This week Vox posted an article on “Japan’s blackface problem,” which aimed to give an American perspective on the practice of Japanese actors putting on black faces, and to discuss what the author calls Japan’s “bizarre, troubled relationship with race.” I wonder what Japanese people can learn about how to treat race from that sophisticated bastion of cultural critique and racial neutrality, America?
Before I look at yet another nuanced and authoritative insight into the world’s problems from a racially enlightened American, I thought I’d share an insight from this month’s print edition of The Economist magazine, which I happened to pick up in my travels. In an article on racial inequalities in access to selective public schools in New York, an American documentary maker is reported as follows:
Curtis Chin, who has been filming New York teenagers preparing for the SHSAT, adds that all some black and Hispanic families want ‘is that their kids don’t get locked up in jail. It’s hard to measure that against an aspiration of going to Harvard or working for Goldman Sachs
I can say with considerable confidence that there is no black, Hispanic or indeed non-Japanese community of any race living in Japan now who are concerned about their kids going to jail rather than university. Which makes one wonder – what does America have to say to the rest of the world about race that it shouldn’t be saying first and only to itself? Let’s see what Vox has to say.
What does blackface mean in Japan?
The article is centred on concerns about a phenomenon that has no associations with colonialism or racism in Asia. Blackface has a long history of racist associations in the USA, and probably Europe and the UK, but in Asia it has no association at all with discrimination against black people. Black people in East and south-East Asia are basically just a different colour of foreigner, and discrimination against them stems from the same well spring as discrimination against all other foreigners. In some countries (Japan, probably Korea, I don’t know about China) black skin has an ancient association with demons and evil outsiders that predates Asian knowledge about the existence of black humans, but the extent to which this figures in Japanese attitudes towards black people is hard to say. The existence of the yamanba phenomenon in Japanese youth culture suggests that deliberately darkening the skin for fashion is shocking in a similar way to dressing as a Goth in the west (with associations of death and horror), but the leap between this and discrimination against black people is pretty weak sauce – weak sauce that the Vox article applies through an “analysis” of ganguro culture. The article cites an American living in Japan as describing this and the associated “b-girl” phenomenon as “exotic othering” and suggests that it’s potentially racist even though it is specifically cited as being done in “appreciation” of black American culture. It describes hip hop being culturally appropriated by taking American hip hop and running it through a J-pop machine.
This makes me think that the author and probably the American in Japan who they quote have never been to a Japanese hip hop club, or paid attention to the music there. There is a big difference between “cultural appropriation” and performing a foreign style, and if you don’t get this difference you’re pretty clueless about the music you’re describing. It’s also funny to read concerns about cultural appropriation from an American community that has engaged in one of the most breathtaking pieces of such appropriation in history, describing people with no cultural connection to any part of Africa as “African Americans” simply because of their skin colour. Newsflash, America: Africa is not a country.
American critiques of blackface centre on the fact that your intent does not change the racism of the representative behavior that blackface performs. That is, a white person putting on blackface just so that they can do an authentic portrayal of a black character at, say, Halloween, is still being racist even if their intent is simply and honestly just to do an authentic portrayal of a black character. The Vox article wants to apply this ideal outside of America in a culture that has never had a history of lynching, segregation, slavery or colonialism in Africa. Is this going to give a useful insight into how Japanese people think about black people, or how they should behave towards them?
A “recent” history of fascism
It appears, based on the Vox article, that I left a key word out of that paragraph. I should have written about a recent history of lynching and segregation. The Vox article writes
the national government has done stunningly little to prohibit racist hate speech, particularly given Japan’s recent history of fascism
The “particulary” in this sentence is clearly intended to stress the link between Japan’s “recent” history of fascism and the government’ s intentions, but this is laughable. Japan’s fascism was precisely 70 years ago, and Japan is the only country on earth with a constitution that forbids it from going to war. America’s segregation laws ended less than 50 years ago, but this government report on Obama’s speech at Selma doesn’t refer to heroes who changed “recent” history there. The last lynching in the USA was (depending on how you look at it) in 1998 or 1951, and laws were still being passed against it in 1968. So when we discuss racial problems in the USA should we refer to their “recent history” of lynching, segregation and Jim Crow? Their “recent history” of communal violence against native Americans (Wounded Knee was in 1972)?
When was the last time you read an article on Germany and Greece that referred to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism? Even articles explicitly about the Nazi occupation of Greece and recent demands for reparations don’t refer to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism. This sentence is a really jarring reminder that Japan is held uniquely victim of its historical actions in a way that Germany and especially the USA are not.
If we are going to talk about the influence of Japanese colonial history on its attitude towards race we should make sure that a) we assess all countries by the same historical attitudes and b) we recognize that Japan has no history of aggressive colonization of black nations. This is a uniquely white, European phenomenon.
Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent
The article notes that Japan makes no efforts to ban hate speech or control the behavior of its racial extremists. The article fails to note that Japan also took a long time to move on child pornography, that it generally has a very liberal approach towards protecting speech, and that there are many countries in the world that don’t care to pass hate speech laws. Indeed, the article manages to gloss over America’s own tortured conversation on this issue – lots of Americans see hate speech laws as an affront to their own constitution, and while disagreeing with hate speech think that it should be protected. To present the absence of a law that is contentious in your own country as proof that another country is racist is disingenuous to say the least.
