Back in the summer of 2015, I did a series of articles where I profiled black women married to Japanese men, discussing the highs and lows of building and maintaining such relationships, as well as the rewards and challenges of raising biracial children here in Japan. One of the women profiled also touched on a Facebook group she’d recently cofounded, called Black Women in Japan.
Since then, BWIJ has grown by leaps and bounds. Its member rolls have nearly quadrupled — increasing in two years’ time from around 400 to over 1,500 currently — and run the gamut of the African diaspora. The group recently announced they will be holding their first national convention on March 25 in Tokyo. BWIJers from all over country are expected to attend. So Black Eye caught up with a few members to get their individual perspectives on why the group has enjoyed such success, the activities planned for the convention, its goals and what can be expected from BWIJ moving forward.
BWIJ was launched in September 2014, the brainchild of Avril Haye Matsui and Stephanie Fay Gayle.
“I was feeling kinda frustrated,” says Haye Matsui, addressing how and why the group came into being. “I didn’t feel like black women were being represented well. There were people writing books about ‘Western’ women in Japan but none of these women were women like me. It was like we didn’t really exist.
“One day, Stephanie and I went to this African Festa in Nagoya. All of the vendors there were African, but all of the entertainment was Japanese. There wasn’t even one black face. We were just sitting there shaking our heads, thinking, ‘This isn’t right.’
“It wasn’t that these Japanese performers were deliberately mocking African culture. I think they were trying to be very respectful about it, but they had forgotten to include African people in their efforts to represent Africa,” Haye Matsui says. “Usually in these kinds of multicultural events, there’s a sharing of culture, and it just wasn’t there.”
The two ladies began putting together the initial plans for what would eventually become BWIJ. There were already groups centered around black issues, but none were tailored specifically for women.
So their mission was simple: to provide a destination for women of African descent who, for a myriad of reasons, are not seeing accurate representations of themselves anywhere — not in the media or on the internet — and feel fairly isolated here because of this. BWIJ became a place where they can enjoy a sense of community, peopled with knowledgeable and supportive women who have or are currently facing similar experiences and challenges living in this otherwise lovely nation.
“It’s amazing the way it’s taken off,” says the native of England, who has lived here in Japan since before the internet was a thing. “What I’m most happy about is, being old school, I need to see people, so I wanted a group that would somehow facilitate face-to-face meetings. And that’s what’s happening. People are meeting up in different areas of Japan. And now we’re all coming together in Tokyo!”
BWIJ members are coming to Tokyo from all over Japan, in much the same way they’ve come to Japan from all over the world.
Jackie Thompson is American, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, and has been living in Japan for the past five years. She’s been down with BWIJ almost since its inception.
“I’m black, I’m a woman and I live in Japan, so I joined,” the Tochigi resident says.
She came to Japan as part of the JET Programme and made quick work of finding black friends, so she wasn’t really in dire need of a community like BWIJ.
“But I’ve found it to be a very good support center,” she says. “Being a black woman working in a Japanese work environment has its challenges. And it’s great to have sisters post about their own experiences and know that I’m not alone here in my little inaka (countryside) town.
“For example, a lot of people here are intrigued by our hair, so people will randomly come up and touch it without permission,” Thompson says. “I mean, you want to be a cultural ambassador here, right? But you don’t wanna be a petting zoo, so you have to find the balance between the two.
“Also, BWIJ has served as a valuable resource for information When I first came here under the JET Programme, they took care of everything as far as getting me situated here, but not too long ago I moved into my own place. And I was having issues with the whole guarantor business, and BWIJ members helped me understand that process, and provided me with a whole lot of places I could try, so their support has been invaluable.”
Thompson, one the convention’s organizers, also provided an overview of the event and the various workshops available to attendees.
