Conceptions of Black and White in Japan

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While a friend of mine occasionally overhears kids calling him “scary” when he goes to the supermarket, I’ve been told that I look like Brad Pitt (I don’t). What gives? Well, my friend is black and I’m white.

Many of the assumptions on the perks of being a foreigner in Japan are only applicable to the most privileged group of foreigners living here: white males. As a white man, I can’t pretend to know what it’s like living in Japan with any other identity, but I can hope to shed some light on media portrayals of blackness and whiteness in Japan.

Let’s see what the TV and internet have to say about these races.

Watching nightly variety programs, two black entertainers occasionally appear, both named Bob, both former K-1 wrestlers. One is Bobby Olugon from Nigeria. The other is Bob Sapp from America.

Here’s a video of the two arm wrestling one another:

Watching a shirtless black man perform alone in front of an audience of entirely non-black people is troubling in any context outside of Japan. However, two things must be noted: one is the slapstick nature of Japanese comedy, and the other is the relative ignorance of the history of media portrayals of blackness. Blackface for example, is still common.

The standards for what is deemed racially insensitive or exploitative in the west do not hold the same weight in Japan, since there’s no history contextualizing the images. But what I find most troubling is this program “Funniest Foreign Language Academy,” in which entertainer Thane Camus trains three black men (Bobby Olugon included) on how to behave in Japan.

The audience is left with the impression that the only man with any understanding of Japanese culture is Camus, who is unfortunately the only white person in the frame. (Coincidentally, Camus grew up in Japan, making him culturally Japanese, but that’s besides the point.)

Thane Camus is one of a handful of white people in Japan who appear on Japanese variety programs. Another is Dave Spector, arguably the most ubiquitous of foreign talent in Japan.

Another commonly seen face is that of Gorilamo Panzetta, an Italian chef and commercial icon.

These are the commercially produced images that the Japanese public is inundated with through domestic media channels. In this sample, we notice to a tendency to focus on black men’s physical attributes, combining them with slap-stick comedy, while giving a greater degree of agency to the white celebrities in defining their own identity. One is an educator, another is a media expert, while another is a chef. (All are men, but that’s a topic requiring an entirely separate blog post.)

Of course, the domestic media is not the only channel disseminating content. With global media conglomerates casting their wide nets of content distribution throughout the country, virtually every Hollywood movie is available for rental, and every major label music artist available for consumption. Popular video rental store Tsutaya’s top ranking sellers closely mirror that of the US, meaning that the demographic of Japanese people consuming this media is inundated with the same images and representations of race that we are saturated with in the west.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what kinds of conversations are unfolding on the internet regarding race.

Looking at Google search results, stories about blackness come from both foreign and domestic media.

For example, a photo of a black man and a police officer embracing, which was popularized during the Ferguson unrest, went viral in Japan. On the other hand, domestically produced content is lowbrow and tabloid. One of the current top results for “black people” is an article questioning whether a blood transfusion with a black person will turn one black.

Moving on to white people, the first search result as of writing this article is a selection of photos comparing “cool” white guys to “cool” Japanese male models.

Commenters then respond with varying degrees of surprise at the physical differences between the two. Also among the top results is a forum called Girls Channel, where the original poster expresses her admiration of white models, and a desire to be white. Popular responses include “I wish I were born white, or at least half.”; “They’re pretty, but they age fast don’t they?” and “I don’t want to be white. I’m fine just looking at them. Since they have bad skin and body hair, I’m glad I [was born] Japanese.”

Examining the internet results, it’s difficult to classify any of these portrayals as overtly racist or hateful. The issue of race is addressed in ways that one in the west would find offensive or taboo, but such is the naiveté of a country with little racial diversity. That said, these results are just skimming the surface, and are by no means intended to represent a statistically sound sampling of average Japanese views on race. For those curious, a peak on YouTube or 2channel will provide insights into a much wider range of viewpoints and conversations.

So is Japan racist? Is it difficult to be black in Japan? I cannot know. Japan receives much of the same media portrayals and stories that we do in the west, and augments those with domestically produced content.

