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Why Japan should consider banning blackface

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By Baye McNeil

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.

Momoiro Clover Z Blaackface.jpg
Rats & Star with J-pop idol group Momoiro Clover Z

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Website: www.bayemcneil.com

Twitter: @locohama

Instagram: @locohama

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bayemcneilauthor/

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27 Comments
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'Consider' banning black face? What is there to consider? It's offensive and often racist. Just stop it. And the same goes for Japanese \comedians' pretending to be Europeans too.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Kudos, Mr McNeil, for articulating the issue so well.

There is no counterpoint. Anybody who attempts one will merely be demonstrating their own racism.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Never acceptable for anyone to do this. Ain't funny one bit.

And while we are at it...these "western" guys who perform on TV shows and commercials enforcing the Japanese stereotypical view of "foreigners" should be ashamed of themselves. Clowning around for their amusement and making us all the butt of their joke in our workplace.

Bad enough when the Japanese themselves do it.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Stop believe that someone else is thinking as you are. There is no history that Japanese think racism as Westerners do. Black painted faces instantly mean racism is just witch-hunting. Nothing's getting better. Black face is not simple as you think for Japanese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It shouldn't need to be banned because it should be one of those things everybody knows not to do. If you take a moment to consider the feelings of the people being imitated, it's obviously a disgusting thing to do.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Black face is not simple as you think for Japanese.

What?

Why?

It's wrong and insulting. Is that not simple enough?

3 ( +5 / -2 )

It is insulting and should be retired as comedy. While we're at it, can we burn all copies of the movie "White Chicks" as well?

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Good article.

Hamada apparently hasn't commented on the issue, but his partner Matsumoto kind of did while being interviewed by newscaster Yuko Ando.

I was watching the program (while getting a haircut) and was a bit disturbed that someone as supposedly intelligent as Ando could be so ignorant about blackface, suggesting throughout that Hamada's act was just taken the wrong way. Here's a sample of what Ando had to say (translated, from the web):

“Hamada’s take on Eddie Murphy was interesting, and since some foreigners may be sensitive to things like skin color, it came off as making fun of black people. America had famous blackface singing groups (black minstrels) in the past, and it wasn’t a problem then because they were singing. When that’s put into the context of comedy, it becomes a different issue.”

Wow . . .

3 ( +3 / -0 )

So anyone remember Mickey Rooney in Breakfast in Tiffany's? Anyone remember how Asians have been stereotyped and insulted for so many years. It's not stopped and never will.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starring_Mickey_Rooney.jpg

0 ( +4 / -4 )

This has to be the best article that I have ever read on JT.

Thank you

1 ( +3 / -2 )

No need for a ban. Those Japanese with a less sophisticated sense of humour just need to cease to find it amusing.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Kevin Lin

So anyone remember Mickey Rooney in Breakfast in Tiffany's? Anyone remember how Asians have been stereotyped and insulted for so many years. It's not stopped and never will.

Yes, and that is also awful. What's your point?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Very good article.

Not sure that 'banning' blackface is the answer though. Imo outing 'offenders' and pointing out their stupidity/ignorance & explaining why blackface is offensive is more effective. Let's not forget that there are still many ppl outside the us who do not know much about the history of blackface. (French football player Antoine Griezmann recently 'blacked-up' as a Harlem globetrotter basketball player; also remember an incident on oz tv a few years back - with a baffled & dismayed Harry Connick jr).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

No need for a ban. Those Japanese with a less sophisticated sense of humour just need to cease to find it amusing.

I see where you are coming from. I hate the idea of bans. Even if the person wearing the make up is actually making an overtly racist statement, I still wouldn’t ban it. The way forward is to raise consciousness and move people forward to the level of seeing such behaviour as pure trash. As stated in the article, this is difficult in Japan given the nature of its poupulation, but attempting to force other cultures to comply with the standards of your own can create a negative backlash. One of my Japanese coworkers, who sees this as trash, commented that Japan should follow the norms of countries who killed, enslaved and abused a group of people and is now rightfully feeling guilty and sensitive about this issue. Not a fully convincing argument but I could get some sense of what he was expressing.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I can see both points of view, but am inclined to say that despite perhaps no desire to cause offense, the act of doing something in blackface is objectionable enough to black people that it should be discontinued and criticized, but not banned.

