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The naked American at Narita airport

by Baye Mcneil

Special To The Japan Times

When I first arrived in Japan back in 2004, my identity was comprised of three major components: I was an African-American, a New Yorker and an aspiring wordsmith.

If someone had told me — as I stood on the international-limbo side of immigration at Narita airport, drawing my inaugural breaths of Asian air — that in 10 years’ time I would no longer identify myself by any of those attributes without feeling either overly modest, hypocritical or downright deceitful, I would have said, “Wow, so this is your thing: peddling prognostications to strangers in airport terminals?” before telling him how ludicrous his prediction was. Such was the state of my dignity in being of African descent; of my pride at being infused with that “I’ll make it anywhere” credo Sinatra crooned that New Yorkers were uniquely gifted with; and of my confidence that once I settled in and got my sh-t together, that I’d write something noteworthy, if not great. I was that cocksure.

But that soothsayer could have congratulated himself on having said some rather serious, er, sooth.

By far the most complicated of those attributes would be that aggravatingly vague label “African-American.” What is the difference between an African-American and an American? This is a question that hasn’t been satisfactorily answered.

Decades before I departed the U.S., there had been a sort of cessation of hostilities as far as labels for non-Caucasian people were concerned. Pinkish America pretty much proclaimed to Brown America: “Well, we gotta call you guys something, right? And, sorry, ‘American’ is already taken. We’ve tried nigger, Negro, colored, black, and even Afro-American — which fit so well with your hairdos — but every time we turn around, you guys get to whining and find something degrading, disenfranchising or prohibitively problematic about these perfectly fine designations.

“Wait! What’s this? Have you people finally made up your minds? This hyphenated African-American label suits your needs? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, for the time being. OK, let’s run with that!”

I’m paraphrasing here, of course. But, from the moment you step foot in Japan (or any other country, really), the complications inherent in that labeling begin to demand attention. For it’s a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in the excruciating quandary of establishing yourself for people who have not limited or spotty information, but virtually no knowledge of your people’s perpetual struggle against tyranny and genocide — not to mention that unresolved identity dilemma. Your African prefix is certain to perplex them.

“Which one of your parents is African?”

“Neither. Both are American.”

“I see . . . But you were born in Africa, right?”

“No, I’ve never even been there.”

“Whaaa? Are your grandparents from Africa?”

“No, not even my great-grandparents.”

“Okaaaaaaay . . .”

So, by the time your place on that long, inching line of mostly real Americans — few of whom look anything like you — reaches the immigration turnstile, and you slide your passport to the waiting official (a U.S. passport that, by the way, doesn’t hyphenate your nationality), you’re bound to feel a little anxiety about your status in the world, assuming you care about such things.

I remember smiling, for at first it seemed that I had been relieved of a burden I wasn’t aware I’d been hauling around for most of my life. I imagined I could perceive the heft and girth of that “African” prefix once it was removed from the equation, and that life had gotten measurably lighter and less complicated. Suddenly, I was just another American, with all the advantages and privileges (or in some cases, less savory epithets) reserved for a member of the most powerful cartel in the world.

It felt like I’d arrived in a place that I had no idea I was headed. The removal of “African” (and the retention of “American”) suggested I’d no longer have to endure the foolishness: There’d be no more race-based institutional bias, no more second-class citizenship, no more hyphenations, no more ignorant and offensive presumptions about my intelligence, my likes and dislikes, my propensity to commit crime — hooded or otherwise — or to bring harm to others without provocation. No more!

“I’ve got the Platinum AmEx of passports in my paw, and it speaks volumes on my behalf,” I thought — in retrospect, stupidly. “I’m practically in the pink,” I dared to think, as I swaggered into a labyrinth of conflicted longings.


Picture it: Most of your life you have been relegated to a premeditated underdog status, and you have developed a conditional comfort and pride in that predicament. Until your arrival in Japan, you saw America as this unrepentant superpower that unleashed its wrath against its enemies abroad — Japan in particular — not nearly as often or dreadfully as it did against its domestic foes, which time and time again turned out to be folk that looked just like you, and quite often for looking just like you!