“The convention will be held at the Korean YMCA in Chiyoda. It’s officially a one-day event,” she explains. “But the second day, the 26th, there’ll be an optional tour of Tokyo. On the 25th, however, we’ll have nine workshops in total, covering spirituality, developing vibrant habits, hair, beauty, fashion, dance … there’ll even be a workshop hosted by Reina (profiled here last September, at bit.ly/jtreina) about being a foreign actress/seiyū (voice actress) here in Japan. And of course they’ll be a lunch, a dinner and an after-party.”
Bridgette Wright, another of the organizers, is from Jamaica and has been living in Japan since 2013. She came here primarily because she was into anime, and because she wanted to experience a culture very different from her own, she says. Japan met that need, and then some.
When she first arrived here, she lived in Mie Prefecture, in an area where there were few foreign residents, fewer blacks, and black women were virtually nonexistent. But soon she started visiting Nagoya quite often, and found the BWIJ members living there to be a pretty vibrant group. So, a year later when she moved to Nagoya, she became a bit more involved in their activities, and that’s when she began to notice the benefits of membership.
“The biggest benefit was camaraderie,” says Wright. “Japan gets pretty lonely. But in BWIJ, you can associate with people who have similar issues. And I found that I was able to better manage whatever issues I was having — not daily life problems but serious issues, like how to deal with how Japanese view black women.
“When I put these on the (Facebook) page, sometimes I get advice, and sometimes people don’t have any advice to give me, but they’d always be very sympathetic, and that helped a lot. Then I started meeting up with them and found I could just speak my mind, be myself and just have real fun without sugarcoating everything.
“It’s always so nice to walk down the street and see another black woman,” Wright says, explaining why she’s looking forward to the convention. “When I see them, I just light up! So I can’t imagine how bubbly I’ll be upon seeing all these black woman in the same place, everyone happy to be there, happy to meet you, people you can relate to and more black women than I have seen in four years.
“Also, we have a program we’ll be launching at the convention called Big/Little Sisters,” she adds enthusiastically. “In Japan, not only black women but many foreigners have situations where you can’t talk to your family back home because, though they know you they don’t know the situation, so they really can’t relate. And it’s sometimes hard to be strong by yourself. You can breakdown so easily. I never want to hear about a black woman committing suicide because she felt like she couldn’t reach out to anyone or she felt like she was going through something that only she was experiencing.
“So we’ll have this program where we’ll be making pairings. You’ll have a big sister or be a big sister, and the two of you will be in one another’s corner. You’ll have someone you can always call on, even if it’s just that you need to see another black woman, it’s fine. My main goal is to see that program kick off.”
Arlette Bouzitou is from France and has lived in Japan for five years. She came here as a vendor for Louis Vuitton. At LV in Paris she worked with 300 other people, who represented 100 different nationalities, so coming to Japan and not having any black women around wasn’t really a thing to her.
“Back in Paris, I didn’t really have any black women friends, either,” she says. “So I wasn’t really aware of or felt any need to join any black women’s groups here in Japan. But then I met a black woman here and she invited me to a BWIJ event in Tokyo in 2016. That’s how I met Avril and several other members who’d come from very faraway places in Japan. And it felt just like family to me. So that’s when I joined.”
Bouzitou will be running the fashion show/workshop, where she’ll be displaying her Congo-inspired clothing and accessories, sharing some insights into how she built her brand, YaBi, here in Japan, followed by a Q&A. Many years in the employ of Louis Vuitton, both in Paris and Tokyo, has given her the expertise she’ll be sharing with convention attendees.
Her membership in BWIJ has also benefited her in terms of networking and marketing.
“It was through BWIJ that I met a woman that holds events here in Tokyo,” Bouzitou says. “She invited us because it was an African-themed event, and at this event we held our first fashion show. Since my first orders were at this event, I owe my company’s start to my membership in the group.”
The convention is open to all women of African descent here in Japan, so if you’d like to attend, or would like more information about BWIJ, please visit their Facebook page.
BWIJ on Facebook: bit.ly/bwijonfb. Black Eye usually 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. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org