Gifu – Japan should be proud of Rui Hachimura. The 23-year-old Toyama Prefecture native, who is of Beninese Japanese descent, is only the second Japanese-born basketball player to be drafted by the NBA (the first being Yasutaka Okayama in 1981), where he’s now a power forward for the Washington Wizards.
His younger brother, Aren “Allen” Hachimura, plays basketball, too. But earlier this month the Tokai University athlete was in the news for a different reason: an Instagram message that told him he and his brother were “born by mistake” and “should die.”
“Some people say that racial discrimination does not exist in Japan,” Aren said via Twitter. “But I would like the public to take an interest in the matter.”
His brother Rui responded with a tweet of his own, saying, “Messages like this come almost every day,” suggesting he also receives a share of social media abuse.
Japanese social media belies the myth of Japan as a racism-free utopia. Japan is a “post” racism society all right, in that the posts on blogs, social media and the comments sections of open-form websites overflow with thousands of racist attacks and microaggressions directed at a small population of black, mixed-descent and other non-Japanese minorities.
[In referring to Black people in this article, the author has requested not to observe AP style, which The Japan Times follows. He has chosen not to capitalize “black” until there is substantive transformation of American law enforcement and the criminal justice system, resulting in the prosecution of those who use excessive force and leading to a tangible reduction in the brutalization of black people.]
What is remarkable about these posts is how they mobilize familiar racist tropes of black bestiality and inferiority. Although written in Japanese, these posts could have been ripped from the white supremacist website Stormfront, if not for the fact that the latter has guidelines that advise posters to its forums to “avoid racial epithets” and “attacks against other white nationalities.” The latter, as we shall see, is a protection Japanese sites fail to provide other Asians.
A history of violence
There is very little that’s new about anti-black racism and other racism in Japan. What is new is the rise in prominence of individuals of mixed black and Japanese descent, and that social media has provided them with an unfiltered space in which to share their experiences of racism, experiences to which internet hate speech contributes daily.
As much as we wish it weren’t the case, the internet provides an undeniable archive of online racism. However, it is also a platform for those who are its targets to expose and critique it, something Japan’s mainstream media, with its fear of netto uyoku (right-wing internet) backlash, has been reluctant to do. Instead, the press here tends to attribute such behavior to a naivete born of Japan’s much-vaunted, largely illusional homogeneity and so-called shimaguni konjō (island-nation mentality).
It may seem presumptuous for an American such as myself to criticize Japanese racism when the United States continues to prove itself a nation of racial chauvinism. A place where police kill unarmed blacks with impunity and people of color must deal not only with a virulent new strain of white supremacy but their own festering racial fears, resentments and antipathies toward each other.
In fact, I would argue that the United States — with its history of genocide, slavery, forced segregation and perennial, intergenerational cycles of racial violence and abuse — has conditioned many in Japan (and elsewhere) to believe that “real racism” is primarily defined by physical violence: lynchings, brutal assaults and police killings. Anything short of this is conveniently attributed to simple bullying (boys will be boys and, apparently, xenophobes will be xenophobes), ignorance or the over-sensitivity of minorities who will take anything as a racist slight.
The violent history of racism in America (and the West in general) and its modern-day legacy have convinced some Japanese that verbal attacks are a less serious matter that victims should ignore, or silently bear, so as not to compromise the myth of Japan’s racial color-blindness. That is, to adapt an old children’s ditty to our current times: “Sticks and stones may break my bones (and knees, choke holds and guns may kill me), but racist memes and tweets will never hurt me.”
It’s a conviction that could only be embraced by those who have not experienced the trauma of racialized bullying — and the hurled fists and spittle that often accompany the spewing of vile epithets — directed not only at oneself, but at one’s race and ethnic group.
However, you don’t have to look beyond Japanese shores to realize that words can have lethal consequences. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, rumors that Korean residents had poisoned wells resulted in the murder of more than 6,000 ethnic Koreans by vigilantes, police and the military.
While not having the same deadly consequences, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, similar internet rumors alleged Koreans and black people were “throwing poison into wells.” As recently as this February, The Asahi Shimbun reported on a tweet asserting “Black Lives Matter was poisoning wells,” although its author now claims that it was meant facetiously. Pardon me if I do not LOL.
The Hachimuras’ posts once again remind us that Japanese cyberspace is rife with hate speech targeting blacks and individuals of black Japanese descent.
In 2015, following attacks on Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto, I began tracking anti-black posts on several internet forums. Typically, these posts not only questioned Miyamoto’s “Japaneseness” but also her humanity and that of black people in general. This is not simply a matter of ethnocentrism — the misguided belief that one’s own group is somehow better than others. Rather, it is an entrenched mindset that relentlessly dehumanizes the “other” as an inherently inferior, not fully human presence that must be humiliated, eliminated or exterminated.
