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Women of color bound to Japan by love and family

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Over the years, I’ve had a number of male Japanese friends express interest in interracial dating. While most weren’t ashamed to say they had their hearts set on white women, there have been some who were interested in dating women of color. However, generally they were either hesitant to make the first move or harbored some preconception about the aggressiveness of black women. Others were even concerned about black women’s supposed predisposition not to date outside their race.

Though the opposite (black men paired with Japanese women) can be seen on a regular basis in some places, I could count on one hand how many times I’ve seen black women with Japanese men out and about in Yokohama and Tokyo. Sometimes I’d ask my black female friends their thoughts on why that was.

These mostly American, Canadian and Jamaican women would explain that while they were certainly looking to date in Japan, it seemed that foreign guys were focused fully on Japanese women. And regarding Japanese men, some sisters would tell me they simply weren’t being approached by them at all unless it was part of a drunken dare in a bar, or on a lark, or with some other agenda (English practice, accessorizing, fetishism, etc.). Others held on to suspicions about Japanese male chauvinism or their reputed passivity as prohibitive factors. I’ve even heard some sisters — one quite recently, even — invoke anatomical issues. And, not surprisingly, both parties have expressed skepticism about their ability to manage the challenges implicit in the cultural and language differences.

So, I decided to sit down with some of the sisters here who have taken this leap of faith. This is part one of a series that will run through the summer. Brace yourselves, ’cause the black women who have courageously and admirably taken vows binding their fates — and sometimes that of their children — to this remarkable country, for better or for worse, have something to say!


Avril Haye Matsui is a woman of Jamaican heritage hailing from Nottingham, England, who came to Japan with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme and wound up spending, to date, 20 years of her life here. In that time she’s done every kind of English teaching under the sun — from public schools to eikaiwa (conversation schools), children and adults — and is currently teaching at a university in Aichi Prefecture.

She met her husband, Shinobu, about three years into her tenure here, at a less than auspicious place — a bar — where apparently somebody nampa‘d (pulled)somebody.

“He feels that he was nampa’d” she tells me, giggling at the memory. “I’m not really sure who asked whom to dance. I was slightly inebriated at the time. But I remember thinking, ‘He’s a good dancer and he seems like a nice man.’ He called me a few days later and the rest is, as they say, history.”

Asked whether she ever imagined she’d wind up living and loving her life with a Japanese man, Avril told me emphatically she did not.

“I really felt like Japanese men were not attracted to black women, specifically,” she says, “because I didn’t know any black women that were dating Japanese men. I knew a few white girls that were. In fact, when I first came to Japan, there were very few black women around, period.

“My previous attempts at being alluring to Japanese men had been extremely unsuccessful,” she says, being delightfully much more candid than I expected. “I’d go out on a date and be told, ‘It’s really nice to have a friend like you’ — that kind of thing.”

Ouch.

After dating for eight years, Shinobu finally popped — or rather, penned — the question.

“He wrote me a letter and gave it to me on Christmas Eve,” Avril says, laughing out loud. “Which is interesting because I thought we were breaking up. But it was a proposal!”

When she told me the tale of how her first-born came into this world, all I could think was that she had indeed chosen auspiciously. She explained that he was a welder by profession, very hands-on, a good father and provider, and all-around good guy.

“And, I don’t know if this would be of interest,” she added very subtly, “but he actually delivered our daughter in the back of his car.”

Hands-on indeed!

“Yeah, he was very calm. Didn’t faint or anything. It was amazing!”

Now, eight years and two kids into the marriage, Avril describes their relationship as being much like that of any other married couple raising children with mixed heritages. The challenges they face, she says, are likely similar to those they’d face in any country.

“My children are half-black British as well as Japanese, so the most important thing I can give them is a sense of who they are, of their identity, because they don’t get to see any reflections of who they are. That’s why I think what (Miss Universe Japan) Ariana Miyamoto is doing is so important: because she is a reflection of my kids.

“There are some similar experiences to what they’re facing that I had growing up as a minority in the U.K., so we can sit and talk about that when they’re teased for being different or when people ask them why they’re the color that they are. Or I can blow off some steam when my daughter comes home and says the ballet teacher told her that her hair was wrong — because it wasn’t in the ballet style, which is sort of straight and in a bun.”

