Why Should Black People Care About What Happens To Japan? Because Black People Live and Work in Japan, That’s Why

(The speaker refers to Alafia, a black woman who has a video series about her life in Japan called, Dear Life Japan. Check out these videos on You Tube, and here is an example of Alafia talking about black haircare in Japan below. She also refers to Jero, a young brother whose real name is Jerome White, Jr. Jero, who is one-quarter Japanese, has a career as a popular enka singer in his grandmother’s country.)

Some clot on an earlier post I wrote about the Sendai quake catastrophe was talking about how it was payback for all the periodic racist statements coming from Japanese politicians, from disturbing cultural references and manifestations about how they view black people, and from Japanese visitors who poke fun at black people. (Other websites are even declaring that the quake was payback for Pearl Harbor. And then there is 50 Cent putting in his appalling two cents into this mess, along with people who should know their limits like Gilbert Gottfried and that racist blonde bimbo attending UCLA, may her nascent modeling career sink to the bottom of the ocean.) Some black people are even asking why is Japan getting such aid when New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina was treated like a stepchild of the United States.

Understand this: What happened to Sendai (東北地方太平洋沖地震) in Miyagi Prefecture and other nearby areas in the Tohoku Region is Katrina times a million. Japan is a country; New Orleans is a city.  (The two nearby nuclear plants in Louisiana were not affected by the hurricane or the floods.)  It does not, however, excuse one iota how New Orleans was treated by the Bush II Administration. And frankly, many foreign countries, including Japan, offered aid and assistance to New Orleans, but the Bush Administration largely turned it away, allowed it to rot, or didn’t give it to those who needed it. Additionally, as a result of the Katrina Diaspora, they threw out numbers of New Orleans residents who deserved this aid, and who are still trying to get back home nearly six years later.

Nobody deserves something like this disaster. Nobody. I see this as a wake-up call to people around the world about the dangers of nuclear power, period. It doesn’t matter if it is in a reactor or in a weapon.  This stuff is nothing to play with, whether it is in the hands of someone who works in the nuclear energy field, or in the hands of a terrorist organization.

The idea that black people shouldn’t care about what happens to Japan and its people because they’re racist or xenophobic is ludicrous when one considers that there are about 5,000 black American expatriates who live and work in the country and have a different idea about Japanese. They are not always military stationed in Okinawa; they pursue careers there usually–but not always–with American companies doing business there, or in conjunction with research studies with American universities. They speak both English and Japanese and perhaps other languages. They have married and/or have had children with Japanese; they maintain their American citizenship and have a residency status in Japan (Japan does not have dual citizenship); and they do not merely congregate in Tokyo or other major Japanese cities. They also live out in the countryside.

Black people are everywhere in the world, just like other peoples and other human beings. They will also love anyone who loves them, and will live and work wherever they are given room and some understanding.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Which means that they–as human beings–are experiencing the same things as the Japanese and other foreign nationals in their midst–who are also human beings. And so to wish Japan all sorts of wrong is to wish these African Americans and their families and friends wrong as well, struggling to make the right decisions, trying to find family and friends in this disaster, mourning the dead and and anxious about the missing. And that is wrong.

These expats have had different experiences while living in Japan. They have American and Japanese friends. The glass ceiling some may encounter is not necessarily about race, but more about their foreignness. (However, those in and sympathetic to the Japanese right-wing could make a case against blacks for their color, behavior and foreignness much like some whites here in the States.) They can definitely give you some suggestions about where and how to get your hair done, if not where to live.

Takara Swoopes Bullock, who owns the blog Takara (Sister) in Tokyo, had a baby in December, and so she is definitely focused on the joys of motherhood. However, she has not written a blog entry since March 11–the day of the earthquake. She is fine (according to her Twitter), but there is no doubt she and her family are concerned as many Japanese are about their safety in the wake of the quake, the tsunami, and the meltdowns at the affected nuclear plants. (Already, radiation has been detected coming south and towards Tokyo.) She came to Japan on a Fulbright and was based for most of that time in Sendai, the very epicenter of the quake. She now lives in Tokyo with her American husband. Here’s what she had to say about who she is and why she is living in Japan.

Takara ‘Sista’ in Tokyo was created during the Fall of 2003 as a way for me to share my experiences as an exchange student in Japan.

Fast forward to now and this blog is all about my experiences, discoveries, interests and happenings as a wife, new mother, and entrepreneur trying to figure it all out in this insanely unique, cute, and congested city!

I have lived in Japan for 5 years, I am a southern girl from Alabama and a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C. My initial interest in Japan began as a little bitty girl when I learned the meaning of my first name was the Japanese word for treasure.

