“Why did you come to Japan?” This is a question that most non-Japanese living here are accustomed to being asked habitually.
I’m not very fond of this inquiry, so I tend to answer it glibly. Imagine my surprise, then, when I sit down (via Skype) with an acquaintance of mine, an Osaka-based faux-finish artist and entrepreneur named Roler Miles, and it’s the first question to pop out of my mouth. I’m glad it did, though, because his answer, though lengthy (a good 15 minutes long), pretty much told me everything I needed to know about the man’s experience here, which could be summed up in two words: “artist” and “father.”
His answer revealed a man’s fascinating transition, from defacing walls and vandalizing subways as a graffiti artist in New York to running a thriving spray-paint business, teaching Japanese students to express themselves through art and leading a team of artists creating authentic-looking faux-historical materials at Universal Studios Japan’s new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Though I tend to attribute my drive and ambition to the values acquired back in the Brooklyn we both grew up in, Miles, now 50, says: “It ain’t where you’re from, Baye. It’s where you’re at!”
Where he’s at now is half a world away from the place he once called home. Fourteen years ago, Miles was a single father and computer graphic artist for insurer Metlife, determined to build a better life for himself and his 8-year-old son, Dante, who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
He followed his heart and keen business insight from Brooklyn to Osaka, pursuing both a promising business venture and the Japanese woman he’d fallen in love with, Kumiko. The two have since married and remain partners well over a decade later. During this time, they have brought two more children into the world: another son, Tiki, and their daughter, Dorina.
I was curious about what challenges he faced along the way, though, and what kind of lessons he learned from overcoming these obstacles. In particular, I wanted to know how he manages to raise an African-American kid and a couple of multicultural children under the same roof, as well as how he was able to ensure his oldest son, Dante — afflicted with a pervasive developmental disorder, not to mention an inability to speak Japanese — receive a quality education in a public school system likely ill-equipped to handle such a situation.
“When I first brought Dante here, he was 8 years old and like a fish out of water,” Miles said. “The biggest problem was that the teachers in the public schools here knew nothing about Asperger’s syndrome, so I had to have them implement a special education program where he was taught the regular school curriculum yet also received the special-needs attention he required, not to mention Japanese-language instruction.”
“They suggested we place him in a special school! So, we visited one of these places and it looked straight up like an asylum! Wifey and I are walking through there and kids are in, like, gated classrooms!” Miles said. “I was still mad Brooklyn then, so I was like, ‘Oh, hell no! Are y’all f-cking mad?!’
“But thank God for my wife. Kumiko’s a good woman and helped me work through this with the school and get this new program started. Without her help, I doubt I’d have been able to get it done. She was my mouthpiece and my guide. She’s not Dante’s biological mother, but he’s spent more time with her than with his actual mother, and she’s shown him nothing but love.”
This program, Miles explained, is called Nakayoshi.
During my time as a teacher here in junior high schools, I have taught students who were part of this program. They’d attend classes with the general student body while getting additional attention from the special needs teachers. I had no idea that this program was initiated by Miles and his wife’s efforts in Osaka, though.
“My younger son, Tiki, is in the program as well. He was born prematurely so he has some developmental issues, too. But, unlike Dante, he’s essentially Japanese so there are no issues fitting in.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Around here, doubles are everywhere!” Miles said. “So my kids don’t stand out whatsoever.”
He calls Tiki and Dorina “double” as opposed to “half,” which is how the Japanese tend to refer to children of biracial heritage, explaining, “My son has two cultures, two languages, two schools of thought to draw from, so the way I see it, he has an advantage over those single-cultured folk.”
Half suggests otherwise.
“Sometimes he gets tired of other kids — ones he doesn’t know — running up on him asking him if he’s a foreigner. And then when he starts speaking perfect Japanese, they’re totally astounded,” Miles said. “So I’m schooling him. I tell him that ‘You’re a young black man, but your identity is double, and your color doesn’t make you who you are.’ ”
“It must be difficult communicating with him, sometimes,” I said. Miles had told me earlier in the conversation that his own Japanese level “sucks.”
“Yeah, it’s a struggle,” Miles said. “But my wife and I are on the same page, so I can speak to him through her if I have to, and she makes sure my message gets across. We teach him to stand up for himself, with his mouth when possible, with his fists if necessary. That’s the way I was raised and that’s the way I’ve raised my kids, and my wife agrees.”
I wanted to get Dante’s take on the black experience in Osaka as well, and the young man, like his father, was quick to inform me that it was “all good.”
“Being black in Osaka actually has its advantages,” said Dante, now 22, soft-spoken and self-effacing, in stark contrast with Dad. “Particularly when it comes to getting work. There are a lot of jobs where companies need people who can communicate with other foreigners. And of course jobs teaching kids English are easy to get. The kids love me!
“The only drawback I’ve noticed so far is there’s a phobia about our hair. Three convenience stores said they couldn’t hire me because of my hairstyle.”
I noticed in a photo that he had dreadlocks, like his father. Also, like Miles, he is into art.
“In the future I’d like to be a game designer,” he said. “Sometimes Dad and I work on projects together. I’ll take some of his graffiti work and animate it with Cinema 4D. It’s fun!”
“Osaka’s not perfect,” Miles added. “It might be a little ‘surface’ — especially with the cats that are into black people. They watch a couple of episodes of ‘The Wire’ and they think sh-t is sweet! But once you have a few of them under your wing, and have them basically understanding what we’re really about, how we live, and what we’ve been through, it’s all good!”
“Hells yeah!” he came back at me, forcefully, almost like he’d been prepared for some push-back. I figured he must have read my first book. “I can tell who’s looking at me with disdain and who’s looking at me with reverence. No one has ever crossed the line with me! I’ve never had anybody talking to me out the side of their face. And I think it’s because they respect the black! I’ve never had an empty seat next to me on the train, never had anyone get up, never even had anyone recoil in fear or any of that.
“But I gotta tell ya, Baye, all the challenges can’t offset this one benefit of living here,” he said, solemnly. “It’s the lack of stress I have because I never have to worry about my sons being shot!”
The word “shot” exploded from my computer’s speakers and reverberated around my room like a ricochet. Having never had children, and with black people getting shot being such a commonplace phenomenon throughout my life, I hadn’t realized how desensitized I’d become, how much apathy had seeped into my being. But hearing the catch in the voice of a father of two black boys made me realize something: I’d never spoken to a black parent in my entire life for whom the safety of their children, sons in particular, was not a primal concern that parasitically attached itself to every moment of their lives. Even my mother, four sons under her wing, was solid as stone on the surface but a nervous wreck within.
These words put a lot of things in perspective, and placed a lot of what he was telling me in a new light.
“Would you recommend Japan to black people looking to experience another culture?” I asked.
“If you want to experience something different, hells yeah, come on through,” Miles said with no hesitation. “The girls are cute, the lifestyle is cool. Just don’t come over here thinking you’re gonna run things, cuz the same stuff you got over there, they’ve got over here.
“But if you come through, and remain humble and respectful, Japan is dope!”
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