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Time for Japan to scrub off that blackface — for good

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A happy new year to all!

Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Well, I’ve had mine just as the calendar was flipping. What would you do with your 15 minutes, should the occasion ever present itself? Best ask yourself now, and I pray you’re prepared for it should such an opportunity come along.

What did I do with mine? Well, I gave it to Japan — by imploring them to stop blackface before the country attains a stigma it may not be able to recover from. It was the least I could do for all the wonderful things this country has given me over the past 13 years.

How was my gift received? Well, depends on who you ask.

Here’s a brief overview of how it went down from my perspective: I was watching the New Year’s Eve edition of variety show “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” like most of the country when Masatoshi Hamada emerged from a cabinet in blackface. People say he was supposed to be Eddie Murphy. All I saw was, for the third time in a week, a Japanese man using blackface to get laughs, and once again I didn’t see the humor.

I took a few screenshots and hopped on Twitter. It was already a hot topic, so I added some kerosene. Think my exact words were: “This makes 3 times this week and 2 nights in a row! This time on the number 1 viewed program of the year, the super bowl of comedy! Japan … you’re making it really hard to love you these days … you gotta do better than this! #BlackfaceisBad #StopBlackFaceJapan.”

I followed that with this tweet:

“Note to japanese performing in #BlackFace: #Blackness is not a punchline nor a prop. Need jokes? Get better writers. Need a black character, get a black actor that speaks Japanese. There are several! But please #StopBlackfaceJapan”

A couple of more tweets and retweets and I thought I was done with this. But the internet wasn’t done with me. My tweets and Facebook posts had caught fire, and the story had gone global on the strength of them and the provocative nature of the visuals, apparently. When all was said and done, I’d been interviewed by HuffPost Japan (which exploded on Yahoo Japan), then BBC Skyped me twice, then the New York Times! So, yeah, it was a seven-day-long 15 minutes.

So, you might be wondering, what did Japan think of its image being in the hands of someone whose race Japanese comedians are prone to disparage for giggles?

Well, here’s what they thought, in a series of messages I received on the subject:

Kaori Takata
Kaori Takata

An instant turn-off

First of all, my apologies for sending you a direct message out of the blue like this.

When I saw an article about you and your position on this blackface incident, I just had to look for you and reach out, just to express my embarrassment and humiliation and, most importantly, a sincere apology on behalf of this country for its ignorance.

I find it fascinating and also uncomfortable how African-American culture is so admired in this country, and has even become a huge trend among the younger generation, yet most do not realize how the culture was built on all the pain, struggling and prejudice that the African-American community had to go through. It’s like Japanese people are fascinated by some aspects of ghetto culture and like imitating it just because it’s cool, while they haven’t got a clue how the culture was really born and what it’s really like to live in the ‘hood.

I don’t usually watch Japanese TV. The only time I turn it on is on New Year’s Eve, for that famous Japanese comedians’ show that I innocently enjoy once a year. On that day I was watching, and the moment I saw the guy with his face colored all black I felt this uncomfortable feeling and irritation, and I turned the TV off immediately. I sat there in my living room wondering if I’m a strange, twisted Japanese person to feel this way, and that there must be at least one African-American that must feel some kind of way about this. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Today, when I saw your article, I felt the need to reach out and let you know how I’ve felt since New Year’s Eve. Thank you for taking the time to read my message.

God bless.
KAORI TAKATA

Naruto Komatsu
Naruto Komatsu

Ignorance is no excuse

Hello, I’m sorry for this sudden message. I’m Naruto Komatsu.

I’m just a normal Japanese college student. I’m messaging you now because I wanted to thank you for spreading across Japan the fact that blackface is generally considered racist in the U.S. and the West.

As you probably know, the Japanese are not racist against black people per se but are ridiculously ignorant about racial issues. But ignorance cannot be an excuse, as you said on Twitter.

I strongly support your ideas. Japan is not yet recognized as a nation that accepts immigrants, but the country will accept more immigrants in the future to compensate for the decrease of its population and domestic demand. When that happens, I think the Japanese should make an effort to avoid misunderstandings on issues not only related to race (like this time) but also culture and religion.

However, I think it’s best they be taught by foreigners who have been living in Japan for a long time, like you, instead of trying to learn on their own. So, thank you so much for being a teacher to those Japanese who are ignorant and indifferent about race.

