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African-American community gets a voice in Tokyo

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I almost postponed December’s column because I was so infuriated by what’s taking place on the streets of the U.S. right now. It felt as if writing a profile of two Jamaican gentlemen living in Japan in the lap of safety was tantamount to treason.

It’s bad enough that I’m over here basking under the rising sun as well, while black Americans — who could very well be my family or close friends — are living in constant jeopardy and dying at the hands of abusive power at a perpetually alarming rate, as an injustice system consistently invalidates their lives. Was this the right time to focus on a Jamaican brain drain — amid an American blood bath?

But, the thing is (and this is the thought that slightly alleviates my pangs of guilt), what’s happening in the U.S., and the attitudes and belief systems that precipitate these tragedies again and again, are not unique to the U.S. That America has too many guns, many of which are wielded by untrained, mentally ill or fear-ridden people, is definitely an aspect of the problem. But that humans anywhere on this planet are compelled to protest aloud that “black lives matter” to societies who speak and behave as if they believe otherwise — this is a more dangerous comment on the state of our entire species than any gun could ever make. The ignorance and infectious fear of nonexistent threats that lead to discrimination, marginalization and violence plague the world, and Japan is by no means immune.

These were but a few of the thoughts that occupied my mind on Dec. 6 as we — a hundred or so people of all ages, races, genders and nationalities, including Japanese and Jamaicans — took to the streets of Tokyo to protest this latest desecration of black humanity. The event was dubbed the “Silent March for Mike: Protest for Mike Brown #Handsup,” a peaceful demonstration planned and executed by members of an organization based out of Tokyo known as the African American Youth Travel Program.

A couple of years back I was approached by one of AAYTP’s founding members, Ella McCann, about joining their ranks in some capacity. The conversation was brief and went a little something like this:

McCann: I’ve had this idea to start a program to bring youth over to Asia to give them a chance to be global citizens. Is it too crazy?

Me: Yes! Japan is no place for that. They ain’t ready. All they’ll do is f—k these kids minds up. Better off sending Japanese kids to the States!

McCann: I get what you’re saying. But at the same time I still think it’s important for them to experience this culture — all the ups and downs.

Me: I see. Well, if you’re gonna go ahead and do it, I got your back!

I hadn’t received any progress reports and figured the idea had never come to fruition, until I got wind of the “Silent March” in Shibuya. It was an impressive event — not only its organization but the number and diversity of the turnout as well. In my 10 years here, I’d never experienced anything quite like it. So, I decided to sit down with several members of AAYTP and get the lowdown so I could share what I learned with Black Eye readers.

“AAYTP sponsored the event, but we worked together with members of the Tokyo community and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police to organize a safe, peaceful march,” said Amber Richardson, founder and president of this nonprofit.

“The protest is not the kind of thing we necessarily do,” said Niaya Harper, manager and publicist for AAYTP. “It just developed out of what was happening in the U.S. and around the world.”

“What would be the point of bringing youth over here if we didn’t address the issues they’re facing in their own community?” said Dayo Adeshakin, AAYTP’s manager and secretary.

Scott Popular, the group’s treasurer, got a little more into why he got involved with the AAYTP, which tied in nicely with their reason for being.

“Video games are what brought me here,” he explained. “I came from Atlanta, so I know what it’s like to be in the slums, I know what it’s like to be in a drug area and stuff like that. Your vision of what can be is smaller than what it actually should be. Cuz with a lot of cats it’s just drugs, hustle, money, bitches, hos, and that’s real life! But once you come outside of that shell, you realize the world is huge!

“When I got to Japan I still had that Atlanta mentality, but then I realized those things weren’t bringing me any capital! So I basically had to revamp the hustle.”

By revamping the hustle, Popular meant using the knowledge and retooling the skills he’d acquired in the U.S. to help him achieve his goals here in a very different environment, and in doing so making himself a better, more worldly person.

“And now it’s time to give back,” Popular added. “Giving someone else an opportunity to come over here, I think, is the best thing about AAYTP. Giving somebody a chance, even if it’s only one or two people. Cuz you never know . . . that person might go back and inspire the people around them to do something a little bit different.”

“The black community is awesome when it comes to creation,” added Adeshakin, “but taking those ideas and bringing them back into our communities and using them to empower other people, well, that’s not our strong point.”

AAYTP targeted high school students in the U.S., putting them through a thorough application and vetting process before being selected. Among the criteria are that the student comes from a low-income family, is struggling a bit academically and has never traveled before.

“We want to show them that though you may be having trouble, there’s still a chance,” said Harper. “We want to give them hope to do better and achieve more even though right now things might be tough.”

The first student to make it through this process was Destiny Gray, who was brought over to Japan for a 10-day stay last summer. Once in Japan, she was exposed to aspects of Japanese life focused primarily on three areas: culture, education and work.

To that end, she stayed with several Japanese host families, learning about the home life of everyday Japanese people. She was also taken to Kyoto to explore the temples, and receive lessons on kimono wearing and the tea ceremony. Academically, she spent some time in a Japanese private school, going to classes with the local students and participating in various prepared activities. She was also taken to the Tokyo Stock Exchange as part of the program’s emphasis on highlighting career opportunities, where she was given a tour and presentation by employees there about what the exchange does and how.

