Rewind to September 1986. Yasuhiro Nakasone, prime minister of a self-assured, economically powerful Japan, was taking swipes at American minorities — especially African-Americans.

Japanese, he declared, were on average more intelligent than Americans because blacks and other nonwhites dragged down the U.S. score.

Skip to 1988 when, adding insult to injury, ruling-party heavyweight Michio Watanabe publicly remarked that African-Americans were by nature predisposed to reneging on debts.

If you asked African-Americans at the time what they thought about Japan, they’d likely have a two-word response: “Rich. Racist.”

But they came to Japan anyway — and have kept on coming. Fed up with prejudice at home and drawn by the prospect of cultural and business opportunities abroad, a steady trickle of college graduates, entertainers and entrepreneurs threw their concerns of racism to the wind and settled down in Japan. These new arrivals, together with the smattering of former military personnel who have settled here, today constitute a small but vibrant African-American expat community.

As an ethnic group, African-Americans are nowhere near as entrenched as the Korean, Chinese or Indian communities — neither are they as numerous. Indeed, although exact figures are unavailable, they are estimated to number only in the thousands, including those just passing through for short stays.

However, because African-Americans are so prominent in the world’s media, they attract considerable attention in Japan, too — much of it surprisingly positive, despite the seeds sown by Nakasone, Watanabe and their ilk. To the average Japanese today, every African-American may offer a window into the culture that produced Janet Jackson, Venus and Serena Williams, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

My interest in this issue is both personal and professional. An African-American with two decades’ involvement with Japan, and a pretty good command of the language, I long ago concluded that while Japanese may be prejudiced against some minorities, they had no particular grudge against me.

Curious to know more about how other African-Americans view Japan, I set out to interview people from diverse backgrounds — writers, businessmen, entertainers and teachers. I found that whatever else they all said, there was a common refrain: Compared to home, life in Japan involves less discrimination — not more.

Harvey Thompson is a new arrival, but his story is a common one. An acclaimed jazz singer from Detroit, he is an affable man — but his face turns rigid as he describes the discrimination black people face in the U.S. entertainment industry.

“As a black male jazz vocalist in the States, no major record label will give you a break unless you’re really kissing somebody’s behind,” Thompson says, his eyes tinged with sadness.

Although he only arrived here in September, he has already recorded a CD, been invited to discuss an international tour, and has an acting spot on television. “Since I’ve been here, it’s like being out of a prison, out of confinement.”

New horizons

Latonya Standifer, a single mother from the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, is a pioneer in her own right, one of the relatively few American black women of any economic stratum who venture abroad.

Sick of surviving hand-to-mouth in Watts, Standifer entrusted her 11-year-old son to relatives and boarded a plane for Japan to — like Harvey Thompson — further her singing career. She planned to be gone only three months. The date she arrived: Sept. 11, 2001.

Looking back, Standifer sees haunting significance in the timing. Distrustful of her own government, she predicted that the terrorist attacks would be used to justify a rollback of civil liberties, which would likely hurt blacks the most. Quips Standifer: “I don’t want a piece of that apple pie.”

So, though she misses her son, she’s been in no hurry to return to Watts. At the start it was far from easy as she was rejected for jobs after clients discovered her jazz repertoire to be thin. She couldn’t find — or afford — a place to stay. She had no friends; even other black women singers she met spurned her, worried she would encroach on their turf.

Then things began to change. She got gigs filling in for other singers. Some Japanese Hare Krishnas put her up in a room for next to nothing. Then she met a Japanese woman at a party who had once been an exchange student at Standifer’s high school. The new friend showed up with an air conditioner and refrigerator for the humble apartment. That clinched it: Japan was the place to be.

And America was not. The singer is frightened that her son, Andrew, will become a victim of the streets. If it’s not the crime, it’ll be the cops, she says, telling how white police systematically detain black youngsters for minor offenses while letting other children go free. “Every day living in America was a constant worry about his future,” she says, adding that she plans to bring her son over this summer. Whatever it takes, she says, she’ll stick it out here. “This is my chance to give him a chance.”

