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Are Japanese Sambos Better Than American Sambos?

Last updated on December 27, 2016

[Originally posted in 2011] I would like to say “Arigato” to Steve Silver for posting a link to the Japan Sociology blog story on the Little Black Sambo sequel in Japan, “Ufu and Mufu: The Cute Little Twins’ Big Adventures (August, 2011).” To show just how times have changed (not really), there is even a app for the sequel! 

[Via Japan Sociology] “Imagine my surprise as I walked through Kyoto Station’s shopping areas today, when I came across a large window display filled with cartoon images of blackface children. Skin as dark as night, giant, oval eyes, ruby red lips, and large, bushy afros greet customers to the shop “Mono Comme Ça.” The display announces the release of a sequel to “Little Black Sambo,” called “Ufu and Mufu: The Cute Little Twins’ Big Adventures.” Ufu and Mufu are Sambo’s younger twin siblings. The parents, Mambo and Jambo, are still around, and with Mambo still dressed as a mammy, right down to her plus-size body, red apron, and red bandana. Accompanying the release of the book are a CD-DVD combo, and various merchandise, like pins, patches, dolls, mugs, and purses, all adorned with jet black faces and giant eyes. The DVD features a music video of the whole family dancing in the jungle with wild animals.

So, is this racist? Is it just a cute children’s story about two African children who have an adventure in the jungle? What harm could there be in that? What could be racist about “Little Black Sambo”? I won’t rehash the history of LIttle Black Sambo here, but you can check out the Wikipedia page. I will ask why some people find stories that depict racial others as simple, primitive, and musical so appealing. Why do we still see blackface characters in 21st century Japan advertising products and adorning t-shirts?” Read the rest of the Japan Sociology blog post, Blackface is back (if it ever left) here.

Ever since the use of gunboat diplomacy to open Japan to the West and Japan’s desire to learn all they could from Western nations (e.g., Dutch learning, modern “Western” warfare), Blacks have had to combat negative images and perceptions in Japan. People tend to forget that slavery was not some foregone conclusion when Perry and the Kurofune, “Black Ships” arrived in Japan in 1853.

Kurofune Minstrel Show Japan

Many people have no knowledge of the Black-Japanese interactions before, during and after Japan’s war with Russia when the Black Press in America reported on a “Colored” nation beating a White nation in battle. That event got more than a few people nervous around the world. Even more have no knowledge of the Japan – Africa relation before the turn of the century. Early 20th century Japanese colonialist views intensified their prejudices against blacks. The “bad habits” and the search for “true” self-identity that Japan has dealt with before and immediately after World War II continues today. [Source]

Luckily, there are Japanese, Blacks (African-Americans), Africans and others that refuse to tow the same old line and promote stories such as Chibi Kuro Sanbo (Little Black Sambo) which was first published in 1953 in Japan by Iwanami Shoten Publishing which depicted Sambo as an African boy rather than an Indian boy:

“Few people realize the extent to which Japanese people have interacted with and been influenced by African Americans and their history. Japanese high school students today at least read excerpts from original works by Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., and Marian Anderson in Ministry of Education–approved English textbooks. Yet no Japanese history book pays homage to those African Americans who have played a substantial role in U.S.-Japanese relations since their earliest phase: Pyrrus Concer, a former slave who came to Japan before Commodore Perry; Carrie Wilson, the daughter of a former slave from Missouri, who married Masumizu Kuninosuke, an early Japanese settler in the famed Wakamatsu Colony in Sacramento, California, together with whom she heralded a history of Japanese immigrants of African American heritage; or the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro League who visited Japan in 1927, four years earlier than the (all-white) All Star American Major League baseball team.” Source: Yukiko Koshiro – Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan (2003) 183-215.

Would learning of the early interactions between Japanese and blacks lessen prejudicial views and racists books like Little Black Sambo? “The issue of prejudice among children is particularly relevant for Japan, a country projected to have the world’s oldest population by 2025” (Japan Times, 2009). For example, in 2010, I received an email from a concerned parent regarding a [Little Black Sambo Musical] at a daycare center located in Tokorozawa, Japan. The children’s musical “caused quite a lot of stress for the family with the biracial child. Parents of another biracial child expressed concern for their family’s safety if the matter was brought to the attention of the public and therefore wished that the family not be further identified publicly.

