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Black Lives Matter prompts important conversations in Japanese sports

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

The Black Lives Matter movement, kindled in the United States, has grown into a global phenomenon.

Despite its distant origins the movement has resonated in Japan, and the country has seen some BLM marches in places like Tokyo and Osaka.

The movement has landed with particular resonance in Japan’s sports scene, where a growing number of biracial athletes have spoken out about the racial issues they’ve faced.

In mid-June, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles outfielder Louis Okoye posted an emotional message on his Twitter account that described the prejudice he experienced growing up.

The 23-year-old, born to a Japanese mother and Nigerian father, wrote that he had felt embarrassed in kindergarten when drawing his parents’ faces. The pupils had been told to use crayons described as hadairo, which translates literally as “skin color” but matches only ethnicities with lighter skin tones.

Okoye picked up the “brown” crayon to color his father’s face, and the other children laughed at him.

“Staring out at the balcony of my home, I wondered if I could become a normal Japanese person by jumping off of it,” Okoye wrote. “To this day, I still wonder what ‘normal’ is.”

Before joining the Eagles, Okoye was best known for his performance at the 2015 National High School Baseball Championship for Tokyo’s Kanto Daiichi.

But in the same social media post, Okoye said that he’d heard some members of the team’s alumni association saying not to use a “foreigner” at Koshien.

Rui Hachimura plays for Meisei High School at the 2015 Winter Cup national championship in Tokyo. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Rui Hachimura plays for Meisei High School at the 2015 Winter Cup national championship in Tokyo. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, born to a Beninese father, shared that he’d had to endure racial discrimination growing up in his native Toyama Prefecture when he spoke with Marc Spears of ESPN for an article last year.

The 22-year-old, who marched with his Wizards teammates last month in Washington to protest racial injustice, recalled being told: “You’re Black. Go away.”

When interviewed by the Japan Times via videoconference earlier this month, former professional basketball player Jo Kurino said he hadn’t yet read Okoye’s Twitter post. But he also said he wouldn’t be shocked to hear a biracial person with a Black parent had experienced difficulties growing up in Japan.

“I’m not surprised since I’ve had (similar) experiences, too,” said Kurino, who was born to a Japanese mother, Michiko, and African American father, Tommy Dews Jr. His father served on the USS Midway out of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Jo Kurino (left) attends the Million Man March in Washington in 1995. | COURTESY OF JO KURINO
Jo Kurino (left) attends the Million Man March in Washington in 1995. | COURTESY OF JO KURINO

Kurino, who is now an assistant coach for the Shinshu Brave Warriors in the B. League, said he’d had to face undisguised racism and discrimination growing up.

Kurino said he’d be called slurs in Japanese that can be equated with the N-word in English when getting off the bus after school. He added that he would be picked on by other students as well.

He added that he would be picked on by other students as well.

Jo Kurino with his sister and mother | COURTESY OF JO KURINO
Jo Kurino with his sister and mother | COURTESY OF JO KURINO

Kurino is set to turn 40 next week, so the experiences he describes are not things that happened in the 1960s, but just a few decades ago.

“I got the tail end of racism,” Kurino said. “There’s been times where I got off the bus and kids yelled at me like that. I’ve had rocks thrown at me.”

“And being hāfu,” he added, using a loan word from English that’s often used in Japan to refer to biracial people, “and being around the U.S. military base, you kind of get racism on both sides.”

Kurino spent his boyhood in both Japan and the United States and said he experienced racism in both places. Most of his time in the states was spent in the Washington D.C. area, from age 13 to 23.

“So me growing up in Prince George’s County, which is the same (county) as Kevin Durant’s — which is a rough side of the town,” Kurino said. “I can drive late at night, whatever, and the cops pulled me over for no fair reason.”

While he thinks Japan has its own human rights issues with Zainichi (resident Koreans) and burakumin (descendants of former outcasts), for example, Kurino does not think every Japanese person is “purely racist” but that many have perceptions that “stereotype” and “pigeonhole.”

In sports, Kurino insists biracial kids, especially those of Black descent, are differentiated from monoracial Japanese by their coaches, partially because they are perceived as athletically superior.

