From a minstrel no-show to a black beauty queen, in a week


“I actually want them to perform,” a fellow writer told me, referring to the blackface minstrel show starring doo-wop group Rats & Star and idol group Momoiro Clover Z that was scheduled to be broadcast nationally on March 7. “I want them to explain the meaning behind the face paint.”

Among black folk, opinions on this issue were mixed, and there’s nothing astounding about that: Every black person knows that the belief that blacks are monolithic is a misconception. When it comes to any issue, whether it be the shooting of unarmed black men or whether Barack Obama is a good president, opinions vary wildly. So, I knew the modern-day use of blackface for entertainment purposes would garner a variety of perspectives, even from people of color.

“I’m sick and tired of the knee-jerk response to everything that happens on this side of the planet when it comes to our own perceived notions of race,” the writer added, “especially in a homogenous society that doesn’t have a real feel for it.”

“Our” in this case meant people originating from the other side of the planet.

“I hope Fuji TV airs it,” wrote Eric Robinson, who runs the Black Tokyo blog. “Maybe they will suffer the same type of backlash Sony America faced” after their emails were hacked and some of the executives’ racist and twisted thoughts were leaked. “Viewers should see the ‘rest of the story’ regarding Japan.”

I shook my head at both these gentlemen, but a part of me also agreed with them: that since Rats & Star are Japanese, they’re entitled to do as they please . . . in Japan; that blackface’s history in America isn’t directly related to its current manifestation here; that their intentions have for 30-plus petition-free years been and continue to be good. And why shouldn’t that lack of racist intent supersede any negative impact it might have on expats living in their country, foreigners visiting their country or even those viewing it from abroad? And since they’ve even reportedly performed their minstrel show in the U.S. a couple of times (and, astonishingly, weren’t lambasted for doing so), does that not serve as proof that their racialized idiosyncrasy has been tacitly sanctioned by black America?

And as much as I’m an advocate of sparing the rod, I also partially agree that an international reaming is potentially more powerful a catalyst for effective change (or at least a needful discourse) than a warmhearted warning and a group hug, in the same way a drug intervention by friends and loved ones is sometimes less effective than jail time or some traumatic event in motivating a junkie to take the necessary steps toward rehabilitation.

But 4,576 souls, most of whom are native to or reside on this side of the planet, signed a petition calling on Fuji TV to refrain from forcing Japan into a regrettable position on such a sensitive and easily misconstrued issue — one that would have surely soured the perception of Japan and Japanese people globally. These souls decided their voices ought to be heard and heeded on this matter.

And heard and heeded they were, for at the beginning of the show on March 7, a caption appeared on the screen announcing, “Tonight’s ‘Music Fair’ broadcast has been edited.” And the remainder of the show consisted of de-racialized entertainment — the adverse of what had been advertised — edited to be consistent with the petition’s demands.

It came as a surprise to many who fully expected to see this spectacle air as promised, myself included. In my experience, activism of this nature generally falls on deaf ears. Success stories are far and few between. But Fuji TV would later confirm that it had come to a “comprehensive judgment” and decided to edit the show.

The network hasn’t, to date, expanded on that statement and detailed exactly what was edited from the program, and what the factors were that led the network to make these edits — leaving way too much to speculation. But, judging from the chatter on social media, by Japanese and non-Japanese alike, many people are gratified that Japan was spared the disgrace.

And most, duly or unduly, credit the petition.

Editing out the offending portions of the show saved Japan from the PR equivalent of being thrown like raw meat to a pack of ravenous carnivores — namely, the international media. It would have been extremely bad timing, particularly in light of recent events that have garnered global attention and made even mildly racial issues into hot-button ones.

This blackface story, if aired, would have broken amid the media’s current chorus of condemnation for a bus-full of white college kids merrily caroling about lynching black people from trees, and over the heightened tension in Ferguson, Missouri, where long-feared retaliation against police officers has occurred.

The fact that Fuji TV would choose this time to air a modern-day minstrel show likely would have reflected very poorly on Japan’s judgment, and the country’s perennial excuse of perpetual obliviousness would not have deterred the press any more than praying would a hungry shark with blood in its nostrils. And the whole country might have found itself undeservedly trending with that busload of racists.

So, unlike my colleagues above, I’m glad the petition was successful. Japan deserves a chance to show the world it doesn’t intend to hide forever behind an isolation that ended 150 years ago (fr’Chrissakes) and tired tropes about its homogeneity. And Fuji TV’s decision, whether it exemplifies the guts to do the right thing or simply a desire to stay out of the path of a fecal storm, resulted in a change that benefited the nation. And since this occurred on a national stage where everyone could—

Oh wait — check that.