In 2009, a Japan Times article on Racial Bias in Japanese Kindergarteners, Shawna Ueyama investigated the racial biases of kindergarteners and how cultural diversity affects Japan’s youngest generation. She asked: “Are kindergarteners racist? Do they discriminate between children with different skin colors?” Her seemingly logical question that received a very typical reply from one Japanese mother surveyed: “Children are too innocent, they do not hold racial prejudices.” Is she off the mark?

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., an elementary school teacher in a small Iowa town decided to introduce ideas about racism and discrimination to her all-white class in “A Class Divided.” The teacher demonstrates how “Discrimination Quickly Takes Hold” after her students were introduced to the idea that blue eyed kids were better than brown eyed, it took only a few hours for them to become judgmental and abusive against fellow students who were deemed “less than” by their teacher. Click here to see the video. The entire 2-hour documentary is available here.

“Scholars from Japan suggest that their countrymen are not intentionally racist but are insensitive toward other peoples because of centuries of homogeneous and isolated development. “They have little social experience in dealing with different races,” explains Nagayo Homma, a professor of American studies at the University of Tokyo. “They know about Martin Luther King and civil rights, but it’s in an abstract context.” If that is the situation, it is not surprising that stereotypes abound — and not just about blacks: while whites generally are considered by Japanese to be advanced and “civilized,” fellow Asians and others are sometimes seen as backward, even inferior.

For many Japanese, the first exposure to blacks came during the post-World War II occupation, when they saw U.S. soldiers housed in segregated barracks. Others picked up racial attitudes and stereotypes — such as Little Black Sambo — from U.S. television, movies and books, or American acquaintances.” [Source]

One fallacy, excuse or convenient and continual promotion of spreading lies when stating that the Japanese do not understand the “Western” or “Black” issue with Little Black Sambo is usually that the Japanese have no exposure or knowledge of America’s race politics, discrimination, racism, etc. This line of thought and convenient pass was shown when someone took issue of my “Obama is a Monkey in Japan? comments when I called out a few posters on another Japan-related site that accused Black Tokyo (or a certain Black Tokyo poster, me?) of being a bitter racist that looked for racism.

I would like to counter by saying that certain Japanophiles need to give the Japanese more credit and I believe that concept of being blissfully ignorant to what’s happening in and out of Japan is pure and utter bullshit! I also believe that I am safe to bet that many adult Japanese in this day and age of the internet, movies and television have some clue as to what is considered improper or at least are circling the bullseye when wondering about “negro tendencies.” Granted many older Japanese, and even my wife, were exposed to Chibi Kuro Sambo as a child and were probably unaware of the story behind the depictions. However, this is not yesteryear and meaning behing the message is much clearer in a variety of mediums.

For example, most Japanese are probably familiar with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. If you feel that they are not, check the number Japanese translations, anime, movies and use of the book in Japanese schools. At any rate, I will use this particular book as an example of how one translator, Sasaki, conveniently deleted many positive portrayals Jim and even changed the wording for a variety of purposes:

[Source: Tsuyoshi Ishihara, 2003] “Sasaki also neglected the aspect of Jim as a caring father who deeply loves his family. There is a scene where Huck talks about Jim’s scheme after his escapes for the free state. In Twain’s original, Huck says:

He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get and Ab’litionist to go and steal them. 47

In Sasaki’s translation, Huck says:

Jim said that when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and buy his wife. He also said that he’d like to buy rice land and two children or so. He was in a happy mood building some other castles in the air suitable for a nigger.48

Here, Sasaki’s mistranslation is obvious. Although the original Jim is planning to buy “his own” two children in order to emancipate them from slavery, Sasaki mistranslated it meaning that Jim is planning to buy children as if they were commodities. Twain’s Jim loves his family so dearly that his even thinking to ask for the help of an abolitionist to get them back.

However, Sasaki deleted this serious scheme which shows Jim’s parental love toward his children.  Sasaki’s distortions of Jim seem to reflect Japanese people’s deep-seated prejudices against blacks at that time. It was not black America but white America that Japan had been recognizing as its model since its encounter with America in the mid 19th century. As a result, Japanese also assimilated white Americans’ racism against blacks.” Why would Sasaki do this?