From my friends with hāfu (mixed-race) kids I’d heard of a lot of silliness parents are liable to run into, but this was a first. So I asked Avril how she handled it.

“I had to explain to the teacher that my daughter has beautiful curly hair and it takes an hour just to comb it out, and I’m not going to do it every Saturday and put it up in a bun, and she shouldn’t ask me to do it. ‘You have to realize that we are a different culture and you have to be sensitive about that.’

“But I don’t think she really took me seriously,” says Avril. “And this is my biggest challenge! OK, here it comes: It’s the fact that as a woman, especially as a foreign woman married to a Japanese man, sometimes you’re just not taken seriously. And what I had to do was get my husband to phone up this woman and talk to her about her cultural insensitivity towards my daughter’s hair . . . and then, suddenly, she understood! Keeping my temper, holding my tongue, in those kinds of situations is the biggest challenge for me.

“And sometimes when we go out and people talk to my children as if they’re foreigners and say, ‘Oh, you speak Japanese!’ and ‘Oh, you can use chopsticks really well!’ And the kids are looking at me like, ‘Why is this stupid person telling me I can use chopsticks?’ ”

Avril has a number of tactics she uses to help her kids maintain a healthy self-image. Among them is making sure they are exposed to as many races and cultures as possible. Her friends are Japanese, of course, but also Indian and white. And she has many black friends who are themselves married to Japanese people and have biracial kids. But she contends what has helped her kids most is simply reading and talking to them.

“We have lots of books with black and biracial children in them, and we talk about them constantly. And they know. They describe themselves as being black and Asian and Japanese and British and even Jamaican because they know that all of that is their heritage.

“But I wasn’t sure if all of this was working — reading books to them about Nelson Mandela and all these kinds of things. Then, one day, I went to my son’s school for one of those lesson observation things, and all the kids presented self-portraits. Now, the Asian skin color in a coloring palette is called hada-iro (skin color), but that’s not my son’s skin color, and that’s not my skin color. But when I looked at his picture, he had colored his skin in brown — the only brown face out of all of these faces— and to me that was significant because it proved he has a sense of who he is.”


In addition to teaching, Avril is also the founder of an organization called Black Women in Japan, I learned. I wasn’t even aware of BWIJ’s existence before researching this piece, so I was curious to know what prompted its formation.

“I had done a presentation at a women’s conference about black women in Japan because I felt we were being misrepresented in some ways,” Avril explains. “I felt pitied, actually. I’d be in groups with women from other Western countries, like America and Canada, predominantly white and middle class, and they’ll talk about racism in Japan then turn to me and say, ‘It must be so much worse for you.’

“And I realized, through talking to other black women, that they were having these experiences, too, and feeling rather isolated. Yes, we are foreigners here, and it’s wonderful to meet other foreigners, but many of us black women were not seeing representations of ourselves anywhere, not in the media or even in our social groups. So I started to think how could I get women together, because I didn’t want them to have to feel that same sense of isolation I did when I first came to Japan.”

Avril started BWIJ in September of 2014 and its current membership is over 400 and rising daily. For more information about the group, please go to Facebook and search for “Black Women in Japan.”

This series will continue next month with stories from other black women of different backgrounds talking about their experiences with Japanese men, their biracial children, and various other rewards and challenges that come with living in Japan. Stay tuned.

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: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • jimbo jones

    are asians not people of color? i was under the impression that all non-whites were considered people of color.

    • Ron NJ

      That’d require realizing and acknowledging the fact that “people of color” is a stupid (and divisive) term to begin with.

    • tisho

      are whites not people of color? is white not a color? white is not the default color of the human skin. The color pigments of your skin is determined by the amount of melatonin you have, which is determined by the environment you live in, or your parents lived and passed through their genes to you. Hot environment causes your skin to produce more melatonin in order to protect your skin from sun burns, hence more melatonin equals darker skin, less melatonin equals brighter skin. Also, ”all non-whites are considered people of color” only by some people in countries with majority of white people. In countries with majority of black people, while people would be considered people of color.

