12.29.2010

The Status of Black People in Japan: Part II - Color Symbolism

Author's note: I'm exhausted and this might come across as disjointed. I'll try to edit better another day. I apologize in advance.

In the first post about uchi/soto, I didn’t mention the most important meaning of the word, uchi. It means “home” or more accurately, “my home.” The relevance of this term should speak for itself.

When discussing black, white and yellow color symbolism in Japan, it’s crucial to understand three important points: 1) most of what the average Japanese knows about Black people stems from a white media that perpetrates and reinforces the ugliest of the racial stereotypes; 2) the Japanese had a sense of “blackness” long before they ever laid eyes on a person of Black African descent; and 3) when the first Japanese envoy went to the US in 1860, they witnessed a clear hierarchical separation of whites and Blacks and since Blacks were slaves at the time, the Japanese concluded that they must be the American equivalent of Eta (Burakumin) or untouchable class. This last point is critical. If the Japanese had met free Black people ruling their own lands first, they would have reached a different conclusion.

Even so, it should come to no surprise that the Japanese have long associated the color white with purity and positive traits and the color black with what is ugly and impure.


White skin is associated with motherhood, spiritual purity, beauty, refinement, economic wealth, and urban life, while Black skin is associated with dirt, ugliness, poverty, debasement, animality, and lower-class rural life. As I pointed out in #2, this concept existed before whites arrived in Japan. The ugliness of “blackness” did NOT originate with Black slaves or anyone of Black African descent. Later in the series, I’ll share a curious historical note from Japanese history that will leave your mouths hanging open.

The Japanese associate blackness with their allegedly non-existent, invisible ethnic minorities. In order to understand how a group of people could be so delusional as to have a majority, yet deny the existence of a minority and/or caste system, it’s necessary to understand how the Japanese mainstream perceives themselves. In simple terms, they consider themselves “white,” but this has little or nothing to do with skin color. They aren’t so foolish as to believe that skin color makes a person superior or inferior.

According to H. Wagatsuma in “The social perception of skin color in Japan,” the Japanese do not see themselves as Asians, but rather a part of the Western world in Western terms. The white world embodied a symbol of progress and advancement the Japanese did not achieve until America’s post WWII rebuilding of the nation. Once they reached a high status of economic affluence and became efficient at running businesses, they entered the symbolic space of “white,” in other words, the space that suggested privilege, economic and political prominence, and cultural dominance.

Does anyone remember when everyone seemed to be studying Japanese and trying desperately to work for a Japanese company? Or when the Japanese were given honorary white status by the South African apartheid government? Obviously, if “white is pure and good” then the opposite of it, black, provides the contrast. Please remember that skin color isn’t a true factor. Instead, someone who isn’t uchi is soto.

Within the Japanese societal structure, Black people are soto because they’re foreigners, not because they have dark skin. This doesn’t mean that the Japanese are colorblind. Not at all. In the next part, I’ll discuss how shockingly ignorant of interracial issues the Japanese are. This is directly related to the damage done in 1860 and it’s especially criminal that even today Blacks still do not have control over their own images. This doesn’t mean that we can’t do well here. In fact, if we are members of an uchi with a high standing, we can benefit equally.

The Japanese mainstream doesn’t need to discriminate against Black people from abroad because they already have people that occupy the black symbolic space. As the people living the farthest away from the Japanese mainland and with the lowest economic status, the Okinawans (Ryukyus) are members of the de facto Black people of Japan. Though the Okinawans are wholeheartedly trying to recapture a positive image of themselves based on their own heritage, you’d never know it by mainstream attitudes. Unless one is a long-legged actress with big hair, it doesn’t pay to be Okinawan.

Another member of the “black” dynamic are the Burakumin. Though they also have a more positive self-identity, the majority still consider them inferior because historically they’ve always been the class of people considered “base” or “defiled.” In other words, they are the very essence of black symbolic space. Within the Japanese caste system, they are positioned as kegare, pollution.

According to J.D. Donoghue in Pariah Persistence in Changing Japan, one young Burakumin teenager he interviewed said that in order for the majority Japanese and for the emperor as a symbol of the Japanese to remain pure the society required a scapegoat, something to represent the opposite of impurity. In the feudal period, the Eta absorbed this impurity by performing the jobs considered defiling such as butchering animals or tending to the dead, sparing the Japanese from defilement.

