On Dec 31 last year, a furor erupted around Masatoshi Hamada, member of owarai kombi (comedic duo) Downtown, fueled by tweets critical of his racialized mimicry of Eddie Murphy in blackface on the “No Laughing” segment of Nippon TV program "Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!" ("Downtown’s This Is No Task for Kids!"). The incident garnered global attention from the likes of HuffPost, the BBC, The New York Times and others. Nippon TV has since commented that they had no intention of discriminating, but the debate over the use of blackface in Japanese media continues.
I’d never encountered blackface in real time until 2004, the year I came to Japan. Of course, I’d seen it before, in some old late, late, late show-type movies that had slipped through the programming cracks on TV, as social commentary in some race-driven sitcom of the ’70s or as part of a documentary about films from the early days of Hollywood. By the time I was a kid, however, blackface had been — at least socially — all but banned in the U.S.
But there it was, on a wall in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward: a poster for the Gosperats, a quintet of Japanese doo wop singers who perform J-soul music in Motown-style outfits, white gloves, blackface and perms. I was just as appalled as if I had come upon a parent beating a child with a two-by-four in the street. The Japanese friends I was with at the time — were not.
“This is how Japanese show their love and respect for blackness? By imitating white racists mocking black people? Really?” I said to one of these friends who was trying to explain the use of blackface in monomane (impressions of other famous people by Japanese comedians).
“You’re mistaken. They’re impersonating black people,” he said, a little puzzled by my confusion. After a bit of back and forth, I figured he wasn’t likely to get my point, and I was unwilling to accept his. So we left it at that.
I managed not to get bent out of shape about blackface for years. I wrote it off as one among many of those things you must learn to accept when you live in another culture. There were more serious, more ubiquitous race-related issues here, anyway, stuff that made blackface pale by comparison, so it was easy to turn a blind eye.
It was, in fact, 11 years later before I raised another ruckus. It was well after I’d fallen in love with this country and decided to stay here and build a life. There it was again, only this time it was a group known as Rats & Star. Same get-up, though. Together with J-pop idol group Momoiro Clover Z, they planned to perform in blackface on Fuji TV’s "Music Fair" program.
They’d sent out several promotional photos of the two groups posing together in full costume and, er, “makeup.” Many were shocked and dismayed, myself included, that this aging doo wop group was passing this baton of ignorance to the next generation. The story trended on social media, with the hashtag #StopBlackfaceJapan most prominent among the posts.
I had no designs on being an activist in Japan, but I felt spurred by this nonsense to act.
I put together a petition and a campaign, in both English and Japanese, imploring Fuji TV not to air the segment in order to prevent Japan from being embarrassed on the world stage.
I wrote open letters to Michelle Obama (who at the time was still first lady and planning to visit Japan) and Caroline Kennedy (the then U.S. ambassador to Japan) requesting that they weigh in on this particular issue. And in the end, the petition garnered nearly 5,000 signatures — mostly from Japanese people, a clear sign that perhaps attitudes about the innocuousness of blackface in Japan were changing. I sent it to Fuji TV and the program’s sponsor, pharmaceutical company Shionogi. On March 7, the program aired but without performers in blackface. Instead, a small message on the screen noted that the show had been changed but the reason why was left to conjecture.
Neither Fuji TV itself nor any of the other news media covered the story, so most Japanese people were not made aware of the condemnation blackface evokes around the world.
This is unfortunate because I believe only three things will sway Japanese opinion on this matter from “blackface is harmless entertainment without any discriminatory intent because we have no history of racism here” to “regardless of its intent, blackface does harm to human beings and can potentially cause considerable damage to the positive image Japan retains currently.
- Obviously, the facts about the history of blackface — not in the U.S. but here in Japan — need to be made widely known. It has, in fact, existed here ever since Commodore Perry introduced this white supremacist practice to Japan in 1854. There are records of Japanese minstrel shows and Japanese comedians performing in blackface dating from 1870 through to New Year’s Eve 2017, independent of American direct involvement. Does that mean that Japanese blackface performers are racists? No, I don’t believe they necessarily are. It’s more akin to bullying, willful ignorance and/or tone deafness in that the cries by blacks living here and feeling its impact are often rebuffed or ridiculed if acknowledged at all. And, sure, there’s the off-chance that the Japanese performers of blackface may have somehow sanitized their version of some of its inherent racist DNA over a century and a half, but clearly not all of it.
- Blackface can and does cause harm, not only to foreigners of African descent living here in Japan but also to Japanese of mixed heritage — particularly the children — who are already susceptible to the ongoing bullying issues in Japanese schools at the hands of other Japanese children who see them as “different.” When these “pure blooded” Japanese youth see Hamada in blackface, they don’t see Eddie Murphy. They see only a hilarious racialized caricature of a black person. This tends to exacerbate the overall “otherization” of foreigners that is already ubiquitous here. Compound that with the violence associated with this particular TV program and that doesn’t augur well for whatever blackness, or non-full-blooded Japanese-ness, those Hamada fans might encounter in the real world.
- Worldwide, the opinion on blackface is predominantly one of disapproval. Many races and nationalities are planning to travel to Japan due to its current charming image. But, I’d wager if Japanese people knew that travellers contemplating travel here found Japanese use and defense of blackface prohibitive, it would become an ugly relic of Japan’s past. Moreover, an astute traveler would know that blackface is indicative of an insensitivity and intolerance in the country’s mindset that would likely manifest itself in other foul displays.
To be clear: blackface is just the tip of the iceberg — an over-sensationalized tip, at that. It’s merely a symptom of a greater illness. While blackface is not necessarily racist in and of itself, there is certainly racism and xenophobia here in Japan. It shows up as discrimination in housing and employment, racial profiling by police, businesses refusing to serve foreigners and other forms that fly under the radar of most Japanese people. Thus, most Japanese feel confident when they righteously assert that there is no racism here. When incidents like this most recent fiasco arise — where the problem is conspicuous and alarming — it should come as no surprise, then, that it receives so much attention.
The current global zeitgeist (Trump, Brexit, etc.) aside, Japan must ask itself what kind of energy it wants to contribute to a world already leaning perilously toward intolerance.
We’ve seen the result of such tendencies and they aren’t pretty. And this requires a national discourse. I appeal to Japan to be proactive in this regard.
I call Japan home because I hold it in the highest esteem. This country has given me more than I can ever repay, and I love it immensely. But that love is not unconditional. I cannot remain silent on the ills that threaten to relegate Japan to pariah status among nations because silence is tantamount to approval. Japan doesn’t deserve that kind of labeling and has the power to prevent it. I’m committed to helping in any way I can, to protect my friends and loved ones from international defamation and/or harm, but — ultimately — it’s up to the Japanese people to decide the fate of their nation. And condemning blackface would be a nice, symbolic gesture with which to begin.
Baye McNeil is an author of two books on life in Japan, a columnist and lecturer in Yokohama. His monthly column for the The Japan Times, “Black Eye,” focuses on black excellence and the experience of people of African descent living in Japan and has an international readership. He spends his free time writing, playing basketball and soaking in onsen.
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