Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Bring back that Kobe feeling, 'cause it's gone, gone, gone

Late last month I did a presentation at the Japan Writers Conference in Kobe. The topic of my talk: writing on sensitive subjects here in Japan. I used that bit of activism that took place earlier this year (the successful petition to stop Fuji TV from airing a modern-day minstrel show, with Japanese performing black music adorned in blackface, white gloves, etc.) as the centerpiece of the talk.

The presentation was well received. I felt inspired standing there before my fellow Japan writers, not only because I had the opportunity to share ideas with other creative people living here, but because of what had happened earlier that day.

To put it briefly, Kobe happened!

From the moment I stepped off the shinkansen at Shin-Kobe Station that morning, I could feel a subtle difference between the Yokohama-Tokyo area — where I’ve lived the entire time I’ve been in Japan — and Kobe, a city I was visiting for the first time. At first it was something intangible, but it began to take shape as I made my way to the conference venue.

Yokohama is an exquisite city and I dig her something awful, from the skyscrapers of Minato Mirai to the Aoba rice paddies, the restaurants in Chinatown to the Tsurumi River that runs through her. The quiet, safety, convenience, and that charming combination of the rustic, residential and resplendent make her a very appealing city to set up shop in.

However, Yokohama charges a high price for her charms — like a toll for a road that takes you to and from work directly and promptly, yet every time you chuck your change in the toll basket you wonder how the hell your money is being spent, ’cause it sure as hell hasn’t gone towards fixing these suspension-pulverizing potholes in the road, that’s for damn sure!

The “potholes” in Yokohama are the attitudes of many citizens of the city towards you. Their perpetual and often unwarranted fear of interacting and dread of communicating with you results in some bizarre behaviors that range from the ironic and amusing to the annoying and alienating, to the offensive and infuriating. The “suspension” is your soul.

I brought this squeaky road-weary suspension with me to Kobe.

As I made my way from the shinkansen station to the subway, feeling a little anxious about my presentation scheduled for that afternoon, I began to notice some peculiarities. For example, people were standing to the right on the escalators, not the left like we do in Yokohama. This is one of those distinctions — like the Kansai dialect — you hear talked about quite often. Another much-discussed difference is the attitude of the Kansai people.

You might recall that last year I interviewed a graffiti artist living in Osaka — a black man from Brooklyn, New York, named Roler Miles. During that interview he shared some of his thoughts on life in Osaka, one of them being that he rarely if ever had experiences like the ones I’ve described from time to time in my writings. “I’ve never had an empty seat next to me on the train, never had anyone get up, never even had anyone recoil in fear or any of that,” he said.

But these behaviors are so common here in Yokohama that I figured Miles was just engaging in a bit of hyperbole due to his adoration of Osaka, making it out to be better than it was, you know? I’ve done the same myself for Yokohama on occasion, so I didn’t give much credence to these statements.

The train was arriving as I reached the platform and, after a number of people got off, I boarded and grabbed a seat. It wasn’t crowded at all, so everyone had a wide selection of seats to choose from. Several people who got on after me sat down as well. One sat directly across from me, another right near me — two seats many Yokohama folk would at best hesitate before taking.

I glanced at them both. So these are Kobe people, I thought.

I couldn’t see much difference in appearance. They looked a little less stylish, a little more … I dunno, “country” doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe just a bit less concerned with perfection than I’d become accustomed to seeing in the Kanto area. And they weren’t wound up so tight, either. “Tense enough to snap” would best describe a lot of the people I see generally.

The train pulled into another station and a mob of passengers got on: kids with parents, schoolgirls heading to some club activity, maybe — people of all ages and lifestyles, just living their lives. They sat or stood, anywhere, everywhere, laughed and talked, read manga and listened to music, played games and slept. It was a 20-minute ride from Shin-Kobe to where I was headed. And for the entire ride, of people coming and going, I couldn’t discern a single person giving me even a second glance or thought.

In 10 years here I can say that has never happened!

