While guest-lecturing on race issues at Waseda University in Tokyo earlier this month, I was asked a question that jarred with a conviction I’d long held about Japanese people.
The students from the political science department had been assigned to read portions of my first book and come prepared to pick my brain on its contents. There were several questions, though, that could have been filed under the heading of “utterly unexpected” because, I must admit, my experience here has led me to think that most Japanese people are either incapable, prohibitively uncomfortable or lack the incentive to engage when it comes to thinking critically about racial issues. The most common remarks on this theme have generally been along the lines of, “There are no race issues in Japan because almost everyone here is Japanese.”
The questions that challenged my perception came from a student who struggled to express his thoughts in English, but whose determination to make himself understood carried him through. In essence, he asked: “How much of what you’re experiencing here in Japan do you think is a result of the ideas and ideals you brought with you? And how much do you think these have hindered your ability to acclimate to the environment here?”
I wanted to applaud his question but I was concerned that it might have come off as sarcasm.
One of the things you learn early on when you’re studying Japanese is the difference between mono and koto — mono being physical, tangible things, and koto being generally things without material form, like ideas and feelings.
Unpacking mono is fairly straightforward: Open suitcase, remove the items inside of it, place them where they belong, move on to the next bag and repeat as necessary.
But that koto is another story entirely, and unpacking it has proven to be the challenge of a lifetime, replete with enough drama and trauma to keep me knee deep in “think pieces” till I keel over. Such was the case with the first of the items brought to my attention. I discovered a secret I’d kept from myself: I loved America.
It wasn’t a love of the image of America, a love I’ve always found disturbingly American, one rooted in the absurd notion that the nation is that “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan had the audacity to call it amid the crack epidemic that was decimating black families and communities across the country. No, that kind of love always seemed to me to be ridiculously credulous — evidence of an ignorance that’s downright offensive, damn near criminal.
Rather, I learned that the love I had for America was more complex and grisly. It was a love a parent might have for his bad seed — a criminal-minded and notorious bully of a child, the one the parent habitually abuses and condemns yet would fiercely protect if that abuse came from an outside source: “Yeah, my child is piece of work but he’s mine! Disparage him, in any way, at your own risk!”
This love was a bit of koto that had found its way into a Samsonite suitcase in my soul, and I likely would have never known of its existence if it weren’t for the Japanese tendency to, often and without intending to offend, subtly and casually make denigrating comments about my country. On any given day, and generally in comparison to Japan, I’d hear an off-the-cuff remark about the unhealthy, overweight, generally dangerous and violent, unclean, sexually debauched and wanton nature of America or Americans.
And even if it were true, even if I agreed — even if at the moment an insinuation was made I was in the midst of a grievance with America that made such chiding pale in comparison — I’d have to somehow conceal a rage so intense it would put any jingoistic flag-waving patriot to shame.
On one of my first days in-country, as I was walking through the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes of most passers-by, whether on foot or in vehicles, were locked on me in various degrees of shock, fear, amazement or amusement. I waved sometimes. Other times I just smiled.
“I am probably the first black person they’ve ever seen in the flesh,” I told myself, unaware that these words would eventually become a sort of mantra absolving this Japanese tendency and most of their other transgressions in advance. I would find this amnesty quite necessary for surviving here with my sanity and tolerance intact.
A car stopped at a light where I stood and the kids in the back seat pointed in my direction and hollered something, but all I could make out was what sounded like “Bob sap.”
Later, I’d see a commercial on TV with a huge black guy clowning around and dancing with some Japanese girls, trying to look cute in an effort to peddle pizza. A friend informed me that this gentleman was Bob Sapp.
I looked nothing like him.
Over the course of my life, mostly from white people back in the States, I’ve been told I look like a number of black people, from Eddie Murphy to Martin Luther King, so I was aware that other races’ perception of my appearance had a tendency to be warped. Often the people making these observations were unaware they were picking at the scabs of festering racial wounds. Nor did they seem aware that their ideas could veer into stereotyping very easily. So, at least for me, this “name-calling” became a sort of indicator of a person’s ignorance or insensitivity level.
As the years wore on, I got less tolerant of these often unintentional digs, and on the increasingly rare occasions — at least in New York — that I came across a person so unsophisticated as to make such a remark, I would make it plain to that person that they should refrain from doing so in the future.
After I’d started my English teaching gig here in Japan, I found myself one day seated opposite a quartet of Japanese students. One student said to another, in Japanese, “Blah blah blah Bob Sapp blah blah blah desu ne.” The other nodded in agreement, both covering their mouths to perhaps conceal their inappropriate amusement.
I kept my customer-service smile open and obvious, per the school’s standing directive — and to conceal my annoyance — but something inside of me had been agitated. It was yet another cache of koto rattling around in a valise labeled “racial sensitivity.”
“Yes,” she said. “You look like him!”
The others at the table joined in, giggling in accord. “Kakkooii!” (“Cool!”)
“Do I really look like him? How so?” I asked, through straining facial muscles and with a subtle shift in pitch that even Inspector Clouseau could have detected meant that I found the comparison objectionable.
Obliviously — or perhaps thinking that, having added that they considered Bob Sapp to be cool, all was well — the speaker giggled again and said, “He’s a black guy!”
Another added, “A biiiiiig black guy.”
They all giggled some more. I was finding it increasingly hard to believe that none of them found this conversation or their amusement the least bit troubling. In the days and weeks and years that followed, and as my likeness seemed to morph, in Japan’s eyes, from Bob Sapp to Billy Blanks, Bobby Ologun or whomever happened to be the vernacular media’s darker-hued darling du jour, I learned that this kind of nonsense was the norm.
So, if I intended to stay here, the option was mine: to make the necessary sensibility adjustments or spend way too much energy reproaching Japanese people. Thus, the key to success in Japan, I suspected, was in managing this elusive koto. Locating and recognizing it is an exercise in self-discovery of the “no pain, no gain” variety. But once it’s found and has taken definable shape, the process is almost as straightforward as it is with mono: Unpack it, evaluate whether it’s in your best interest to retain or discard it, inventory it and repeat as necessary.
I didn’t say all of this to that Waseda student, though. I thanked him for his insightful questions and said: “Actually, I think the ideas and ideals I brought here with me have impacted my experience a great deal. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that they have hindered my ability, or even extinguished my desire, to fit in. Nor would it surprise me to learn that I didn’t quite know the value I placed on them till they were put to the test here.
“But, what your question touches on is perhaps the greatest benefit of living outside of your sphere of comfort: You’ll likely be forced to confront what you’re really made of.”
Black Eye, which appears in print on the third Thursday of every month, focuses on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org