She acknowledges going about her plans in a somewhat impulsive fashion. For one, she’s not sure how she’ll put Andrew through school. But for her there’s no turning back: “I won’t live in America,” she says with finality. “I’ve been there. Done that.”

Good for business

Maybe Standifer can get some survival tips from Lance E. Lee, 50, a successful African-American who has called Japan home for almost three decades. A former carpenter with the U.S. Air Force, in 1980 Lee formed IGC (Japan) Ltd., a gymnastics program for children, and soon afterward started a used medical-equipment dealership. Both businesses flourished, and today enrollment at his gymnastics program exceeds 500 students, and his dealership has customers all over the world.

Lee says his main business asset is his confidence. He’s handsome and he knows it. When told — for the umpteenth time — that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, Lee grins and says, “That’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever heard anyone give that man.”

Not that he’s arrogant. At the prestigious Tokyo American Club — where membership costs 2.1 million yen — visitors have been known to ask Lee if he is a valet, unaware that he is actually vice president of the club. (He also happens to be president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.) Some would take offense, but not Lee. “Their thoughts of me don’t change what I am,” he says.

Living in Japan, Lee doesn’t let such perceptions become obstacles to building relationships. “[At first] they see me as one of three basic professions: military, entertainment and sports,” says Lee. “Why should I feel bad about that when in America I could be seen as a drug dealer, a pimp and illiterate?” He shakes his head and laughs.

Darrell Gartrell, founder of an English conversation school in western Japan, seems even less concerned by racism. Gartrell, who is also president of the Japan African-American Friendship Association, says he cannot recall once experiencing racial discrimination since he stepped off the plane in 1991.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Though in the United States blacks often worry about “redlining,” a banking practice in which loans are withheld to businesses in minority neighborhoods, Gartrell, 44, says Japanese lenders “pay far more attention to my balance sheet than they do my skin color.” That’s helped his school, called Wisdom21, expand to three branches across the Kansai region and one study-abroad branch in Beverly Hills, Calif.

He says there are Japanese students who come precisely because African-American history is taught as part of the curriculum, and possibly also because the school’s decor includes black artwork and design. “If anything,” says Gartrell, “being black has served as a tremendous advantage.”

Status matters

Howard French is a bit like a tornado. First of all, he towers way, way above anybody of any nationality he stands next to. And his long, sinewy arms seem perpetually in motion, covering more space in an instant than seems humanly possible. The rest of him is always in motion, too; if his fingers aren’t flying over his keyboard at The New York Times’ Tokyo office, where he is bureau chief, then he’ll likely be hurtling around a tennis court. Or off to Pyongyang aboard a prime-ministerial charter flight to report on a summit between Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il. Or back home in Tokyo writing another book.

French’s complexion is so fair that people meeting him for the first time may not realize he is African-American. He is fiercely proud of his African heritage, however, and wastes little time informing anybody in earshot that among the six languages he speaks are Twi, used in Ghana, and the N’zima tongue of Cote d’Ivoire — both learned while posted to Africa as a correspondent.

I asked him if, in his almost four years reporting from Japan, he ever sensed prejudice. He ponders this for a moment before finally offering as an example, “the fetishizing of African-Americans,” the notion absorbed osmotically by Japanese — from Hollywood films and MTV — that blacks should possess some exotic fashion mystique or sexual prowess. “I don’t like that any more here than I would in the United States,” says French.

French’s gripe about Japan is largely hypothetical. As nattily dressed and precise in his speech as he is, he is more likely to be mistaken for a visiting Ivy League professor than, say, Snoop Dogg.

He knows as much, and points out that people here never actually quibble over his ethnic background. “Japanese are far more aware of socio-economic distinctions than they are of racial distinctions,” says French. “They look at your meishi, and if you’re the bureau chief of The New York Times, they don’t care what color you are.”