But, without preamble or warning, you’ve been upgraded from an underprivileged underdog to an unshackled overdog. You see it in the Japanese immigration officer’s eyes as he gives you and your photo a triple-take and smiles, as if to say, “Well, if that don’t beat all!” and stamps your passport. He doesn’t see you as a refugee from some developing nation south of the Sahara, you tell yourself — uh-uh: You’re a darker-hued, card-carrying representative of First World global superiority.

You’re a Yankee now. And the world is your stadium!

This ultimately imagined recognition sends a disconcerting surge of reckless power and confidence coursing through your veins like mercury: “I will win in Japan! I will be the man! Women will swoon, and men will gnash their teeth. Wherever I go, they’ll know — oh yeah, they’ll know — if you show me love, you’ll get mad love in return, American-style, baby! But if you meddle with me, give your heart to Buddha cuz your ass is mine!”

I was an American, goddammit . . . well, for a solid 60 seconds or so, anyway.

Off in the endorphin-hazed horizon, I could see Paradox Flight 101 on its final approach, as the waxing weight of this new label I’d never fully borne before — and, truth be told, kind of despised — almost cemented me to the spot. The paradox being: The label “American” on its own was surprisingly much heavier than it had been before that double-edged prefix was removed. “African” had done more than merely modify “American.” I discovered, right there, between immigration and customs, watching a carousel of luggage go round and round, that it had been moderating it as well.

Being an African-American, the descendant of people who have been and continue to be on the business end of policies and behaviors resulting from fear and hate as old as America itself, has its “perks,” in a manner of speaking. Among them, there’s generally a measure of spiritual security in a cubbyhole of subjugation. In a system designed to put you at a disadvantage, failure is often justifiable and thus enjoys a measure of acceptability. And, success is doubly satisfying because it is accomplished against odds unhyphenated Americans rarely, if ever, have to defy.

All of that and more was gone with the stamp of a passport.


Later in your tenure, you will find this release liberating, but at that moment, on the threshold of a new life, it feels decidedly debilitating. When the customs officer asks, “Do you have anything to declare?” it feels like a loaded question, like you’re being offered the opportunity to testify before Congress. You’re tempted to be frank and say, “Funny you should ask,” and state your declaration of independence from African-American-dom and all its perverse trappings, but the uneasiness of your newfound independence has unnerved you, so you respond meekly, “No sir.”

Then you emerge from customs into the Land of the Rising Sun, and almost immediately your inner-city deceit detector is triggered! Something is amiss. You’re certain of it — as certain as you would be in a Brooklyn subway when a fight breaks out, where you could, at a glance, ascertain whether it was legit or a staged distraction crooks use to lighten the pockets of onlookers. The luminance of a new day fills the crowded terminal, revealing eyes lingering longer on you than strangers’ eyes ought to, but otherwise nothing occurs to confirm your misgivings.

You temporarily disengage that trusted device that has guided you through treacherous terrain for decades, and tell yourself something that will prove to be profound: “My watch might not be the only mechanism that needs adjusting.”

Minus an essential apparatus of your survival, stripped of your African accoutrement and, save that passport you’ve pocketed, any other identifiers that speak to your nationality and sensibilities (assuming, of course, you aren’t waving the Stars and Stripes, wearing an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat and whistling “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”), you advance through an array of unfamiliar sights and sounds, just as brown and naked as the day you were born, lugging so much baggage it’s a wonder you’ve made it this far.

From July, Black Eye will appear in print on the third Thursday of every month. This new column will focus primarily on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of “Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist” and “Loco in Yokohama,” and he has been blogging about the rewards and challenges of living in the city since 2008. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • phu

    “Until your arrival in Japan, you saw America as this unrepentant superpower that unleashed its wrath against its enemies abroad — Japan in particular — not nearly as often or dreadfully as it did against its domestic foes, which time and time again turned out to be folk that looked just like you, and quite often for looking just like you!”