      • jimbo jones

        neither black nor white are colors as neither have specific wavelengths. white contains all wavelengths of visible light and black is the absence of visible light. but that is beside the point and irrelevant to the conversation. the author is black and from america so when he says “people of color” are we to assume that he is using it in the standard american way in which all people who are not white are considered people of color? i only bring it up because mr mcneil writes exclusively on race and ought to be more aware of his phrasing. in his article he has no problem using black as an adjective so why use the ambiguous term “people of color” in the title?

      • tisho

        Actually the debate on whether black and white are colors is not settled, nor is the answer confirmed. Some people say that only black is a color, white is not, some say only white is a color, black is not. I’ve never heard anybody say both are not a color before. The definition of color in this case would be the pigmentation of the skin, for which white and black are colors, even though there are few people with a completely black or white skin color. As for your question, short answer is: I don’t know. First of all, i don’t know what you mean by ”standard american way”. Like i said, it depends on the circumstances. In the US, by ”people of color” is understood non-white people because of the history and so on, also the fact that the majority of people are white. But in other countries that may not be the case. This article may be written by an American but it is intended for other audiences. Since this is Japantimes, the readers are either Japanese or people interested in Japan, not necessarily Americans, so their view of what people of color is could be different, again, some people might be viewing it from the perspective of living in Asia or Japan. He should’ve been more clear what he means by that.

      • jimbo jones

        “First of all, i don’t know what you mean by ”standard american way”” i mean the way i described it in the 2nd half of the sentence, “…he is using it in the standard american way in which all people who are not white are considered people of color”

        from the oxford dictionary: person of color- A person who is not white or of European parentage.
        tisho, do you think a white person would ever be called a person of color in any country?

      • tisho

        I wouldn’t put too much value on the oxford dictionary, they have more than 1 million registered words, many of them are complete BS in my opinion. The term people of color is used and known primarily in the United States, not other countries. Yes, of course, why not? A white person could be called people of color in some African country, wouldn’t he be a person of color compared to the rest? I personally haven’t heard black person in a ”black country” to refer to a white person as colored before, but i would assume that’s because they haven’t heard of that term before, they just call them ”white people”. If you introduced the term ”people of color” to mean all non-black people in that country, i am sure they will use that too. Again, i don’t know what the author in this article meant by that, maybe he had that in mind, maybe not, maybe he was using it from the perspective of an Asian country, maybe not.

      • There are Latin Americans that have “white” European ancestry, that look and consider themselves white but that automatically are considered “Latino” or “Hispanic” in the US. There are also plenty of Europeans, whether from the Mediterranean or Central/Eastern Europe that are “white” but that aren’t necessarily considered “white” everywhere else.

        What’s “white”, “a person of colour” etc is not fixed, it’s something we randomly have decided and it definitely varies depending on the country. There is no “standard”, at best there are “tendencies”.

      • tisho

        What people consider, and how many people consider something is irrelevant, facts are relevant. People once considered the earth to be flat and if anyone says otherwise they would laugh at him. People once considered that its impossible to fly and anyone who suggested that making a flying machine was possible would be considered an idiot, that is until two brothers actually made the flying machine. Just because many believe in something doesn’t make it a fact, if you go about asking each one of these people why they believe in that, you will see how ignorant they are. South and North America was populated by Europeans. Unless you are a native American, your parents came from Europe, or some other foreign country. South Americans are as white as North Americans. If you think Spain is white then Latin America is also white, since Spain and Portugal populated the Southern America. That is of course a big generalization as both North and South America have experienced waves of immigration for decades. Europe, beginning from Portugal to the European part of Russia are white caucasian. That is a fact that is not a subject for interpretation. People can consider south/eastern Europeans as whatever they want, that doesn’t change the fact. No, you’re wrong, it is fixed, it’s called white caucasian. It’s not a subject to interpretation.

      • Which facts? There is no scientific basis for race, it’s a cultural/social construct.

        You might also consider it “irrelevant” what how other people consider themselves, or how they consider others, but people judge and discriminate on based on this cultural construct. That includes “white caucasian” Latin Americans, some of whom are definitely not treated as “white” by some people in the US. Mind you, not that they should be treated as “white” (no one should be!) but rather that everyone should be treated the same regardless of where they came from or what they look like.

