This year will most certainly be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic, which began notably spreading around the world from February, wreaking havoc on economies, industries and, most importantly, people.

Amid the tumult, at the end of May, came a video from Minneapolis that would send shockwaves of its own around the world. The video depicted the attempted arrest and subsequent murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was accused of passing a $20 counterfeit note, after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

The video spread to populations that were sequestered indoors due to the pandemic and, in reaction to the injustice, protests followed. In Japan, this resulted in several marches that aimed to bring the issue of racial discrimination to people in this country, leading to the establishment of Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements in several cities.

The Japan Times takes a look back on the movement with some of the organizers, and speculates on how a brush with activism could unfold here in the decade to come.

Though support came from various quarters of Japanese society, these six individuals are among those who devoted a good chunk of their time to organizing and mobilizing their peers to show support for Black people in the United States and Japan, as well as biracial Japanese citizens and members of other minority groups.

For the future: A young girl holds up a sign at Black Lives Matter solidarity march near Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on June 14. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
For the future: A young girl holds up a sign at Black Lives Matter solidarity march near Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on June 14. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The characters

Rino Fujimoto, 19, is the founder of bilingual Instagram account hanasou.jp, which introduces BLM and other progressive issues in Japanese and English. She is currently living in Houston.

Michele Keane, 34, is a Jamaican-born artist who recently graduated from Kyoto University of Art & Design. Her stop-motion short film, “Tamrind,” is a commentary on diversity.

Athena Lisane, 31, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is an organizer for BLM Fukuoka. She has lived in Japan for seven years.

Paul Richardson, 46, is a musician who goes by the stage name “Paulie Rhyme,” an educator and a father, based in Aichi Prefecture.

Jaime Smith, 25, was born in Maryland and is the vice chairperson of BLM Tokyo. She has lived in Japan for nearly four years.

Ayana Wyse, 34, was born in New York and is an organizer for BLM Kansai, as well as the founder of the Black Creatives Japan collective. She has lived in Japan for more than nine years.

The spark

The moment when a person moves from the passive taking in of information to active attempts at support differs for everyone. We asked our six interviewees what that moment was for them.

Michele: I’m not sure if there was one particular moment. When I first learned of the sheer number of police shootings happening in the U.S., I was in my final year of university and they partially influenced me in making my film. When I heard about the BLM Kansai march, I knew I had to go.

Rino: The initial reason I began making my own BLM posts on Instagram was because of the lack of coverage and information that Japanese speakers had access to. … This isn’t just an American fight. I believe the disconnect Japanese people have with the movement is a result of ignorance, miseducation and anti-Blackness within our own community. I hope to provide more accurate translations and information, as well as discussion and application in the long run.

Paul: Seeing that there were two marches in Tokyo, I thought that there should also be some sort of event or march in Nagoya. I felt like not having one in Nagoya would be doing a disservice to the area.

Jaime: I was planning on joining the smaller solidarity march initially being planned by Sierra Todd in Tokyo after the murder of George Floyd. When it became apparent that it was going to become bigger, I accepted her offer to lead a volunteer graphic design team to create material leading up to the march.

Ayana: After years of watching the movement on the internet it was during the beginning of the pandemic that when I began to pay even more attention. The marches and the protests this past summer got bigger and more international. Once I saw a couple of friends online make a poll asking if people would want to have a march in Osaka, that is when I decided to step up and be more involved with spreading awareness in Japan.

Athena: I always had the desire to be a part of the BLM movement, but I’d already moved to Japan maybe six months after it was established. I’d participated on a much smaller scale in other socio-political marches, but this was the first time I did anything on such a grand scale, let alone being a figurehead of said demonstration.

Specific to BLM Fukuoka … I grew increasingly restless and began looking for opportunities to march in my area but there were none. By the time I couldn’t stand to wait anymore, I’d seen that Tokyo and Osaka had made their moves and it was time Fukuoka made its move, too. And since no one else was willing, I stepped up. I knew I was capable. God gave me two good legs and thus I must walk.

Speaking up: The Black Lives Matter marches in Tokyo resulted in high turnout, as did rallies held in other major cities in the country. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Speaking up: The Black Lives Matter marches in Tokyo resulted in high turnout, as did rallies held in other major cities in the country. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The change

After BLM organizations sprung up and organized several successful and peaceful marches in cities across Japan, have those actions led to any change in perception among the public here in Japan?

Ayana: People are becoming more aware but to me it is a tiny circle of Japanese people who truly understand it. I’m happy to see that news outlets here wanted to broadcast our marches. So I hope we can continue to positively influence change, but it is difficult since we are foreigners. The Japanese nationals are the ones who really need to open their eyes and want it.

Athena: At this point, I don’t feel there’s any visible change. However, it didn’t exist at all before, so it’s progress. I think it sent a chill down the spine of Japan. Seeing that America has a sordid and repetitive history of racism, marginalization and outright violent response to Black and Brown bodies was an affront of sorts to Japan, forcing them to have a small amount of introspection.

Paul: I believe that the marches brought like-minded people together and sparked some much-needed dialogue between the various foreign and Japanese groups. I also felt like underlying issues of how other minority groups (especially mixed-race Japanese people) and refugees are treated here gained more traction.

