Historically, Japan is no stranger to blacks, nor to blackface


I am a black Japanese half. I was bullied because of my skin color in elementary school, so I have a strong complex about my skin color. If Japanese truly adored blacks, it wouldn’t bother me. But do Momokuro really adore blacks? I think if you asked them if they wished they had been born black, they would say no. Japanese say blacks are cool, but if you ask them if they want to be born black, most would say no.

(Anonymous commenter on Girls Channel website thread, Feb. 14)

Over a century and a half after its introduction to Japanese audiences, blackface continues to be performed in Japan, where it can still be found on television and in other forms of mass entertainment. Its most recent sighting occurred in February, when a photograph emerged on the Internet showing the popular female idol group Momoiro Clover Z (aka Momokuro) and members of the male R&B group Rats & Star posing backstage in blackface, resplendent in white gloves and colorful tuxedos, for a segment of an upcoming episode of Fuji TV’s “Music Fair” variety show.

In response, an online petition was launched urging the network not to air the segment. When the show aired, the controversial segment had been cut, though interestingly, Rats and Star had performed in blackface on “Music Fair,” without fanfare, as recently as 2010.

Despite the prevalence of blackface in Japan, many people both here and overseas assume that it — like the presence of blacks themselves — is alien to Japan, as if the country had uniquely managed to sequester itself from the black diaspora and the products of modernity fashioned from the encounter with it. In fact, however, neither black people nor blackface is new to Japan.

Japanese first encountered blacks in the 16th century, at the same time they encountered white Europeans, who brought blacks with them as servants to Japan. Moreover, the history of blackface minstrelsy in Japan is almost as long as that in the U.S. Created in America in the 1840s, blackface was introduced to Japan in 1854 by Commodore Matthew Perry, who treated Japanese delegates to an “Ethiopian entertainment” performed by white members of the crew of his flagship, the USS Powhatan, to celebrate the conclusion of a trade treaty with Japan that reopened the country to the outside world.

A decade later, Japanese themselves were blackening up and strutting in morning coats and top hats across Japanese stages. By the 1920s and 1930s, comedians Kenichi Enomoto, Yozo Hayashi and Teiichi Futamura were performing in blackface jazz revues in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, while actors such as Shigeru Ogura appeared in blackface on the silver screen.

When not embodied on stage and screen, minstrel and other black stereotypes were reproduced in toys, cartoons, animated shorts, adventure books and product trademarks. They also took the form of knickknacks, some of which, under the “Made in Occupied Japan” label, were produced with the approval of U.S. authorities for export to America. In the 1970s and 1980s, doo-wop groups such as the Chanels (later Rats & Star), and Gosperats (an amalgam of Rats & Star and the Gospellers) carried on the Japanese blackface tradition in their bid to channel Motown soul.

The proliferation of popular, marketable black stereotypes continued well into the late 1980s. However, reports in the American media on anti-black statements by then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and other Japanese politicians, as well as the display of black caricature department store mannequins and the sale of Little Black Sambo dolls, prompted the removal of these offending effigies, if not the government officials whose statements had ironically drawn attention to the issue of Japanese anti-black racism.

By 1988, these specific items had largely disappeared from store shelves, but generic items similar to them remained in the marketplace, and in the Japanese imagination. In 2005, after a brief hiatus, new versions of “Little Black Sambo” and its sequels, as well as dolls based on them, resurfaced in stores.

Blackface, however, continued to be performed without respite. Since its first production in the 1970s, the role of black servants in Takarazuka stage productions of “Gone with the Wind” has been performed in blackface. Blackface continues to crop up on Japanese television and at social events, from Japanese hot spring events to chapel weddings.

Directors Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s 2009 horror comedy “Kyuketsu Shojo tai Shojo Furanken” (“Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”) depicts female members of a high school “ganguro club” as so infatuated with blacks that they blacken their skin and don grotesque facial prosthetics: One girl wears a track suit, afro wig and gold medallion, while one of her companions sports dreads, saucer lips and carries a spear; another has a bandana, gold chains and a nose ring — depictions that say more about the directors’ image of blacks than the ganguro phenomenon they ostensibly intended to parody.

Indeed, blackface has enjoyed something of a revival following the inauguration of Barack Obama, with dusky doppelgangers of the U.S. president appearing with such frequency on Japanese TV that a new form of racial mimicry — what I call “Barackface” — was born.

Although the object of racial caricature has varied, one thing has remained constant: When one offensive item is pulled, another soon takes it place and the process is repeated anew. During these moments, the question of whether these practices and products are racist also re-emerges. An argument is usually made that the intent of Japanese blackface is not to offend but to pay homage — to embody some transcendent essence black people are thought to possess. In short, the argument is that blackface does not mean the same thing in Japan and the U.S.

There is a certain degree of truth to this observation; the history of Japan’s involvement with black people (African, African-American and other diasporic blacks) and their cultures is in fact quite different from that of America and Europe, although this history has all too often been overlooked and erased. Indeed, for a society that once perceived itself as positioned on the cutting edge of the information age, it is more than a bit disturbing that 21st century Japanese know so little about blackface — not only about its history and uses in the West but, more importantly, at home.