Since there is a much wider net of diversity in portrayals of white men, I am presumably able to exercise a greater degree of agency in asserting the individuality of my personality than someone black living in Japan. I am not “Erik, the tall white guy,” so much as “Erik, the guy from America who likes music.”

As my friend reflects on being told he looks scary, he tells me it’s something he’s used to. “Japanese people have been kind to me for the most part. It just gets frustrating and a bit tiring after hearing it so many times. I don’t consider this racism though. In my opinion, it has to do with ignorance and lack of knowledge about ethnicities and backgrounds.”

For some more anecdotal insights into race in Japan, I’d suggest taking a look at this compilation of interviews called “Black in Japan” produced by the popular Rachel and Jun YouTube creators.

Likewise, Eric Robinson, who coincidentally appears as one of the actors in Funniest Foreign Language Academy, writes a blog addressing similar experiences called Black Tokyo.

Updated: 12/02/2016

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Living creatively in Osaka, Japan.
  • Eija Niskanen says:

    The conceptions of how some nationality are supposed to look, according to Japanese, are sometimes really weird. A Japanese grad student asked once, if if the singer Bjork was really Icelandic, as she has dark hair and brown eyes. I was like “WHAT!?”

  • Dale Goodwin says:

    My experience has been that the perception of race and/or racism goes both ways. I freely admit that white Americans such as myself tend to be perceived as somehow better than races of color. That said, I can’t help but recall my time spent at an American university in the Mid-West some 40 years ago where the only people of color I was able to befriend were actually exchange students from Africa. I always felt that the locals tended to look at me with distrust, however unfounded as I believe that was. Living in Japan is enough of a cultural shock without starting out with the assumption that people are going to think you are “less” or be biased against you. That attitude alone will only serve to create a reality that meets your expectations. As other readers have suggested, if you have a positive attitude, dress appropriately, speak the language, and respect Japanese culture, I sincerely believe the Japanese people will accept anybody. That said, walk into a situation with a chip on your shoulder and yeah, people are not going to respond positively to that.

  • U.O. says:

    As an African American woman, my experience of race in Japan has been an interesting one. For me, there were two aspects of it: how Japanese viewed me because of my race, and how Japanese people viewed themselves relative to foreigners. For the latter point, I’ve suspected for a long time that a lot of Japanese people (particularly women) had at least some desire to be white, and this post and the comments confirmed it. Unsurprising, White is Right in a place that is so heavily influenced by Western media. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.

    However, to speak to the former point, I can say with 100% certainty that I have been treated better here than I have ever been treated in America, so much so that I refuse to go back there, even if I don’t stay in Japan. I haven’t received any hate since I got here, and even total strangers have been kind to me. If anything, being a foreigner in and of itself has gotten me into the most trouble, and even that has been minimal. Of course, it’s possible that I will be treated poorly based on race in the future, but I don’t fault Japanese people for that. Again, the Japanese concept of Black and White has been entirely influenced by Western media, so at the end of the day it’s still the West’s fault.

    My overall conclusion is that, at least for me, it’s easier to be black here than it is in America or anywhere in the West. At least here, I feel like my skin can be viewed for what it is: a physical trait, like eye or hair color. Thank you for posting this article!

  • Saad Ali says:

    Well Black and white has always been there as 2 extremes. But what about the brown people? In general, the society of Japan seems to be accepting and stuff but is it really?

    • Autumn Fae says:

      IF you are brown, you get it worse. Actually brown people get it worse than blacks. If you are a black person from a western country, they might say you are cool or strong. If you are african then they are scared of you etc. I have seen brown people get a really hard time here. I would think it is more because they associate brown people with islamic countries and india…two things that they really do not like here. when i was planning on visiting egypt because i was so interested in Ancient Egyptian culture,some of my Japanese friends were like ewww, why would you go there? they are so dirty and nasty there. Good luck

      • Saad Ali says:

        That’s actually funny but I guess its okay. Personality and conduct would speak for the person more than religion and race would ever be able to

      • The Disturbed One says:

        So, in what ways have you seen brown people being treated badly in Japan?

