day blackface.
DROPPING THEIR FISH
Only last week, I was reading on a black-oriented chat site about how Tokyo cabbies deliberately passed up black visitors trying to hail a cab. “Too, dark! Too dark!” they yelled as they sped by.
You may be thinking, “Why go all that way and pay all that money just to be subjected to racism? I can get that at home!” Truth is, it’s not all one-way over there. Talk to any 10 black folks who’ve spent any time in Japan and you likely will come away with five horror stories and five tales of joy.
Me? I experienced both.
More than once while walking around Tokyo back in the 1970s, my wife and I could feel people’s eyes on us, and sometimes caught them openly giggling and laughing. For awhile, we were wondering if one of us had grown a tail. One young woman was so into her own mocking moment that she stumbled and dropped the rather sizable fish she’d just bought.
Ever after, whenever someone made a complete fool of themselves in public, we’d laugh and say, “He dropped his fish!”
The next night, we’re in the Ginza district. It’s 10 o’clock. We’re expecting this sprawling temple of neon to be buzzing. No one told us that the Ginza basically rolled up by about eight. So here we are, wandering in unfamiliar and steadily darkening territory, miles from our hotel and not a taxi in sight. It’s getting scary.
All of a sudden, a group of Japanese youths approach us. In halting English, tell us about this jazz club they know, and lead us to this innocuous-looking little office building a couple of blocks away. The club’s inside, one floor up — and it’s jumpin’!
We spend the next few hours drinking Kirin beers out of a glass boot and listening to some of the best jazz I’ve ever heard, in a place we never would’ve found on our own. And when it was over, they helped us get a cab back to the hotel.
So which of these is the real Japan?
Many non-Japanese who’ve spent a lot of time in the country will tell you that you don’t have to be black to be the object of scorn in Japan. All you have to be is a gaijin. And who is a gaijin? Anyone who’s not Japanese.
The Japanese have their own label for our particular breed of gaijin…kokujin. And no, it is NOT the Japanese equivalent of the “N-word.”
They do have such a word, though. It’s “kurombo.” It’s considered an extreme insult, forbidden in polite society, and aimed straight at “us.”
And yet there are black Americans from all walks of life who thrive in Japan — young people who’ve gone there to study and fell in love with the place, ex-military who served in Japan and never left, musicians who’ve found receptive audiences, professionals who happily make their careers there. Some will even tell you they’ve managed to escape America’s racism by making Japan their home.
BRIDGING THE CULTURE GAP
Among those black folks who’ve “made it” in Japan, there’s one common thread. They kept their minds open. They all took the time to learn the culture, even the language. One of the country’s most popular singers today is Jero, a young brother who sings enka, traditional Japanese music style…in Japanese!
The Japanese themselves are making some efforts to reach across the cultural gulf, in the form of groups like the Japan African-American Friendship Association.
You may not have time for all that, but that doesn’t mean you should automatically strike Japan off your to-visit list. You just need to put the place in some context.
Japan has had an insular culture for most of its existence, to the point that shipwrecked sailors who washed up on shore from other lands were often not allowed to leave — and even put to death. It was the United States that led a reluctant Japan to open itself to the world — and that was done at gunpoint. World War 2 has been over for more than half a century, but our military is still in Japan, which doesn’t really thrill all Japanese.
Meanwhile, our peeps are finding their own voice in Japan, through blogs like Black Tokyo and Sista in Tokyo, as well as organizations like JAMS, a union of black American musicians in Japan. They know far more about the racial realities over there, because they’re living them.
So before you make up your mind about Japan and the Japanese, check out those sites and get the 4-1-1 direct, instead of relying on the proverbial “Well, I heard…”
So what makes Japan worth all that money and all that jet lag?
Well, let’s see. Forested mountains. Ocean beaches of black volcanic sand. Hyper-modern cities built on the foundation of a culture centuries old. A glimpse of ways of life, both ancient and modern, different from our own. A chance to see the Next Big Thing in automobiles, architecture, electronics, public transit and urban planning, years or even decades before it reaches our shores.
Most of all, a chance to get about as far out of your cultural comfort zone as you can get, and still be able to find your way back.