Unfortunately, none of the major news outlets in Japan covered the editing of the segment in any significant manner. So, aside from 4,576 signatories, as well as readers of The Japan Times and USA Today, it’s likely the vast majority of Japanese people, and of non-Japanese living here, have very little knowledge of this event. Even AP’s Tokyo bureau was mysteriously oblivious about this controversy and unaware of the petition’s existence until yours truly brought it to their attention by phone two days after the fact. (By then, of course, it wasn’t breaking news, so . . .)

Why is Fuji TV behaving badly by airing a minstrel show newsworthy while Fuji, for whatever reason, deciding to behave responsibly is deemed unworthy of any press?

“I don’t know what to make of it,” a writer for a major publication here in Japan told me, in reference to writing about this aborted incident. “Since it didn’t happen there is less of a story for me. ‘J-band doesn’t perform in blackface’ is not a story.”

While it’s presumable that Fuji TV’s decision to edit was done in the best interests of the company and not the nation, some believe that perhaps a teachable moment and a chance to raise awareness of important issues nationally was squandered here, big time.

“I think probably the biggest problem is that Japanese people tend not to be aware of the connotations of ‘blacking up,’ ” said Tokyo-based DJ and broadcaster Peter Barakan, a familiar face on Japanese TV. “Admittedly the minstrel show was a phenomenon of the 19th century, but even without knowledge of that history, the caricature aspect of Rats & Star is something that would make most Westerners cringe. In order to get the Japanese to understand that cultural difference, there has to be a process of education that takes in much more than just this one particular problem, and which involves educating the mass media first.”

Dante Carver, Japan-based actor and CEO of AtAt Designs, agreed.

“I feel it would’ve been a better idea and more profound to do some research and have a segment about that research,” Carver said. “Having both Japanese and non-Japanese guests, for example, would be such a positive step in the right direction. Educate the public. Knowledge is power. If they must show blackface on TV, a portion of that show should be dedicated to its history.”

I agree.

Then, a week later, something occurred that further convinced me that urging Fuji TV to kill that blackface noise was the right thing to do. The event was something that could also be readily racialized — something that I’m certain would have been marred by this blackface business, had the controversy over the show gone global.

Yes, I’m talking about the crowning of the new Miss Universe Japan.

The new face of Japan, at least as far as beauty contests (which is to say, the perpetuation of this blatant objectification of women) are concerned, is a self-described hāfu by the name of Ariana Miyamoto. “Hāfu” in this case means the multiethnic, multicultural offspring of a Japanese woman and a black American man.

This absolutely stunning young woman, who was born in Nagasaki and spent most of her wonder years in both Japan and America, was selected from among Japanese women from every prefecture to represent the country in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant!

So, in one week, we went from preventing a blackface broadcast from giving Japan a black eye on a global scale to the nation embracing the black face of an Asian woman as the embodiment of Japanese beauty, style and grace.

In one week!

Japan, you never cease to amaze me.

From next month, Black Eye will appear in print on the third Monday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Yay, further fetishization of “Haafu”!

  • Michey Peckitt

    Stories about Japan I’ve noticed often don’t appear because they do not have ‘international appeal.’ No interest in the story, and yet I suspect if we changed the country involved from Japan to the UK or America, they would be much interest. A nice piece Baye.

  • Jonathan Fields

    That “we don’t have the same history as you, so don’t impose your values on us” thing is complete and utter nonsense. Racist portrayals of black people as savages, threats to women, and subservient animals can be seen in Japanese media as far back as the 1600s. Tell me how this isn’t in line with anti-black racism in the West? Stop making excuses.

  • Winter 冬

    I’m glad the minstrel show wasn’t aired – at least we made a difference, however small! And it’s great to hear about Ariana Miyamoto, she really is beautiful.

    Another great article, as always! Keep it up.

  • Internet Terracotta Tiger

    Cheers and thumbs-up on a lovely photo and uplifting conclusion to this episode.
    While I know of a lot of North Americans make judgments on Japanese society as they see fit, I hope the same folks are also considering what WE NORTH AMERICANS could learn from JAPAN. To me, the tone of public discourse, can-do spirit, respect for others, and respect for society as whole is just getting worse and worse in both Canada and the United States. I think a little bit more Japanese-style politeness, respect for public space, interest in future-oriented projects, willingness to work together to get things like better public transportation actually done etc. would go a long way to making Canada and the US better places to live.

    Either way, while this writer’s attitude appears better than certain other columnists on such topics, my vote is for cultural exchange to not be a one-way lecture but a positive, forward-thinking two-way highway.

  • Shaun O’Dwyer

    Yes, a shame about the missed opportunity for that “teachable moment”. I’ve seen some hopeful signs in online reactions to Ms Miyamoto’s success that ordinary Japanese are generating such teachable moments themselves, in criticizing some of their fellow citizens’ obsessions with “ethnic purity”.

  • Barry Rosenfeld

    Baye, go home. You are so irrelevant.

