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Thoughts on Blackface in Japan

Last updated on June 18, 2017

Jirro707 sent a reply to a query posed by Baye McNeil (Loco in Yokohama) in response to a recent Japan Times article, Time to shut down this modern-day minstrel show, that addresses a planned Fuji TV performance by the group Rats & Star on March 7, 2015.

Rats & Star Blacface

In the Japan Times piece, McNeil writes:

Or, like my Japanese then-girlfriend back in 2009 told me after I referred to Gosperats, another homegrown blackface group, as “ignorant bastards”: I ought to stop to consider that these guys have been around, like, forever and have nothing but respect and adoration for black people and music, and that this minstrel show of theirs is their way — the Japanese way — of paying homage to black music history. (Need I explain why I dumped her?)

“You’re way too sensitive about race,” she’d snapped over my shoulder as I blogged about these guys. “Everything is race, race, race, race, race with you. Are all black people like that?”

And she had a good point. Perhaps it is my tender sensibilities that are at fault sometimes. But in this case, I seriously doubt it.

Is he correct or does his previous girlfriend have a point? The responses to the article are widely varied. Some feel that the groups have no malicious intent, others feel that the performers don’t care and are only demonstrating their love of Black music and Black performers, while others feel that the Japanese should not be held to Western (in this case Black American) “issues” of race and racism.

The You Tube video, “Why is Japan So ‘Racist’ Sometimes?” created by That Japanese Man Yuta addresses racism in Japan. He states that the concept of race is somewhat distant to Japanese. Although he incorrectly states that 98.5% of those in Japan are considered Japanese and the remaining 1.5% are considered Asians (I will address that fallacy in an upcoming post), he makes some valid points. Check out his video, the comments and be sure to follow him via the social media links below.

McNeil has started an online petition to “Urge Fuji-TV Not to Air Blackface Minstrel Show / フジテレビに「Blackface(ブラックフェイス)」のグループの出演停止を要求する” which can be read and signed, if you are so inclined, by clicking on the link.

Baye McNeil of Loco in Yokohama

McNeil also writes in his latest blog post, “日本人25人が「Blackface」についてこれを書きました / 25 Japanese People Speak their Minds on Blackface“…

One of the biggest (and silliest) criticisms of this petition effort (primarily by westerners) is that it is an example of Americans trying to force the overactive sensibilities of their PC state on the un-racialized and oblivious Japanese (which is an insult I think.) Not to invalidate that argument completely but to address it somewhat I chose just a few of the responses to Blackface and Fuji-TV’s intention to air this nonsense next month…

So, straight from our brothers and sisters of Japanese descent, here’s what they think. Enjoy, because if you’re like me this is a breath of fresh air!


In response that post, Jirro707 replies:

Jirro707  Is this the norm? Is this picture racist?

Remember that a person’s perspective is their own Reality which they’ve created; it doesn’t mean that it’s universally accepted as being legitimate. No different than your perspective on blackface with “Rats & Star” as it is not universally accepted amongst many intellectual Black Americans living in Japan. Your attack stating that I’m “bordering on blindness” is a false assumption as you know nothing about my past, my education, where I come from, nor my racial experiences. It is also irrational to compare an American rational with a Japanese rational; too distinctly different sets of rationales. You say that it applies in Japan more so than in America and you say that I’m the one “bordering on blindness”? I would like to see you quantify your statement on how it applies in Japan more so than in America.

If we are to look at the root by discussing racial stereotypes, then we as Black Americans have to consider every aspect including how we advertise and represent ourselves with the same things that fosters those stereotypes. I believe it is a double standard to require one ethnic group to abide by certain principles that we as Black Americans don’t abide to ourselves. Some conclusions from within the black intellectual community describes your article as perpetuating racial stereotypes. One example is with your grammar and profanity usage which feeds into the stereotype of the ignorant black man. I feel that a man in your position has the power and opportunity to change that perception. With that said, and bringing the “Perception is Reality” conversation full circle, how is one perception to a black stereotype any different than another? Is it different because you are black, is it different because that perception is the readers, or does it even matter because it wasn’t intentional? In comparison, this is no different than your perspective on “Rats & Star” being racial.

