JAPAN in black

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 flag

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.


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?

Probably both.

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.

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.


9 thoughts on “JAPAN in black”

  1. Excellent article, Greg.
    Y’know, I spent a year in Okinawa & never had a problem with racial issues. But of course, I was in the military at the time and never socialized off-base during the day. Maybe that’s the key, to stay away from daywalkers. Nighttime is the right time.

  2. Greg – I was born in Japan and haven’t been back since I was about 2 years old. Both my parents are Japanese, though my father grew up in Whitefish, Montana, inland, away from the coastal evacuation zone during WWII hence was not subject to the internment camps for Japanese Americans. My brother has gone to Japan twice — and though he’s full blooded Japanese through and through — he says everyone there KNEW he was American by the way he walked, his height and the way he approached people. He felt isolated as hell. He said the experience was dead on to the movie, “Lost in Translation.” The key thing is he LOOKS Japanese and felt totally alone, and not knowing the language was a gigantic obstacle. Everyone was polite, things were clean, etc., but he was miserable. As far as racism against blacks and others, I can only point to my mother, who was a World War II teenager forced work in a factory to verify that all you say is true. Less so among younger people, but definitely still prevalent among the generation prior to Baby Boomers. The prejudice is horrible and a hidden secret, but it’s there. That’s why I’d rather hang out with people in their 20s through their 50s over there, rather than anyone older. Oh, and by the way, that some of the same generation of Japanese from WWII continue to carry their prejudices against Chinese and Korea; don’t ask me how they can tell the difference, but they claim they do. We are talking about a society that was once totalitarian, that was so foreign that NO ONE from 1945-1950 believed would embrace democracy — that once thought their emperor was literally God himself.

  3. David–Your insight shed a lot of light on this issue and I’m grateful that you could share it.

    I’d heard of some of the attitudes about Chinese and particularly about Koreans. Truly sad. At the same time, your reference to Japan’s once-totalitarian society reminded me of something. Japanese culture and ways seem slow to change on their own, but when faced with forces compelling change, they embrace it at a speed that is dizzying. The interval between Adm. Perry’s arrival and the emergence of Japan as a modern power was incredibly swift, and their embrace of democracy after WW2 even more so. Think about it: after adopting democratic government, Japan actually gave women the vote a lot faster than we did. The nation seems to have a capacity for reinventing itself that almost defies the imagination.

    In my own experience, my first close friend in elementary school had parents from “the old country.” Being bookworms, we gravitated toward each other. I was at his house often. Whatever may have been said after I left, I was never treated with anything but courtesy and kindness while I was there.

    As for the internment camps, they were the root of the one and only political “discussion” I ever had with my mother and stepfather as a kid. When I remarked on how shameful it was, they both exploded in their defense of the camps, loudly defending the indefensible. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wanted to hold up a mirror in front of them and yell, “Look at who’s saying this crap!”

    But that’s what happens, as we’ve seen following 9/11. Fear makes you stupid.

  4. Great write up.

    i previously harbored ill feelings about touring japan because of the prejudices i’d ‘heard of’. being a wander-luster of the earth, i would be destined to go eventually, but i kept it low on my priority travel order list.

    overall, your write up inspired me stronger to reassign japan’s placement in my travel plans.

    i am currently living and working in korea, and was concerned i’d meet the same disparities here, being that korea is approximately a 98% homogenous socieity but graciously i can say that i have not. the koreans have embraced me. i’ve been invited into many homes and even spent nights over in their homes for holiday celebrations. in fact two of my closest friends here are native koreans.

    during my venture in korea my goal is to ‘walk’ the pacific basin one nation at a time. recently i journeyed to Vietnam, where i also thought i’d meet opposition simply for being american, let alone, black, but again, the welcome was overwhelmingly encouraging.

    therefore, i am inspired to jaunt over to Japan within the next couple of months, verses at the end of my pacific basin sojourn, being that it is so close to korea and easily accessible. thanks to your blog i am more excited now.

    all the best to you

  5. kimmie–

    Many thanks for your comment. You no doubt have a lot of insight about traveling in Asia. Please feel free to share that insight with readers here.

    Overall, I’ve found that very often, the attitudes that others reflect is the attitude we ourselves project. If you go in with openness, friendliness, humility and a willingness to learn, you often get back far more in return than you give.

    Best wishes on your continued journey.

  6. I will be soon traveling to Japan and am excited about my trip. I had not thought about outright racism, but did consider that I will stick-out as a black person. I will spend the next 1-3 planning the vacation and learning more of the language.

  7. Irene–

    Congratulations on your upcoming trip. You should be excited! Learning some of the language is a great approach to a new country and culture. The moment people hear you speak even a few words of their language, it usually stands you in good stead. It’s been many years since I was in Japan; I’d love to hear your impressions of the country when you get back.

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