Our Lives | BLACK EYE

For me, 2018 was the year Japan began to listen

by Baye McNeil

Contributing Writer

One day next year, and the year after that, someone will ask me in the course of a conversation why I decided to stay in Japan. I know this because it ranks among the top questions I’m asked — by Japanese and non-Japanese alike — since I arrived here back in 2004. And on the day I’m asked, my answer will begin: “Because I had to be here when 2018 rolled around.”

But let me backtrack a bit.

I don’t get homesick anymore. I do get nostalgic sometimes, and lonely. I miss my friends and family, and long to disappear in public like I could in New York, but home is here now.

I used to suffer bouts of “What the hell am I still doing here?” but I’ve only seriously contemplated leaving Japan a handful of times over the past 15 years. And every time I do, something always happens to make me reconsider.

The first time that home came a-calling was in 2008 when Barack Obama, seemingly out of nowhere, became a frontrunner for U.S. president. I even went back to the States a week prior to the election to canvass for him in Pennsylvania. I wanted to live in the America that Obama was touting, an America that would place progress before prejudice, reason before bigotry — and a far cry from the America I left behind. By that time, though, I’d finally begun to build a life and a name for myself here in Japan. I had just started my blog, Loco in Yokohama, which was taking off, and I wasn’t ready to give that up. So, for the love of writing and of being read, I decided I would stay and see where this Loco thing was going.

The second time I almost took flight was with a bunch of other “fly-jin” after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. I was truly scared out of my wits, terrified of aftershocks and a rumored Yokohama-bound radioactive plume courtesy of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station. However, at the time, I was deep into writing and editing my first book, “Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist.” I even had this whole promotional strategy that required my being in the country. Last thing a book founded on my being vested in Japan needed for an epilogue was me deserting the country in a time of crisis. So, once again, writing kept me here.

The last time I seriously intended to skedaddle was in March 2014, when I went to New York for a working vacation. I reconnected with friends and family and did several readings. Hanging with folk I’ve known all my life and luxuriating in the warm embrace of an environment where I wasn’t incongruous filled me with a renewed sense of belonging. And, though my former hometown was gentrified to within an inch of being indistinguishable, it burst at the seams with vitality (though a bit too much “white-ality”). Bistros and bookstores had replaced barbershops and bodegas, and that industrious, chichi, upwardly mobile part of me saw plenty of opportunities to prosper. That had cinched it for me. I was putting together an exit strategy and a business plan on the plane back to Japan.

Life here became almost insufferable after that. Japanese attitudes I found mildly irritating before that trip had been upgraded to personal and intentional assaults on my mental and emotional wellbeing. I became ultra-cynical of everything in order to assuage the anguish and regret I knew I’d feel once I vacated Japan — and I was very determined to do just that.

But then, once again, an event occurred that I hadn’t seen coming. And, no, I didn’t get married or have a baby. Well, not exactly. An editor at this very newspaper approached me about starting the column you are currently reading. Yep, Black Eye was born two months into the master plan I was hatching to break out of this joint and re-enter reality. So, once again, it was writing that delayed my departure.

And that was it. Since then, I’ve been doing nothing but collecting reasons to stay. I began to feel like Japan was actively trying to keep me here. And, in that respect, 2018 was the coup de grace. In the 1981 film “Excalibur,” Nigel Terry’s King Arthur says upon drinking from the Holy Grail, “I didn’t know how empty was my soul … until it was filled.”

For me, 2018 was the Grail.

The year began inauspiciously. One of Japan’s most famous comedians, Masatoshi Hamada, elected to use “blackness” as a comical prop on his popular New Year’s Eve TV program, “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” Watching it live I was dismayed. “Here we go again,” I sighed, and promptly dashed off a few critical tweets, hashtagging them: #StopBlackfaceJapan. And, having said my piece, I was done with it.

But it wasn’t done with me.

I’ve had a voice and a platform here in Japan for a while now, but mostly within the non-Japanese community. That was about to change. I went to sleep that night a writer inebriated on bubbly and woke up New Year’s Day, hung over, to a very new life.

Turns out that while I slept my tweets had ignited a firestorm of indignation from sycophantic Japanophiles, that vociferous lot who think the world would be a better place if blacks were silenced permanently, and a surprising number of people claiming to appreciate blackface as an art. Their invective was countered by a wave of support from allies, progressives and others who have, even if it was one time, found themselves or their loved ones targets of discrimination, social media outrage or as the butt of offensive foolishness, intentional or otherwise. But, because I had tweeted in both English and Japanese, there was also some unanticipated advocacy from a population that I heretofore hadn’t made much headway with: the everyday people of Japan.