I recently left Japan after 23 long years of living and working between Kanagawa and Tokyo; I believe you have about six (6) years of experience living in Japan. Let’s have this conversation once you’ve achieved that level of experience and see if your perspective changes.

Is Jirro707’s view shared by others? Are both McNeil’s and Jiro707’s points valid? Here is my take on the situation via Blackface in Japan Revisited, Sigh!:

I presented Epic Records Japan’s Gosperats performing in blackface at the Cotton Club in Tokyo. By the way, Epic Records Japan is owned by Sony BMG. Do I need to go down that rabbit hole given the recent issues with Sony in America?

Anyway, many may think that blackface in Japan is a one-off event. It is not! In Japan, blackface has been used in government publications, in advertisements, on products, television shows and during live performances. Does it get old? Do most Japanese overlook it? Do expats give a damn? Yes, no, maybe, I dunno, it depends… on who you talk to, where you are, the generation gap, whether your a Kiwi, an Aussie, Brit, ‘merican, of the African Diaspora, sober, drunk or have just have the knowledge and ability to separate fact, fiction and utter bullshit from those on the left, in the middle or on the right!

If Japan is truly a participant in the international community, why isn’t there an understanding that blackface is racist (to Black Americans)? Could Japan explain the use of blackface during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games?

Rats & Star is a group that took the world by storm in the 1980s. They probably created this turmoil with the confidence that it will rapidly help sell their songs. It seems many Japanese apologists remain ignorant to world issues.

I first came to Japan in 1981. Then as now, Japanese media portrays Caucasians as beautiful but Blacks in stereotypical images such as being ugly.

Presently in Japan, music and fashion are influenced by black culture and can be seen and heard everywhere as mere background music (BGM). Getting Japan to understand that being Black is more than BGM, is an uphill battle.

Have I signed the petition? No! Why? Mainly due to my belief that there are bigger battles that need to be fought in Japan. You know, like parental rights, housing discrimination, immigration issues, equal employment opportunity, child care, etc. to name a few. Does that mean that Black Tokyo has not fought racist or discriminatory images to be pulled? No, click the link below for examples:

Articles on blackface in Japan

I hope Fuji TV airs the upcoming Rats & Star television show. Maybe they will suffer the same type of backlash Sony America faced. Viewers should see the “rest of the story” regarding Japan. Black Tokyo will do its part by presenting viewers with information that can be used to challenge stereotypes and fight willful ignorance.

Unlike past “norms” when life in Japan was mainly reported from the point-of-view of the victim or victor of wars with Japan, Black Tokyo’s norm for examining Japan has more to do with how the Japanese and Blacks have interacted over the centuries. For example, some of my research looks at how the Japanese viewed and formed opinions of Blacks over the ages. We were seen:

– as warriors like Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758 – 811), a Black man who is considered the first Shogun of Japan during the early Heian Period (check Chinese and Japanese historical records)
– as servants for the Dutch (1543)
– as samurai, like Yasuke (1582), who was personally trained by Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and later played a crucial role in Nobunaga’s last battle Honnou-ji no hen
– as minstrels thanks to Commodore Perry’s sailors performing in blackface
– as Little Black Sambo
– as marginalized negro soldiers living in segregated barracks during the post-World War II occupation or the Vietnam Conflict (i.e, at Tachikawa AB)
– as whatever those that import “their” prejudices teach, preach, or tell
-as our own worst enemy as times

Other parts of my research deals with the works of Black and Japanese scholars who focus on African & African-American – Japan relations. Be on the lookout for Black Tokyo’s upcoming series on historical interactions between the Japanese and those of the African Diaspora.

Additionally, check out That Japanese Man Yuta via the links below:

There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan

That Japanese Man Yuta Podcast

That Japanese Man Yuta Twitter

Check out Baye McNeil or Loco in Yokohama on Twitter.

As always, Black Tokyo welcomes your comments!

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