12.28.2010

The Status of Black People in Japan: Part I - Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)

Edited to change the tone.

“Do the Japanese like Black people” is one of the questions I dislike the most. Though I’ve lived in the Land of the Rising Sun for many years, I cannot speak for its 127 million Japanese-identifying inhabitants any more than I can speak for the 54 million people of Black African descent who reside in the United States. At best, I can only hope/pray/wish that neither group has a pathological hatred for the other. There is one very important thing everyone needs to realize. A majority of Japanese people have not ever laid eyes on a Black person before. As such, they've never spoken to us or learned to judge us as individuals. In terms of history, Africans fare much better than African-Americans. For the most part, a majority of information about us comes from the news, music videos, international sports events or Hollywood movies, which generally feature Will Smith and family and Denzel Washington. The most negative movies about us are usually not shown here. I consider this a plus though our first introduction to Japan might have sealed the fate of our entire ethnicity/race.

Since my last major post here, I've learned that what is theoretically simple for native Japanese and long-time foreign residents to understand is ridiculously complicated to explain to others. The cultural background needed to discuss almost any aspect of this society is a tremendous undertaking. As explaining the Japanese is a daunting task, I will attempt to only focus on how the Japanese view themselves and others, including us (people of Black African descent). I apologize in advance for any forks in the road I might take.


The Japanese frequently claim they have “racial” and cultural homogeneity. Poll after poll, study after study, indicates that mainstream Japanese believe that the Ainu, the indigenous/aboriginal people of this land to be fully assimilated and culturally extinct. Thank the gods, they are mistaken. Despite their best efforts, the Japanese are not Borg. They cannot assimilate the soul of a people. In addition to the Ainu, Burakumin (eta, hinin, kawata, chasen or simply the untouchables – caste system?), Chinese, Koreans, Nikkeijin (descendants of Japanese who emigrated abroad – Brazil and Peru – between 1868 and 1973), and Okinawan (formerly the Ryukyu kingdom) minority groups also exist though it’s damned tough to get anyone in an official capacity to admit the status of these people.

The Japanese world is divided into two groups: uchi and soto, meaning inside and outside. Uchi defines the boundary of an inside group or space; that is membership or belonging (i.e. colleagues, classmates, team mates, club members, and so forth). In everyday life, people who are not part of your uchi are soto and hardly worth considering. In fact, if a visitor pays attention, you'll eventually begin to notice a blatant disregard for people beyond one's social grouping. Much of it borders on extreme rudeness.

As expected though, there are times when the entire nation of Japan embodies uchi; that is, making all foreigners (gaijin – outside people) soto.

Soto, too, conforms to the sociological categories of race, conforming to the Black, white and yellow continuum. Whites are usually referred to as true or pure gaijin; blacks are either gaikokujin (outside person - normally a respectful term) or kokujin (black people); and Asians are usually Ajiajin. Sometimes, they are called are referred to by the country of their origin such as Chugokujin for Chinese or Kankokujin for Koreans. Soto, can also be broken down into soto Others (foreigners) and uchi Others (Japanese minorities). Foreigners then can be definitively categorized as “not us” while the minorities are “not quite us.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Uchi/soto + caste system = extreme complications for people of Black African ancestry. Please note that this does not necessarily mean that the Japanese prefer whites or that they hate or have a disdain for Blacks. This also does not answer the question about whether or not the Japanese like Black people. Let's explore further before reaching a conclusion.

Primary SOURCE: Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity edited by Michael Weiner

Next up: Color Symbolism in Japan (Black, yellow and white)

17 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Hateya. 'Tis good to have you returned to us.

    Whites are usually referred to as true or pure gaijin; blacks are either gaikokujin (outside person - normally a respectful term) or kokujin (black people); and Asians are usually Ajiajin. Sometimes, they are called are referred to by the country of their origin such as Chugokujin for Chinese or Kankokujin for Koreans.

    Fascinating.

