Anyone wandering the back streets near Omiya Station at 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, June 2, might have passed a particular office building, unremarkable except for two African men standing on a 2nd floor balcony, rope in hand, lowering a car-sized Ugo (eagle) costume down to the parking lot. One of them was Tony Ikeotuonye, chairman of the Anambra State Union, one of Japan’s two largest Nigerian immigrant civic associations. He had slept lightly and awoken at 6 to begin loading costumes into a Nippon Rent-a-Truck, a process culminating in the curious scene that greeted passersby that morning in Saitama.
This was the unglamorous prelude to an African masquerade performance more than two years in the making. Ikeotuonye and the costumes were expected in Yokohama by 10 at Africa Fair, the public face of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). They were to take the stage at noon, and theirs would be the sole scheduled event representing the diaspora that links Japan to Africa.
For Ikeotuonye, it was gratifying to find himself only 70 km and a few hours away from showtime. The idea of establishing a masquerade troupe in Japan had initially provoked a great deal of skepticism among his constituents. Since then, much time and money had been spent, and odds defied, to make this ambitious aspiration a reality.
The potentially momentous economic developments TICAD invoked also provided the Africa Fair performance — and its participants — with a sharpened sense of occasion. Rapidly rising GDPs meant that many investors again regarded Africa as an emerging market. Breakneck Chinese investment had stirred Japanese insecurities. Yet Japan’s trade aspirations mingled with enduring uneasiness about a continent troubled by weak institutions, its culture and customs utterly remote to most Japanese.
Surely Japan’s African expatriates could play a role: They were the only Africans that Japanese citizens encountered on a daily basis, and — as one masquerade performer put it — “No one who knows Africans personally is afraid of Africans in general.” But Africans constitute a mere sliver of Japan’s comparatively small immigrant population, and their role in public discourse remains minimal. The scheduling of two masquerade performances at Africa Fair — by the Anambra State Union and its Imo State counterpart — offered members of the Igbo Nigerian immigrant community a rare opportunity to publicly present themselves in a manner that might surprise and impress a Japanese audience: as a highly organized, civically engaged diaspora whose culture shares common features with Japan’s. After all, what is masquerade if not matsuri’s African equivalent?
Chairman Ikeotuonye, driving his rental truck south toward Yokohama on Sunday, also professed an awareness that something significant had taken shape, too gradually to notice. The world had become a place where Igbo Nigerian immigrants to Japan — many of whom occupy Japan’s socioeconomic margins — staged elaborate cultural events in front of ranking Japanese bureaucrats, foreign dignitaries and an array of television cameras.
For Ikeotuonye, it was a moment of visible accomplishment he had long labored toward. He could recall, from during his early years in Japan, checking into a hospital for exhaustion, at his wife’s urging — how he drifted in and out of sleep for two days, his waking hours occupied by a persistent thought: No matter how hard he worked in Japan, he would never be assured of prosperity. His hospital room’s only window looked out onto a concrete wall.
At around 11:30 on June 2, after Ikeotuonye had made his way to Yokohama, the costumes had been unloaded and the 20 performers had filled up the waiting room, singing, drumming and drinking, and all the sweat from the costumes had made the room’s air sour, one of the performers thought to acknowledge history. “If a moment should be seized,” he said, “it will also call out for reflection. Think of how we got here.”
Chief Chris Ndigwe, leader of the Anambra troupe, was asked to describe a vivid recollection of masquerade culture.
He was 8, standing in the doorway of his family’s home in Aguleri, Nigeria, his body against the doorframe. He was staring up into the jagged teeth of an Odumodu mask. He was terrified. Like most Igbo children, he thought the mask was inhabited not by a performer, but by a spirit. This one, he thought, had come to steal him away.