“Masao Miyoshi, the leading scholar of US-Japan cultural relationship, rightly says, “In their identification with the white Americans, they were prepared to reject any people the white Americans scorned. Thus American racism did not bother them much, nor did white supremacy, since the Japanese would be like the whites some day.”50

Miyoshi describes some racist views among samurai officers who went on the first official Japanese mission to America in 1860:

“One samurai says, “The blacks are inferior as human beings and extremely stupid. They are segregated from the whites, and no blacks are wealthy.”51 Another samurai also writes, “They are just like our eta caste [the lowest pauper class people] . . . The whites are of course intelligent, and the blacks stupid.”52 Even in the early 20th century, Japanese intellectuals sometimes looked down on African-American culture, such as jazz, by calling it “a culture of barbarism.”53 In the sphere of Japanese children’s literature, the racist views toward blacks sometimes appeared in colonialist adventure stories at the turn of the century. In Oshikawa Shunro’s Shin Nihon-jima (New Japanese Island), one of best-selling adventure stories in 1906, forinstance, the Japanese heroes colonize a part of Africa with the description of native blacks as somewhat foolish characters who just obediently follow the Japanese hero’s suggestions and orders.54 Those obedient and foolish images of blacks kept appearing in Japanese juvenile stories even until WWII.55″

  • Source for 50, 51, 52: Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (Berkley, University of California Press, 1979), 64.
  • Source for 53: See Shunsuke Kamei, Meriken kara Amerika e: Nichibei Bunka Koshoshi Oboegaki (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1979), 92.
  • Source for 54: Shunro Oshikawa, Shin Nihon-jima (Tokyo: Bunbu-do, 1906).

Although many familiar with Japan know of its citizens embrace and understanding of many elements of African and Black (African-American) culture, it would seem that from at least 1860 up until the present, more than a select few in Japan (in particular the media) should have some understanding of using certain derogatory terms and the continuous sale of Little Black Sambo would irk some folks. Of course this in not enough to hurt sales and that is the point of all of this, isn’t it?! As discussed in Black Ships and Samurai (Dower):

In Japan (as well as elsewhere on the voyage tand from Japan), Perry’s favorite entertainment was an “Ethiopian concert” featuring white men playing the roles of “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Plantation ‘Niggas’ of the South,” and singing such songs as “Darkies Serenade” and “Oh! Mr. Coon.” Although the Narrative dwells on the “delight to the natives” these performances gave, it remained for Japanese artists to preserve them for posterity.

Commodore Perry Black Ship Concert Program

While many will continue to argue that the issue with Chibi Kuro Sanbo (Little Black Sambo) is a Black, African, African-American or Western problem and that the Japanese see nothing wrong with the story of a little boy outsmarting the tigers… only now to have his entire family join in on the (n0n)reality series, the reality is that Japan IS changing and how the nation choses to deal with that change and all of the shades of black that accompany it will be, well… the rest of the story! I welcome your feedback!

BTW, as the Japan Sociology blog posted: iPhone App for the book in the Japanese iTunes Store. Write a review. Facebook page for Ufu and Mufu. Post your thoughts on their page. Five Foxes Customer Service number: 0120-114563. Share your thoughts with the corporate office.

うーふとむーふ ふたりでね!


  1. Afrisian Afrisian May 6, 2012

    Thank you for putting this together, Eric.  I consider myself fortunate to not have experienced, or recognize the experience of, racism by Japanese in Japan or in America.  I can understand the Samurai’s false interpretation of African people from their observation of the African slaves they were shown during their 1860 visit to America.  By not being told why these people lived and behaved the way they did I can understand their their interpretations.  These people were stolen from their home lands, stripped of their culture and self pride, dehumanized and severely punished it they attempted to read English or assimilate into “American society”.  When we get the whole story the picture and understanding is much clearer. 

  2. Walker Walker December 26, 2013

    I say they are both terrible.
    I see parallels in this discussion to Russian/Black American relationships. There’s this black American English teacher in Russia who lampooned that blacks tend to catch fire the most when portrayed in Russian films taking the mic out of Americans. Why? Because Russians need Americans (whites) for various economic and diplomatic reasons. They cannot, for the same reasons, readily show and foster hostility towards white Americans, so they turn to a “safe target” (blacks) in order to satiate this need for fictional retaliation. This need to attack America stems from leftover feelings of resentment over the Cold War and such. In any case, I’m thinking this might perhaps be connected to Japanese identity in some similar way. It might be the same battle of propaganda and images. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to consider yourself a representative of black people everywhere and act accordingly – that is to strive to make an exemplary impression so that you might prevail over and conquer the lies told about you. Then you can work on making black people look good in the eyes of Japanese rather than forcing them to accept you because you’ve suffered racism in the US. That’s what I think. Build bridges, not walls.

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