    Soto, can also be broken down into soto Others (foreigners) and uchi Others (Japanese minorities). Foreigners then can be definitively categorized as “not us” while the minorities are “not quite us.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

    Indeed it does.

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  2. This is so interesting, I cannot wait to read the second part.

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  3. Good to see you again Hateya. Interesting work as always. "Other" seems such an innocuous word, but its impact can be devastating to human beings. Can't wait to read the rest of your series.

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  4. @Ankhesen and EccentricYoruba

    I started working on part two last night and hope to post something tonight even if I need to make a zillion parts to complete it. This section will be tough to ingest...

    I'm going to run errands with my husband now.

    @Lenoxave
    Interesting work as always. "Other" seems such an innocuous word, but its impact can be devastating to human beings.

    It's nice to be back, if only temporary.

    What I find intriguing about this term "Other" is how it drives "white" people absolutely mad. Black Americans are accustomed to being treated like unwanted step-children; others not so much and that includes "white" Americans. "Other" screws them up the most. Despite the fact that they can come here, teach English and earn a ridiculous salary, everything in this society reminds them that they are NOTHING and that they are LOSERS. According to Japanese societal structure, the "whites" were losers upon arrival and once the "whites" begin to understand how the ranks work, they start to lose their minds. Obviously, most of these people didn't have the talent or skills to be successful in America. Even the money can't compensate for this deficiency.

    For me personally, being Black in Japan is by far more of a blessing than a curse.

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  5. @ Hateya
    For me personally, being Black in Japan is by far more of a blessing than a curse.

    Thats so great to hear. I leave for Tokyo Jan 2012 but all I keep hearing is good from the black women I've talked to who lived there. I'm fully aware of the "other" situation and agree that a lot of whites just can't handle it. You can read it on their blogs. Its intense.

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  6. I think being treated like the Other really fucks with white people's heads. Reminds me of the convo I had with a coworker where she tried to discourage my interest in Kpop because Koreans/Japanese are really racist. And I was thinking in comparison to what? If I go to another country I EXPECT to be treated like a foreigner.

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  7. @Hateya

    I was having a the same conversation with some family members about this the other day. Its been 3 years since I left Japan (I've been there for 6 years and will be going back to finish my B.A.) and I noticed the treatment I was given when I got there. After a while they did warm up to me I even made friends and a boyfriend.

    Coming back hear I started to understand more about White Privilege and how some white people take advantage of this but when they don't get the same treatment there they go completely ape s**t. It's like they can't comprehend that they're the outsider.

    However when I try to explain this to white people who ask me they don't believe me and think they are going to going to be served with as silver platter or something. It's sad because when a foreigner who isn't White comes to this country they are often dismissed or looked down upon because of negative stereotypes they heard.

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  8. @GoddessMaverick
    Thats so great to hear. I leave for Tokyo Jan 2012 but all I keep hearing is good from the black women I've talked to who lived there.

    Once you've fully adjusted and learned how to navigate the society, you'll be set. It'll be tough at times, but if you can endure each test will make you stronger.

    Admittedly, I love their reactions to my black butt. They expect to only see Black people in clubs, on the base or selling T-shirts at some Jamaican clothing store. Some of them get visibly defensive as though I'd somehow infringed upon their territory.

    @modest-goddess
    I think being treated like the Other really fucks with white people's heads.

    I've heard of at least six seeking treatment for "adjustment disorder." Interestingly, they expect me to be sympathetic. I wonder why... :D

    As for your co-worker... ugh.

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  9. @Kyo
    After a while they did warm up to me I even made friends and a boyfriend.

    I'm so happy things worked out for you then and I wish you a speedy return here. Friends = uchi = safety = happiness.

    but when they don't get the same treatment there they go completely ape s**t. It's like they can't comprehend that they're the outsider.

    They can't. For most American "whites," receiving the "other" treatment is completely out of their context. Mental illness becomes the order of the day.

    It's sad because when a foreigner who isn't White comes to this country they are often dismissed or looked down upon because of negative stereotypes they heard.

