Hyogo Prefecture stretches across Japan’s main island of Honshu, from the Inland Sea to the Sea of Japan. Containing the suburbs of Osaka, the country’s second largest city, and those of Kobe, a busy seaport of 1.5 million residents, Hyogo is neither the inaka (the deep countryside), nor the cosmopolitan central wards of Tokyo. So, while children don’t stare and point at foreigners, non-Asian visitors—even longtime residents of Japan—might encounter the kindness of low expectations and be praised lavishly for sounding out basic Japanese phrases, for wielding chopsticks, or even for being “able” to eat sushi.
I recently went to a Japanese friend’s wedding in Hyogo. ‘I can’t believe you found the temple!’ another guest exclaimed genuinely. The temple was two blocks from the train station on a curving but obviously continuous road.
The wedding ceremony was Shinto, and while less than two percent of Japanese individuals proclaim Christ as their savior, over sixty percent of nuptials are styled Christian, usually performed (in the dramatic sense) by actors rather than priests or pastors.
The reception was held in a modern hall: walls graffitied with love poems in not-quite English and the meal an array of taste, texture and display, at once French haute cuisine and traditional Japanese. The bride and groom began the event in kimono but slipped out while overflowing glasses and endless plates distracted their guests. They returned to the reception area in tuxedo tails and white gown riding in an antique convertible.
The afternoon swirl of old and new—Asian, European, and American—continued, albeit in a more jarring fashion when under slowly dimmed lights seven friends of the groom came shuffling out under spotlight to everyone’s surprise (and I realized with sadness, to their delight) painted in blackface. One singer in a clownish afro wig, the ensemble launched into a famous Japanese soul song.
A few minutes into the spectacle, the guest seated next to me, obviously aware of my increasing discomfort, protested without my prompting: “Karp-san, you have to understand. They are paying tribute to the great black musicians they love.” Indeed they were imitating a group, “Rats & Star,” that had in turn imitated black American soul music wearing blackface.
The bride and groom seemed entertained, and even if not they would never have publicly rebuked their friends by showing it. I remained seated and determined to be silent, not wanting to be a liberal version of the “Ugly American” who demands in the name of progress that the world conforms to his or her sensibilities. But watching the singers waving white gloves and grimacing toothily embarrassed and enraged me.
It may surprise African Americans who have never visited Japan, or who have only come for a short time as a tourist, that many who live here accept, without conceding to racism, that Japan dresses itself up in various costumes quilted from swatches of its own past and sampled from the wider world, including a particular and sometimes odd fascination with things black.
Japan’s expert on this legacy, Professor John G. Russell of Gifu University, notes that indeed sometimes appropriations are “attempts at emulation or homage and are not intended as racial caricature, but [instead as an] attempt to capture a particular style associated with blacks and ‘blackness.’” He specifies, “While these performances are not strictly racist, they are racialist: Japanese who imitate whites or white musical styles and genres rarely whiten up to authenticate their performances.” Black poses, he stresses, can also be “condescending, demeaning and racist.”
After the wedding I visited Nara, Japan’s first capitol whose structures are not just the country’s oldest but that also confess the ancient city’s primal diversity. Laid out on a Korean grid, Indian statues fill Chinese-style buildings held up by pillars originally designed in Ancient Greece. Mance Thompson, a photographer in Tokyo who once argued with a shopkeeper over rag dolls that he, as an African American, found offensive, recalls marveling at the obvious aesthetic impact of the Persian pottery kept in Nara’s Shosoin treasury since the eighth century.
Indeed Japanese sensibilities were formed and continue to develop through global interplay, even if Japan shut itself off during the “closed country” era called sakoku. Recalling this period from the early 17th to the mid 19th century—and the assumption it still buttress that Japan is ever isolated and pure—Professor Russell notes, “Sakoku is an interesting self-description from a society that has proven itself extremely receptive to foreign culture if not foreigners.”
William Swinton, the director of International Business Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus has lived in Japan over fifteen years and describes the country’s eclectic tastes as a “rootless pastiche.” Sometimes, Swinton observes, cultural borrowings, like mimicked curse words in a newly learned language, offend without full understanding. “But, attacking back,” he believes, “is an escalation in which no one wins.”
When U.S. Navy Commodore Perry forced Japan open in 1853, his reluctant hosts put on a sumo match as a demonstration of their culture. Perry, flanked by real African-American sailors, reciprocated with a minstrel show of white crewmen in blackface. Minstrelsy came to Japan from America, and yet today there is simply no cutting and pasting the form into the Japanese repertoire clean of its demeaning and racist origins.
If America must refrain from judging the world only by its standards, Japan must live up to those of the world it has always inhabited as a give-and-take participant. Blackface, like a Shinto wedding, may be one of many aesthetic choices, but it is no innocent performance.
Born in New York and raised in Philadelphia. Ben majored in English literature and history at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, and African-American history at Yale University. First coming to Japan in 2002, he is currently an adjunct fellow at Temple University Japan’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut and Meguro, Tokyo.