Kyle Sexton’s obsession with Japan springs from his first visit to a sushi restaurant in New York one evening in 1978. The aspiring fashion photographer and full-time photo finisher (who played the ponies on the side) woke up the next morning determined to learn about Japanese culture.
He began teaching himself Japanese and proceeded to build a circle of Japanese friends. Every day he’d have lunch in a restaurant called Shogun (where he was regularly served by Spike Lee’s sister, he recalls) and every weekend he’d go to a little cafe in the Village in Manhattan where they’d show Japanese TV shows with English subtitles. He surrounded himself with all things Japanese — including a number of Japanese girlfriends — and set his sights on making his way to the country.
His first trip to Japan was his first time on an airplane. He packed everything he owned for the trip — which wasn’t much more than some books and the clothes on his back — and arrived here with $300 in his pocket and a determination to stay here permanently.
He’s never looked back.
“Over the course of my life, things have always just worked out for me,” Sexton says. “Some people call it luck. Me? I never question it. I never worry. My wife says I’m too laid-back.”
And the more I spoke with him, the more I could see that philosophy playing out in his mannerisms and approach to life. Even his approach to business was laid-back, I noticed. The day I stopped by was a Sunday and he would have been closed if not for the Nakano Cherry Blossom Festival (320 cherry trees in full bloom lining Nakano’s Shin Ome Street) and the crowds it draws. So every few moments as we spoke, customers would come in, and I’d pause the recording.
“You want me to close the shop?” he asked, like closing the door on the business that was paying for not one, not two but three children currently enrolled in university, was no big deal. “They’ll come back.”
“Nah, this is fine,” I said, not wanting him to lose a single yen on my account. He nonchalantly pulled down the security gate halfway nonetheless.
“Now we won’t be disturbed.”
He went on about this luck theme. There were a number of instances where happenstance played a crucial role in the path his life has taken. Watching him as he casually shared the incredible story of how he acquired the startup funds for his now nationally known bakery, you couldn’t help but wonder if lady luck was indeed eternally on this former gambler’s side.
When Sexton first came to Japan, he used to bake out of his apartment as a sideline to his teaching gig, selling carrot cake to his Japanese friends who wanted to experience an authentic American taste.
“It’s an authentic American taste insofar as I found the recipes,” he explains. “I’m self-taught. Learned how to bake from books. And I never baked things in America. My mother always made stuff, she didn’t buy stuff. So my carrot cake is American carrot cake because I’m American and I found the recipe.”
And then, after eight years of building his name and reputation in this fashion, “Out of the blue, three Japanese friends offered me a million yen each to start this business, and another found this place for me. They kind of pushed me into it.”
For the past 24 years, the 58-year-old, formerly of York, Pennsylvania, has been the owner and operator of Kyle’s Good Finds, an American home-style bakery and community staple located in Nakano, Tokyo.
On the shelves of the showcase in his shop sat some appetizing treats I had a hard time ignoring as I interviewed him (and would eventually buy several slices of before departing): carrot cake, cheesecake, cornbread and a variety of cookies, brownies and pies.
Sexton is the father of four children: Kyle II, Elena, Safia and Xavier. Safia graduates from the University of Pennsylvania this month. He met his wife of 30 years, Shimizu, at a party and then again at a Japan African American Friendship Association (JAFA) meeting. They hit it off immediately and were married six months later.
Though he had immersed himself in the culture long before coming to Japan, his Japanese was only so-so when he arrived here.
“My vice is that I don’t speak well now, but I always tell people, if it were necessary to speak the language to make a living, I would have learned it a long time ago,” Sexton says. “Not that I’m telling people they don’t need to learn it. I can speak the language but my family’s Japanese so I lean on them a lot.”
He only communicates with his family in English, though, so when his children were young they used to try and pull fast ones on him.
“The kids used to say things about me in Japanese thinking I couldn’t understand them,” he says. “I knew American fathers back in the days who couldn’t communicate with their families at all. My wife would read the kids Japanese stories at bedtime and I’d read them English stories. So I never actually taught them English. I just spoke only English in the house. When we’re at the kitchen table they speak to their mom in Japanese, to each other in Japanese and to me in English. No problem.”
Though mostly harmonious, Sexton told me, raising four biracial children in Japan has not been without its difficulties. But they weren’t always in the areas commonly discussed, such as bullying or episodes of discrimination. He cited one instance that occurred with his son as an example.
“When he was in elementary school, the Japanese girls who were getting bullied used to run to my son to protect them,” he says. “But there’s a lot of pressure on Japanese halves. When he was 7 years old there was a Japanese boy bullying him, but my son was the fastest runner in the school. And this bully had the audacity to ask my son one time to throw a race and let him win! And my wife said, ‘Oh hell naw! Beat him!’ Anytime there was any bullying, my wife would go right up to the school and work it out with their parents.”
And there were other challenges, like those posed by his in-laws and some of their racist notions.
“When my wife had gone to see them to tell them about us, they had arranged for the whole family to be there, to ambush her, like an intervention,” he says. “So when she came home, I asked her what happened and she said she’d promised them she wouldn’t marry me. But we were already married. I told my wife it was because I was foreign but she said, ‘No, no, it’s because you’re black.’ She said her parents thought of black people like those black GIs after World War II.
“When they eventually found out about the marriage, they disowned my wife,” Sexton says. “Well, they didn’t outright disown her but they refused to see our son until he was 5 years old, so they missed out on the first few years of his life, which is their loss. But once they met him everything was all right. Then when her father had taken ill with stomach cancer, he told my wife if she came to visit him not to bring the children, but she brought them anyway.
“People asked me when I was in America, what did my parents say when I told them I was marrying a Japanese woman, and I told them I never asked them. And I told my wife that in America we would disown our parents if they tried to tell us who to marry.
“But that never bothered me,” Sexton adds. “When I was the president of JAFA some people probably thought I was an apologist for Japanese because every time we’d talk about racism, I would not so much defend Japanese but I would tell them it’s imported racism, imported from America — that there weren’t any Japanese who would kill me if they knew they could get away with it. But there are racists like that in America — people with a blood lust, that just hate black people. But not here.”
I wanted to hear more about his background with JAFA so I asked him to elaborate a little.
“When I first arrived here back in the ’80s, I’d never see groups of blacks,” Sexton says. “That’s why I joined. Soon after that I became the treasurer, then vice-president, then president.
“We used to have monthly meetings, but the activities of the organization depended on who was president at the time. Some presidents were more interested in having parties, and some, like myself, were more interested in interacting with the Japanese. I was pragmatic. I believed there was no way we’re going to change the mind of every Japanese person — but the Japanese we knew personally, we could change their minds little by little.”
Though he’s no longer active with JAFA, through his successful business and his daily interactions with the Japanese people of that community, and with clientele from Hokkaido to Kyushu, Kyle Sexton has certainly continued to change minds little by little. And I felt like the lucky one to have met him and chowed down on his baked treats.
Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org