I took a few Japanese classes at HU and decided to take a closer look at the language and culture through a semester abroad during the fall of 2003. My first time leaving the USA was a lot of fun, but I was broke (semesters abroad are NOT cheap!). So, I promised myself I’d return one day and stay for a much longer time… just not as broke as the first time :).

So I applied to the super-fantastic Fulbright Program and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in Japan. September 11, 2005 I jetted off the lovely city of Sendai, to be a fully-funded research student at Tohoku University. I researched “The Impact of Higher Education on Japanese Women‘s Career and Family Choices.” It was very insightful and I had a blast!!

Still with me? Wow! Thanks 🙂

At the conclusion of a fabulous year as a Fulbrighter in Sendai, I decided I wasn’t quite ready to return to DC. So I relocated to Tokyo and entered the exciting, super-busy, and cut-throat world of recruitment. I now work as recruiter for web, e-commerce, and digital media companies seeking bilingual talent.

Takara and her husband participated in the 2008 CNN documentary, Black in America. Here’s what she had to say about her appearing in this documentary:

So what’s the difference in my treatment here? Well, I guess I simply feel that my color is seldom a first thought in someone’s mind here. First thought is I am a foreigner, not Japanese. Perhaps the second thought is woman or American, depending on the context. And my being a black woman, I’m certain it fits in someone but I’m just not certain where. And, that’s good. I enjoy not being preoccupied with skin color all of the time.

Interestingly, my husband and I met at work and we represent two out of the three Americans working at my company. Our company consists of Japanese, French, British, Irish, Australian, Canadian and Chinese. When we began dating, the first time we had discussion about race was after hanging out with a group of Americans, who made it a point to ask us very pointed questions about being a black/white couple, over dinner. Admittedly, it was strange. Which I thought to be very interesting, because to my American friends it was about being open and having an open discussion about race, but to the two of us, it simply seemed irrelevant. I don’t love my “white” husband, I simply love my husband.

Another question that was asked related to my life in Japan was regarding my work. “How do people react to you being black?” My answer, I don’t know, fine I guess. I honestly feel that my being black has nothing to do with my work in Japan– with one exception, it’s very easy for people to remember me and my name, because my name is Takara Japanese for “treasure”. People normally expect me to be Japanese or half Japanese as a result of that. So that makes for a good ice breaker when they meet a non-Japanese black woman with a Japanese name.

My guess is, what people are really trying to ask is, “Have you been treated badly because of your skin color/race in Japan?” My answer, “Nah, not that I recall.” And that, ladies and gentleman, will always be all right with me :). Every month, I meet with some 30-40 different Japanese professionals in my office and we discuss their career, salary, life goals– during the 40 minutes we meet. Not once have I felt that my race negatively affected me. And this is very cool. I have been in instances back home where a customer has refused my service, preferring someone who is not black to help them, not cool.

Anyway, I was really happy and thankful to have been contacted for such a wonderful documentary. I am looking forward to watching it and having an open discussion about a few things here on SiT. I have been thinking, it’s due time for an updated version of Reggie Life’s The African-American Experience in Japan. Hmmmmm… perhaps a sista can get some things going!

Yes, I have seen Reggie Life’s documentary, and he has produced some other good documentaries about Japan and its people–and African Americans. However, it was produced in 1995, so perhaps some updates should be made, especially because of the pressures of the crash of the country’s economy, the political situation, and more Asians of color and Western foreigners coming to live and to work there.  (I am also cognizant that Japan still considers Asians of color and other indigenous peoples–Okinawans, Ainu–in their midst as part of an outsider class.  Furthermore, some, but not all, younger generations of Japanese seem more curious about black people, and therefore appear more accepting about Africans and African Americans than their parents and grandparents.

Black Tokyo, a blog run by Eric L. Robinson, is another source of understanding about what is happening in Japan through the eyes of a black resident. His last blog post was March 15 (and it ain’t good news). Robinson was interviewed by the Japan Times in 2009. Here are some of his comments about living in Japan.

Your blog focuses on, among other things, the experience of black people living in Japan. Do you think that the experience of a black person in Tokyo differs from that of any other group of foreigner?

Yes! Of course, everyone has their take on living in Japan. When I was initially exposed to Japan, it was via the lens of an older white male. I remember telling my mother that I wanted to live in Japan after watching the TV special “Shogun” by James Clavell. While in high school and college, I read numerous books on Japan. None of the books were written by African-Americans.

When I came across the book and later the movie Bedroom Eyes, I was finally exposed to an African-American in Japanese literature and on television. I remember how upset I was that the black male was portrayed as a sex fiend, dope addict, U.S. military deserter and thief. The book and the movie, in my opinion, did not do much justice for Japanese women that dated or married African-American men. It just reinforced stereotypes.