The first two groups sort of cancel each other out (though one tends to have way more free time than the other), but this last group was new to me.

As a minority of a minority here, it’s hard not to feel like a gnat trying to get an elephant’s attention, and it seems many minorities that have the attention of the masses either toe the line (willingly or not) or buffoon their way into Japanese hearts and wallets. So, I was surprised and encouraged when the first publication to reach out to me was a Japanese one. I was also impressed that my statements didn’t get lost in translation and were published with potency on par with my position. Later, Yahoo! Japan picked up the story and it spread across the country like the sun rising on a new day.

Speaking up: Baye McNeil gives a presentation titled
Speaking up: Baye McNeil gives a presentation titled ‘Unpacking Your Intangibles’ at TED×Kyoto 2018 in November. | PHOTO BY HIROMASA AKAISHI, COURTESY OF TEDxKYOTO

The comments people wrote in response to the Japanese story weren’t always kind, but that much I was used to. What I wasn’t used to were emails and private messages from Japanese people telling me they now realize that the act of blackface is a bizarre way to pay homage to black people. Or, how using a person’s skin color with humorous intent — particularly a group that is not engaged on an equal footing — could indeed be offensive if seen from a different perspective.

Nor was I used to Japanese allies — strangers who have since become friends — offering their support to help my argument reach the multitudes, people I would never have reached otherwise.

For the first time I was seeing a discussion between Japanese people about issues relevant to conspicuous non-Japanese living in Japan, with recognition that these issues impact the greater society as well. Many of these people were processing thoughts that they’d never felt compelled to process before, wrestling with questions they weren’t even aware needed asking, debating among themselves what some of us non-Japanese here have been debating among ourselves, at least as long as I’ve been here.

I won’t go into all the details of those first days of the new year but suffice it to say that within a week — the most exhilarating and exhausting week of my life — my profile had gotten an upgrade. I rose from “big in Japan” to a global spokesperson for the black experience in Asia, sought by major international outlets — on TV, print and web — for my thoughts not only on blackface, but on racial and biracial issues, on inclusiveness and diversity, even immigration and refugee issues in Japan.

One minute I’m asked by the BBC to discuss live on its flagship program the problematic nature of blackface in Japan, and the next I’m invited to come on Asahi TV to have an in-depth conversation about the history of blackface in this country. Later, I had The New York Times calling for my thoughts on what kind of influence the emergence of Naomi Osaka might have on how Japanese people perceive biracial Japanese, then TBS is asking me to come to its corporate headquarters to give the staff a seminar on the problems arising from racialized imagery on Japanese television and how they might proceed without alienating their growing global audience.

I would be lying if I said I was expecting any of this. I wasn’t. The response was beyond what I’d ever hoped for and I was deeply moved by it. However, I was prepared. The decade-plus I’d spent engaging in and opining on just these types of issues in Japan empowered me to embrace these opportunities with confidence and authority. I’d also be lying if I said I’m not feeling proud of myself as a result. Better believe I am. As proud as I’ve ever been.

What am I most proud of, though? What did I feel to be the best thing to come out of all of this? It’s the direct access to Japanese hearts and minds I’ve garnered. I’m now in that position I coveted every time I saw a fellow foreigner acting like a boob on the boob tube. And I’m not some clown getting paid to give Japanese people a gaijin to giggle at — I’m there on equal terms.

Now, instead of listening to other non-Japanese ceaselessly argue the pros and cons of “the empty seat,” as a result of this access I’ve gotten, for the first time ever, Japanese people are deliberating the empty seat phenomenon among themselves! I don’t necessarily like what’s being said half the time, but that’s not the point. I just absolutely love that people are conversing and that my work was the impetus for these needed conversations. I certainly don’t expect momentous change to occur overnight, but I know this: Change will only occur here if the masses decide it’s an imperative, and that’s unlikely to happen unless there is first a recognition that a problem exists.

To those people in the future who’ll ask me why I stayed in Japan, I’ll tell them: “I’d been raising awareness of the issues here for years, but mostly among conspicuous non-Japanese. It wasn’t till 2018 that I achieved a platform from where I could also engage the Japanese public and not be dismissed out of hand. Now I’m positioned to play a role in making a real and positive difference in this country I call home. That’s why I stayed, that’s why I’m still here.”

Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. For more information, visit www.bayemcneil.com.