Japan & The Black Factor

Despite my use of the pen-name “Mika Matsumoto”, I am still an American and most notably, African-American. It isn’t my first time visiting Japan – in fact, I’ve lived here for a few months. In that time, I got to experience what it is like to be here as a foreigner first and foremost, and then as a black female. It is a very unique thing and is something that can vary within race recognition as well. It is typical in the US as well that if you’re going to be black, it is “optimal” for you on a social level to be lighter as “lighter is good”. Just take a look at the recent controversy with “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe and the skin lightening controversy:

Thanks a lot, black female celebrities. *sarcasm* Not your fault perhaps, but blame your industry for making the light-skinned black female the expected standard.

So, it comes as no surprise to me that in a country that loves skin whitening that a lot of the same stereotypes and rules apply as well. Of course, this is a sweeping generalization and I recognize this as so. There are quite a few of my Japanese friends that are cool either way and don’t make that big a deal about my shade. You are who you are on your merit – but that is mostly due to the fact that they got to know me through various other mediums and figuratively see the kind of person I am before even laying eyes on me. That said, let me recount yesterday’s strangeness.

I was on the JR Keiyo-sen yesterday heading back to Tokyo station, and a cute little girl and her parents came to stand in front of me on the crowded train. They were knee-deep in conversation. Meanwhile, the little girl – cute as ever – was staring at me, then she pointed at me, looking up at her father. He muttered something like, “Stop that, that’s not nice” in Japanese, it was so quiet I barely heard it. I sat there quietly with my sunglasses on – the sun was brutal yesterday. She kept staring. Now, I realized that the parents had, of course, acknowledged my presence with that “pointing” correction, and as their daughter reached up to grab Daddy’s sunglasses to mimic me, there was no way they could have not realized the reasoning for why she was doing this. Nonetheless, I smiled at the little girl who kept staring in utter fascination, even as she popped on the sunglasses and smiled back. I could have easily said something cute in Japanese to her, but then I realized that the parents probably wouldn’t have appreciated that. Even afterward, they kinda pulled her away so that she couldn’t look at me… and then I found that action even MORE fascinating!

It dawned on me, as I became hyper-sensitive to the scrutiny, that many people were actually doing that. Granted, I was wearing my mini-skirt yesterday and there’s no hiding my butt and boobs, BUT so many people look from the corner of their eye with one of three reactions: curiosity, fascination or disgust. And I got ALL three yesterday! I’m not entirely sure what to make of it and I almost don’t want to look at it TOO hard, as it may well be an anomaly situation on the whole. But I thought of it — what black females I’ve encountered across three trips could be counted on two hands. Seriously. My first trip I was here 3 months, travelled the entire country top to bottom. Total number of black females encountered: 6. Last November, I was here and I think I saw MAYBE 2 black women. So far this trip: 1, and that was at the foreigner-drawing event for the Tokyo Game Show.

We are RARE, very much so, and I think people don’t know what to make of it or how to deal with it. I also saw something VERY strange too. Of course, foreign men are still very popular among Japanese women – that comes as no surprise. However, when it comes to black men, they’ve looked at me like I’m the very devil! How BIZARRE!! You know, in Tokyo, every once in a while you pass a foreigner and you give them the “foreigner nod” of acknowledgement, like “Hey there, fellow gaijin!”. That kind of thing… but BLACK men to BLACK women… oh, goodness. You simply don’t exist. Total gloss-over. I remember this happening my last trips too. Black men are becoming more common here; it is not that rare to see them on the train or wherever. I can understand the appeal to a Japanese women in some respects, but things don’t work in the opposite direction.

What I wonder is, what do Japanese men think of black women? I mean, what is their first instinctual thought, even if it is stereotype-based? This can be an interesting observation, I think.

Granted, while I’m not the best Japanese speaker in the world, I can get by more than most folks. I understand what you should and shouldn’t do on the whole. But when you have what you look like in the way of that before you utter a word, what do you do, you know? It is incredibly difficult to overcome some of those standardized ways of thinking.

Yes, even knowing all this, I still would love to move here. I know, I know… it sounds wacky. But no matter where you go, things like this will occur. It takes a bit more perseverance to push through all that and have them just see me: Christine. At the end of the day, I’m only able to speak and represent myself, not an entire race. That kind of expectation is plain ridiculous. I’m only going to be me. Full stop.

5 comments on “Japan & The Black Factor
  1. The only black person (besides my parents) at my wedding in Japan was a black girl, a friend I have who works in Kyoto. I’m a black guy. I didn’t look at her as if I was inviting the devil to my wedding.

    Maybe I’m the only black guy who doesn’t see black girls as the devil who lived in Japan. But I left in 2008, so now all the black guys left must be seeing devils.

    Probably not though.

  2. When its a friend though, it’s different. You have an existing relationship. The scenarios I mean are stranger type of things, where an opportunity to meet a new person is there. At least from what I’ve experienced, there’s a snootiness in that interaction that I hardly expected. But I’m glad you’re an “exception to the rule”. It is encouraging.

  3. I completely understand your pov. However, i make it a point of duty to speak to a fellow Negro (yes, i like that word, much prefer it to ‘black.’) when i see my brother or sister in japan. Ive lived in nihon since 01 and I have always gone out of my way to speak to others of african descent. and whenever i find myself in a situation where kids stare at me, my solution is simple: i greet them with a handshake and a konnichiwa, even if the parents are there. then i greet the parents too. breaks down the walls, works everytime. remember, its quite normal for them to stare,youre not in their schemata. when i was a child in jamaica, I stared and pointed when i saw caucasians, especially of european descent. i cant tell you how many english language students, parents and kids, i got from taking the initiative and breaking down the walls on the trains and busses of kansai. because, at the end of the day, i consider myself a world citizen with advance communication and interpersonal skills. the average japanese lack the people skills of this negro. Hence i dont hesitate to use it. You should try it.

  4. Negro vs black? Hm. Okay. :)

    You’ve been here a while so I’m sure you’ve encountered all kinds of people and scenarios. That forthright approach sounds all nice and good, and perhaps it works from the male perspective. What I’ve never quite understood (simply having not lived here long enough) is, are foreigners held to similar standards on a male vs female basis? In which case, being a female, it isn’t expected to be straight up like that. I just wonder. Maybe its a matter of just not giving a damn and doing it anyway too.

    But again, you’re another rare ones that actually makes the effort reach out to fellow “negros” (not my preferred terminology). I’ll try and do that, and see what happens.

  5. Sorry for the long absence, on my book tour in the US and will return home to Japan in May. The expectations being different for male and female, black and white foreigners is of absolutely no importance. Just break the ice anyway. Just lose the hypersensitivity to the stares, especially the stares from kids. i guarantee you, once you utter one word in Japanese, the wall will come tumbling down, and if youre an english teacher, youll be getting another client. In the meantime, check out my book if you can, “Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: A Memoir of Exile and Excess in Japan. Let me know what you think.

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