Our Lives

Grappling with the 'American idea' from across the Pacific

Americans living in Tokyo reflect on the gravity of the current moment while marking Independence Day

by Dan Buyanovsky

Contributing writer

This July 4, the United States enters its 245th year of independence in a state of tumult. The country has been consumed by protests since late May when George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Elijah McClain — Black women and men who were killed after altercations with police in Kentucky, Georgia and Colorado — have fueled subsequent rage.

Independence Day is typically a day of celebration for Americans, but this year’s holiday has been preceded by weeks of charged discourse about police violence, and racism in American systems of media, public health and corporate hiring. Painful questions have been raised about deep-rooted cracks in the foundation of the “American idea,” which asserts that all people are created equal and possess unalienable rights. For Americans living in Japan, those questions have felt equally all-consuming. Despite a handful of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in this country, there remains, for some, a disconnect to the tumult across the Pacific.

In a series of conversations, The Japan Times spoke with a diverse group living in Tokyo who identify as American and were willing to share their own experiences with racism, how racism in America connects to inequality in Japan and the ways in which they engage with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Those profiled expressed empathy and optimism about all that has surfaced and all that comes next.

The characters

Whether you were born in the United States or spent only a few years there, America tends to have a profound effect on a person’s culture, their accumulation of references and experiences. The individuals profiled for this story represent a cross-section of upbringings and regional references, and all moved from the U.S. to Japan at different times, giving them each a unique perspective on racial bias and social justice in both countries.

Jonathan Ealey: 'I talk a good game … but am I really willing to go out there and make the efforts that all these other people are making?' | DAN BUYANOVSKY
Jonathan Ealey: ‘I talk a good game … but am I really willing to go out there and make the efforts that all these other people are making?’ | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Jonathan Ealey grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and went to university in Indiana. He has lived in Tokyo for 12 years. He is 34 years old.

Aya Apton was born and raised in New York and attended university in Seattle. She has lived in Japan for six years. She is 26 years old.

Otis Nagai was born and raised in Anaheim, California. He went to high school in Miyazaki and has lived in Japan since 2004. He is 31 years old.

Kenji Tanaka was born and raised in Amsterdam, before moving to the U.S. in 1984. He has lived in Japan since 1998. He is 47 years old.

Ameya Jane was born and raised in Japan. She attended high school in the U.S. before returning to Japan in 2016. She is 23 years old.

Understanding racism

Racism looks different in every country and toward every group, but personal experiences with it can be formative. Most subjects recall initial run-ins with bigotry during childhood.

Aya Apton: 'Being here during it all forced me to think of other ways I can be practicing my activism.' | DAN BUYANOVSKY
Aya Apton: ‘Being here during it all forced me to think of other ways I can be practicing my activism.’ | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Aya: Growing up as the only non-white kid in a lot of my classes, I understood racism to some extent.

Jonathan: Around high school, I started being exposed to some of the insensitivity of my white peers, and them not understanding why something they said was rude or offensive. At the time, I looked at it more as an individual issue. I didn’t really realize that it was part of a broader issue across experiences that a lot of minorities face.

Kenji: When we moved into our house in Cypress (California), one of the neighbors, just suddenly one day, came up to us and started yelling, “Yo Jap, remember Pearl Harbor?” It was a shock and I didn’t know what was going on, but I remember the hate in his eyes and in his facial expression. It reminded me of the old classic paintings that depict wars and atrocious humanity from the European oil masters, the depictions of hell.

Ameya: I was in (high school) English class and we were reading a book that had the N-word, and one of my classmates and I got into a heated argument and it somehow got onto the topic of Trayvon Martin, who died while we were in high school. I was like, “He didn’t deserve to die just because he was wearing a hoodie.” She was like, “Yeah, but you never know. What was he doing there?” And I was like, “You’re wearing a hoodie, is someone supposed to shoot you?” She got really angry and called me an “Osama bin Laden-lover.” I was really confused and I didn’t know what to say, so I remember just walking away.

Aya: In high school, I had an understanding of the way police treated me differently than they treated Black people. I remember walking with a Black friend on the street and it was a hot day. He was airing out his shirt and a cop stopped us, being like, “What are you hiding in your shirt? What are you doing?” I definitely saw that for what it was.

Otis: I became more aware of race during my first years in Japan, because I was one of three black people in my school. When I’d go shopping with my (basketball) teammates, people would look at me a little bit different. I could tell they were staring at me.