The masquerade had stopped at his house to greet his father, who led the village association responsible for Aguleri’s iteration of Ijele, often described as the king of Nigeria’s many masquerades, and today enshrined in UNESCO’s list of intangible human heritage. Ndigwe’s upbringing marked him as a bearer of that heritage: Ijele had originated in Aguleri centuries earlier, and the costume — bigger than some Japanese apartments — resided in Ndigwe’s family home between performances.
Ndigwe first came to Japan in 1990, when his spare parts business in Lagos succumbed to an economic ebb tide. He lived back and forth between Japan and Nigeria until 2001, when he settled in the Tokyo area. He worked at a recycling plant and a metalwork shop, then spent five years at a senbei (rice cracker) factory in Saitama, working alongside one of his eventual masquerade collaborators, Uchefuna Chizoba.
Chizoba had arrived in Japan in 2002. Then, his cousin was working for Honda, and Chizoba, a certified accountant in Nigeria, expected he’d stay with his cousin briefly until he found an accounting position. But the only door that opened was a temp labor job, which he worked until he landed at the cracker factory.
During his early years at the factory, Chizoba — who had taken part in his first masquerade at 15 — discovered that the culture from whence he came provided him with a sense of identity that transcended his vocation. “The more I understood my life in Japan, [the more] I would really look forward to returning to my village every year — to see my age-mates and to be near our masquerade.”
In 2011, a handful of Anambra State Union members — including then-Chairman Dara Ilechukwu — floated the idea of establishing a masquerade troupe in Japan. From the outset, much of the union’s membership deemed the notion unachievable: Even in Nigeria, where artisans were available to produce masks and experienced performers could be readily assembled, the creation of a masquerade was a daunting task, and was never assured of success.
At first, the project was left to the stubborn efforts of a core group — including Ilechukwu, Chizoba and Ikeotuonye — who tapped Ndigwe to lead the troupe. Ndigwe, who had already founded Japan’s first African expatriate cultural troupe in 2008, traveled to Nigeria to source and ship musical instruments. He located the artisans who would craft the troupe’s masks to spec, with Japanese customs regulations in mind. He also set about training 20 volunteer dancers, less than half of whom had significant masquerade experience. A handful spent two weeks in Lagos with Ndigwe, where they trained with traditional percussionists.
The effort became emblematic of the union’s broader civic aspirations. Ilechukwu was simultaneously struggling to bring an ambitious charitable project — so long in gestation that it threatened to go moribund — to fruition; success would prove that the union was capable of implementing complex public service projects, but failure could damage the union’s organizational integrity.
That project — involving funding and delivering critical equipment for hospitals in the union’s home province — succeeded on the strength of 11th-hour efforts from Ilechukwu, Ikeotuonye and a few others. Ikeotuonye was then elected chairman, and the masquerade troupe held its test run in front of an incredulous audience at his inauguration. “Even on that day, when they could hear the troupe preparing in the next room, many couldn’t believe it was real,” said Ilechukwu.
Imo State Union and Enugu State Union soon finished preparing their own cultural troupes. The opportunity for a public debut arose a few months later, when the Nigerian Embassy asked the unions to represent Nigeria at Africa Fair, leading Imo and Anambra to schedule performances. Anambra began rehearsing in April. The troupe met on Sunday afternoons at Tokyo Loose, a small nightclub in Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho district co-managed by Ilechukwu.
Rehearsals offered their share of post-national moments: Chizoba’s two children — 1 and 3 years old — weaved through the throng, clutching noisemakers; they clung to their father’s legs, the older occasionally exclaiming in Japanese (the only language she knows). There was also a bewildered deliveryman, who stayed for a moment to watch and couldn’t help but smile at what he’d stumbled into.
Before the first rehearsal began, Ilechukwu called the performers to attention and articulated his sense of the moment: Here was an opportunity to shape impressions, to ensure that people who witnessed the performance would think of a vibrant culture whenever they thought of Nigeria. “Important people will be in attendance,” he said. “People who will decide where Japanese money goes in Africa.”
