The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police officers in the United States in late May sparked a wave of anti-racism demonstrations worldwide, including in Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities.
But the Black Lives Matter marches in Japan had an additional significance, as they offered an opportunity for the country to reflect on its own record of ignorance and discrimination toward Black people and other ethnic groups.
At a march in Tokyo on June 14, participants held signs reading, “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” referencing Floyd’s last words while being pressed to the ground by police. Found among the popular rallying cries for the movement around the world, however, were also reminders that “Discrimination Also Happens Here.”
“We’re marching to make ourselves known, that we exist not only within the United States but all over the world,” Jaime Smith, a Black female representative of the organizers behind the Tokyo march, said. “We are adding in bits to our march about racism that exists in Japan.”
The official website of the Tokyo march, which features information on the background behind the Black Lives Matter movement, calls out Japan’s “ill-informed and outdated” views of Black people and other minorities. Examples raised on the site include racially charged public criticisms of Ariana Miyamoto, a 2015 Miss Universe beauty pageant contestant for Japan who has a Black father, and bullying of mixed-race children in schools.
The location of the Tokyo march, around Harajuku and Shibuya stations, also held significance for the organizers.
“We found that Black culture can often be seen within the Shibuya-Harajuku fashion area, but it’s not often acknowledged as Black culture,” Smith, who models on the Harajuku fashion scene, said.
“There’s hip-hop, there are stores that sell Black culture clothes and things like that, but it’s not acknowledged as such,” she said. “Black culture exists here, so we want to show that we are here as well.”
Deuce Griggs, a representative of Black Lives Matter Kansai, which held a march in the western city of Osaka on June 7, also said that some Japanese people do not pay proper homage to Black culture.
“It’s kind of like when you put a shirt on, and you can just take that shirt off at any point in time,” he said. “It is very similar to that, in the sense of you can adopt different parts of culture but not really understand the meaning or significance behind it.”
Griggs also said that the Black Lives Matter movement in Japan has expanded from its core message of solidarity to include aspects unique to the country.
“It’s taken on its own kind of evolution in the sense of giving a platform for individuals who haven’t had a voice previously, such as hāfu (mixed-race people), to feel more confident to speak out about their own experiences,” he said.
While many responses to the calls for reflection have been positive, there were some people who opposed Black Lives Matter in Japan. On the day of the Tokyo march, a nationalist group set up a van near Shibuya Station, chanting, “This is Japan” and “Get Out of Japan.”
Smith said that march organizers were tipped off about the group in advance, and that they were not fazed by its presence.
“With the amount of support we’ve received, the amount of dissent that we’ve been hearing about isn’t (so) worrying … we’re (more) afraid of not engaging the Japanese community,” she said.
Amid the provocations, both the Tokyo and Kansai organizers took special care to pursue a peaceful approach, avoiding the use of potentially hostile-sounding words such as “protests” and “demonstrations” to refer to their marches. Such moves were partly due to concerns in the community about the legality of foreign nationals holding protests.
The organizers of both marches have plans for further actions for Black empowerment. Black Lives Matter Tokyo is launching “RealTalk,” a webinar series focusing on “racism and systemic injustice in the United States, Japan and around the world.” There are also plans for a new self-published magazine for people of color as a spinoff project.
“Our goal for the initiative is to amplify the voices of Black creators, which are often silenced all over the world but especially in places like Japan, where issues like racial discrimination and injustices are often overlooked or ignored in favor of ‘keeping the peace,'” Kimika Rhone, head of the magazine project, said.
The Kansai organizers are also using their platform on social media to educate Japanese society about racism in the United States and elsewhere. They have published Japanese-language content on the history of Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, as well as on the many layers of racial discrimination and white supremacy.
“I feel like a lot of people tend to see Japan as like an isolated place,” Griggs said. “However, we do live in 2020 now, and it’s a much more global society.”
“Even though Japan’s still Japan, you do have foreign residents who live here, you are also doing business with America or other countries such as that. So it comes time to understand what’s happening in a global sense,” he said.
Takeshi Akiba, an associate professor at Waseda University specializing in minority rights, said that the Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to be a call to action for many people in Japan to reflect on race issues.
“The younger generation has grown up with a degree of diversity, or the presence of minorities around them, but they do not necessarily have the vocabulary to talk about the issues and values involved in this phenomenon,” Akiba said. “The worldwide movement has given them a reference point around which they can begin to think about minorities within Japan.”
“This is an issue that is not only a U.S. issue,” Smith said. “You can always help in little ways … like looking within yourself and trying to see within yourself, ‘What can I do to make a change? Can I call people out when I see discrimination happening? Have I ever said something that is discriminatory?'”