Jonathan: I went to Purdue University in Indiana, and that was when I really started to feel a difference. In a more conservative, white community, you start noticing people staring.

Otis: I still get people staring at me. I’ve had an instance where I was walking through Yoyogi Park and a woman crossing paths with me clutched her purse, even though I had my basketball gear on and I didn’t look threatening at all.

How I engage

With many people still working from home and social media spreading information in real-time, America’s unrest has struck a global nerve. Everyone has their own way of interacting with it.

Otis Nagai: 'I think everyone has their own way of coping and their own way of spreading awareness.' | DAN BUYANOVSKY
Otis Nagai: ‘I think everyone has their own way of coping and their own way of spreading awareness.’ | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Otis: I’ve been watching the news a lot more than I ever have.

Ameya: I’ve been having conversations with my family, with my friends about why this moment is important.

Kenji: I started reading up on American history — not just in English, but also in Japanese. I started looking into the Dutch aspects as well, and it’s very interesting how ignorantly biased a lot of media can be just based on the language. It’s an eye-opener.

Jonathan: I have a larger Black community in Japan that I can talk to and they’ve exposed me to a range of views. That, in turn, makes you want to reach out more, be connected and fight.

Aya: I know that if I were (in America), I would be protesting. But it’s been a really interesting experience being here during it all, because it’s forced me to think of other ways I can be practicing my activism, whether it’s making resources available in Japanese or fundraising.

Jonathan: (Participating in the Black Lives Matter march in Tokyo) is really more for myself. To put it succinctly, I talk a good game … but am I really willing to go out there and make the efforts that all these other people are making? And obviously, a march here is not going to have anywhere near the risks of a march somewhere in the U.S., but I want to be less of a passive observer and hopefully that experience is transformative. And if it’s transformative to me, I hope it’s the same for other people.

Ameya: Social media has been a great way, especially in Japan, for people to talk about Black Lives Matter.

Jonathan: While I don’t think a person’s activism can exist entirely in likes and Facebook comments, I think there is meaningful participation that can happen on social media.

Otis: There are some people who have pushed this idea onto me, like, “You should post more stuff on your social media.” But I think everyone has their own way of coping and their own way of spreading awareness.

Aya: While in America, education is still important, tangible action is also really valuable. But I think that in Japan education is super critical, because people don’t even know. So I think that’s a big way of engaging the topic.

Ameya: Being called out has been really important. There’s a lot that I need to learn about, but I don’t think I’m best at learning from reading articles or books, but rather hearing from other people’s stories, whether watching it online or hearing from them directly.

Kenji: The Black Lives Matter movement has opened my eyes, and it’s very humbling in many ways. I’m thinking about things that I put off before, kind of just not wanting to deal with it, or I didn’t know how to deal with it. But this moment has given me motivation to understand it so I can better educate my sisters and brothers here in Japan.

Through the Japanese lens

With a small population of Americans living in Japan, there can be a disconnect to social issues abroad. Some take it upon themselves to educate their neighbors about Black Lives Matter, as well as prejudice right here in this country.

Ameya Jane: 'Racism in Japan is definitely not talked about enough. Or at all, really.' | DAN BUYANOVSKY
Ameya Jane: ‘Racism in Japan is definitely not talked about enough. Or at all, really.’ | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Ameya: Racism in Japan is definitely not talked about enough. Or at all, really.

Jonathan: My impression from my past 12 years is that people can be a bit apathetic toward a lot of issues because Japan is relatively peaceful and wealthy and comfortable and so there’s not a lot of motivation to act on these things.

Kenji: I live in the countryside of Chiba, so a lot of my neighbors, they’re rice farmers or fishermen. They’ve heard about the so-called “riots” in the United States, but they’re so disconnected from it that they pretty much brush it off as, “It’s an American thing, it’s got nothing to do with our countryside.”

Aya: I think in explaining things to Japanese people, you really realize how crazy this violence that we normalize sounds to people outside of the system. Like the fact that police are a leading cause of death for Black men or that one third of Americans killed by strangers are killed by the police — sounds absolutely insane to people living in Japan.

Kenji: You really have to construct how you explain these very complicated matters. So I go to the internet and I find articles that are written by these incredibly wise people, in Japanese. And if people are interested, I say, “There’s this article that really puts it really nicely and presents it very well. Maybe you might be interested in reading that.” A lot of people just want to recoil from anything scandalous, but if you put it in the context that they can understand it, they respond very well.

