National / Media | Japan Pulse

Japan’s netizens make up for traditional media outlets' shortcomings in addressing Black Lives Matter

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

It’s perhaps not surprising that online media in Japan tends to attract a broader cross-section of perspectives compared to traditional platforms, something the Black Lives Matter coverage over the past month has helped to illustrate.

The failings of traditional media in Japan to cover the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests against police brutality in the United States have already been well-documented, with The Japan Times’ Black Eye columnist Baye McNeil addressing the issue in a hard-hitting contribution titled “‘No justice, no peace’: The sentiment that resonates in America, Japan and all over the world.”

For those who need a quick summary of events to date: On June 7, NHK aired a cartoon as part of its explanation of protests in the United States that included racist stereotypes. Not to be outdone by the public broadcaster’s problematic cartoon, at around the same time TBS invited a self-described white supremacist and then a white comedian on talk shows to provide analysis on race issues on the other side of the Pacific. The coverage wasn’t all bad but the negative reaction to such missteps dominated discussion.

If you look further afield, the discussion on the internet, while not perfect, has generally offered a broader perspective of commentary on the events happening abroad.

Web-first outlets such as Buzzfeed Japan and Huffington Post Japan have so far been at the forefront of this coverage, offering translations of articles that have originally been published in the United States into Japanese.

And yet they weren’t the only media outlets to offer an original perspective on what was happening overseas.

Time Out Tokyo compiled a decent list of recommended shows through which readers can learn more about systemic racism in the United States (and beyond), while Newspicks shared footage it recorded from a protest in New York in June. Buzzfeed interviewed Black people who have lived in Japan at some point or another to get their thoughts on the issue.

The Buzzfeed clip, however, went one step further than traditional media outlets in Japan did in their coverage. The people interviewed also talked about racism they’ve encountered in Japan, a reminder perhaps that the issue isn’t completely detached from those living here. Of course, there’s a difference between discriminatory incidents foreign residents face in Japan and the systemic abuse suffered in the United States, but it still offered a chance for reflection.

Demonstrations held in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka in June certainly elevated such voices. While mainstream media devoted space to covering the marches, they tended to focus on the broader aspects. Buzzfeed, meanwhile, was able to talk to individual participants at one rally, while Huffington Post produced a video featuring interviews with demonstrators. The same format was then brought out for a bigger march in Shibuya, allowing outlets such as Buzzfeed the chance to speak to more participants.

While these examples offered more insight into what was happening abroad than nearly anything on TV or in print, the true power of the internet lies in how people are able to bypass traditional channels and reach an audience directly. Over the past month, a number of people have used social media as a way to educate others about the Black Lives Matter movement and discrimination in Japan without needing to go through any sort of mainstream outlet.

Celebrities have certainly led the charge on this front. Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been particularly vocal about Black Lives Matter issues on social media, helping to publicize the Osaka march and rejecting the notion that athletes should steer clear of politics. Meanwhile, professional baseball player Louis Okoye shared a personal account of how discrimination affected him while growing up in Japan, an experience that struck a nerve with many. And Arthell Isom, founder of anime studio D’Art Shtajio, discussed similar experiences on radio, although the interview later gained more attention online.

Not all of the online chatter was productive. Many became caught up in entertainment industry decisions regarding certain films and TV shows such as The Simpsons, changes that arguably came about because of corporate paranoia rather than any specific demands anyone was making. Meanwhile, nationalists tried to promote a #JapaneseLivesMatter hashtag online, but this effort was countered by people spamming the feed with photos of Japanese food.

Yet audiences were able to connect with different perspectives, whether it came from a group of YouTubers who shared their experiences of growing up and being bullied because of their racial backgrounds or a woman who is married to a Black man in the United States who published a post on Facebook detailing just why Black Lives Matter was important. The latter story was picked up by TBS’ “News23” program. And while such television exposure ultimately helped the woman to reach a wider audience, social media gave her a formative platform on which she could share her thoughts on a sensitive issue on her own terms.

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