      • tisho

        I wasn’t talking about ”race”, there is just one race – the human race. I was talking about skin color and skin pigmentation. I know people judge and discriminate based on their limited or rather lack of understanding of the matter, and yes, i do consider it irrelevant how most people consider themselves. I’ve heard so many BS in my life i cannot even begin to describe how ridiculous and ignorant most people are. But i don’t blame them, i blame their lack of education and critical thinking, also i blame the mass media for misinforming them so much. Latin American people are white Caucasian, unless you’re talking about native American or some other ethnic group. The majority of people in Latin America are from European descent, in particular Spanish and Portuguese. If you are not to consider Latin American people as white Caucasian, then therefore Spanish and Portuguese people are also not to be considered as white Caucasian. There’s so much ignorance it’s ridiculous to even talk about this. Latin Americans not being treated the same way other groups are treated in the United States is a result of the economic status of those countries, not their ancestry. In general, poor people, or people from poor countries are treated badly. Latin America did not had the economic growth North America had for decades, as a result their countries are not as wealthy as North America is, even though that is changing right now very fast, as Chile is already a wealthy country with very high standard of living, and Brazil is getting there. In general, people associated somebody from Latin America as being poor and therefore ”not as good as them”, which leads to him being mistreated, nobody would do that if they were to associated people from Latin America with wealthy and developed economies. Russians are also white Caucasian, but their country isn’t as developed as others, so they are also treated badly in many cases, because they are associated with that. Being white Caucasian means nothing, with what you are associated means everything. People judge you based on what group you are associated with, or rather with what group they associated you with. If you do not associated individuals to groups, there cannot be any prejudice.

      • Paul Martin

        First I am NOT a racist, I have NO problem with people because of color or ethnicity. But in truth it is the whites who have developed the World throughout history, the others merely imitated them. Afdricans left their jungle tribes, their colorful garb and today they copy the whites wearing suits and ties,etc.
        BUt as I have said history shows whites set the pace !

    • GIJ

      In the Japanese language, there is a particular term that means “person of color.” That word is yuushokujin (有色人), which literally means “having color person.” Do Japanese people include themselves in this group, since they are obviously not white? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that at least some Japanese do not consider themselves to be “yuushokujin.” Rather, they see themselves as “nihonjin”–Japanese, a separate category.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Obviously.

    • zer0_0zor0

      A rhetorical question, I gather, since there are Japanese whose skin color is as “white” as the whitest of the Caucasians.

    • Chris Bartlett

      All these terms seem racist to me, and of course have no basis in scientific truth. I’m very concerned to see these terms which actually perpetuate racism imho, start spreading from the United States.

  • LotusBud

    I am a black woman who almost ended up with a japanese man who was studying abroad here in the states. I deeply admire the japanese culture and history and laud the Samurai warriors the best of mankind.

    • Nick Digger

      Come to Japan. We think black women are gorgeous!

  • Winter 冬

    Really great insight into what it’s like being a black woman in a multicultural relationship in Japan. You always hear about white women, but black woman are a rarity.

    I can understand how frustrated she must be when she isn’t listened to but her Japanese husband is. That would really make me angry if I was in her position.

  • Hey Baye. Thanks for this series, looking forward to hearing more stories. Yeah, it can be a trip being black, female and single in Japan and even more challenging in ones’ fifties.

  • wanderingpippin

    Lovely article. One thing strikes me as odd though, the use of hadairo for the equivalent of what we used to call flesh color in the US. This became an issue in Japan also and it’s my understanding the use of that term in crayon and pencil sets was dropped about 15 years ago. What used to be called hadairo, skin color, was renamed usudaidai, pale orange. That was my memory and when I looked up hadairo in my electronic dictionary just now, the entry gave that same information although without an exact date of when the switch happened. So anyone having an experience such as the one mentioned by Avril should question the school about why they are using art materials that are either very old, or manufactured by irresponsible companies that have ignored this trend. If the art supplies are labelled appropriately but the teachers are using the outdated term I would certainly have a discussion with the school head about why they haven’t received proper training.