Kurino, who runs a basketball academy and apparel firm called Elitus K.K., has seen Japanese coaches who demonstrated stereotypical views of multiracial athletes.

“If a kid is a guard by size, for some reason they just assume that the kid is athletic — they’ll make him play inside,” said Kurino, who was naturally a small forward by size (at 195 centimeters) but was used as a power forward in the Japanese pro leagues.

“When you look at a lot of hāfu kids here, their sizes are clearly guard but for some reason, the coaches always think that African American kids must play inside or they are stronger, or whatever, like that.”

Jo Kurino sits on the bench while with the Tokyo Apache of the bj-league. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Jo Kurino sits on the bench while with the Tokyo Apache of the bj-league. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Similar things probably happen in baseball, too, and are not unusual, Kurino said.

“I think there’s a lot of coaches who probably think that baseball is a really, really skilled game,” he said. “They probably assume that a kid that’s hāfu might not be able to play a certain role (like) how the NFL used to be about 20 years ago. Like, African Americans can’t play quarterback for some reason.”

Kurino added that such stereotypical ways of thinking may even diminish opportunities for ethnically Japanese kids as well.

Athletes like basketball player Yudai Baba, who played for the Texas Legends of the G League last season and is known for his phenomenal athleticism and leaping ability, have proven that you do not necessarily have to be multiracial to stand out in sports, Kurino said.

“(There’s) always this assumption that if you are Black by race, we just assume they are going to be faster and jump higher,” he said. “And then, maybe the kid is not thinking that way: ‘I just want to be a Steph Curry, I want to be a guard. But for some reason, you’re sticking me inside.’”

Kurino, who received a Master’s degree in sports management at George Washington University, would fight back against kids who picked on him when he was a boy. But as an adult, his approach is different — based on instructions from his father.

The elder Kurino taught his son to be “well-rounded” and “in touch with” his Japanese culture, even while in the U.S.

“That’s why I value education and value being able to speak languages, and doing multiple things,” Kurino said. “So when I was done with my playing career, there were things I could do.”

“I can’t control my own destiny,” he added, “and that’s the reason why I wanted to start my own businesses.”

Kohei Kawashima, a professor of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, said there are few anthropologists or sociologists who have attempted to tackle this issue from an academic standpoint, and that journalists have been more active in discussions about it.

But even among members of the media, there is prejudice and bias with regard to biracial athletes, in particular those with Black ethnicity.

Kawashima recalled a conversation he once had with a Japanese wire service reporter. The journalist told the scholar that when they report on an event involving biracial and monoracial Japanese athletes, daily newspaper reporters tend to try and write more about the latter, thinking that’s what would appeal most to their readers.

Kohei Kawashima, professor of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, speaks during a videoconference interview with The Japan Times earlier this month. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Kohei Kawashima, professor of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, speaks during a videoconference interview with The Japan Times earlier this month. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

“For example, those reporters say that a majority of their readers root more for monoracial Japanese like (track sprinter Yoshihide) Kiryu,” said Kawashima, who has specialized in the theory and history of sports culture and has written books about ethnicity in sports. “And when athletes like (half-Jamaican) Aska Cambridge or (half-Ghanaian Abdul Hakim) Sani-Brown win, there would be different reactions.”

Kurino repeatedly used the term “deep-rooted” when describing racism and discrimination, and Kawashima was basically on the same page — saying it would take time to get rid of these attitudes.

“There are still many people who have latent, negative impressions about (the success of) biracial athletes,” Kawashima said. “And they (anonymously) might keep expressing their thoughts, via social networks as in the case for Okoye.”

But since it’s thought to be inevitable that the nation will see higher proportions of non-Japanese and biracial people among its population going forward, Kawashima thinks Japan will need to embrace diversity.

In sports, Kawashima hopes that successful multiracial athletes like Hachimura and tennis star Naomi Osaka will help eventually change public perceptions.

“I would like to see those prejudices gradually dwindle with more instances where these (multiracial athletes) achieve success,” said Kawashima, who received his Ph.D at Brown University.

He added, “We have to keep pushing (to change the status quo).”

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