    You’ve got to be kidding. The American government comes down on its black citizens harder than it goes after its foreign enemies — and simply because they’re black? This article is one long rant about the author’s personal persecution complex, but this line takes it past “well, that seems a bit extreme” into “OK, this guy is clearly off his nut.”

    Does JT really need a monthly column about how impossibly hard it is to be black? Because if this entry is an indication of how the rest will look, it’s not really about Japan or even the author’s experiences there. It’s a paranoid black guy from New York complaining about racism.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      Phu-use your imagination please. In the history of the American republic as a whole, there are a lot of serious crimes and injustices against “domestic foes” to account for, including genocides and ethnic cleansing against indigenous American peoples, almost a century of Jim Crow terror and discrimination against Southern Blacks, huge incarceration rates for African-American people today and the institutional unwillingness to resolve the poverty, educational neglect and community disintegration that fuels that incarceration…

    • https://twitter.com/chanceawilson Chance Wilson

      You’re completely right. Many African Americans have it very easy here in the US, especially in the South where some are lapping off government services while having multiple children and not contributing back.

      However, Blacks in the rest of the country are very productive and hard working people. Just has to do with the person and how hard they are willing to work for success. Life is what you make off it.

      • Sasori

        … Until you get outsourced and have to move to another country and reboot all over again.

    • বত্সাBATSA♥

      You’reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

      racissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssst

  • orchid64

    The previous commenter (phu) totally misses the point of this article and that is how identity is affected by environment. This piece is not about how impossibly hard it is to be black, but rather about how being in Japan changed Baye’s perceptions of himself and stripped away layers of his sense of who he was based on growing up in a particular atmosphere in America. It is about changing ones sense of self, and about how being in the drastically new world in Japan allowed for that to happen. This is the beginning of a story about personal growth and understanding, not the start of a whine-fest. I’m sorry that some readers can’t see that as they filter the content through their particular filters.

    I also went through an identity-changing process while living in Japan and can relate to what Baye is saying here. My process was different as I started from a different place as the child of a impoverished rural white upbringing, but the fundamental experience was the same. My old identity was stripped away when I entered a new context. For sensitive, perceptive, and largely self-aware people, it is the beginning of a process of personal growth and a change in how they see themselves and the world. This is what I took away from this piece.

    • phu

      You don’t agree with me, thus I must have “totally [missed] the point.” It’s nice that you’ve decided what I do and don’t understand and how my “particular filter” works, but you are fortunately quite mistaken.

      I understood what he said, and to a point I agree with you. Unfortunately, the message was couched in such an incredible volume of angst and political/historical hand-wringing that the tangents distract significantly from what was intended as the focus of the piece.

      It’s obviously intended to be a story about personal growth, and that would certainly be interesting and useful. But if the author can’t put together a more coherent narrative (and avoid the hyperbole that helps ruin this article), I don’t see how informative it could possibly be.

    • crella

      Very well said, I agree.

  • Squidhead

    I felt the same way. This guy needs a copy of the elements of style.

    Anyway it seems like this column is racebait for clickbait’s sake. Good job Japan Times.

  • Miamiron

    This would have been good if the author wasn’t trying to act so high and might.

    The writer uses a lot of alliteration,
    >Platinum AmEx of passports in my paw

    overly-complicated words
    >Later in your tenure, you will find this release liberating,

    and occasionally doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the words he uses.

    >But that soothsayer could have congratulated himself on having said some rather serious, er, sooth.

    Soothsayer= a term from Ancient Greece/Rome referring to a person who has the divine ability to look into the future.

    • crella

      Overly-complicated? Please…dumb down what you write or be accused of acting high and mighty? Alliteration is now too high-brow? My God, native speakers advocating for some kind of ‘English lite’.

      I’m sure he knows what ‘sooth-sayer’ means…that’s called ‘wit’.

      • Miamiron

        There’s a middle-ground between using overly-complicated language to sound intelligent/sophisticated, and a bumbling redneck.

        >For it’s a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in the excruciating quandary of establishing yourself for people

        and

        >Sooner or layder, you’ll be havin’ trouble with dem der wurd thangz.