Anyone entering the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Middle East and Africa Division would notice — amid stacked documents and the fevered bureaucrats they imprison — a single barren desk. It is not extra furniture, nor an indication of a job opening. It belongs to Masa Sugano, one of Africa Fair’s organizers. He uses it only to sit behind, perhaps working on his laptop, its virtual desktop also devoid of clutter.
Eight days before Africa Fair and TICAD, his email inbox contained a total of two unanswered messages. Recent tasks had included measuring (with a stopwatch) the amount of time it took to walk from the venue’s smoking room to various meeting places, so that he could ensure METI’s chain-smoking minister wouldn’t succumb to tardiness.
Sugano is the policy wonk at the heart of METI’s emerging African trade policy, and thereby in a unique position to influence the economic underpinnings of Japan’s relationship with Africa. He grew up partly in Cote d’Ivoire, where his father managed Sharp Electronics’ sales in West Africa. Then, Africa’s economy had yet to stall, and its markets were regarded as an important element of Japan Inc.’s global sales strategy.
When he went to work for METI in 2009, he requested the agency’s equivalent of a hardship posting and wound up in Pretoria, stationed at the Japanese Embassy. There, Sugano — who had no previous professional experience with the continent — got an education, Africa style. He was called upon to prod an embattled South African minister with threats of media exposure, to wrangle coveted seats at political galas, and to rally South African labor unions in support of Japanese digital broadcasting standards.
Along the way, Sugano was exposed to the political dimension of African trade, including its particular variety of dysfunction. But the complexity (and occasional absurdity) of the African business environment didn’t cow Sugano — it invigorated him. And, as African economies continued to expand, he grew convinced the time had come for Japan to regard African nations not as aid recipients foremost, but as equal trading partners. Policy work was one way to do that, but it was no substitute for handshakes or shoe leather, so he began to act as a human clearinghouse for African business leaders and their Japanese counterparts. “My eventual hope is for the diversification of the Japanese boardroom,” he said. “Until then, I try to bring Africa and Japan closer together by bringing people closer together.”
Sugano is among a handful of Japanese bureaucrats and business leaders who resided in Africa during its last economic upswing and are now influencing Japan’s African pivot. “He’s an example of what happens when individual dynamism coincides with prevailing economic trade winds,” said one of his former colleagues. “Deals get made. Money is spent. People are hired, relationships formed.”
Among the obstacles Sugano regularly confronts: racism, though he doesn’t use the word. “Problems of perception do come up,” he said. “And Africa can be a tough place to do business. But like any other market, Africa requires diligence, comprehension. And risk is tied to reward. So I try to reframe the proposition as one of complexity, not danger.”
Among the businessmen in attendance at Africa Fair whose perspective would please Sugano was Yamada Tetsuo, CEO of BMC International, a medium-sized company that sells VAT collection systems. Yamada also lived in Cote d’Ivoire, where he was the West Africa sales rep for a transistor radio company before founding BMC in 1976. BMC opened a Nairobi office in 2006, and in 2011 Yamada traveled to Brazzaville to negotiate a contract with the Republic of Congo’s National Tax Bureau.
Through BMC’s African sojourns, Yamada has witnessed his share of shenanigans: disappearing contracts, cronyism, a shipping container full of paid-for goods left to rot at port. He has nonetheless retained his sense of humor and his belief that Africa is the right market for BMC’s products. “Let Africa be Africa,” he said. “If you go there with your eyes open, you’ll meet interesting people doing interesting things.”
According to Sugano, Yamada has captured Africa Fair’s underlying ethos. “We hope [Africa Fair] broadens perspectives and brings people together. We hope people see things they didn’t expect to see — like a masquerade performance by Nigerian immigrants.”