Battles overcome

It’s one thing for a mature and successful adult to adapt comfortably to Japanese society, but navigating the tricky waters of race relations as a biracial child in Okinawa — with its history of racial tension dating at least to the beginning of the U.S. occupation — is quite another. Especially when American family members offer no support.

Akira Bryson, a 31-year-old architect born on the island to an American father and Okinawan mother, comes from a family that knows all about ethnic tension.

When a Native American serviceman asked to marry Bryson’s aunt, his mother’s sister, his Okinawan grandpa grabbed a heavy wooden kendo sword and threatened to clobber the serviceman. Then when Bryson’s mother married his father, a black soldier convalescing in Okinawa from a grenade wound sustained in Vietnam, Grandpa disowned her and refused to acknowledge her on the street.

Bryson’s birth, as is often the case in such disputes, resolved the race conflict. Grandpa fell in love with the new baby. And grandma held her head up staunchly as she walked her little grandson around town — ignoring the local children’s racist taunts.”

Unfortunately, the American side of the clan, based largely in West Virginia, wasn’t as enlightened, says Bryson. Upset that his father hadn’t married a black woman, he says, American family members would find any reason to beat him up during visits. And though cousins got birthday cakes every year, the young Bryson went uncelebrated.

For Bryson the pain is still sharp. “Ignorance abounds in that household,” he says. “I have nothing to say to them.” On a brighter note, he adds, “The support of my Japanese family gave me strength to succeed, and to not need the support of my African-American family.”

Under their skin

In contrast, if there is one place where the cultures of Japan, Africa and pre-Columbian America all converge with near-perfect harmony, then that is surely in the household of Matthew Gregory, his Japanese wife Kazuko and their 3-year-old daughter Ashante-chan. (The wife and daughter’s names have been changed.)

The family’s Tokyo apartment is itself a study in multiculturalism. On the wall is a photograph of Matthew’s mother, whose Native American ancestors hailed from Oklahoma and Alabama. (The rest of the family line mostly goes back to Africa.) Nearby is a doorway panel crafted by the Dogon people of Mali. And until recently, Ash- ante’s Japanese hina matsuri doll stand was squeezed between a pair of wooden figures from Kenya — one male and one female.

In a setting strewn with cultural artifacts, it’s only natural that the conversation with 44-year-old Matthew — who arrived with the U.S. Navy 26 years ago and stayed on as an English instructor for Berlitz — usually turns to spiritual matters. Everything is viewed on a higher plane; nothing happens without some purpose.

Take, for example, the complications over his 1998 marriage to Kazuko, a close relative of the Emperor, which is certainly the first of its kind on record involving the Imperial Family.

Kazuko’s father, being a traditional type, simply rejected the whole arrangement and refused to call Matthew anything other than “aitsu” or “nandake,” the rough equivalents of “whatchamacallim” and “whatchamacallit.” He even had Matthew investigated in a bid to prove that he was marrying Kazuko only to get immigration status. (“Aitsu probably has no visa!” he is reputed to have complained.) To the father’s initial dismay, though, a lawyer discovered that Matthew had long ago obtained permanent residency.

Being as above the fray as he is, Matthew took it all in stride. “He was trying to elicit a response of anger out of me,” he says calmly. “I wasn’t going to let it work.”

In the end, Matthew prevailed with steady doses of goodwill, and Grandpa came around. Kazuko, combing Ashante’s hair on the couch, speaks up. “Matthew is really good at buttering up my father,” she says. “He says, ‘Tell me about your ancestors!’ or ‘Oh, is this the sword of your father’s father?’ and so on. He knows all my father’s favorite topics. When he starts talking, the rest of us say, ‘Oh no, there he goes again,’ and Matthew is the only one who listens.”

“I’m in his head,” purrs Matthew, mellow as ever. “I’m under his skin.”

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