  • crella

    Bravo, that’s not what he was saying. Nowhere does he say he came to Japan to escape racism in the US.

  • Suzanne Kamata

    A great start to what promises to be a thoughtful and provocative series.

  • goatonastick

    I was totally expecting this article to be about how he would feel like he would be “stripped” of his title of American and merely be seen as just another intrusive foreigner in Japan. I almost feel like the article is missing a part II where he realizes that losing the “African” hyphenation isn’t worth the relabeling as “foreigner”

  • Boey Kwan

    Maybe the government doesn’t, but society always crashes down on those who are different. Yet isn’t different perceived from our perception of the same?

    That’s why the Japanese are a wonderful source of open-ness and humility. Japan is such a place of freedom, in that for the people who feel trapped by racist burdens, they can feel respect for once.

    I’m not saying they’re perfect. There are lots of racial and political issues (ie Japan with Korea + China) but at least they can give respect to strangers, unlike the Westerners who judge at first glance.

    • Steve Jackman

      “That’s why the Japanese are a wonderful source of open-ness and humility. Japan is such a place of freedom, in that the people who feel traped by racist burdens, they can feel respect for once.” What have you been smoking?

      I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Japan. In my ten years of living and working here, I have found more racism, sexism, discrimination, paranoia, xenophobia, close-mindedness, arrogance and conceit here in Japan, than about anywhere else in the world.

      • KetsuroOu

        That sounds terrible. Have you tried talking to a counsellor about your feelings?

      • Steve Jackman

        Seems like I hit a raw nerve. Unfortunately, defensiveness and denial are all too common here, but they never accomplish anything. Too bad, this is the best you could come up with.

      • Boey Kwan

        If you so easily assume that EVERYONE smokes, maybe you’ve been hanging out with the wrong [Japanese] people? I know communities of lovely Japanese, and they have their flaws just like we have ours, but they are also amazing and kind.

        Sorry, I don’t smoke, and I wasn’t being sarcastic. Obviously no statement can apply to all people. I’m sorry about whatever people you’ve met, but maybe try hanging out with people who DON’T have any unhealthy addictions. No offense intended, and I hope you meet some really nice people, Japanese or not (^^)/

      • Steve Jackman

        Actually, it was a rhetorical question. Not sure, if you got that or not.

        My comment above is based on a very large sample size over the course of a decade in Japan, where I have met a broad cross section of society. I have met a lot of nice people in Japan, but that is not the point.

        What I am saying is that in my experience, Japanese society is rife with people who are extremely racist, sexist, arrogant and conceited. Often, these people are very well educated and in positions of power, so one would expect better from them. This is the basis of my disagreement with your original comment.

  • Steve Jackman

    As a fellow American now living in Japan, I honestly don’t get the point the author is trying to make.

    African-American is not the only place hyphenation is used, since one also often hears Italian-American and Irish-American, etc., being used. It’s just that African-Americans were not integrated into mainstream American society until after these other groups that one may hear this term a little more frequently. In fact, in my experience, the term African-American is being used less frequently as time passes.

    The other reason is that during the black power movement in the U.S., it is the African-Americans who themselves wanted to assert their African heritage. Hence, the emphasis on the “African” in them.

    As for the author’s comparison of his experiences in the U.S. and Japan, I’m afraid it’s like comparing apples and oranges. The context for the two countries is so different that I fail to see the connection.

    • crella

      And it strikes me as just as odd when I see Americans whose families have been in the US at least 4 generations peppering FB with posts about how great it is to be Irish…people seek to differentiate themselves.

  • Kimberly Hughes

    This is an eye-opening article where someone beautifully recounts his own personal experience, and from which we all stand to gain an insight or two. Seriously, check yourselves, haters.

    • phu

      Anecdotes do not provide insight. They provide examples, and in this case the sample size is one, making it useless as far as drawing conclusions, i.e. gaining “insight.” Your inability to accept other opinions — dismissing people who disagree with you as “haters” — suggests YOU should perhaps “check yourself,” as your credibility is basically zero.