At noon last Sunday, an African masquerade in Japan looked like this: The troupe gathered in the lobby of the event hall, except for its masked members, who remained hidden. They unfurled their banner and were instantly ringed by spectators, cameras and smartphones. They moved to the stage in procession, surrounded by a growing throng of onlookers, who ranged in age and expression — a bewildered child, a delighted grandmother, diplomats from nearby embassy booths (at first curious, then beaming).
Chief Ejike Edem, the troupe’s lead dancer, was the first to take the stage. He stomped to the edge and bellowed the masquerade’s opening call: a prayer to summon his ancestors’ spirits. The figure Edem cut was imposing enough that an elderly gentleman seated nearby tipped backward into the row behind him. The rest of the dancers poured onto the stage, in the midst of their first song. “Don’t wake a sleeping lion,” they sang in Igbo, over ringing ogene bells. “Nothing good will come of it.”
A crowd of over 500 had gathered to watch. They included a carpenter, a train conductor, white-collar employees of every variety, self-described wives and mothers. “I hope JR builds a train system in Nigeria someday,” said the conductor, 33. “I would like to work and live there. I would like to see more of their culture.”
“Nigeria must be the richest, most colorful nation in Africa,” said Setsuko, 42, who described herself as a housewife from Tokyo. Laughter and applause accompanied the Ugo’s appearance and the egg it laid at the performance’s peak. When informed, nearly all in the audience were surprised to learn that every member of the troupe was a long-term resident of Japan.
When the masquerade had ended and the dancers had changed back into their street clothes, they could be seen wandering the fair with their wives and children, or congregating in front of the Nigerian Embassy’s booth, where a growing knot of Nigerian expatriates and their families made the lane impassable. Occasionally, fairgoers recognized them and stopped to chat about the performance. Ndigwe and his 8-year-old daughter paused in front of BMC International’s booth. Ndigwe was asked if anything felt different, now that the troupe had debuted. “Different?” he said. “This is Japan. Always, I’m different.”
A few days later, Sugano reflected on TICAD and Africa Fair, which he had spent in constant motion. Hopeful developments abounded, most registering somewhere between the modest and momentous. Nissin Foods into Kenya. Sumitomo and Nitori into Tanzania. But human capital ought to flow in both directions, Sugano said, and by way of illustration, he recounted how he sponsored a Ghanaian shoemaker’s business visa so the Ghanaian could locate and purchase a leather cutting machine in the Tokyo area. Despite linguistic and cultural barriers, the shoemaker found his machine and made a handful of additional business deals along the way, cementing a long-term economic connection to Japan. “In light of how infrequently Japanese businessmen go to Africa, there’s a lot of profit to be had — and it’s not just financial profit — from having Africans come to Japan,” he said. “I have high hopes for the role Japan’s African expats will play.”
Around the same time at the senbei factory in Saitama, Chizoba — sweating in the heat from the nearby ovens — monitored a row of industrial cracker drying machines. When the crackers had dried and cooled, he tilted the machines forward and scooped their contents into cardboard boxes, which he stacked on dollies. Over the past decade, senbei have made the journey from his hands to a thousand shelves in as many convenience stores.
His manager appeared from behind a conveyor belt. “I saw pictures of your masquerade,” he said. Chizoba smiled and half-nodded, squinting against the glare that beamed through the factory’s opaque windows. Neither he nor Ndigwe had ever told their co-workers about their involvement in the masquerade troupe.
At his office in Omiya, Chairman Ikeotuonye pondered possibilities: Chief Ndigwe had proclaimed his intent to stage the first-ever Ijele masquerade in Japan. The Anambra State Union was preparing a humanitarian assistance campaign for incarcerated Nigerian immigrants. In July, civic leaders from the global Anambran diaspora would gather in Nigeria to tour their home province and coordinate their charitable activities. Not halfway into his two-year term, a shift many years in the making finally seemed to be taking place.
“Before, we wanted Japan to know we are here,” he said. “Now we can begin to show them who we are.”
Eri Sagayama contributed reporting to this article. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.