Has anyone noticed this trend on American television? A local television station is currently broadcasting old episodes of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. In Miami, a Black woman is a medical examiner and in New York, a Black man is. Is Hollywood sending a message to the Japanese or what? This is more damaging than all of those criminal roles.

To this day, the Burakumin continue to symbolically occupy the space of impurity and inferiority to provide the necessary contrast for the mainstream’s self-projection of symbolic superiority, purity, righteousness, and cleanliness (i.e. whiteness). As expected, the Japanese majority claim the Burakumin are excluded from society due to poverty and poor living conditions. Translation – the mainstream would rather use lower educational achievements and poor living conditions are justifications for continuing discrimination against Burakumin, rather than recognize that these conditions exist as a result of discrimination. Sound familiar?

Oddly enough, a Black person/gaikokujin/kokujin/soto, has a better chance of getting a well-paying respectable position than a Burakumin.

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

Next up: Black and white in the Japanese media (this will focus directly on how both groups are presented to the Japanese people as a whole)

21 comments:

  1. Has anyone noticed this trend on American television? A local television station is currently broadcasting old episodes of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. In Miami, a Black woman is a medical examiner and in New York, a Black man is. Is Hollywood sending a message to the Japanese or what? This is more damaging than all of those criminal roles.

    I've wondered about this and I wholly agree with you. Thanks for writng this! I see the status of black people in Japan is both more AND less complicated than it is made out to be...

    ReplyDelete
  2. @EccentricYoruba
    I see the status of black people in Japan is both more AND less complicated than it is made out to be...

    Nothing here is simply black and white. The Japanese paragraph, the danraku, is written in circular form for a reason.

    I hope this series is helping even if it's only a little.

    Ghana???!!! *hint hint*

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is fascinating and depressing all @ the same time. Sigh. I'm looking forward to what's up next.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Law & Order: SVU and Castle both have black "handling the dead" as well.

    *sigh*

    ReplyDelete
  5. *black women. Specifically Tamara Tunie and Tamala Jones respectively.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I will never look at Black M.E.s in TV shows the same way again.

    ReplyDelete
  7. *grimly nods* Nor will I.

    The things you learn on these blogs. And you know, it was bugging me for a while that all these coroners and medical examiners kept being cast as black women.

    ReplyDelete
  8. whoa I never thought to look that deep into t.v. shows and I love svu and csi when I do watch tv (very rare) seriously are there hidden agendas in everything?!? How depressing

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello everyone here on BN. I wanted to say I have been religiously following you guys for a minute haha. I wanted to finally come outta the shadows and say first and foremost, I really appreciate what all you fine women (and men) are doing for our re-education as POC. ^_^ Secondly, on the topic at hand, I find this article VERY interesting :) The things you learn everyday :) Ms. Hateya, very well done. I enjoy reading your posts ^_^

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Lenoxave

    I completely understand your feelings. The next piece has both negative and positive aspects, plus a few surprises. I'll post as soon as I can after New Year's day. I won't leave everyone hanging. I promise.

    @Ankhesen, Leoprincess & Asummermoon

    Ladies, I had no idea about Law & Order SVU and Castle because I've never seen either show. I also don't watch much television and when I do, I usually go for episodic shows like these. Since I've begun writing these posts, I've learned a very important lesson. Intellectual knowledge doesn't always translate into true awareness because I've ALWAYS known the status of the Burakumin, yet I've never linked them directly to me, to us, before. Not on this scale.

    @ChocolateBunni:-3

    Thank you for dropping in and sharing your thoughts. Being a member of the BN has made me pay more attention to my surroundings and my place in the world.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think too much is being read into this notion of a negative view of black people playing the roles of medical examiners in a few American TV shows. As a former law enforcement officer I believe and as someone that keeps up on the entertainment industry, that the roles that the actors portray have more to do with showing positive images to American audiences of professional black people, ie, you must have college degree and or doctorate to perform these types of jobs and not some hidden nod to the Japanese about African Americans and the "defiling" jobs they perform. Medical examiner's tend to do more than just handle the dead since they are not only doctors but scientists as well. And what about the black actors that have portrayed police and attorneys on the show? I'd rather have a show like CSI and L&O promoting black professionals than shows like Housewives of Atlanta doing it.