Has that experience changed much since you arrived in Japan?

When I first moved to Japan as a U.S. Marine in 1981, I soon learned that Okinawa is not like the mainland, the locals viewed me as a Marine or gunjin (military member) first, kokujin or black person, second (not gaijin since that was reserved for whites). Depending on the location or time a day, gunjin and kokujin became interchangeable. I also empathized with many Okinawans, who felt marginalized by both the U.S. and the Japanese government.

In Tokyo, the kokujin and gaijin moniker was commonly used. At first I ignored it, but finally I got sick of it. I usually correct people, especially if the person knows my nationality.

Things have changed for the better, but it is still a work in progress.

Sometimes people develop certain cultural ethnocentric mores as self-protection and self-control and to keep the nation/group homogeneous and “pure.” (If purity can ever be achievable.) The Japanese are no exception. It doesn’t make them any superior or better as a people, it just makes them different–and the same as every other culture in the world. Including that of African Americans. As time goes on, more generations are going to be produced and raised who have no connection to World War II or the great economic boom of the Seventies and Eighties, and are more into having a multicultural culture, especially since television and cable channels introduce them to other peoples and cultural phenomena, particularly music. They are going to grow to discard some of this negative mess, but gradually. The Japanese are still mad after American jazz, Jamaican reggae (there’s a subculture of Japanese who have ruined their hair turning their strands into dreads and who have adopted Rastafarianism), and American hip-hop. How these long-term fads translate into how the Japanese people and culture changes is anyone’s guess, but I am hoping.

Besides, my religion is Nichiren Buddhism as taught by the Soka Gakkai. I have been a Buddhist since 1974, since a friend from high school in California taught me the daimoku of the Lotus Sutra, which is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I whole-heartedly learned the prayers and after receiving many benefits, became a member. These pioneering Japanese women and men, many newly-minted Americans, even with their sometimes broken English, encouraged me about the practice, and through them, I learned more about who they were as people and where they came from.  Unfortunately, I could not sit on my knees as easily as they could (and we American Buddhists no longer have to) to do gongyo and daimoku, but I have also learned over the years that what my friend gave me was a great gift, better than any thing that could wear out and I could easily discard, even though I no longer see her. Last I heard, she was doing consulting work in China.

She is part-Japanese and part-black; her mother was a war bride who ran a bar for black servicemen, and her father was a serviceman who became an engineer upon his return to the States. I remember very fondly being invited to Thanksgiving dinners with her and her family, and learning how to eat both Japanese and American foods at the table.  Her mom was funny, ironic and gentle; her dad grumpy and hilarious but accepting.  Experiencing her and Nichiren Buddhism led me to read something of the history of Japan around the time of Nichiren, to learn about its literature, and to read about the history of Japanese Americans in this country. 

One of my pleasures was to bike ride over to J-Town in San Jose to shop at Dobashi Market, a grocery store that closed its doors in 2006 after 100 years in business; at a tofu factory (where I first learned of the death of Elvis Presley on the radio in the cool dimness of the factory), and at the Nichi Bei Bussan department store on Jackson Street. This was also the area near the railroad tracks where some of the Japanese Americans resettled after they were released from concentration camps (I found out about this secret in fourth grade through a Japanese American classmate who clammed up therafter), and where Norm Mineta began his political career.

Even when I relocated to San Francisco, I went to J-Town, visited and shopped at Kinokuniya Bookstore, at other department and grocery stores, and of course, ate Japanese.  But I did not indulge in the fantasy that I wanted to be Japanese. I liked their appreciation of nature, their furniture and clothing, their wry sense of humor, their stillness and patience, their mad sense of orderliness, and on women, their seemingly perfect long hair (even that can be termed a process, and is not something that a Japanese is naturally born with as some may think).

So, to me, not all Japanese will “love” black people or like me (and I won’t always like them either, especially the stupid ones who know nothing about black people, or when they oppress their outsider residents), but it does not make me wish them ill like others.  They are still the only people in the world who have had the ultimate weapon dropped on them–and have survived it.  They started from ground zero and rebuilt their country to be the envy of the world.  I admire them and respect them as a people, which is why I cannot understand all the tasteless–and racist–jokes at their expense. There are some things that are just not that funny, and never will be.  The Japanese will need all that they can get to get over this unfolding tragedy, which is not over yet.  Again, I urge people to check themselves before they wreck themselves, contribute whatever they can to helping the Japanese, and to pray for them. And praying for them means that we are praying for ourselves as well that those radiation leaks do not lead to a Chernobyl situation.

It all comes back to us.


~ by blksista on March 16, 2011.

One Response to “Why Should Black People Care About What Happens To Japan? Because Black People Live and Work in Japan, That’s Why”

  1. Excellent article.


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