    Marginalizing other people is a "white" American specialty.

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  10. Hey,

    I am looking forward to the rest of your series, as I just moved to Japan to teach this past August. I actually live in the Ryukyu islands, but not in Okinawa, so I have a nice blend of inside/outside flavors. My experience in Japan has been extremely positive, both as a tourist and as a resident. I plan to post about my time here soon, but for now I will check for your posts. By the way, which part of Japan are you in?

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  11. @babyblueskies22

    I'm so relieved and happy you're having a positive time here. I especially look forward to reading your posts about your life down there and about your general experiences in Japan. Please share when time permits. Teaching can be so life-consuming. I've only been to Okinawa once and I look forward to going again. My posts don't cover nearly enough, but perhaps they're a good starting point. I live exactly opposite of you, in Sapporo, up here in Ainu territory -- Hokkaido. Once a year, usually in August or September, I make it as far as Fukuoka or Oita, Kyushu. Maybe we can meet one day soon.

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  12. for the 33 million people of Black African descent who reside in the United States.

    It's actually over 54 million now.

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  13. @ Hateya

    This post was great and very informative. I took Japanese for three years in college. In that time I never had a professor break anything down about uchi and soto. I did learn more about Japanese culture through my Japanese lit courses.

    I have had a few friends (two black and one white) who went to Japan and had very positive experiences.

    I also wanted to say I was born in Chattanooga, TN and raised in Alabama from six till I left for college in '06. So I am pretty much a Bama girl with a good bit of Cherokee blood flowing in my veins.

    I admire you for living in another country and living in different culture. I am a little afraid to do so myself, but I can't ignore my need to live abroad. I plan to teach English in China or Taiwan in 2012. Would you mind if I emailed you sometime to ask about your time in both places?

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  14. @Tracy

    Thank you for dropping into this post.

    Though isn't easy living in another country and learning the rules that govern a different culture, after a time, it becomes easier. As long as you understand your place wherever you are, you can make it. And if you can't, you can always go home.

    Please feel free to write me whenever you wish. If you change the "y" in my name to "z" and email me at gmail dot com, you'll find me. Though I wasn't too happy in China, I was ridiculously happy in Taiwan.

    So I am pretty much a Bama girl with a good bit of Cherokee blood flowing in my veins.

    I've always argued that Africans + Indigenous Americans were the original Blasians. ;)

    Where did you live in Bama? If I screamed, "Roll Tide Roll," would that give me away?

    It's good that you had a Japanese literature class. I also learned more about Japan through dead writers than any other source. A majority of the great literature goes directly to the jugular. The first time I read Mishima's work, I thought he was insane. Now I understand that he was DRIVEN mad.

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  15. I've always argued that Africans + Indigenous Americans were the original Blasians.

    The Shanga and Famao would beg to differ, remember?

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  16. @ Hateya

    Thanks so much! I am really trying to find the best place for me; it's really hard to do since I will probably not be able to visit either one before I go.

    I lived in Smiths Station, Alabama; it's near Phenix City and Columbus, GA. I think you gave yourself away haha

    P.S. Mishima rocks my socks! I recently bought Kyoko no Ie in Japanese. I heard it's the book that reveals the most about his personality.

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  17. @Tracy

    I'd never been across the Pacific before I decided to go to Taiwan. Fortunately, during the first year I was in a controlled study and work environment. I half-way wonder if I would have enjoyed China more if I hadn't had such a good experience in Taiwan. In addition, I already knew people in Taiwan before I went. They'd come to Bama on a short-term program. We weren't the best of friends or anything, but it was great to see familiar faces upon arrival. The Taiwanese were warmer and DARKER, so I didn't immediately stick out in every situation. Though I'd never truly thought about it before, it's clear now that I had a Taiwan bias. China is massive though and if you're interested in those 5,000 years of history, it's the place to go. I don't envy your decision. Good luck to you.

    Smiths Station? I might have gone through there at some point. Shockingly, I used to date a guy who attended Auburn. *peers around nervously**

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