Marches in Japan as part of the Black Lives Matter movement reflect a strong level of interest in and feelings for America, says the U.S. consul general of Osaka-Kobe.

In an interview Thursday in Kyoto, Karen Kelley, head of the U.S. Consulate, which is based in Osaka and represents American interests in 17 western prefectures, suggested the movement also showed the desire from Japanese and non-Japanese participants alike to declare that police brutality against African Americans is not the America they know and support.

This has created a deep and widespread interest in what’s happening overseas and a desire to protest what Japanese also see as a violation of American ideals of justice.

Kelley suggested perhaps some Japanese want to hold America to account and feel it’s important to hold up the “ideal America” in the mirror for Americans to see themselves. She added many expatriate Americans in Japan are equally concerned with what they are seeing in that mirror.

“This support in Japan for the Black Lives Matter movement might be a reaction based on the connection people feel with America, and their concern that George Floyd’s death was not consistent with something that should have happened in the U.S. It shouldn’t happen anywhere, of course. But people were stunned that this took place in the U.S.,” she said.

When supporters of Black Lives Matter talk about the need for conversations regarding racism against African Americans, it’s important that these take place even when there are no African Americans present, she said.

“Many people live in neighborhoods where there are no African Americans. But just because people don’t have contact with African Americans, does not mean they are exempted from having the conversation,” she said.

Kelley is the second African American to serve as consul general in Osaka after Gregory Johnson, who in 1989 became the first African American to become a U.S. consul general in Japan.

On June 3, just a few days before the Black Lives Matter Kansai chapter sponsored a march in Osaka that local media said drew over 1,000 people, Kelley expressed horror at the video footage of the May 25 death of Floyd in Minneapolis. Those images showed white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Kelley also noted that Americans of diverse backgrounds were standing side by side in their calls for justice.

“I believe that as Americans we are committed to doing better and doing whatever we can to implement the changes that are required so that the promise of America’s ideals applies to, and is available for, each and every one of us,” she said in the June 3 statement.

Commenting on the message, Kelley said she felt something needed to be said, as a government representative, to Japanese people in particular.

“The idea was: ‘What do we as U.S. government representatives say in response to what has happened in the U.S.?’ I think this message seemed like an extension of our mandate to promote the U.S. abroad and engage in dialogue that explains the U.S. to foreign audiences,” she said.

Kelley has a long history with Japan, having served previously in Osaka, as well as at the Okinawan consulate and the embassy in Tokyo. She returned to the Kansai region in 2017, with her area of responsibility also covering the

Karen Kelley, U.S. consul general of Osaka-Kobe | ERIC JOHNSTON
Karen Kelley, U.S. consul general of Osaka-Kobe | ERIC JOHNSTON

Chugoku and Shikoku regions.

Large Black Lives Matter-sponsored marches in Japan have taken place in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The movement has also attracted interest in several other cities, including Nagoya, Fukuoka and Hiroshima. Many of those interested are younger Japanese or those who generally don’t attend public marches or rallies.

In the U.S., Kelley said, the marches are sparking a broad range of conversations about racism and police brutality against African Americans and other minority groups, as well as the role of the police. Many U.S. police forces now have military-grade weaponry and are trained to view the communities they patrol as hostile territory.

“Congress is debating a police reform bill and that’s a positive development that can be traced back to the protests that occurred after Minneapolis,” she noted.

The African American community has long been talking about police brutality and overpolicing of minority communities, she added. It was easier to dismiss those complaints in the pre-social media age, but not now.

Education about African American history not as a separate development but as an important part of the overall story of America may be one of the legacies of the current Black Lives Matter marches. Kelley also notes that African Americans from numerous fields have impacted the long history of U.S.-Japan relations.

In a report of the 1871-73 Iwakura Mission to numerous countries, it noted that skin color had no bearing on intellect and that ambitious Black people saw the importance of education, becoming great intellectuals no uneducated white person could match. Some Japanese students would go on to study at then-Black colleges such as Howard University by the early 1900s.

Over the course of the 20th century, African American writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, also a civil rights activist, and the poet and activist Langston Hughes, visited Japan.

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