Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Time to shut down this modern-day minstrel show

by Baye McNeil

“Why are Americans, particularly black Americans, so quick to holler racism?”

I’ve heard this asked a lot. Actually, it’s not always in question form. It’s more like an incontrovertible statement, usually from the lips of nonblack people here in Japan. Some black people, too.

I’ve been accused of dropping R-bombs so often — sometimes without having even uttered the word — that I’ve unconsciously, and sometimes even consciously, modified my gut responses to the foolishness that constantly goes on here. I tell myself these modifications are sanity preservation — a survival tactic, and quite necessary for long-term happiness not only in Japan but in the U.S., too.

Whenever possible — that is, when the incident in question is not blatantly screaming “racism” at the top of its lungs — one must learn to extend the benefit of the doubt to what might seem to be way beyond the reasonable. Otherwise, it’s very likely you’ll be seeing behavior that could be classified as racist at every turn. You really will. Especially in Japan.

And, to make these modifications all the more appealing, I’ve found that this kind of thinking and behavior gets rewarded. People, particularly whites and Japanese, find you much more appealing and approachable. After all, nobody wants to be told that they’ve been unintentionally racist — or that behavior they’ve sanctioned as cultural quirks and implicit biases are likely indicative of something a lot uglier. But, if you modify that modus operandi, you get labeled an evenhanded, fair-minded guy — instead of a hothead who presumes racist intent, or un-intent, at every questionable act they come upon. These guys lose credibility quickly, like the boy who cried wolf when the canine in question was just a beagle or chihuahua.

So when that Japanese person stands, vacates the seat beside you and sits elsewhere on the subway or bus, you must train yourself to sell yourself on the notion that the person could just as well have needed to stretch their legs, or wanted to, umm, give you some extra room. Or perhaps they had been harassed the previous week by a guy who looked just like you, or have had random foreigners just turn and embarrassingly spit English at them. Make it feasible now, cuz you’re the one who’s gotta sell it and buy it!

And if you find yourself, as some of my fellow expats have, being stopped by cops an inordinate amount of times on your bike, or just walking down the street? Before you sprint to the default reason of supposed oversensitive Americans, take a deep breath, man up and tell yourself, sell to yourself, that it’s just as likely — hell, more likely — that the cops are being extra-vigilant because there have been a string of bike robberies by illegal aliens, and, like it or not, you kinda sorta fit that description. (Of course, you fit the description of a legal alien too, but that’s beside the point. Sell it. Buy it.)

And when a former adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes on record extolling the system of apartheid, whereby blacks, whites and Asians are forced to live separately, instead of calling her a racist, you can appreciate her words for their honesty and forthrightness. You can even admire her a bit for having the audacity to say what you’re pretty sure many of the people you encounter here would endorse if they had half her courage.

And when you turn on the television one night soon and see a J-pop group called Rats & Star — who’ve clearly raided Little Richard’s (or maybe Flavor Flav’s) wardrobe — singing doo-wop songs in shoddy English with their faces painted black as tar, just do yourself a favor and stop! Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t drop any R-bombs!

Just consider the possibilities first: Like maybe, just maybe, these guys really, really love black people so much that they are prepared to forsake their own race in favor of blackness — at least during performances, anyway. (I’m pretty sure they don’t wanna be black full-time. Even these guys know there’s a lot more to being black in this world than doo-wopping and shoe polish.)

Or, like my Japanese then-girlfriend back in 2009 told me after I referred to Gosperats, another homegrown blackface group, as “ignorant bastards”: I ought to stop to consider that these guys have been around, like, forever and have nothing but respect and adoration for black people and music, and that this minstrel show of theirs is their way — the Japanese way — of paying homage to black music history. (Need I explain why I dumped her?)

“You’re way too sensitive about race,” she’d snapped over my shoulder as I blogged about these guys. “Everything is race, race, race, race, race with you. Are all black people like that?”

And she had a good point. Perhaps it is my tender sensibilities that are at fault sometimes. But in this case, I seriously doubt it.


The other day, I showed a video of these Rats & Star guys to a Japanese co-worker of mine and, without giving him any clue why I had made him watch it, asked what he thought of it.

“They want to be like black people,” he said, grinning. “They love black people.”