Jonathan: I’ve been really impressed with how many Japanese people have been really aware of this situation.

Ameya: Seeing Black Lives Matter in America and that becoming a global conversation, was eventually the kikkake, or the starting point, to opening a dialogue about racism in Japan.

Jonathan: It’s an issue around the world. Black people can’t solve it on their own, it needs participation from a lot of different people. It needs other minorities to support each other.

Ameya: I think many people have, for the first time, spoken about racism in Japan and the experiences they went through. Whether it’s to Koreans or Chinese people, Black people, people like myself. I posted about how I grew up getting spat on, beat up, bullied, and these discriminatory behaviors still exist. People reached out to me and said they didn’t realize racism was still happening in Japan. … That conversation has been opened up a lot more.

What I hope will change in America

Many Americans have called for systemic change to ensure the future safety and empowerment of Black Americans, from defunding and rethinking police departments to demanding corporate transparency.

Kenji Tanaka: 'The Black Lives Matter movement has opened my eyes, and it’s very humbling in many ways.' | DAN BUYANOVSKY
Kenji Tanaka: ‘The Black Lives Matter movement has opened my eyes, and it’s very humbling in many ways.’ | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Otis: I’ve read that a lot of cities want to defund the police and I think it’s a good idea. I saw that a lot of police forces have millions, even close to billions of dollars for their budget, but then other programs have close to no budget. Why not use some of the police budget to fund those other departments?

Jonathan: I don’t have a very strong imagination for what life looks like in the absence of a police force, so what I’m hoping for is leadership that has a real imagination and a vision for how communities can take care of themselves without a person with a gun showing up.

Ameya: I can’t vote, but I hope that people who do vote bring the change that we all need to see. And I hope more young people vote.

Aya: I hope that we can fundamentally change a lot of the structures in the U.S. I saw one girl who was running this (Instagram) account, it’s called Pull Up or Shut Up, and she’s asking different companies how many Black people they have in leadership positions — actually holding these companies that post their little black boxes online accountable. A lot of companies are responding, because if you are loud enough, they have to.

Kenji: I really hope that things continue to become more visible. With the advancement of technology, whoever has a phone has an eye on something and can record it. I believe currently the most influential filmmaker is Darnella Frazier, who literally videoed the George Floyd incident. And she did it all in one take, so she wouldn’t get lambasted. So it’s that kind of power that we certainly have. And I hope that each individual, me included, uses that power and privilege to continue to push forward and call out for positive change. We need to call out bullsh-t when it is bullsh-t, because it’s easy to turn the other way.

Watching what’s happening in the States feels like…

In this unprecedented moment of global reflection, emotions range from sadness to hope.

Otis: I feel like I’m in a bubble in Japan. Obviously I know what’s going on back home, but since I’m so far away, I’m in my own bubble. I feel safe here.

Ameya: Seeing what’s happening in the States right now is needed. It’s what’s needed for us (in Japan), too.

Jonathan: It feels like being a passive observer.

Aya: It feels like you’re watching your childhood home burn down, but you’re watching it on TV. It’s definitely a feeling of helplessness, which I think a lot of Americans can relate to.

Otis: My family still lives there. I have friends who live there. And seeing the news, the police beating people up, rioting in my home … I don’t want to see that. It hurts to see that.

Kenji: It feels like an itch that cannot be scratched. I wish I could go to a social distancing get-together, have a few drinks with my buddies and discuss these things really frankly. And that’s not really happening here in Japan.

Jonathan: There’s definitely a disconnect, but the thing that I’ve accepted that was harder for me before, is that for Black people, and really anyone that’s left their country and gone overseas, it’s kind of an achievement. So I think, “OK, I’ve worked really hard to create these opportunities for myself, so I should be OK enjoying my success here and that doesn’t make me less Black or less involved in what’s happening elsewhere.” And you can do both. You can enjoy your life and also fight for equality.

To learn more about Black Lives Matter activities in Japan, register for this free webinar taking place on July 5 at 2 p.m. The key organizer of the Black Lives Matter Tokyo march, Sierra Todd, will speak alongside fellow organizer Juniper Alexander and other panelists who will “talk about what Black Lives Matter means to them, explore a brief history of the movement, its role in Japan” and what can be done to achieve racial equality. Moderated by Jaylon Carter, the webinar is the first in a series. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page. The session will be presented in English with Japanese interpretation.

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