I think there was enough negative press in the most recent case to open up the eyes of greater Japanese society, and that’s exactly what is needed.

Banning something inevitably causes people to react negatively rather than sympathetically, and I don’t even know how one would do such a thing, especially considering the comparatively innocent motivations of those involved- after all it’s generally not done to belittle but rather to add more authenticity to an impersonation.

As a bad analogy, there are no good ones, look at how little effect the international whaling ban has had in Japanese whaling activities.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

No need to ban it - people need to get a sense of humour stop complaining there are worse problems to face than a comedian making people laugh. Comedians make fun of every race - that includes white people.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Hue Mar: Stop believe that someone else is thinking as you are. There is no history that Japanese think racism as Westerners do. Black painted faces instantly mean racism is just witch-hunting. Nothing's getting better. Black face is not simple as you think for Japanese.

Imagine that you grab someone's arm, and that person says, "Stop it! You're hurting me." At that point, should you a) let go of the arm, or b) decide by yourself whether you're probably causing harm or not, and base your actions on your own judgment of it? Does that sound like a stupid question to you? Then yes, blackface IS that simple for the Japanese.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

No need to ban it - people need to get a sense of humour stop complaining there are worse problems to face than a comedian making people laugh. Comedians make fun of every race - that includes white people.

It will all be jokes about white people soon. There the only group left that you can make fun of without being the subject of a lynching. Being white, can't say that bothers me at all. Probably because most of us are adults and most of us come from British stock which is a country with a very strong sense of self mockery.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Kevin Lin

Yes I do remember Rooney's character, and he has publically stated on many occasions that he regrets his portrayal and views it as a low point in his career.

Be interesting to see how Japanese would view this kind of behaviour because it is the same thing in my book.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Why is it fine for Eddie Murphy to mock white people directly in his stand up act?

Why is it fine for commercials to portray the white man character as the dimwitted fool and the black woman as the smart, sophisticated superior?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

With many things related to Japan after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese have often looked to the West for how an ideal/sophisticated/advanced nation should be governed and exist. Like mentioned in the article above it was Commodore Perry who brought blackface to Japan. Another more significant example of this would be Japan's desire to become an imperial power in Asia to match the European powers and America. Until it was forcefully opened up by Perry, Japan was content being closed off from the world and doing their own thing. Both blackface in comedy and Japan's desire for an empire eventually became ideas which were frowned upon by the West. The recurring theme is whenever the West finds something not to their liking, the whole world should adopt that view and every other nation and culture should follow their lead.

Especially in America, with the existence of groups such as the KKK, less than 70 years since the Rosa Parks incident and the most outspoken and revolutionary Equal Rights Activist was assassinated by a white man. By no means do I advocate blackface or Imperialism, however I fail to see how America and the West can have some moral high ground to judge or criticize Japan. The moral of this story would be, don't meddle in another country's culture or governance and then criticize it in 40 years time, stop meddling outright.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is the decade where EVERYTHING you say will be interpreted as offensive, sexually abusive, racist, sexist, bigot, etc.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I watched this year's special live and to be perfectly honest, I laughed when Hamada came out because I immediately recognized that he was dressed up to be Eddie Murphy. Now, if this kind of humor across the board is offensive to you, then I get the angry reaction.

BUT, if you are someone who likes Dave Chappelle (such as myself) and laugh when he does "white face" and talks/behaves like the stereotype of a white person, or does skits like the "race draft," it's KIND OF hypocritical to be mad at this.

And even though it's ridiculous that I have to say this to validate my point, I am black and I have lived in Japan for several years, so please don't come at me with, "You don't get it because (insert flawed argument here)"

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Here comes the PC's again. This is Japan. let them do their thing. I don't agree with them but it's their country. Humour is a cultural thing. Just ask the American guy who shouts why Japanese people.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Anyone remember how Asians have been stereotyped and insulted for so many years. It's not stopped and never will.

It has stopped, for the most part, for good reason. That's why you need to remember it, as opposed to watch a current example from three weeks ago.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Humour is a cultural thing. Just ask the American guy who shouts why Japanese people.

I see. You mean like:

"Your entertainers are still doing blackface, even though it has been brought to your attention many times that it is extremely offensive to black people. Why, Japanese people???"

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"imitating white racists mocking black people"

No, they aren't immitating white racists, they are just being plain racist themselves.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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