“What’s with the black make-up, though?” I asked. “I love Japanese people but you don’t see me putting cake batter on my face.”

He laughed and shrugged. Then he got curious. Maybe my facial expression betrayed me.

“Why do you ask? Is it bad?”

I sucked air, Japanese style.

“Gotta tell ya,” I said. “I’m not a big fan of it.”

“I see,” he said. “Why?”

“You see, back in the days . . .”

And since he was a pretty cool guy, I proceeded to give him a little black history — nothing too overwhelming, just an overview of the decades-long struggle against this kind of nonsense. I pulled up a couple of pics of famous white actors from the golden age of Hollywood wearing black face, and a bit of a Spike Lee montage from his film “Bamboozled” to illustrate my history lesson.

“Oh,” he said, but I could tell by his face that he wasn’t really processing all the ramifications.

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“Do they know?” he asked, meaning were these Rats aware of the irony — that the manner in which they sing the praises of black people is so offensive that the homage they are paying is being drowned out in the noise of their repugnant presentation? That they’re actually making many non-Japanese people — blacks, whites and Asians alike — uncomfortable at best and at worst offending the hell outta them?

“I really don’t know,” I confessed. And it’s true — I don’t know what they know.

But I know this: They’re going to be on TV next month showing their love for black people in a way that if my mother — who adored doo-wop — saw it, would cause her to shake her head and say, “Apartheid and blackface? Take me now, Jesus, take me now.”


I wasn’t going to write about this, you know. I tackled this years ago on my blog, Loco in Yokohama, back when this kind of stuff — this low-hanging fruit — used to get me all worked up. But some white guys figured that a black guy ought to be the guy writing about these Japanese guys, and I’m that black guy.

I had been planning to publish a column this month about how black history can be constructive or detrimental to your health, and included in it some thoughts on how Japanese people might benefit from a bit of black history. I sh-t you not.

All of which speaks directly to this racist bullsh-t — I mean, this cultural misunderstanding — one that could have been avoided in the 30-some-odd years this band has existed if, while they were researching the music, costumes and other aspects of black music and performance, they had simply taken a second to see if what they wanted to do with blackface had ever been done before. You know, just a little proactive research about the industry they would spend the next three f-cking decades profiting handsomely from.

But alas, when I saw this story on the Net the other day — that they were going to be on Fuji TV alongside popular girl group Momoiro Clover Z, who would be similarly blacked up — all I could say was, “Mata ka yo?” (“Jeezus! Again?”), suck my teeth and click away. To me, it’s not shocking to see blackfaced bands here. With the attitudes and ignorance encountered here regularly, the only shocking thing is that there aren’t more of these groups. A Ku Klux Klan-themed idol group wouldn’t even surprise me here.

I’m still, however, pleasantly surprised when non-Japanese people in Japan get worked up over something important. They’re a beautiful sight to see! Like when Julien Blanc was spreading his misogynistic garbage about Japanese women. Remember how the Japanosphere responded? They damn near shut down the Internet with their furor over his antics. Of course, everything he said could be heard in any gaijin (foreigner) bar in Tokyo or Yokohama on any given day, but it was still great to see people get activated for a good cause. Not to mention that, let’s say, inappropriate ANA advert that got a lot of people upset and resulted in Japan’s biggest airline re-editing a television commercial advertising new flights.

And even Japanese get worked up when they want to. Like back in 2011, when the Japanese Embassy in London sent a letter to the BBC complaining about A-bomb jokes on an episode of a British TV comedy quiz, leading the BBC to apologize for offending Japanese sensibilities. And very recently, conservative Netizens in Japan campaigned to keep Angelina Jolie’s biographical movie about a former American POW from opening in theaters here because of its depictions of Imperial Japanese Army brutality. All beautiful acts of activism, right?

Well, I say, if ANA and the BBC can be made to change their tunes, and if Blanc can be shut down, so can these guys. And if this crap does air, I say shame on you, Fuji TV, for airing a modern-day minstrel show and shining a national spotlight on this extreme ignorance. And shame on you, blackface bands, for not bothering to Google the term or for ignoring what you found when you did. And shame on anyone that suggests these performers deserve the benefit of the doubt!

And notice, I didn’t drop an R-bomb on these guys, not even once.

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