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.