    And I'm not sure if anyone is aware of what is going on in Japanese TV but I have noticed there seems to be a trend that criminal profile shows have been very popular there in recent years. In these shows I have noticed that they are casting woman in prominent positions in these shows including medical examiners so are they setting woman's agendas back in Japan by casting woman in these types of roles? I think not.

    One other note that many people don't know on both sides of the ocean is that around the turn of the century, AA delegations were sent to Japan and China to establish a AA presence in the world economy and to discuss their experiences regarding race relations in this country. The Japanese took special interest in this and welcomed these delegates as they wanted to get a better understanding of how to deal with American businesses and the government since they were keenly aware about the racial differences that existed in this country and what it could mean to them as they emerged into the international scene. Unfortunately, this did not work out as hoped as Japan had invaded China and then entered WWII as an Axis member.

    But from what I understand from some Japanese people I have spoken to, the American media does have a lot of influence in how they perceive anyone that comes from this country. However, when they have had the opportunity to interact with Americans they realize that there are many stereotypes that are put out there, just as much stereotypes of Japanese are put out to Americans. Many of the older generations tend to hold on to the stereotypes, however, the younger generations tend not to, less and less, as they tend to have much greater interaction with people from different cultures thanks to travel and the internet.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @ Lady Rook

    I believe and as someone that keeps up on the entertainment industry, that the roles that the actors portray have more to do with showing positive images to American audiences of professional black people, ie, you must have college degree and or doctorate to perform these types of jobs

    That was my initial perception, but I was bothered by the "trend" of casting black women in similar roles. These are secondary roles, and little is known about their personal lives.

    So even if non-Americans aren't associating black women with disgusting jobs, they're still not getting a balanced view of these women.

    @ Hateya

    According to H. Wagatsuma in “The social perception of skin color in Japan,” the Japanese do not see themselves as Asians, but rather a part of the Western world in Western terms. The white world embodied a symbol of progress and advancement the Japanese did not achieve until America’s post WWII rebuilding of the nation. Once they reached a high status of economic affluence and became efficient at running businesses, they entered the symbolic space of “white,” in other words, the space that suggested privilege, economic and political prominence, and cultural dominance.

    Here's what I don't get about this. How many times does a country have to have atom bombs dropped on it, or unwanted military bases built in it, or have their people abroad shoved into internment camps before they tap into their innate "Fuck you, fuck your privilege, and fuck everything you represent?"... you know, a la Gabon?

    ReplyDelete
  13. @ Ankhesen
    I don't think being a medical examiner is a "disgusting" job it takes great skill to be one preferably you have to be a Doctor to do it with great skills in order to make a determination of death which is not a job that anyone can do. The main MEs in L & O for many of its seasons have been two women, one black and the other is white. So if anything I think it is a great portrayal of highly intelligent women in highly demanding jobs and nothing more. Doctors in Japan are referred to as "sensei" which is one of the most honorable titles to have so again I don't see how this is degrading to AA. And the point of the show is not to know about the secondary characters lives its about the crime and the drama surrounding how it was accomplished. People that I know who are into CSI and L & O are more interested in the technical aspects of these shows anyways regardless of what color the actors are. And it seems that the Japanese shows have fallen into line with this thinking regarding women in this profession as some of the shows that follow a similar format have Japanese women in these roles as well. So what are we to conclude from that? But I guess it is all in how you perceive it.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't think being a medical examiner is a "disgusting" job

    Didn't say it was...just FYI.

    ReplyDelete
  15. @ Ankhesen
    "Here's what I don't get about this. How many times does a country have to have atom bombs dropped on it, or unwanted military bases built in it, or have their people abroad shoved into internment camps before they tap into their innate "Fuck you, fuck your privilege, and fuck everything you represent?"... you know, a la Gabon?"