And while these posts are not representative of the attitudes of the Japanese at large, they do raise questions about how and why they exist at all in a society that purportedly values harmony, politeness and the art of ometenashi (hospitality). not only refuses to acknowledge its own racist past and present but allows it to flourish, and in doing so creates conditions that insure it will persist.
However, racism in Japan goes beyond attacks on prominent individuals of mixed descent. In 2015, when it was reported that Google’s facial recognition algorithm could not distinguish blacks from gorillas, Japanese internet trolls pounced: “It’s not that blacks look like gorillas,” one poster wrote,” it’s simply that gorillas look like blacks.”
Three years later, when it was reported that Google had not resolved the problem, the trolls returned: “It’s a taboo,” read one post, “but blacks have lower IQs than other races, and if you take a look at the current situation of Africa, it’s clear that they are different.”
In 2018, in the wake of Australian cartoonist Mark Knight’s depiction of tennis star Serena Williams as a tantrum-throwing, gorilla-like sore loser, Japanese posts were far more explicit in their dehumanization of Williams describing her, her sister Venus and Haitian Japanese champion Naomi Osaka as gorillas, when they weren’t using other racist epithets. The following year, at the Oita Beppu Marathon, a Japanese interpreter referred to African athletes as chimpanzees on her blog. The statement generated a series of comments, including one that wondered: “What’s the big deal about her comparing (Africans) to such cute creatures as chimpanzees? These primitives (dojin) are not cute at all.”
Whatever the topic of discussion, ape imagery was invoked in many of the responses. Several posts referred to Osaka as a gorilla. In other cases, she was referred to as a “cockroach” (gokiburi) and “primitive.” As if the racism of such statements was not already apparent, use of the N-word — in its various English spellings and rendered in katakana script — as well as “kuronbo,” its Japanese equivalent, testify to their authors’ contempt for black people.
There is another dimension to Japanese anti-black racism that has received even less attention, though. What is often lost in the discussion of Japanese anti-black racism is its intersection with anti-Korean racism, the latter emerging as a defining feature of the Japanese social media landscape.
In fact, even the Japanese government’s own Government Monitor System (GMS) had succumbed to its spell. Launched in 1962 to allow citizens to mail in their comments on government policies, by 2012 it had evolved into a forum overwhelmed by anti-foreign and, in particular, anti-Korean posts that referred to Koreans as “cockroaches,” used racist epithets and urged that ethnic Koreans be deported or killed. After a public outcry, the website was shut down in 2017.
Why were these posts allowed to fester online between 2012 and 2017? Despite the slanderous, discriminatory and violent language, the site’s managers apparently did not think the comments qualified as hate speech. On top of that, the Justice Ministry had already launched its own campaign in 2016 to enlighten the general public about hate speech. Too bad it didn’t reach the GMS.
It is significant that racist posts almost inevitably include sentiments that disparage both groups. Japanese internet posters dismiss black and black Japanese complaints of discrimination with the same condescending fervor they direct toward ethic Korean complaints. Some internet posters dismissed Williams’ complaint of biased refereeing during her match against Osaka, instead attributing it to stereotypes of blacks as overly sensitive complainers who suffer from the same higai ishiki (persecution complex) that afflicts Koreans. Indeed, one poster went so far as to label Williams a “meiyo Chōsenjin,” or “honorary Korean.”
In the case of those Japanese of mixed descent, not only is their Japaneseness questioned but so is that of their Japanese parent as well, with posters asserting that the parent is “ese-Nihonjin” (“fake Japanese”), that is, an ethnic Korean passing as Japanese. In the case of performer Crystal Kay, who has black and ethnic Korean ancestry, racist posts would combine anti-black and anti-Korean epithets.
The myth that racism does not exist in Japan dies hard. Hopefully, the Hachimuras’ posts can serve as a teachable moment, but this assumes the other side is willing to be taught. Still, it is heartening that a growing number of Japanese netizens are speaking out forcefully on the issue of Japanese racism. However, all too often the response is indifference, denial or anger.
The uncomfortable reality that many Japanese are reluctant to accept is that racism exists in Japan. It is a truth that must be recognized in order to effectively combat it. Revelations by Osaka, the Hachimuras and others have exposed both Japan’s anti-black bias and its intersection with anti-Korean bias and other pernicious mindsets that dehumanize, demonize and denigrate those it deems harmfully different.
It is also a reality that the internet and social media continues to expose what until now has been known as “honne” or a person’s “true intentions,” making blanket denials of racism’s existence increasingly difficult in the light of mounting empirical evidence — while at the same time attacking those who bear witness to these facts. Time will tell whether these narratives of denial or the truths that counter them will ultimately prevail.
John G. Russell is a professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University. His latest work, “Anaconda East: Fetishes, Phallacies, Chimbo Chauvinism and the Displaced Discourse of Black Male Sexuality in Japan,” will be published in June in “Appealing Because He is Appalling: Black Masculinities, Patriarchy, Colonialism and Erotic Racism,” Tamari Kitossa, ed., University of Alberta Press.
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