No one behaved in any way to indicate that my presence was anything remarkable. Not even the kids! To look at these Kobe folk, you would think there was nothing unusual in their vicinity whatsoever — nothing frightening, nothing unpredictable or threatening; I represented no assault on their homogenized sensibilities.

It freaked me out a little, to be honest. I’ve gotten so accustomed to the exact opposite — to a reaction, to the squeaking of my suspension — that its silence was a little off-putting. But it grew on me quickly.

So this is Kobe, eh? Nice!

In the silence of normality, it occurred to me that this had happened before. For a couple of weeks following the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake, in fact. The people of Yokohama, with greater concerns on the table (aftershocks, radiation leaks, the fate of family, friends and the nation, to name a few), either paid me no mind or took it for granted that this was an ordeal we shared. It’s a shame it took such a tragic occurrence for people to recognize our mutual sensibilities and common humanity, but for two or three memorable weeks in March 2011, that’s exactly what happened: Yokohama had become Kobe. I even wondered if Kobe having experienced its own catastrophic earthquake in 1995 was a factor.

This feeling of being humanized in Japan (in this sense meaning “to not be otherized” — yes, I’ve lowered the bar significantly) stayed with me throughout the morning and actually augmented my presentation. But about midway through the afternoon, this exhilaration ran headfirst into adversity.

I was standing by the coffee table, shooting the breeze with another writer, named Gerard, when this white guy walked up to us — the only two black guys in attendance — and said with a heavy Scottish brogue:

“I would like to ask you guys a question, if it’s OK. But before I do, I just want to say that I’m going to use a word that I know isn’t a good word: the N-word.

“I’d like to know, why can’t white guys use the word ‘n——-‘ if you guys do? We’re all human beings, right? If you guys are allowed to use it and I can’t, then that’s divisive. The last thing we need is more things keeping us apart.

“I advocate no one use it, that it be taboo, personally. And mind you, I don’t want to use it, but since you guys are putting it out there, I think white people should be able to use it as well.”

That Kobe feeling was fixing to give up the ghost.

Gerard and I exchanged a glance, both wordlessly inquiring, “Is he for real with this crap?” But we didn’t open a can of Whup Ass or even lose our composure. We remained gentlemen and entertained this arrogant European’s line of questioning, explaining to him in a sort of tag-team style (which we hadn’t rehearsed; we’d just met that day) that we didn’t care how unfair he thought it was that someone else gets to use the word when he doesn’t. That white people gave up the right to use that word except in the context they gave it when they began using it as an agent of oppression. That whatever decision black folks come to internally about the use and meaning of the word — whether to reclaim and sanction it, or rid our lexicon of it forever — it’s our call. And that neither he, nor even Quentin Tarantino, get to have a say in that conversation.

We continued: Just because there’s one word in all of the English language you’re not welcome to use, it doesn’t mean you’re being victimized or discriminated against. And, even if it did, count your blessings that’s the only discrimination you’re facing.

“All I’m saying is,” I said, wrapping it up, “unless you wanna get in some s—-, I’d refrain from using ‘n——-‘ except when you’re with like-minded folk.”

“Oh, no no no, I don’t want to use it,” he cried. “I just think …”

But I wasn’t listening any longer. I’d lost that Kobe feeling, now it’s gone, gone, gone … and I wanted to smash his skull for doing that. But instead I just walked away.

And the irony — that on the one day I’m granted this unexpected windfall, this respite from the daily onslaught of Japanese privilege and homespun otherization, a fellow non-Japanese decides to hock a big loogie of white privilege at me — was not wasted on yours truly. I would have laughed if it weren’t so goddamn, well, ironic.

And that would have been that, if it hadn’t been for the subway ride back to the shinkansen at Shin-Kobe Station: another 20 minutes during which the lovely people of Kobe brought back that Kobe feeling, by just being themselves and leaving me be — a second sumptuous helping of it. I savored it all the way back to Yokohama.

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

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