Dave Collymore, a 34-year-old Jamaican, has been a resident of Japan for the past seven years. He was recruited as an assistant language teacher (ALT) to teach English to elementary school kids in a rural area of Okayama Prefecture, where, it turned out, unsurprisingly, he was the only black person.
His conspicuous difference from the natives and the other, mostly Caucasian ALTs, plus a stint on a local TV show, gave him celebrity status in the area. Everyone knew him, and that made for both a pleasurable yet highly scrutinized life. After three years in the countryside, though, Dave made his way to Yokohama, where he has since become an ALT trainer.
In addition to his work in education, Dave is an author and poet. He has performed “dub poetry,” a Jamaican style of spoken-word poetry combining lyrics with rhythms, all over Japan, Jamaica and in several other countries. He has also penned a book of verse called “Poetic Expressions of Peace and Love.”
What prompted me to write this series on Jamaica and Japan in the first place was the rising number of Jamaicans I was coming across in my everyday life here. I was curious what they thought about Japan: Did they find any similarities or commonalities with this Asian island nation? Also, I wanted to know whether they were aware of this increase and what their thoughts were about it. Dave obliged me.
“I guess one similarity I’ve noticed would be this: In my experience, in Japan, if a Japanese sees a black, they’re going to think he’s African; and in Jamaica, if a Jamaican sees an Asian, we’re going to think they’re Chinese,” he explained. “Even if they say they’re Japanese, Jamaicans will think Japan is part of China.
“And many Japanese here, as well: When I tell them I’m Jamaican, many think Jamaica is in Africa. I had a social-studies teacher who asked me to show his class Jamaica on the globe. I’m trying to turn it to Jamaica and he’s fighting me to turn it to Africa, and I’m like, ‘Nooooo!’ ”
As far as his issues with life in Japan, Dave made it clear they were very minor.
“I call them pinpricks of racism — like someone using a very small needle and keeps sticking you, and you go, ‘Hey, stop that!’ I don’t experience any hate” from Japanese people, he said, “but fear, yes.
“I think it’s likely a kind of unconscious racism. Like I’ll be walking on the road and people I don’t know walk anywhere but near me, or people running away and walking on the other side of the road, people getting up from seats beside me, or not wanting to sit beside me . . . that kinda thing happens a lot.
“But the biggest issues I’ve had with race in Japan,” Dave said, “is not with Japanese; it’s with white Americans. Jamaica is 70 percent black. We have some white people but they’re very Jamaican just like us. We don’t have any race problems in Jamaica. We don’t give a shit if you’re black or white.
“So I come here with this disposition, never having had any experience with American Caucasians, and I couldn’t get along with many of them. They send these signals, and any time anyone says anything even borderline racist I have to step back and wonder what the hell are they trying to say. And they do this a lot!”
As for the rising trend of Jamaicans coming to Japan, Dave had some very interesting thoughts.
“A lot of Jamaicans actually want to leave Jamaica,” he told me. “Some have gone to Canada, England and the U.S. to study, but when they come back to Jamaica they can’t get a good job. So one of the avenues now is to go to Japan.”
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) is one of the primary providers of international teachers, having recruited 252 participants from Jamaica in the 2000-14 period. Several private companies that specialize in placing foreign teachers in Japanese public schools have done likewise.
“At my company, we recruited about 150 Jamaicans last year, and this year probably more,” Dave added. “It’s a brain drain. The best and brightest are leaving Jamaica. Some of them actually worked for some well-established companies in Jamaica, but they come here and make more money — especially the ones fresh out of college. Even teachers in Jamaica are leaving because here you can get triple or quadruple the salary.”
In fact, all four people I interviewed for this series, and several other Jamaicans I’ve spoken with, have expressed concern about this “brain drain.” It was Yvonne Goldson, founder of the Jam Rock Cafe and Restaurant in Tokyo, who first brought to my attention the reason for the rise in recruitment from the Caribbean nation.
“The increase in Jamaicans in Japan is the direct result of the Jamaican Embassy’s efforts,” Yvonne had explained when I interviewed her for November’s column. You might recall that she was the president of the Association of Jamaicans in Japan. “They started to petition the Japanese government to make them aware that not only North American and European countries speak English.