  • Autumn Fae

    As a black person, i have to roll my eyes each time i hear the word sista or sisters. Though my best friends are Black women (in the states, not japan). All women who are nice to me regardless of their skin color are my sisters. I made a mistake of thinking i would bond with this one girl because we were both black women in japan and she was a total witch to me and other folks. My real sisters were other fellow American chicks and Canadians who looked out for me, and most of them were White!

  • Ella

    Loved this article. Especially liked what she said about representation and community and how important it is for her kids to know where they come from. Looking forward to more experiences and stories of this kind!

  • Bernadette Soubirous

    I wish that you all find love.

  • Paul Martin

    Japanese don’t like or accept dark skinned people. They tolerated them for decades only because they took factory type jobs no one else would.
    As any Pakistani, African,etc and see what they say about this !

    • Frank

      You should have taken your own advice. Neither I nor any Pakistani I know has ever had racial problems in decades of living in or visiting Japan. I don’t know what the experiences of Africans and Blacks in Japan are.

      • Paul Martin

        Visit the USS auctions in Chiba on a thursday and ask the many Pakistanis and other dark skinned folk there and you will get a very different response !

      • Frank

        I have been to many USS auctions in Chiba and elsewhere. Never had a problem. I have young cousins growing up and going to school in Japan too. Never had a problem. You seem to have a chip on your shoulder about the Japanese. Pakistanis in Japan love Japan and the Japanese.

      • Paul Martin

        NONESENSE ! There are MANY unhappy immigrants there and in the factories

      • Vince Stagbaugh

        Probably unhappy because they can’t read, write and speak the language effectively so they are frustrated living in a country where they don’t feel connected.

      • Paul Martin

        I see a mass exodus of unhappy immigrants and expats on the horizon…mark my words !

      • Vince Stagbaugh

        I am interested to know why you think that will happen. Are there any specific things happening in Japan that will lead to this?

      • Paul Martin

        My Sons have been married to Japanese I have grandchildren who are part Japanese and have had several relationships with Japanese women over the years, so yes I know after 7 years in Japan something about the lifestyles.

        I firmly believe that with the younger vote now and the older generation gradually disappearing that students and younger Japanese WILL demand change and seek a more just and socialist type leadership, after all it is their country and their destiny!

      • Paul Martin

        1. Imminent, disastrous Tokyo quake and possible tsunami.

        2. Dissatisfaction with Japanese government and especially deceptive and racist immigration procedures designed to STALL gaijins

        3. Better opportunities in other countries

        4. Realization that blatant racism and discrimination exists towards all foreigners in jobs, housing and politics !

  • WalterFeldman

    Sad to see divisive, exclusionary US racial concepts like “people of color” being imported to Japan via McNeil’s column.

  • WalterFeldman

    Newsflash: Japanese men have been marring “people of color” for thousands of years. They’re called Japanese women. If you mean women who are black, then why not use that term instead a US-centric label that can be considered divisive and offensive.

    • Vince Stagbaugh

      If one looks at all the terms used to basically describe black folks in the U.S. over the years, it is really kind of interesting.
      First they were “negro”, then there was the N-word, then “colored people”, then “blacks”, next it was “people of color” and now we have “African-American”.
      I wonder what is next on the Wheel of Fortune??

  • luv4music

    Awesome read!

  • INCO

    Very interesting read! I am also a black woman in Japan here with a Japanese husband and kids. Could not find the BWIJ group on Facebook. Can you provide a link?

  • Thandy

    This was an interesting read

  • Chris Bartlett

    Do we have to use the racist terms “white”, “person of color” etc.., especially outside the US? IMHO you can spin all kinds of complex academic and non academic arguments justifying such terminology, but in the end they are essentially racist terms, race being a myth and worse, they perpetuate this erroneous concept of race and therefore racism. It’s not like these terms are doing anything to help reduce racism, they just serve to emphasize racist philosophy, indeed racism is possibly even getting worse in the US as these terms became mainstream. If people must, then people can use terms like of African or European ancestry which at least is more likely to have some basis in fact.

    • Vince Stagbaugh

      Dividing people up by labels is what starts all racism issues. Why feel the need to start a “Black Women in Japan” group, which, by its name, excludes whites and other non-blacks?