  • KobayashiDamien TakijiLucas

    why do we continually get this nonsense that Japan is ‘homogeneous’?That’s a nice slap in the face to the Ainu,to the Okinawans,to the Chinese who have been resident here for centuries.Japan is homogeneous only to those who can’t be bothered to look.

  • Andrew

    Solid article again.

  • Joe Kurosu, M.D.

    My impression was that Ms. Miyamoto was not exactly “embraced” by this nation after her win…and, not being pageant material myself, I hope that this is not the new standard to which we will be held in order to be embraced by our country…

  • Rodney Gordon

    It will be hard to explain American racism to the Japanese.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    The headline is ridiculous. Ariana Miyamoto is not a “black beauty queen”, she is a Japanese beauty queen, full stop.

    • Steve Jackman

      It matters not what the headline says. Sadly, the truth is that her selection as a beauty queen says absolutely nothing about the dismal state of affairs in Japan for ethnic minorities, women and foreign residents, or about the deeply entrenched and institutionalized problem of racism and xenophobia in Japan.

    • Jonathan Fields

      This is the best comment so far. A lot of people have been falling into the same “she’s a half” trap as the right-wingers.

    • Barry Rosenfeld

      I just wish to God that Baye returns to university one day and takes a class in Anthropology 101. To wholly claim a black person on the basis of her father’s heritage or predominant skin colour shows what a racist he is.

    • lasolitaria

      Agree. I’m even surprised that I haven’t read someone calling her an “African American queen” yet.

      I love the irony of how Black people so happily appropriate a constructed racial category such as “Black”, which the old Arabs from the Islamic golden age came up with and then the Europeans developed and propagated, both to justify negative attitudes towards “Blacks”. The peoples of Africa never saw themselves as members of a single “Black” race (actually, they never saw themselves united in anything), but now we’re told that everyone who has some African ancestry is “Black”. To hell with that ridiculous notion.

  • Dean A. Chandler

    Hey The Japan Times, something about this post bothers me and I’d rather not see it on Facebook. Would you please down the word racially offensive and derogatory ‘minstrel’ word?

    “MINSTREL SHOWS” were a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes. Whether inadvertent and unaware, your term ‘minstrel no show’ The Japan Times is still a racist derogatory comment. Now that you have been educated on the facts, once again, could you please down the word ‘minstrel’?

  • Sam Gilman

    This is a densely argued yet very elegantly written piece. Thank you very much, Mr McNeill.

    As a parent of hāfu children, I find it difficult to reconcile the insistence by a certain section of the western community here that Japanese are obsessive about ethnic purity with the general inclusiveness of the people I interact with, and the total lack of resistance to me describing my children as Japanese. A few older people struggle with the idea – for example trying to speak to them in English – but so much of this just seems to be an understandable struggle to adjust their notion of what Japaneseness is. (I actually get more annoyed by Japanese who have been taught by westerners to say “daburu” (“double”) instead of hāfu – this seems to emphasise their non-Japaneseness far more for me). There is a huge difference between a population adjusting to reality as it changes, and the ethnic purism and bigotry of those who kick back hard against acceptance of ethnic groups they have lived with for decades and centuries (which is what makes anti-Koreanism here so foul). Of course, there are such bigots in Japan, as there are everywhere, but all I personally meet is clumsiness and curiosity – and occasional insensitivity (which of course grates horribly, but it’s not vicious). I’m actually (pleasantly) surprised. The stuff I’ve heard from friends growing up as a member of an ethnic minority in the UK is so much worse.

    As for the media, the thing to remember is that they do not like to challenge preconceptions, and play provocatively to the lowest common denominators. That’s how they get clicks and how they stop you changing channel. The modern media deal in stereotypes as good business practice. All ethnic groups (except white people) are treated as homogenous.

  • Aaron B.

    Thanks for highlighting important cultural issues for broader consumption in Japan, Mr. McNeil. It is good for readers of the Japan Times to get an alternative perspective.

  • yulia okost

    author McNeil
    these kind of name is smelly

  • otisdelevator

    “…since Rats & Star are Japanese, they’re entitled to do as they please . . . in Japan; that blackface’s history in America isn’t directly related to its current manifestation here…”

    Two words: Global Village.

    The longer version: Anything put on the Internet is 100% guaranteed to give a raging arse ache to other people elsewhere on the planet. In this instance the offended group would be an extremely large group. Media produced in Japan is not exclusively kept in Japan. The same goes for all other countries.

  • Barry Rosenfeld

    Why don’t you dry up? What on earth does your jealous poisoned mind know? Nothing. Now go and take your uneducated views somewhere else won’t you? If you want to be a child and get the last word be my guest. I won’t be disappointed.

  • Barry Rosenfeld

    BTW, I never said that I ever considered my family, especially my kids pure Japanese so go back to school and learn how read my black racist friend. You all seem to have chips on your shoulder when someone of colour doesn’t or won’t agree with you.


  • MiltsSon

    Thanks again for the thought provoking articles. Great work!