The article also exaggerates the role and position of racial extremists in Japan. I once had the pleasure of standing at the Shibuya hachiko meeting point waiting for a friend while a fascist stood nearby on a black van, yelling hateful slogans about how foreigners who complain about Japan shouldn’t live here. Why was I comfortable about this? Because I know that almost every person passing that black van sees those people as crazy weirdo, and as a result they are generally excluded from public conversation, to the extent that they have to drive around towns in black vans blaring out their hate speech. The same ideas that are seen as extremist in Japan are widely disseminated in the English press by, for example, the leader of UKIP, who has a column in a Sunday newspaper. The Economist recently had to withdraw a book review of a history of slavery that complained that too many of the white characters were portrayed as immoral and too many of the black characters as victims. The kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric you hear from mainstream politicians in France, the UK, Australia and America is not usually uttered by Japanese politicians or newspapers (though it does sometimes creep in).
Any article describing Japan’s famous “racism” needs to recognize this, and give at least some time to the myriad ways in which Japan treats its foreign residents better than many white countries do. I bet, for example that my reader(s) doesn’t know that in some parts of Japan I can vote, even though I’m not even a permanent resident, and there are moves afoot to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in national elections. One-sided depictions of racial politics in Japan give a misleading impression of how strong it is here.
Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism
The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that
The blackface thing is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected
I think this is an overly simplistic understanding of Japan’s attitude towards diversity, also based on a misunderstanding of Japan’s legislative intent. Yes, Japan doesn’t have an official policy of multiculturalism (although some towns such as Osaka do), but this is because Japan generally doesn’t have a practice of legislating cultural movements. In fact, Japanese people implement a kind of basic principle and acceptance of multiculturalism that is staggeringly simple in its open-mindedness. Japanese people naturally assume that foreigners who come to Japan will continue to live their foreign ways, speak their own language at home, and pursue their own cultural traditions, while obeying Japanese law. This is essentially multiculturalism. For example, if I am in a majority Japanese environment (e.g. kickboxing) with a single other foreigner, and we speak in Japanese, the Japanese around us will laugh and ask why we aren’t speaking our natural language, because it seems strange to them that we wouldn’t. Japanese often ask whether living in Japan is difficult, because they accept that we will be trying to continue our own traditions in a society that doesn’t necessarily accomodate them. They are remarkably forgiving of foreigners who don’t learn Japanese, and they respect that learning to read Japanese is an extremely burdensome task for adults. They assume that we will want to continue cooking our own food and accessing our own cultural goods in our own homes, and are surprised if we do Japanese things. This can sometimes appear as racism – e.g. the assumption some landlords make that foreign residents will wear shoes inside – but it also reflects a basic assumption of multiculturalism underlying the Japanese approach to foreign residents of Japan.
It’s worth noting that a lot of Japanese cultural movements are determined outside of government, through corporations and local community activities. Reporting on racial issues in Japan needs to respect this, and look beyond government legislative activities to understand how Japan is responding to major cultural issues. I would add that this is important in other areas of cultural relations too, such as Japan’s attitude towards world war 2. It is not enough to say “the Japanese government has not done enough”, one also needs to look at the broad groundswell of support for global engagement, maintenance of the ban on war in the constitution, and other community-level activities to draw Korea, Japan and China closer.
In general, however, foreign commentators on Japanese cultural issues don’t bother to look deep, or don’t know how, and take Japanese government actions as the sole representative of Japanese attitudes towards those issues – which is particularly ironic in this Vox article, which makes the point that Japanese people see themselves as culturally homogeneous when they’re not. Perhaps the article could start by not assuming that the actions of a few people or the absence of an American-style legislative pattern represents the homogeneous view of the whole society.
You Americans … you talk too much
In closing (and paraphrasing Monty Python), Americans need to stop lecturing the world on race until they have sorted out their own house. Combined with Vox’s generally patronizing tone, an article that misrepresents or misunderstands aspects of Japanese legislative and cultural attitudes, in discussing an issue that is of zero relevance in Japan and is not capable of reflecting a Japanese racial attitude, comes across as hectoring. Furthermore, in assuming that Japanese people should have the same view of race as Americans, and invoking a history of colonialism that is older than America’s own more recent fraught issues, and ascribing to Japanese people views that are uniquely American, the article is itself flat out racist. It might make Americans feel better in light of their own recent disturbances in places like Ferguson, the huge disparities in economic wellbeing between races in America, and the massive incarceration of a whole community on the basis of its skin colour, but it doesn’t make America look better when it lectures other countries as if their racial issues are the same as America’s. Americans should shut up about racial issues in other countries until they have sorted out their own house, and non-white Americans should recognize that they too can be racist when they present their unique cultural perspective, leveraging the unique power of America’s cultural exports, onto other countries.
I have written on this blog before about how culturally toxic I think American feminism has been for feminist movements in other countries, exporting a unique blend of conservatism and identity politics to countries that don’t need it. I think the same thing applies when people in other countries listen to America on racial issues. Yes, America has had some inspiring and powerful black figures who dragged American racial politics out of a deep, dark place. But most other countries were never in that place to start with, and in admiring those figures we should be careful not to also draw too deeply from the font of American exceptionalism and christian conservatism that they often drink from. Too often American “progressivism” is conservative by international standards and flounces about the world trying to teach others how to behave from a perspective of American exceptionalism rather than genuine intercultural respect. This Vox article is a classic entry in that ledger of American cultural exceptionalism, telling Americans nothing about race in Japan and giving Japanese nothing useful to learn about their own racial issues.
fn1: As always on this blog I would like to remind my reader(s) that Japan has repeatedly and thoroughly apologized for its wartime activities, and has paid reparations.