To recognize that Japanese blackface may not be motivated by the same hatred — of either degree or kind — or, as described in historian Eric Lott’s “Love and Theft,” by the distorted love that characterized American blackface, does not mean that Japanese come to black people as blank slates harboring no preconceived ideas, pernicious stereotypes or negative feelings about them.

In confronting racial caricature in Japan and elsewhere, it is necessary that we refine what is meant by “racism.” For many in both Japan and the West, racism is seen as a quirk of the Other, not as an enduring fault of one’s own group. In the United States, northern whites are apt to view racism as something their bigoted southern neighbors practice; the educated affluent white middle/upper classes often speak of racism as an affliction of the un(der)educated poor/working class.

Many Japanese view racism as Amerika byō, a uniquely “American disease” from which their putatively monoracial state has been spared. Similarly, during the height of U.S.-Japan trade fiction in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, some American observers described Japanese as more racist than Americans, though events — contemporary and recent — in both countries belie any claim that racism is a monopoly of either nation. Others define “racism” as thoughts and behavior inextricably bound to a deeply entrenched, palpable hatred, to the threat and reality of physical and emotional violence, and to the systemic denial of access to social, economic and political resources.

The question of whether Japanese blackface performances are racist requires a nuanced answer. If the question is whether Japanese blackface is motivated by a deeply embedded hatred of or malice toward black people, the answer in most — but definitely not all — cases is no. However, to the extent that such performances are premised on a set of distorted ideas and images about black people and their cultures that reduce them to caricatures that ultimately impact blacks in negative ways, then the answer is yes.

What is often overlooked is the fact that although racism is based on ignorance, it is a learned ignorance masquerading as certain knowledge: one need not educate oneself about the Other precisely because one presumes to already know it. Ignorance, as linguist Noam Chomsky has recently stated in the context of American racism, can be — and often is — intentional.

The petition against the airing of the blackface “Music Fair” episode, as well as recent criticism of mimicry of whites in Japanese commercials such as the ANA, Choya and Toshiba SuiPanDa ads, in which Japanese actors sport blond wigs and huge pink prosthetic noses, suggests that the rise of social media may make it more difficult for Japanese to plead ignorance and could instead provide “teachable moments” that contribute to transnational conversations that raise global awareness about racial mimicry in all its forms.

As pointed out by Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil, the petition’s organizer, ignorance is a difficult case to make in the age of Google. Yet there remains a galling intransigence to this ignorance — an almost spiteful desire by those who embrace it to luxuriate in its warmth and to reject, obscure or elide any information that might dare challenge it.

Indeed, there is something uncanny in the fact that the one film that might have exposed Japanese to the controversial history of American blackface, Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000), has never been released theatrically in Japan nor on VHS or DVD here. Given that most of Lee’s other films have, the omission is curious, as is the fact that the Japanese Wikipedia entry on Lee omits the movie from his filmography.

While we may not expect the members of Momokuro (whose average age is around 20) to recall the controversies of 30 years ago, and while the middle-aged members of Rats & Star may be too ensconced in the protective cocoon of their insular celebrity to care, it seems unlikely that their corporate handlers would have such short memories given the public-relations and financial problems similar incidents created in the recent past. Acts of racism, however defined and wherever they occur, seem to engender historical Alzheimer’s, where racially insensitive transgressions are forgotten, only, inevitably, to be repeated.

McNeil ended his last Black Eye column (“From minstrels to a black beauty queen, in a week,” March 19) on a positive note, pointing out that while blackface is still alive and well in Japan, the announcement of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Universe Japan serves to place the issue of Japanese racism in perspective. Still, the announcement was followed by social media chatter as to whether or not she is “Japanese enough” to represent Japan, and to a miasma of racial vituperation that today passes for conversation in both English-language and Japanese-language blogospheres.

Sadly, for many blacks — including those of mixed black-Japanese heritage, such as the author of the epigraph that heads this essay — there is an unpleasant sense of deja vu that belies any suggestion that much has changed. And it is doubtful they will until the issue of Japanese racism in all its forms is honestly and unflinchingly confronted.

John G. Russell is a professor of cultural anthropology at the Faculty of Regional Studies, Gifu University, and studies issues of race and representation in Japan and the United States. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • socrateos

    Here in US, a white police man shot and killed an unarmed black man recently. This happens again and again and again every year. There is a virtual segregation in US society where black people and white people mostly live in separate areas. A white person often feels uneasy to live in a predominantly black community, and vise versa. We have not solved racism in US despite Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama.

    I am curious to know if black Japanese get similar, unfair treatments: being targeted by police and even get killed more easily, being born and living in an a separate “black area” apart from “normal” Japanese? Have they ever being denied to vote in Japanese history? When we think about racism in US, we usually think about these things.

  • Kochigachi

    For years Americans were complaining about Korea’s blackface and now this, just several decades ago nearly all White countries made fun at blackface. Yes, it is racism.

  • Jameika

    Excellent look at this issue. It is, indeed, nuanced.

    I was particularly impressed by the author’s statement that “racism is based on ignorance, it is a learned ignorance masquerading as certain knowledge”, which is something I wish more people would go ahead and recognize.

  • ARUDOU Debito

    Excellent essay, Dr. Russell. Thank you very much for it.

  • jake Harods

    Let’s do yellow face/flat face and bandy leg………that might put a stop to it. Or slash. They are foolish that’s all.