It’s been a year since Black Eye hit the streets. In that time, we’ve profiled provocative and accomplished people, tackled complex issues including identity crisis in Japan and the brain drain in Jamaica. We’ve put a major Japanese TV network on blast, and even covered the coronation and ramifications of a new “Blasian” beauty queen.
I think it’s safe to say we’ve been getting it in! But to convey what keeps this column aloft, I have to take you back a bit, to 2006.
It was just before my beloved Aiko was taken ill. We were, at the time, in the research phase of preproduction on a documentary. She was going to write it; her brother, a burgeoning director, was going to shoot it; and her friends and I were going to help in any way we could.
She was a psych major at a university in Saitama, holding down two part-time jobs, but it wasn’t her workload that presented the greatest challenge to her psyche. It was Japanese people — specifically, the inability of many of them to recognize the individuality, and thus the full humanity, of non-Japanese (though she never put it that way). It upset her no end.
She was aware that this tendency somewhat harmed non-Japanese as well, but they were not her primary worry. She was more concerned with how dehumanizing people in this way hurt Japanese, diminished their respectability and would eventually spell disaster for what little is left of traditional Japanese culture and values. Blinded by their focus on exotic and ultimately inconsequential qualities (like blue eyes, blond hair, brown skin, dreadlocks and other arbitrary traits), she believed that Japanese tended to miss out on the big picture. And this, she’d tell me often, was a major problem with Japan.
It was her friends’ and classmates’ constant gushing over gaijin (foreigners) that really disgusted her. She referred to Japanese predisposed to behave this way as “gaijin freaks.” Whenever we’d get together she’d have another gaijin-freak story to share with me. And while she maintained that what she found disturbing about this phenomenon was the detrimental impact it was having on her culture, the tenor of her tales told me that what was most infuriating was how easily white guys were able to abuse her friends as a result of it.
“They’re just giving their bodies away,” she’d practically scream at me. “Japanese girls lose all their self-respect for white guys. And these guys are even worse, taking advantage of these poor, stupid girls!”
Little by little she began devising a plan of action. We were both big movie buffs, so she decided we should tackle this problem through the medium of film. She immediately began working to expose, explore and offer possible solutions to this issue cinematically. This was her passion project and she was as driven to bring this race issue to light as an Asian Spike Lee.
Although at the time (only a couple of years in-country) I was still in my honeymoon phase, where virtually everything Japanese still retained a sort of majestic glow and irresistible charm — and moreover, I had fallen madly in love with this dynamo of a woman — I was also keenly aware that she was onto something important.
Tragically, she passed, from complications due to cancer, before she could see her vision through to fruition. But she left an indelible mark on me and I’ve been fueled by her passion, augmenting my own, ever since.
And so, here we are, exactly a year into Black Eye, the latest of my passion projects — a column I started with the goal of bringing to the pages of this widely read periodical something I believe Japan (and, judging from some of the comments I’ve read over the past year, the non-Japanese community as well) sorely needs: a change of the narrative about people of African descent living here — one that respects our humanity and reflects our varying perspectives and activities.
Why is this column still going strong? Because, as evidenced by far too many events in the year since this column launched, here in Japan and in countries all over the globe, there still exists the need to say it loud, often and in as many ways as possible: Black lives matter!
To that end, I’ve endeavored to present images of blackness in Asia that rarely see the light of day, and ask questions that — at least as far as black people are concerned — aren’t being addressed in the media earnestly. Consequently, the answers to these questions are often plagued by prevarications, presumptions and poppycock, supplied by the ill-informed, misinformed and uninformed, and people without a vested interest in our reputation or prosperity.
Though a column that centers on the experiences of black people might appear on the surface to be selfishly concerned solely with black issues — as Aiko’s documentary, I imagine, would have appeared to be focused solely on the needs of Japanese people — I think both of our projects potentially contribute to illuminating the big picture in crucial ways.
For one, both projects refuse to accept the premise that problems will naturally or cosmically resolve themselves. That’s just not how it works in my experience. No kami-sama is going to descend from the heavens to enlighten Japanese people about the negative impact of their fairly innocuous and often overly friendly brand of dehumanization toward non-Japanese living here. Neither will it explain to people on the receiving end how accepting this favorable treatment is tacitly endorsing a detrimental mindset.
No, only people can do that, and the audience would likely respond better if the message came from a thoughtful and persuasive Japanese person who gets it! Aiko knew that and was prepared to carry that weight.
And certainly Louis Armstrong or Stepin Fetchit isn’t going to come back from the grave just to inform Rats & Star and Momoiro Clover Z that their blackface minstrel show is in poor taste, and knowing its wretched history (as Rats & Star definitely do), that the intent epitomized a contemptuous lack of respect (black lives don’t matter), as well as an ignorance/arrogance they should be ashamed of.
No, only people here, on the ground, alive and kicking, can do that. And without Black Eye calling these cats out, and without the support of a massive coalition of conscientious people of all races and persuasions, it’s likely that the show would have indeed gone on unencumbered, embarrassing the hell out of the entire country and further damaging Japan’s image before the entire world.
Even as I write this piece, a white man in South Carolina has just gone on a rampage, savagely gunning down nine black people in a church. And if the reports of remarks he made before starting this killing spree are accurate — that he said to black men before taking their lives, “You rape our women” — then he was driven to extreme violence by the same ignorance and fear that Black Eye has been trying to address since its inception.
So, what’s the big picture? That while we’re all in this together, certain issues require special attention.
I’m not a big believer in the afterlife, but I do believe in spirituality — that there is an energy that unites us all, and that our thoughts and actions have a powerful influence on this energy. Call it luck, call it magic, call it God, call it what you will, but I’d like to think that Aiko’s spirit is the wind beneath this column’s wings — that she approves and supports mine and anyone else’s efforts to tear down the barriers that keep us divided. And that’s what Black Eye is all about.
So, happy birthday, Black Eye!
There might come a day when there’s no cause for a column like this. I pray I live to see it. And when that day arrives, the bubbly’s on me! But until then, while the need remains, you can be sure that Black Eye will continue to keep its focus fixed on the diversity and distinctiveness of black lives here in Japan, and the issues pertinent to our well-being.
Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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