In the future when there is another misunderstanding, please teach them. Again, thank you very much.

NARUTO KOMATSU

Norihiro Togasaki
Norihiro Togasaki

Saving Japan from itself

I think that this is a wonderful campaign. Japan must take the global issue of blackface seriously.

I think that this campaign is an effort to save Japan itself. Blackface should be stopped immediately. There is no need to do blackface, and it should not be permissible to slander or hurt anyone.

People with diverse backgrounds live in Japan. I feel strongly that it is the mission of Japan, and everyone who lives in Japan, to prepare an environment without discrimination, where no one feels uncomfortable.

It is sad that such a slanderous act is occurring in Japan, and it is embarrassing to me as a Japanese person.

NORIHIRO TOGASAKI

Kazz Takahashi
Kazz Takahashi

No way to show respect

I think finally the time has come for Japan to discuss this issue. I believe that 99 percent of Japanese people truly don’t know that blackface is wrong. However, we must realize that Westerners (or non-Japanese) are disgusted with it. And we can’t ignore the fact that it is not only black people who are disgusted by this but white people too. Regardless of whether it’s discrimination or not, it is viewed as such in much of the world.

Japanese should stop doing blackface right away. Many Japanese say this is how we show respect for black people. Then why don’t they listen to the black people they respect who are disgusted with it?

Most Japanese say this is not racism, just jokes, but a great number of people in the world say it’s taboo and they hate it. Why can’t we just listen to them? Japanese are well-known as being kind and polite, so in this case why aren’t we?

KAZZ TAKAHASHI

Madoka Yanagisawa
Madoka Yanagisawa

Have color in your heart

I do not want blackface to continue in Japan or in any other country, because it is an inseparable problem from racism. Many different races is one of the factors that makes this world happier, but blackface is portraying a simplified image of black people, so it is a discriminatory action. Even though I am not a black person, as someone who hopes for racial integration, I wish blackface would become a thing of the past.

Most blackface performers are not conscious of discrimination on their part. Rather, they think they are showing respect for black people and black culture and doing them a service. But unfortunately, their inner intent is not coming across they way they meant it to. So, in order to show respect, please have color in your heart, rather than in your appearance.

MADOKA YANAGISAWA

Yo W. Shiina
Yo W. Shiina

It’s about action, not intent

The response “He did not intend discrimination or any bias-based offense” is logically irrelevant. At issue is the effect of the action (blackface), not the actor’s intent.

Why is it an issue? Because it reinforces implicit bias, and although each little instance of stereotyping may not have a tangible effect, in aggregate it does have adverse effects. While it is not a legal issue, it is a civic issue.

Recently, a YouTuber named Logan Paul posted videos where he and his friends ridiculed, in rapid-fire English, unsuspecting Japanese citizens during their trip to Japan. He may not have “intended” any harm, let alone discrimination. Perhaps he was just joking. But many Japanese and Japanophiles felt disgust and anger. Mr. Paul’s actions are not criminal and, again, may not be “intentionally” harmful, but it is also indisputable that damage has been done, at least on the receiving end.

Japanese culture offers sophistication and civility in various aspects, and much of that comes from a great degree of consideration given to other people’s feelings. So why not take a balanced look at whether a “joke” or “homage” such as blackface is having a positive or negative impact in the global context? Why not bring Japan’s sophistication to the next level?

YO W. SHIINA


I really don’t have much to add to what our Japanese brothers and sisters have said. But I do want to point out that the overwhelming show of support I have received from Japanese people since the moment I dropped those tweets has brought me even closer to this country. I feel embraced by her like never before.

I do want to single out two of these people, though.

First, Yo Shiina. Out of the blue, this Japanese lawyer and author hits me up on Twitter and says she’s taken the liberty of translating all my tweets into appropriate Japanese so that they can reach the people who need to hear this the most.

We became fast friends, and very little of this would have been possible without her volunteering her advice and assistance. This was truly a joint Japanese-American effort. And this from a Japanese person living in New York, no less! Talk about serendipitous symmetry. Nothing but love, Yo-chan!

Secondly, there was a heartfelt letter I received from Kaori Takata, also out of the blue. It came at a moment when I felt on shaky footing because, sigh, I was arguing with black blackface supporters (yep, they’re out there, god help us) and nothing could be more disheartening. But then I checked my inbox and there it was, Takata’s letter. It brought tears to my eyes while empowering me to write a persuasive message to those Uncle Tom-o-hiros out there. Thank you so much, Kaori-chan.

