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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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: email@example.com
Madoka Yanagisawa (freelance writer)
Yo W. Shiina
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.