Conceptions of Black and White in Japan
By Erik Lebs
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.