        Would be great if you could kindly elaborate?

        My brown friends from India have had a diverse range of experiences, both positive and negative.

        A lot of things depend on ability to speak Japanese.

        Appearance counts – I agree. Being nicely dressed and well groomed helps a lot.

  • F says:

    i’ve lived here for over three years, and i’ve come to the conclusion that as long as your skin color is darker than theirs, you are bound to be looked down upon.
    i went to a few events for foreign students and during those events i noticed that the japanese were very selective when talking to foreigners. they obviously prefer light-skinned people.

  • Jacob says:

    That this article exists is great. As a black (10+ year)resident of Japan, reading this was like reading a sign saying “This just in-the sun is hot., and water is wet.” Many fundamentals to the foreign experience in Japan are completely outside of Japanese people’s consciousness (for reasons that can be inferred from your detailed post), and as such, are not likely to change anytime soon. I am interested in bringing these to light to Japanese audiences, who really need to be a part of this conversation. Meanwhile, Bravo for this, Erik

    • Baby Shoes says:

      Japanese like most people don’t give a damn about your feelings or issues and nothing this English idiot writes will register with Japan for that fact that they don’t read Gaijinpot.

  • Ariel Basnight says:

    I think in general the people of Japan are very apperence oriented. Thus far I have only spent a month in Japan for study abroad (moving there over the summer), and before going I was told many things that I should expect. I was told endlessly about the gaijin bubble, and was told because I am fat that they would make a lot of comments about my weight. I did get a lot of comments about my weight, but not in the sense that I was expecting. They talked about it very matter of factly, as if they were just talking about the color of my hair, or having frizzy hair. It was strange, certainly something one has to get used to, but I found their nonoffensive manner of talking about strangely accepting. All my classmate encountered the gaijin bubble to varying degrees, yet strangly I didn’t get it nearly as much. I attribute that to me having purple hair while I was over there. It was as though me having purple hair replaced the fact that I was a foreigner. People seemed more at ease around me and more willing to talk normally. I would catch people staring at my friends and pointing them out are foreigners but would be more likely just to hear them talking about my hair about me. My friend would as a store keeper a question in Japanese and she would freeze before sloppily attempting to speak in broken English. I could ask the same question and she would quickly answer in Japanese without a problem. They seemed very appearance oriented.

  • Kyoto says:

    Fantastic article, thank you.

    “All are men, but that’s a topic requiring an entirely separate blog post.” Can’t wait!

  • Autumn Fae says:

    sigh… you opened up a whole can of worms that I was trying to forget today. I have met so many Japanese people who are kind to me but at the same time, I have met enough rude assholes recently to the point of thinking about moving to a bigger city or back to America. But I appreciate this topic sooooo much. I have noticed how recently there has been more of a focus on the negative aspects of Blacks in the Japanese media while an elevation of Whites. If I had a dollar for every time a Japanese girl told me that they wish that they were white, I would have enough money to take a trip to Abu Dhabi, Norway, or the Maldives. I am a Black American of a light complexion. I hate even talking about my complexion but that plays a part in my experiences here in Japan. I have had so many Japanese people tell me that I am better than my other Black friends/coworkers because I have lighter skin. I can imagine them telling my white friends/coworkers that they are the best because they have white skin lol… I also notice how the children use the same voice that the comedian Bobby uses and are condescending towards me and are not as polite. But if they see my white bf/ and friends, they are way more respectful and suddenly get embarrassed easily. When I tell my White friends about it, some do not believe me because they only see that polite side of Japan. I think I get a double whammy here sometimes being a black american FEMALE. MOre than anything, it is a very sexist society. I am from the South and I will tell you right now that the condescending racist attitudes are five times worse here than I had experienced in Alabama and Georgia put together… esp in the countryside areas. I feel that the Japanese have an inferiority complex with white and black foreigners but more so with Whites. I am just so tired of them saying that Blacks are scary and Whites are beautiful/cool/honest … But then they talk about not being racist and would get upset if someone judged them for the way they are born on some overseas trip. They are ultra sensitive and aware then.

  • 91jufan says:

    这个可以有!

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