Anyway, Nippon TV responded to this international rebuke of blackface by re-airing the show since then, so I guess we know where they stand. So be it. Like Curtis Mayfield once sang so eloquently, we just gotta “keep on pushing”!

Watch Baye McNeil discuss this issue with other panelists on the Japan Times YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Pf8M9F-IAw. The original Japanese letters are published below. McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. We welcome Community story ideas and comments on this issue for possible publication: community@japantimes.co.jp

Kaori Tanaka

先ず初めに、突然このようなメッセージを差し上げることをお詫びします。
先日、貴方のブラックフェイスについての記事を拝見し、どうしてもお伝えしたいことがあり、勝手ながらメールさせていただきました。
今回の件について、私自身日本人として、この国のあまりの人権感覚に対する無知さを、本当に恥ずかしく思っています。
昨今、日本において(特に若い世代の人たちの中で)、アフリカ系アメリカ人の文化が称賛され、受け入れられ、大きなトレンドの一部となっている事に対し、良い意味で目を見張るものがあると感じる反面、どこかで違和感を感じていました。なぜなら、ある種の流行として捉えられているアフリカ系アメリカ人の文化や習慣、生き様は、長年に渡る人種差別や偏見に苦しみ、悩まされ、社会的スティグマから生まれた貧困の連鎖の中、それでも生き抜くために生まれた歴史から成り立つものであると思うからです。
例をあげるならば、ブラックコミュニティーから成り立つゲットーのライフスタイルや文化を、実際にそこで生まれ育つことはどういう事なのかということを全く知らず、想像することもなく、ファッション感覚で真似ているようなものだと思います。(これで私自身が伝えたいことが上手く表現できていれば良いのですが、、)
私自身、普段からテレビを見る人ではありません。そんな私が唯一年に1度だけ純粋な娯楽として見る番組が、あの大晦日恒例のお笑い番組です。あの日、例年に習い、番組を見ていた時、ブラックフェイスの方の姿を見た瞬間、なんとも言えない気まずさと、ある種の苛立ちを覚え、すぐにテレビを消しました。そしてしばらく、テレビの前で考えこみました。これは、ただ単に私自身がひねくれた感覚でしか物事を見れない日本人であるが故なのか、もしくは、おなじような気持ちで見ていたアフリカ系アメリカ人が少なくとも一人は存在するのではないかと。それ以来、そのことをずっと考えていました。
貴方の記事をみて、大晦日からずっとくすぶっていた思いを、どうしても伝えたく、今日メッセージさせていただきました。
貴重なお時間を使って、このメッセージを読んでいただき、ありがとうございました。
God Bless

Naruto Komatsu

突然のメッセージで申し訳ないです。私は小松成人と申します。普通の大学生です。
今回メッセージを差し上げたのは、お礼を言いたかったからです。Blackfaceが欧米では人種差別だと認識されることを日本に広めていただきありがとうございます。おそらく分かっておられると思いますが、日本人は黒人に対して差別的感情を抱いている訳ではないですが、バカバカしいほどに人種問題に関して無知です。しかし、あなたがツイッターに投稿された通り、無知は言い訳にはなりません。あなたの考えを強く支持します。
日本はまだ移民を受け入れる国としての認識は得ていませんが、人口減少とそれに伴う内需の低下をカバーするために将来的には移民を受け入れることになるでしょう。その時、今回のように人種だけでなく、文化や宗教などに関して誤解が生まれないよう、日本人は努力すべきであると考えています。
しかし、そのためには日本人が自ら動くというよりは、McNeilさんのように日本に長く住む外国人から教えていただくのが最善だと考えます。ですので、人種に関して無知で興味のない日本人の先生になっていただきありがとうございます。これからも日本人が国際認識から外れるようなことがあれば、彼らに教えてあげてください。改めてありがとうございました。

Norihiro Togasaki

素晴らしいキャンペーンだと思います。日本は世界が抱えている問題に真摯に向き合わなければならない。このキャンペーンは日本自身を救う取り組みになると思います。
ブラックフェイスはすぐに止めるべきです。ブラックフェイスをする必要性はないし、いかなる人を傷つける中傷行為も許されるべきではありません。日本には多様なバックグラウンドを持つ方が生活しています。全ての人が嫌な思いをせず(差別を受けず)生活できる環境を整えることが日本(に住む人すべての人)の使命だと強く感じます。このような中傷行為が日本で起こっていることが悲しいし、日本人として恥ずかしいです。