      • crella

        Then phu, secure yourself a column with the Japan Times and start writing.

        If a sample size of one is useless, then all poetry, and autobiographies are useless. One person’s story can be enough to gain insight into an issue, or to illuminate an idea, and it’s sad that you think that one individual’s experience does not matter.

      • Steve Jackman

        I think both you and phu are correct, even though, you’re disagreeing with him. I agree with you that one person’s experiences and insights can be extremely powerful. However, I agree with phu that the author’s anecdotes in this article are not particularly insightful.

        The important thing is that a writer has the ability to connect his or her own personal experiences to a broader context and narative which readers can relate to. I don’t feel the author has successfully done this.

        The author has chosen an important subject matter for his piece. Unfortunately, it seems like a wasted opportunity since the article does not do justice to the heft this material deserves.

  • Ferrothorn

    I’ve always thought African-Americans are more sensitive & obsessed with their “African” status than normal white Americans, and this article only confirms it. Honestly, if blacks want racism to end, they need to end it themselves; quit touting/writing about blackness if you want equality!

  • saitamarama

    I’ll preface this by saying that I have met Baye in person several times and we sometimes talk. I’ve read his first book, which is fantastic, and sometimes check his blog, which is more hit or miss for me but leaves at least some bit of culture to take away. Overall, he’s a good guy who I often disagree with but he is more eloquent than most at explaining his positions. Furthermore, unlike too many others, he is pretty open at engaging his opponents in an honest discussion.

    Yes, his language is colorful and more off-the-cuff than the typical journalistic/academic background JT writer. Those who come knowing that have come to expect that by now and for new readers this is an introduction as strong as any.

    This opening column, from what I see and know of his works, comes off more as a platform to introduce some ideas that will be later broken down and built back up as he tends to do elsewhere. It’s a shame that he only gets a column a month and I mean that sincerely because Baye is someone whose nuances need more space to breathe.

  • KetsuroOu

    This new column is perfect for the Japan Times. Just perfect.

  • answerfrog

    Hyphen identities are about balancing heritage and assimilation. Irish Americans are 100% American and have very little in common with anyone in Ireland, but it’s a point of pride in their family, past etc. that they hang onto the name. Past the first generation, they become somewhat fictional.

    One interesting point about the notion of “real Americans”. While the stereotype in the US is that that is ‘code’ for white midwest Christian types, my sense from living abroad is that black American culture is what’s most recognizably American and basically inseparable from “Americanness”. When someone says “American” people around the world are more likely to think Beyonce than the Marlboro Man.

  • Sasori

    Anyway, what you may not be aware of (author) is that, as a white Californian in Tokyo, I’m now ‘that guy’. And, as a matter of fact, I have better initial relations with Blacks over here than I ever had in the US.
    Meanwhile, Whites are notoriously dickish and don’t even give a nod or glimpses 98% of the time. The locals don’t sit next to me on the train most of the time but enjoy staring at me and or my mixed family for long, repeating, periods of time.
    So, er, rejoice.

  • NeverForgetJewsDid9-11

    I have the opposite experience in Japan. Everyone calls me “American”, because I am European-American and hold a USA passport. I always have to explain that I am from the USA, but I am German.

  • NeverForgetJewsDid9-11

    No beliefs. Only facts. Blacks are inferior. Proven science. Talking about monkeys being equal to Europeans is not “intelligent discourse”…

  • japanperson

    1. I’m sorry but you guys HAVE to stop lumping people in one group. Not all “white” people are like that and not all “black” people are like that. You are both equally offensive when doing that. That’s like saying “All Asians good are math and wear glasses?”

    2. This article’s title is misleading. I thought it would be much more interesting, in general. It does sound like he is whining and I didn’t get the point because I stopped reading the sea of words clumsily strung together…

    3. Racism exists because neither group will let it go. It’s a vicious circle. Let’s just say both groups are responsible and call it a day instead of fighting over who is more racist. Seriously, that’s what this comment section is all about.