Tokorozawa, Saitama Pref. – It’s 2021 and I’d like to wish everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. In keeping with the theme of good tidings, happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, too.
If I was going to put forth a New Year’s resolution in this column, I’d have to say it would be to write more. The past year saw me devote more of my time to endeavors that were outside Black Eye, thanks to the spread of COVID-19 and then the spread of Black Lives Matter — both of which hit the shores of Japan.
Following the global broadcast of the lynching of George Floyd at the knee of the Minneapolis Police Department, the world — including Japan — was forced to reconsider its perspective on race relations in the United States. Prior to this, outsiders were often satisfied with any reasoning that a white American or ill-informed Japanese reporter had to say on the matter — a practice that wound up biting the Japanese media on its behind.
Even before 2020, though, I found that the topic of Black Lives Matter was written off as a pseudo-movement by those around me. The general consensus was that it concerned a race of ungovernable people prone to complaining excessively over the actions of beleaguered law enforcement agents. The viral spread of the May 25 snuff film depicting Floyd’s suffering, however, showed an undeniable abuse of power, and resulted in a moment of recognition and empathy that went beyond borders.
The tragic circumstances of Floyd’s death — which in turn introduced Japan to the similar stories of Breonna Taylor and past victims of racist violence that included Trayvon Martin — gave Black Lives Matter increased urgency. The protests and solidarity marches around the world that followed this fascistic execution made it impossible to ignore racial violence as a topic of discussion even here in Japan, where Black lives have rarely been a matter worthy of consideration.
This lack of interest comes in part from the way Black people are portrayed in the Japanese media. I’ve long railed against the use of blackface by entertainers and, while progress has been made, Japanese writers and producers remain unaccustomed to soliciting assistance or consultation from Black minds on anything but comedy or buffoonery in their entertainment. When it comes to complicated topics such as white supremacy, privilege or racism, the people in charge of the nation’s platforms have been more inclined to seek out white or Japanese ideas instead of Black opinions. TBS even went so far as getting a white nationalist to explain what was going on in the U.S. this past summer.
So the same urgency that hit Black Lives Matter hit me in a different way. I realized I needed to focus more of my time and energy on helping people working in the Japanese media with the arduous task of understanding what it means to value Black lives and how to convey this to their largely Japanese audience. It was clear from the start that they were struggling to do so, and more than ever before they were increasingly open to acknowledging this flaw.
The medium is the message
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on the third Monday of January (he was actually born on Jan. 15, 1929), understood the power the media wields, and the sway it has over public perception and opinion. He used the media often and well, to reach the hearts and minds of white Americans who were oblivious or insensitive to the plight of Black Americans. His primary objective was to awaken them to the truth that the tolerance of injustice against one group is the same as tolerating injustice for all groups.
It’s a message that we as immigrants, biracial Japanese and those with foreign roots who made Japan their home long ago can relate to today. Of course, King and the civil rights movement had to face all manner of violence in America, but his methods still inspire us in our interactions with a nation of mostly good people who may just be uninformed, underinformed and/or misinformed.
The domestic media is partially responsible for this state of affairs, but it is more aware now that what it produces will be held to scrutiny both here and overseas. Whether any harm is intentional or not is a judgement call, but the fact that Black voices need to be included in the conversation is an easy call.
And those voices are starting to be heard in some levels of the discourse. Naomi Osaka may be responsible for the loudest wake-up call Japan experienced in 2020, as she used her platform to inform people here about what was going on in the United States. Individuals took up the mantle of Black Lives Matter here and set up marches in Tokyo, Kansai, Toyo, Tokai, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Yokohama among others. There was that group of academics who sent a letter to NHK telling them to get their act together. Among them were professor Fumiko Sakashita of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and professor Yasumasa Fujinaga of Japan Women’s University, who said in no uncertain terms that the racist stereotypes they utilized in their explanation of the Black Lives Matter movement overseas were of a nature that had, “a history of being used to legitimize the lynching of Black people and the loss of their lives from police brutality.”
When I look around the web now, I see that what was uncommon and highly needed in 2015, when I started writing Black Eye in The Japan Times, has spawned and inspired so many offshoots that Blackness in Japan nearly has as many opportunities to be seen widely as any other ethnicity. There are Facebook pages, YouTube channels and a variety of websites dedicated to making sure Black voices get heard and stay heard in this country. In fact, I now find myself mentoring young Black writers in Japan, which is a first for me, and I hope to occasionally showcase their work on the platforms I have access to — something I hope King would approve of.
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