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.”
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.”
“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: firstname.lastname@example.org