All of the above was paid for through the program, from flight to food and accommodations, the funds for which were raised through the generous support of people who believe in the AAYTP’s mission, donations from the Tokyo community and fund-raisers.

“Because it was our first time letting an exchange student stay here, we had many things to consider,” said Shigero Okamoto. He and his wife were one of the host families Destiny stayed with in Japan. “The three days passed very fast, but I made a lot of good memories with Amber and Destiny. They were both wearing kimonos, and it was very fun to take them to various tourist destinations in Kyoto, because they became popular with people in any spot. Women there were very impressed and said, ‘They are so beautiful.’ ”

“Being in Japan made me feel more confident with who I am,” Destiny said of her experience. “Everyone in Japan is so much nicer than people are in the U.S. and it made me feel so good about myself.”

Destiny’s parents, Sean and Natasha Gray, have also observed how their daughter’s time in Japan has broadened her outlook and influenced her character.

“Since her return from Japan, Destiny’s been able to walk with her head a little bit higher,” said Natasha. “She’s more outgoing and we’ve seen her venture out into other avenues of her life that she would have been hesitant to walk into before. She’s opened up her options on what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She mentioned wanting to go to a university in Japan, she’s looking into other foreign languages, so she’s opening up herself a little bit more.”

Natasha summed up Destiny’s and any child’s would-be experience this way: “I think that going into something that’s unknown has a lot of fright. But when you allow your child to experience things beyond what they’re accustomed to, it allows them to grow, to see more opportunities, and it plants a seed within them that allows them to explore and be all they can be.”

Clicking through the pictures of Destiny’s visit here, and listening to the testimonies and feedback from all the parties involved, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I should have considered AAYTP’s proposal a bit more thoroughly. I’d shot it down pretty quickly when I was first approached about getting involved.

In fact, with today, Jan. 15, being the birthday of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. , I think it’s safe to say he’d be overjoyed to learn that organizations, such as AAYTP, that give youth of different races and cultures the opportunity to explore their commonalities exist, and are helping to keep the dream alive and kicking.

For more on AAYTP, visit their page on Meetup (www.meetup.com/African-American-Youth-Travel-Program) or follow them on Twitter (@AAYTP13) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/AfricanAmericanYouthTravelProgram) 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. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • http://www.IndiePundit.com/ IndiePundit

    Good stuff all around. I’ve had a similar idea about a travel program that introduces African American kids to Japan. That travel is important, it broadens the mind. That experience can help some to break free of the constraints they might be under. Experiencing different realities let’s people know that there is more out there than what we see daily.

    • http://grandadmiralgame.blogspot.com/ TheGrandAdmiral

      White supremacy and hatred of blacks is global, and especially rampant in Asia. Black kids need to travel just to learn that we’re hated everywhere.

  • blackpassenger

    Never heard of AAYTP before, but as Jamaican who’s left the ghettos of Jamaica for the US at 15 back in 1980, then the UK, back to the US and now Japan, I’ve always thought that African-Americans are in dire need of programmes and organizations like this.

  • L. Taz Hicks

    Another well written article, Baye!

  • jimbo jones

    “…organizations, such as AAYTP, that give youth of different races and cultures the opportunity to explore their commonalities exist,…”

    is the aaytp not strictly for african americans?

    • bob

      it’s primary existence is a movement for blacks and introduction of Islam to Japan. call blacks what they are black. If American then there is no sense in adding or tying race/ethnicity and everyone who supports the US or is a US citizen should just identify themselves as American. Multi-culturalism does not work nor will it ever work. Being nationalist to a country you represent seems to work world wide and proven fact.

  • Andrew

    Interesting piece.

  • ostkrieg

    Absolutely ridiculous. What has Japan to do with this internal American problem?

  • Selena

    Great article! Thanks so much for this, Loco.

  • bob

    Brown was a known criminal who attacked the officer who was doing his duty and had nothing to harassing Brown because he was black. I have researched this topic in and out. I too agreed with the grand jury. Had the officer been in direct derilect of his duties and harassing any race or based on ethnicity, then I would be at the forefront crying foul. This just didn’t happen in this case.

  • Winter 冬

    So lovely to read. Broadening the minds of today’s youth is sure to make the future brighter. Really glad to hear of this AAYTP group making such a difference in some peoples lives.

    • Tomoko Endo

      I donot think that your goup is not for Japanese.

  • Tomoko Endo

    A little bit strange for us, because we donot have historical conflicts with Black people. The problems are Americans’, I think also.
    We donot think to open Japan so freely.
    Keeping our culture,we will fight against ‘gaiatsu’, stress from foreign counties.
    I donot think that they cannot manage to do in Japan, because they cannot speak Japanese. In Japan, most places are spoke Japanese only.
    Invasion to Japan is great loss. We donot want to destroy our culture more.
    They want to make Japanese work more and they get the exploitation? We are not so rich, rich Japan dosenot exist.
    Japan has not been No1 from past and now. Our country isnot so rich, comparing with other countries. Our culture is poor.

  • MiltsSon

    Great article! It was very informative.

  • Ian SUTTLE (サトル・イアン)

    Could they not have got a native Japanese speaker to check their translation and to write the Japanese script for them? “立ち上がる” implies “stand up (in opposition to something)” not expressing solidarity (“stands with”), and the Japanese text on that banner is just awful…