“They didn’t even know that Jamaica’s official language is English. They thought we spoke French or Spanish,” Yvonne said, referring to the Japanese government. “Of course, Jamaica is surrounded by French- and Spanish-speaking countries, and the patois is mixed with many French, Spanish and Portuguese words, so I understand their misconception. The petition was successful, so every year more Jamaicans come, mostly through companies hiring teachers.”
John Francis is a 40-year old Jamaican who has been living in Japan since 2005. When we spoke he told me straight off, without any conditions, that he’ll be here until he dies. He’d been a successful lawyer in Jamaica for nearly eight years before coming to Japan — an assistant attorney general, in fact — and would likely be in an even loftier position by now if he’d stayed. But he chose instead to come here.
“I applied to just about every Japanese law firm in Tokyo. I got responses from two, and one of them eventually told me they had an opening for a legal editor position,” John explained.
After a series of interviews and tests, and retests, he eventually landed the position. A year and a half later, in 2010, they actually created a new position tailor-made for him. Fortunately, John was prepared for this opportunity.
“I was the only one in the legal editing department that had both a legal background, having practiced law in Jamaica, and could speak, read and write in Japanese.”
So now he is a foreign attorney at a Japanese law firm, and a newlywed living well in Tokyo.
John had initially come to Japan to explore opportunities, but it’s the amenities that keep him here.
“I love the conveniences,” he explained. “I can pay my bills at the local convenience store, and there’s mail delivery on Sundays. Small stuff like that makes life here less stressful for me than back in Jamaica. And it’s so safe. Driving alone back in Kingston, especially late at night, I’m always looking around, left and right. I don’t stop at stop lights after 2 a.m. I’m always circumspect!”
When asked what he thought about life here in general — and comparisons between Jamaica and Japan in particular — he had some interesting insights.
“One similarity between Jamaica and Japan is the use of patois (the Jamaican language) and standard English, the way the keigo (formal Japanese) and casual Japanese are used here. I would never walk up to someone in Jamaica I don’t know in a formal setting and start speaking patois. I would use standard English and then, depending on what they say to me, I might adjust.”
When asked for his thoughts on the brain drain, John too expressed concern.
“The Japanese government has increased the number of teachers they take in. Plus, people in Jamaica, through word of mouth, hear that the money that can be made here is good. So some people come here just for the money,” John explained. “It’s a brain drain for sure, but there really aren’t many opportunities in Jamaica. The number of young professional, college-educated Jamaicans leaving Jamaica for other countries, like Japan, is alarming.
“It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: The best people are leaving Jamaica because there aren’t enough opportunities which in turn will decrease the opportunities moving forward ’cause we’re not there to develop them.
“But it’s tough. Take me, for instance: If I had stayed in Jamaica, I could’ve got a good job, working at a decent law firm. But the stress of living in Jamaica — the lack of security, the lack of convenience — wouldn’t have made it worthwhile. We live in a global market now. You can take your skills and go elsewhere. Why would you stay?”
The Jamaican ambassador once suggested to him that he become part of the solution and return to Jamaica.
“But, I’m selfish,” John confessed. “I wanted to live my life, because if I returned to help, that would take 20 years of my life helping and I’d have a miserable life for 20 years . . . and I don’t wanna do that. I tell other Jamaicans to do what they think is right. If they think they should stay in Jamaica, then stay in Jamaica. You should follow your heart in whatever you do. I believe that. That’s what I’ve done.”
Well, there you have it: Having profiled two women in last month’s column, that’s four souls from Jamaica making their way in Japan. What stands out most for me after writing this series is that though they’ve each taken distinctly different paths to achieve their respective accomplishments here in Japan — whether it be singing or entrepreneurship, practicing law or teaching — these four Jamaicans are united by their common heritage, and they maintain an abiding love and respect for their homeland.
That’s beautiful, ain’t it? And admirable. Definitely can’t say that about some of the Americans I’ve met here.
On a personal note, I recognized through speaking with these four people that Jamaicans have a relationship with Jamaica that I’ll never have with America. Similar to people from African countries, essentially all four of these people, until coming to Japan, have only known black authority. They have never experienced a system designed to subjugate them based on their racial designation in their homeland, and this has enabled within them a sense of entitlement, a dignity, that they likely take for granted.
And though I’m sure they’d each tell me how it doesn’t matter — that power corrupts and corruption has no racial designation, and of course they’d be right — I envy them in this nonetheless.
Black Eye appears in print on the third Thursday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org