SHIZUOKA – I can remember how excited I was when I first came to Japan. I landed in Tokyo and everything was new — new food, new sounds and new people. I have to admit, my excitement was tinged with a bit of anxiety, though. As a woman of color in my homeland of the United States, I’ve come to realize that my experience in a new place isn’t always the one that is reflected in the guide books. I never really know how the locals are going to receive me.
Meeting other women of color here really helped with the anxiety, and, thanks to social media, it’s getting easier and easier to make connections. Even if you can’t meet them in person, the Facebook groups and Twitter accounts they manage offer enough tips to help us avoid hostile spaces and enjoy what this country has to offer.
Two women who’ve helped me take part in a fairly niche corner of Japanese pop culture are Instagram users Ebony Bowens and Tynelle Pozdnyakov.
Frills and lace
Bowens is known on Instagram as “ebunnybee.” The 31-year-old fashion enthusiast is perhaps the first non-Japanese, nonwhite Instagrammer to have a significant presence in the hime-kaji community, a subsection of Japan’s trendy gyaru (gal) culture that centers on an incredibly feminine style. The word “hime-kaji” translates as “casual princess,” and it’s all about frills, lace and myriad shades of pink.
“Actually, this is literally the first day I’ve ever worn hime-kaji with African hair outside my house,” Bowens tells me at a cafe in Shibuya. “It’s very emotional for me and I’m trying not to cry.”
Bowens says that when she first started dressing in hime-kaji style, she tried to emulate the physical traits of the Japanese.
“In my head, I always thought that in order to wear Japanese fashion, I had to have Japanese makeup and straight hair … a slight attempt to become them,” she says. “You can be yourself, though. You can express your own culture, be proud of your own skin tone, have natural hair and still wear the same style. It took me 10 years to realize this.”
Bowens’ online moniker of ebunnybee came from a nickname she was given while working a part-time job during university.
“I had a co-worker who used to call me ‘ebunny,'” she recalls. “‘B’ is the initial of my last name, and I wanted to hide my real name online. I thought ‘ebunnybee’ sounded like my name even though it wasn’t, so I had a sense of security. It also looked cute.”
Having picked up an interest in Japanese fashion and music in 2003, Bowens thought her new nickname would match any kind of style at the time, so “my own name would define me instead of a specific J-fashion style.”
Bowens first visited Japan as part of a study abroad program at Kanazawa University in 2009. She later moved to Chiba Prefecture via the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme as an assistant language teacher for two years, and is currently working in the music industry. She was also selected as a Sanrio Puroland ambassador and has been featured in numerous publications and TV shows here throughout the years and landed a TV commercial alongside model and TV personality Rola for Jim Beam in 2017. That same year, Bowens also sang on the Bradio album “Colors,” appeared in some of the band’s music videos, and joined them on tour to perform backing vocals.
When she first moved to Japan, though, she was really just a fan who shared what she wore online.
“I think that’s how I ended up getting attention on social media,” Bowens says. “I was the one black girl who dressed in (fashion brand) Liz Lisa. I would go online and I never really saw other nonwhite people wearing feminine styles like hime-kaji.”
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Soon, Bowens was receiving messages from younger black followers who were eager, yet hesitant, to come to Japan.
“What I show online is very fun, and I don’t really show the work or hardships that you and I experience as foreign people living here,” she says, adding that she’s seen her share of difficulties.
“I was practically the only black person where I lived in Chiba and got a lot of stares, which were fine. I felt that I had to represent every black person on the planet,” she says. “But in the junior high school I worked at, there were two girls who would bully me. I went natural and stopped relaxing my hair after seeing other black girls go natural on Tumblr. (At school) I’d get called, ‘cockroach,’ ‘ugly’ and ‘monkey.’ I would go to the bathroom between classes and cry. I told the Japanese teacher about it and she told me to not be bothered by it. I didn’t know what to do and I was shocked … I couldn’t tell anybody.
“Then, when those kids graduated, they were hugging me and crying on my shoulder, saying, ‘I love you, Ebony-sensei! I’m going to miss you!'”
Bowens says her experiences have caused her to understand the importance of being visible.
“I’m doing social media for myself, but part of me feels that I’m doing it to show that you don’t have to look a certain way to participate in a hobby,” she says. “Why shouldn’t I do something just because I don’t see anyone else like me doing it? Nowadays you can open an app and see other people like you doing (the thing you like). It must be nice, but I sure don’t know what it’s like. If I had seen something like that, I would’ve started J-fashion when I was much younger and had bigger dreams!
“So when I see messages from other girls, it makes my day.”
One of Bowens’ followers is taking her example to heart. Pozdnyakov, known on Instagram as “runemidgarts,” became interested in Japanese art and fashion early in her life. When she moved to Japan two years ago, she began to collaborate with other black Instagram users here and, along with Farah A. Albritton (aka “afroabroad”) they launched the Amelink project this past May to empower young black women interested in the world of Japanese fashion. They reach out to Japanese photographers and direct photo shoots that celebrate their femininity, defying stereotypes of black women in Japan through their posts.
“When you see black women modeling here, do you ever see them in frilly dresses? You don’t. And we’re tired of that,” Pozdnyakov says. “It’s fine if you want to do that, but we can be ‘kirei‘ (pretty), as well as ‘kakkoii‘ (cool). Models should be versatile but agencies can be versatile with us, too.”
That’s a stereotype Bowens takes issue with, too.
“When I first came here, (the image of black women) was more negative, like a caricature. Or it would be overly sexualized from what the Japanese saw in rap music videos,” she says. “Some people might seem that way and that’s totally fine, but it’s not all of us.”
Make yourself visible
Pozdnyakov also works with companies who court the non-Japanese community, particularly tourists, and advises them on how to approach women of color with sensitivity. However, she says the results have been mixed. This past spring she used a kimono-rental service with a friend and, as Instragram-users do, she gave the company a photographic boost online. However, later she noticed the company untagged them from all their photos. Pozdnyakov and her followers confronted the company directly and explained how insensitive their actions would look to black women who come to Japan — many potential customers. She says that the company and her resolved the issue and now they listen to their customers feedback more carefully.
“It’s important for us to show up to these spaces and make ourselves visible,” Pozdnyakov says. “It’s a big deal to me because when I’m here. I feel like I’m here but not visible, because people don’t want me to be seen. It’s about including us. Inclusivity is also important because foreigners rely on ‘kuchi-komi‘ (word of mouth) for recommendations. Companies don’t understand how damaging it could be if a foreigner posts about their bad experience online.”
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In Pozdnyakov’s opinion, the acceptance of black residents in Japan is still a work in progress.
“If it wasn’t an issue, I wouldn’t be getting messages from teenage black girls every week, telling me that I’ve been an inspiration,” she says. “We’re more visible now, but that doesn’t mean that things are completely fixed.”
Bowens agrees and says she understands that she can only be herself and can’t really give people a definitive answer on what it’s like to be black in Japan.
“My experience is mine only, and it’s not of every black person in Japan. There’s a spectrum,” she says. “I’m not dark-skinned, I’m light-skinned. I’m not very big. My features aren’t as deeply ‘African’. Also, I live in Tokyo. I have friends who have darker skin and more prominent African features who live in the countryside, and they’ve been spat at.”
Pozdnyakov also acknowledges that her situation is her own and she doesn’t speak on behalf of every person of color in Japan.
“The community can be a bit divided, fragmented and unsupportive at times, because some people don’t agree with how I show my blackness,” she says. “My blackness is my own, and it might not be the same as yours. You can be strong, but you can also be soft and feminine. You can be anything and be black at the same time.”