Black Tokyo

by Ricardo Bilton

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Eric L. Robinson found himself docking in Okinawa in 1981. For the past two decades, Robinson, a Marine Corps veteran, has traveled back and forth between between Japan and the United States, gaining experiences and insights from each culture that he now shares with the readers of the blog Black Tokyo. Currently the sole writer for Black Tokyo, Robinson is dedicated to providing readers with news and information about Japan, much of it undiscussed elsewhere. Frequently controversial and invariably insightful, Robinson discusses in this interview with The Japan Times the experience of being black in Japan, the American military’s role in the country, and things that make you go “hmm.”

What is Black Tokyo all about? Why was it created?

What I do everyday is: (1) pass knowledge of my military, professional, civilian and educational experiences; and (2) help minorities discover another world. Black Tokyo was the avenue for me to do that. The site was actually created in January 1999 by Craig Hankerson and he let me come on as a moderator in 2001. I became webmaster in 2003, taking over ownership of the site in 2006. Craig was so busy at the time with what he was doing with his work, and I found myself spending more and more time on the site that I decided that I would love to own Black Tokyo and take it to a different level.

Your blog focuses on, among other things, the experience of black people living in Japan. Do you think that the experience of a black person in Tokyo differs from that of any other group of foreigner?

Yes! Of course, everyone has their take on living in Japan. When I was initially exposed to Japan, it was via the lens of an older white male. I remember telling my mother that I wanted to live in Japan after watching the TV special “Shogun” by James Clavell. While in high school and college, I read numerous books on Japan. None of the books were written by African-Americans.

When I came across the book and later the movie “Bedroom Eyes,” I was finally exposed to an African-American in Japanese literature and on television. I remember how upset I was that the black male was portrayed as a sex fiend, dope addict, U.S. military deserter and thief. The book and the movie, in my opinion, did not do much justice for Japanese women that dated or married African-American men. It just reinforced stereotypes.

Has that experience changed much since you arrived in Japan?

When I first moved to Japan as a U.S. Marine in 1981, I soon learned that Okinawa is not like the mainland, the locals viewed me as a Marine or gunjin (military member) first, kokujin or black person, second (not gaijin since that was reserved for whites). Depending on the location or time a day, gunjin and kokujin became interchangeable. I also empathized with many Okinawans, who felt marginalized by both the U.S. and the Japanese government.

In Tokyo, the kokujin and gaijin moniker was commonly used. At first I ignored it, but finally I got sick of it. I usually correct people, especially if the person knows my nationality.

Things have changed for the better, but it is still a work in progress.

How do you choose subjects to write about?

I look for articles that make you think twice, so to speak, as Arsenio Hall used to say, make you go “hmm.” There are a lot of articles out there in cyberspace that deal with the cute Japanese girl or the next party or big music hit — and I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that, but I want my focus to be a little bit different. I want to talk about things that are typically not talked about. I want to talk about things that may be deemed slightly controversial.

Do you see many other blogs doing the same thing?

Not to the extent as Black Tokyo. I think this is due to many black bloggers worrying about limiting their audience. Many of the black bloggers that I feature on Black Tokyo have interesting views on Japan. As a whole, there is not a large representation of blacks in Japan outside the U.S. military.

And are those the things your readers come to your blog to find?

Oh yes. I get e-mails from a variety of people, dealing with international marriage — being black and married to a Japanese person or students ask about visas or scholarships; parents asking whether it’s safe to send their kids over here for homestay, military members asking what’s going on outside the military base — things like that. And of course, employment.

And much of that, as seen on the site, makes for a very vibrant discussion. But it’s also fairly touchy at times. How heated do things get on the site?

I get spammed a lot, and I’ve cut out a lot of it. But I do get a lot of rude, racist comments sent to my e-mail and posted on the site. When Black Tokyo was a forum, I posted a lot of the comments and just let the readers deal with it. I actually had a a section called “Rants, Bitching, Gripes, and Moans,” which was actually the most popular part of the forum.

But when I receive those kinds of comments, I actually post them and let the Black Tokyo readers respond. And I found that more often than not that the people who posts those comments actually saw the light and understood what it was like not to be in their shoes.

So what prompted you to use services like Twitter, podcasts, and barcodes in conjunction with Black Tokyo?

I’m just trying to keep up with the Joneses. This is Web 2.0. Black Tokyo began as a forum, which was limited. Using Twitter allows me to receive responses instantly, and reply instantly, no matter where I am — and I like that. Also, it serves as a great avenue for people that follow Black Tokyo just to connect, to network, to build friendships.

Again, I think that if there wasn’t a Black Tokyo, or there wasn’t Twitter to serve as a conduit, a lot of these people who typically would sort of ignore each other — just like the two gaijin in Tokyo who see each other and look away. I think Twitter brings those people together. I’m all about networking, and if i can, showing people opportunities. A lot of people living in Japan, even if they have been here a long time, just don’t know where to get information. Part of my job, when I was in the Marine Corps, for example, and even now, was that I could always find things — and I would like to provide that type of service to others.

I’d like to expand things and make Black Tokyo a new type of Huffington Post in Japan.

So how does your military experience intersect with Black Tokyo?

My first focus is the military in Japan. And with that comes writings on Korea and Japan, of course. I also write about the the issues going on between Japan and China, and Japan and Korea, as they relate to U.S. interests. Again, a lot of blogs don’t touch that.

With the military, once these guys get out in town, there are things that they have to learn. Of course, there is training on base that they receive as far as cultural and daily life, but in order to blend, I think that my Web site can help them learn some of the things that the military doesn’t have time to teach them.

Are there any specific issues that you focus on?

It really hurts me when a person [who criticizes the military in Japan] has never served in the military and has no clue about military life. Those guys are family members, just like everyone else; they are people, but they decided to serve their country in a different way. And so, when you have an incident where a crime is committed, it’s sensationalized. Of course a lot of these crimes are sensational — I’m not going to pretend that they are not — but that’s a very small percentage of what the military provides in Japan.

What I don’t read in the paper is all the good that is done weekly by the military, whether that’s the military going to an orphanage, donating books, clothes — things like that. I personally would like to see the newspapers, the media, shed a little more light on that instead of waiting for some crime to happen.

Where do you see the blog in five years?

I want to continue dealing with multiculturalism in Japan and the issues related to that. Right now, Japan is going through [multiculturalism] growing pains, much like some of the other countries that didn’t have to worry about it so much, like certain states in America that didn’t have to worry about the “browning” of certain districts, so to speak. I would hope to be sort of an all-source information center for people that need advice on how to deal with certain situations in Japan, whether it’s work or marriage or or just dealing with attitudes. I want to take Black Tokyo to the next level by providing a one-stop shop for those planning to take up residence or just learn more about Japan from an Afro perspective. As long as I can help people understand Japanese culture and what life in Japan is like from another perspective, I’m happy.

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