The most common question you’ll likely be asked upon making a new Japanese acquaintance is “Why did you come to Japan?” In 13 years here I’ve been asked this question by our hosts hundreds of times.
My response has varied so much over the years I can hardly keep track of what I’ve said, but each answer is generally some variation on the truth. Recent events, though, have given me some added perspective on the why.
In my time here I’ve met and spoken intimately with my fair share of non-Japanese Westerners. Most of them were Caucasian, but quite a few were of African descent. Many of these black folk — that is, those originating from countries where English is the official language (Canada, Britain, Jamaica, the U.S., etc.) — initially worked as English instructors in some capacity. However, to teach English is rarely the reason they left friends, family and familiarity behind. Doing so just happens to be the surest way to get situated on these islands.
However, this is often not the case for people originating from countries where English is a secondary or tertiary language. To date, Black Eye has introduced readers to a Senegalese musician who came here to teach dance, a Congolese architect who came to learn how to integrate Japanese sensibilities into his building designs, and a Zambian who followed his ambassador father here and is considering following his legacy into diplomacy himself, to name a few.
The lion’s share of black people I’ve met from African nations, however, have shared with me that they arrived in Japan, day one, with the strategic intent of owning and running a business here. By comparison, I can count on two hands the number of black Americans I’ve met who’ve expressed similar ambitions on day one in Japan — and I would not be one of those fingers.
There was a moment in each of the conversations with those aforementioned African folk where they expressed some version of a common theme: that of Japan being a land of opportunity — the opportunity to earn money that can then be sent to family members back home to further their prosperity and increase their opportunities, or the opportunity to raise a family in a safe environment, or the opportunity to access advanced educational facilities, etc.
Oh I see, that makes sense … wait!
That’s when things got ugly.
For some reason, I accessed some of the stock images and footage embedded in my subconscious “cloud platform” of the people and places where these guys came from, the folder whose label was only recently updated from “Africa” to read “sub-Saharan Africa” but whose files remain unsorted by actual country. There’s an ample supply of these files, though, most courtesy of NGOs like CARE and UNICEF. Recent additions to the cloud would be just about every photo I’ve ever seen of a black person in a print ad in Japan, all of which would work spectacularly in charity drives.
I then contrasted these with the images and footage of Japan and Japanese that I had taken and uploaded to my cloud personally, and the notion of Japan being a land of opportunity began to kinda make … wait!
I couldn’t help myself. Africans viewing this tiny archipelago in Asia as a land of opportunity evoked from me a snobby little snort of laughter.
And with that snort, I knew that I still arrogantly thought of Japanese as less than myself — that despite being convinced I’d come to terms with life here, some unresolved issues persist. This was a disturbing discovery, though not especially surprising considering the attitudes I regularly do my level best to address, ignore, rationalize, minimize and forgive in advance. These behaviors have not gone away or diminished at all. Only my response to them has evolved, and apparently it’s an ongoing process.
The snort also revealed that, despite all the effort my teachers and parents put in during my childhood to instill in me nothing but reverence for everything of African descent — especially Africans themselves — I still harbor feelings of superiority over Africans, too.
And this I found very disturbing.
The day you catch yourself condescending to a billion people, for any reason, even if it’s done inadvertently, is, I hope, a day you take a pause from your scheduled programming and check yourself.
Condescension and arrogance, particularly when they’re founded on ignorance and/or propped up by propaganda, are ugly traits. Symptomatic of someone asleep at the wheel. And I consider myself a woke human being, you know? It spooked me to learn I was hosting such an easily identifiable depravity — one that has wreaked quite a bit of havoc over the course of human history.
You’re probably thinking: “You gotta lighten up, yo. Cut yourself some slack. Can’t hold yourself responsible for everything. We’re only human, right?”
Maybe you’re right. There’s certainly enough blame to go around. And that’s just what I started portioning out.
I tried shifting the blame to living in Japan. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” they say. Well, that saying suggests we get to pick and choose which customs and practices we want to emulate. But that’s not always the case. Maybe for tourists it is, but not for long-term residents. People tend to ape what the group does, particularly in a group-oriented society, so sometimes you pick up practices unconsciously by virtue of their ubiquity. And sometimes these ubiquitous Japanese customs — like the tendency to simplify things that defy simplification — are problematic at best.
I’ve also tried shifting the blame to America. After all, America is the place where one is constantly bombarded, subliminally and intentionally, with a nationalistic narrative about our exceptionalism and moral/cultural superiority.
I tried to shift the blame to white supremacy, too. There’s some low-hanging fruit for you, because even though the vast majority of the images of the so-called exceptional and the superior are of Caucasians — basically a story they tell themselves about themselves over and over — they couch these tales in terms of it being emblematic of American supremacy, and the result is that no American of any race or ethnicity is completely immune to this conceit.
But the truth is, the responsibility is mine, all mine.
It is only through a lack of vigilance that your average America-admiring American will entertain the idea that most (I want to say all) countries, regardless of their GDP or racial makeup, are inferior or subordinate. I’ve known this for the longest time, and have put in the work for years not to be average. But, apparently, I’ve been lax.
My humblest apologies to my African brothers and sisters. Sorry for the snort, and for the insolent ideas that evoked it. I can do better than average. I’m on it.
And to my Japanese brothers and sisters, I apologize to you as well. Despite the nature of the challenges I face here, I think I’ve grown in ways I never could have back in the States. And isn’t that the best reason to travel?
Wanna know why I came to Japan? The reason was more in the vein of what drove James Baldwin or Chester Himes (two of my favorite authors, who migrated to France). They sought not only to escape the fear, hate and injustice of America, but also to find a place where they’d be free to pursue their creative vocations without their basic humanity being called into question — a land where they’d have the chance to be the beings they were born to be.
I initially thought of Japan as such a place — a refuge from the stark realities of being a black man in a country that could justifiably be mistaken for a police state. That is, until I learned that Japan is no escape, neither from the reality of the fear elicited by something as arbitrary as phenotype, nor from the person you are beneath that dark skin. That was the realization that inspired me to tap deeper into my own reservoir of creativity and produce the work I’ve done thus far.
And in doing so, I learned that opportunities abound in Japan. They really do. If you have the will, the knowhow and the determination — if you can figure out alchemically how to turn disadvantage into advantage, and incline prejudice towards preference, you too can be the being you were born to be, even as a black man.
So, no, I did not come to this lovely country seeking opportunity per se. But it was here in Japan that opportunity came a-knocking, and thank goodness I was here to answer it.
Black Eye usually appears in print on the second Monday Community page of the month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.
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