Kazz Takahashi

ついに日本でもこの事について話し会う時が来たという感じです。おそらく99%の日本人がブラックフェイスが間違っているという事を知らなかったのではと思いますが、どれほど西洋人(或いは日本人以外の人)が嫌悪感を抱いているかということに向き合うべきだと思います。そして忘れてはならないのが嫌悪感を抱いているのは黒人の方だけではなく “白人の方も同じ” であるということです。
日本人は今すぐブラックフェイスを止めるべきです。多くの日本人の方はこれは黒人へのリスペクトであると言います。では何故リスペクトしている黒人が嫌だと言っている事に耳を傾けないのでしょうか?またこれは人種差別ではなくジョークだと言いますが、世界中で多くの人がタブーであると言い、嫌悪しているという事に耳を傾けないのでしょうか?親切で礼儀正しいとして知られている日本人はこの場合にはそうではないのでしょうか?

Madoka Yanagisawa (freelance writer)

黒塗りと呼ばれる「ブラックフェイス」は日本だけでなく、どの世界でも続いて欲しくない。理由はこれが人種差別と切り離せない問題であるから。多様な人種の存在はこの世界に住む人たちの心を豊かにする要因であり、他の人種を単一的なイメージでまとめる、それ自体が差別的なのだ。わたし自身は黒人でなくても、この世界ですべての差別を望まない1人としてブラックフェイスを過去のものにしたいと願う。
大抵ブラックフェイスをしている側に差別の意識はなく、むしろ黒人や黒人文化への敬意、さらには表現者としてのサービス精神でしていることがほとんどだが、残念ながら目に見えない内側の意志は周囲に伝わらない。敬意を示すのであれば、外見よりも心の中に自分なりの色を持てばいい。

Yo W. Shiina

「差別や偏見の意図はなかったと思う」というコメントは論理的には的外れなものです。問題はその行為(例えばブラックフェイス )の「影響」であって、行為者の「意図」ではないからです。問題である理由は、その影響による潜在的偏見の助長です。ステレオタイプ化の個々の事例には、実質的(計測可能な)影響はないかもしれませんが、累積的には負の影響となり得ます。これは法的な問題ではありませんが、市民の意識の問題でしょう。
先日、ローガン・ポールというユーチューバーが、日本に旅行し、早口の英語でまくし立てながら日本の人々をからかうビデオを配信しました。彼には、差別するどころか、何の害を加える「意図」もなかったかもしれません。単なる冗談だったのでしょう。けれども多くの日本人や日本を愛する人々は嫌悪感と怒りを覚えました。ポール氏の行為は犯罪ではないし、「意図的」でもないかもしれません。けれども、少なくとも受け取る側にとっては、負の影響がありました。
日本の文化は様々な点で、洗練され、礼節を重んじるものです。そしてその大部分は、他の人の気持ちを慮ることに注意を払うことからきています。それならば、例えばブラックフェイスのような「冗談」が、世界という文脈において、ポジティブな影響を与えるものか、ネガティブな影響を与えるものか、バランスのとれた見方を試みても良いのではないでしょうか? 日本の洗練を、さらに上のレベルにしようではありませんか。

Fine with blackface

When I solicited opinions of Japanese people for this piece, I expected some to be in favor of blackface, but either no one held that opinion or they decided not to speak up. However, obviously, there are loads of people in favor of the Japanese media continuing the practice of airing blackface. Here are some samples of those comments:

“He was imitating Eddie Murphy, so I don’t see what the problem is.”

“We (America) don’t need to be imposing our PC madness on Japan. MYOB (mind your own business).”

“This black man that’s living in Japan is ‘using’ Japan for politics in the U.S. Method: Using the race card against us — not effective.”

“You dug a deep gap between black people and Japanese people, and made a narrow bridge on it. Beautiful.”

And my favorites come from some black people who say, “This is a non-issue raised by oversensitive whiny-ass black people looking to make something out of nothing. I thought he was funny!”

Anyway, thought y’all ought to know it wasn’t all love by any means.