Jaime: There has been a change in that a conversation that was barely being had in Japan has become mainstream. BLM Tokyo and other grassroots organizations have held bilingual talks and webinars that have been attended by many. Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open masks were constant news. NHK created segments about Black Lives Matter and the experience of Japanese-Black youth in Japan. Nike recently came out with a commercial not only about Black discrimination, but discrimination and bullying in Japan in general.

Michele: I don’t really know how big the change is on the ground but there are little things that have happened that suggest something is changing albeit very slowly. For instance, the new Miss Japan being half black and the runners up also being mixed is something I never saw coming at all (not that I keep up with beauty pageants). Also the inclusivity that is slowly increasing in media makes me smile on the inside. I don’t know if that has anything to do with what people have done or said here but I sure hope it has!

Also I’d like to think people are becoming more aware of the fact that they don’t exist in a bubble

Rino: The rise of international coverage of the BLM movement has facilitated conversation about racial topics, even in Japan where there might not be as much open exposure to racial division. I hope the momentum that the movement has gained will continue on as we approach a new year.

The election

The United States held a presidential election in November and on Dec. 14 it was officially acknowledged that Joe Biden will become the new president in 2021. Do our interviewees believe that things will change under a Democratic administration?

Michele: I couldn’t watch the debates, personally. As bad as this may sound, it felt farcical. But I was hoping for anything but Donald Trump partially because of how divided he’s made the U.S. and partially because of the danger he poses to the rest of the world environmentally, especially as it relates to small island countries like my own.

I’m not sure really if there will be any change. I don’t particularly trust politicians and honestly we can only wait and see. I do think it’s quite amazing that the vice president-elect (Kamala Harris) is a Black woman. That is a huge first, and I love that.

Rino: Biden’s victory in the U.S. was a celebratory event for many. Trump’s presidency represented someone that should have never been given authority. That said, Biden’s presidency won’t be the solution that will “fix” everything. This election has further highlighted the ills of the lesser of two evils in politics and the corruption of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Athena: There is no reason that the margin should have been as small as it was. For that reason, I believe very little will change. Just like (Barack) Obama, Biden is a centrist Democrat. Middling politics have won Democrats nothing in the fight for a more socially conscious government, but it’s almost always what Democrats choose as the candidate of choice.

Ayana: Joe Biden may have done good things in the past, but he seems to miss a lot of what the younger generation wants and needs. I can only hope he doesn’t cause more damage. As for U.S. citizens, we need to weed out the politicians who have no intentions of improving the livelihood of the people. The president is not the only one to make change.

Get the message: The march in Tokyo on June 6 wound through bustling Shibuya Ward. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Get the message: The march in Tokyo on June 6 wound through bustling Shibuya Ward. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The next step

“Where do we go from here?” It’s a question most organizers ask of themselves after their first big achievements. At a time when the world is engulfed in uncertainty, what do our six interviewees think people should do next?

Paul: Well, my plan is to live in Japan for the long term, so I would love to see it be more open and welcoming to long-term residents. I would love to see more people having opportunities to open up businesses and create community in a way that encourages more people from all walks of life to come here and stay.

A city or towns that are welcoming to helping foreigners get established, own property, start businesses … in Japan that would be the dream.

Michele: I am hoping to see more tolerance of others as a society. And on an individual basis I just want people to stop being awful to each other, especially on the internet. … I try to be the best me I can be. … Maybe we should all just listen to a whole lot of Bob Marley as well, I advocate that.

Rino: The fight is not over and it won’t be over any time soon. I believe the best we can do is to continue the movement and not let it become a thing of the past. That means still showing up at protests, donating, sharing and, most importantly, constantly educating yourself. For Americans, don’t be satisfied by Biden’s win. Your allyship doesn’t stop at voting. For Japanese people, it not only means supporting BLM overseas but also applying it to Japan. Japan has a long way to go, especially when it comes to combating racism and xenophobia.

Jaime: It’s hard to say what the next steps are for people around the world because it is vast and diverse with different issues depending on where you are. I think people will have to become comfortable with facing some discomfort. If your response to someone pointing out bullying, discrimination or racism is, “This makes us look bad. Other countries have these problems too. Why would you talk about this?” Then, you’re missing the point.

Athena: For every nation, seeing what’s considered the ultimate mixture of different creeds, races, religions, etc., fail so spectacularly should make them immediately think about how this applies to them at home. What darkness lurks in the annals of your country’s history? What people are consistently oppressed where you’re from? Do you do anything to alleviate that pressure? Are you a part of that discriminatory system?

For the Japanese, it’s addressing their treatment toward the Ainu, the Burakumin and the now third-generation Koreans living in Japan due to displacement and kidnapping during World War II. Japan is quick to say there’s no discrimination in Japan, but Japanese people often fail to empathize beyond their own personal experiences. Stop worrying about what the man to your left and the woman to your right are doing; act for yourself so that you don’t present a lie to the world or yourself. If you know something is wrong, say something. If you have the power to help, do it. If you can end an unjust attack, stop it.

Ayana: There needs to be a revolution of some sort. I don’t know how but I’d like to see some radical change for the better. I just want to see more empathy, compassion for others and programs to help people live in this world happily. There should be equity. There should be enough food for all. There should be shelter. We are all humans. I don’t understand why some need to make others suffer.

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