Dear Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hirofumi Hirano,
My three beautiful children were all born in Japan and went to Japanese public schools. Their mother is a native Japanese of Japanese ethnic background, and I am a Canadian citizen of African background.
Since my children are light brown, they were often teased by other kids because of the color of their skin. The culprits were cruel, directing various racial slurs. Among others, “black and dirty as burdocks” was one of the terms that often came up.
But, when I once ran across and brought home a picture book, “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” (“The Reason the Carrot is Red”) from the local library, my children got quite upset.
Written by renowned Japanese author of children’s literature Miyoko Matsutani, the story unfolds like this: A carrot and a burdock ask a white radish (daikon) out to a bath. The burdock jumps in the water but soon hops out because the water is too hot; it remains black. The carrot stays in the hot water longer and turns red. The daikon cools the bath with some cold water and washes himself thoroughly, which turns him shining white.
At the end, the three stand beside each other to compare their color. The burdock is black and dirty because he did not wash his body properly; the daikon is white and beautiful because he did.
When I was talking about this story during one of my lectures on human rights issues at a PTA meeting in Fukuoka, one of the participants, a Japanese mother of an African-Japanese preschool boy, started crying and saying that her son was taunted, ridiculed and called “burdock” after his pre-school teacher read the aforementioned book to the class.
When the little boy returned home that day, he jumped into the bathtub, started washing his body and crying, “I hate my light brown skin, I hate the burdock, I’m dirty and I want to be like the white radish!” How can this child have a positive image of himself?
We all felt sad after hearing this story, because the book associates the color black with dirt. The story’s underlying message is clear: “You’ll be black and dirty like burdocks if you don’t wash yourself well in the bath.” So children with darker skin will be victimized by the message it conveys.
How can such a book still be in libraries and preschool classrooms in increasingly multiracial contemporary Japan?
I called the publisher, Doshinsha Publishing Co., and demanded the book be recalled, saying it was racist. The publisher disagreed. My demand to meet with Matsutani to discuss revising the portions of the book I considered objectionable was also rejected.
Yoichi Ikeda, the editor of the book published in 1989, told me over the phone that the story was the author’s version of a Japanese folktale.
“Matsutani is not promoting racism, she was just handing down to Japanese children our rich culture,” he said. “And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.”
Surprisingly, the book is quite popular and was even selected as one of the Japan School Library Association’s “good picture books.”
The author, editor and publisher, as well as Japanese educators who use the book, should face the fact that it insults many people in today’s multiethnic society. It’s important to have story characters with a positive image, so children who identify with them can develop high self-esteem.
“Gobo-san no Iro wa?” (“What Color Are Burdocks?”) is my counterargument to Matsutani’s picture book. The story goes: One sunny day, a group of children visits a farm and harvests daikon radishes, carrots and burdock. They put the muddy vegetables in a bath but find the burdocks are still black after washing.
The children take the “dirty burdocks” to the bath again. The burdocks get upset and jump out of the water, saying, “We are already clean. Black is our natural color.”
Carrots and radishes join them, saying, “Yes, we are all clean,” and they all sing and dance together. “Black is beautiful, white is Beautiful, red is beautiful — all the colors in the world are equally beautiful!”
Writer and illustrator Joel Assogba is a passionate public speaker and the author of “Gobo-san no Iro wa?” (“What Color Are Burdocks?”) (Daddy Publishing, 2004). He lived in Japan from 1994 to 2011 and is now back in Ottawa with his Japanese spouse and their three children. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Send your comments on this issue and Hotline to Nagatacho submissions of 500-700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org