    From what part of history are you drawing the "fuck you" attitude from? I think Japanese people tend to be highly nationalistic and centrically minded than them giving the world the finger as I seem to understand from your statement.
    It is my understanding of history that this ideal of gaining dominance over something occurs on a personal and national level in Japan. And which seems to change as the country's goals change, i.e., military dominance pre-WWII to economic dominance post-WWII.
    However, when you look at how long it took for the country to amass the military it did after it was forced to open its country up in 1860 to the western world and then invade China by 1931, that took an entire country to turn itself from basically a feudal existence to an industrialized powerhouse in 50 or so years. Japan was bombed twice because the Imperialist Army kept Allied troops at a stand still in the Pacific theater during WWII for nearly two years and American troops were being handed their asses on a platter and something had to be done to shut them down.
    And I don't need to tell you the American governments track record on how it treats non whites goes back to this country's inception, however, in a time of war they did what was necessary to public safety as there was a great fear that Japan was going to attack the west coast because the govt believed they had the skills to do it. And the people that were interred were mostly American citizens of Japanese descent, then Japanese Nationals from North and South America.
    What happened after 9/11 is prime example of how reactionary this government can be when attacked. We may not like how things are done but no one is complaining about being attacked again by a foreign entity. And as much as North Korea has postured to "attack" Japan and the US it seems that both countries are benefiting from US bases that are there at this time.
    And if any country seems to have the innate "fuck you" attitude I believe most people would say that belongs to Americans.

    ReplyDelete
  16. You misunderstood my statement again, Rook. ASK for clarification before you start lecturing. Secondly, stop lecturing.

    My point was the Japanese have NOT tapped into their innate "Fuck you" towards the West, though they are well within their rights.

    ReplyDelete
  17. @Ankhesen & Lady Rook

    So even if non-Americans aren't associating black women with disgusting jobs, they're still not getting a balanced view of these women.

    I think Lady Rook is confusing two different, issues: Hollywood's motives vs. the Japanese caste system. First, Hollywood is always suspect where women of color are concerned. That Black women are HABITUALLY relegated to these roles sends up even more red flags. Second, the Japanese caste system is ABSOLUTE. Simply having a medical degree does not change a person's status, even if he/she carries the title of "sensei."

    Lady Rook, I don't blame you for not noticing the ugly discrimination that lays beneath the pretty fabric of Japanese faux equality. After all, it does not benefit them to air their dirty laundry to foreigners. In addition, I believe you're trying to turn a perceived "negative" into a positive. However, if you read this series closely, you'll see clearly that I'm not attempting to make everyone believe that only doom and gloom awaits Black woman in Japan, far from it.

    Nonetheless, I'm not going to pretend this country is some sort of racially harmonious paradise. It isn't. Obviously, you're as happy within the confines of your uchi as I am in mine; however, there are others who are suffering because they don't understand how things work here. Knowledge IS Power.

    However, when they have had the opportunity to interact with Americans they realize that there are many stereotypes that are put out there,

    We don't have the NUMBERS to combat those stereotypes; thus, a majority of Japanese will NEVER interact with a Black African or American. Furthermore, it is unlikely we'll ever have that population because of the shitty way people, usually non-Americans, are treated here.

    Doctors in Japan are referred to as "sensei" which is one of the most honorable titles to have so again I don't see how this is degrading to AA.

    Then you haven't noticed that 99% of the time these characters are referred to by their FIRST names when they are dubbed, not "sensei." I suggest you watch a Japanese drama and then watch a Western one and perhaps then you'll have a clear understanding of how names and titles are utilized.

    ReplyDelete
  18. @Ankhesen

    Here's what I don't get about this. How many times does a country have to have atom bombs dropped on it, or unwanted military bases built in it, or have their people abroad shoved into internment camps before they tap into their innate "Fuck you, fuck your privilege, and fuck everything you represent?"... you know, a la Gabon?

    The simple answer -- assholes rule the world. The average Japanese (excluding those designated as minorities) is conditioned to embrace "whiteness" the same way poor undereducated whites are brainwashed to hate Black people. Japan's population pyramid might be inverted, but the monetary power still rests in the hands of a few elite jerks who very much admire those disgusting scumbags who D.C. They want to be just.like.them whatever the cost to the nation. Ugh.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @Ankhesen

    I failed to mention that I will post the third and last part of the status of Black people in Japan either tomorrow night or Saturday night (my time). My husband also hunted down an English version of a book written by a second generation Japanese-American who dedicated a portion of this book to the African-American cause. In addition, I finally found a copy of the dissertation written about the African-American view of Japanese. This relationship started out so well...

    ReplyDelete
  20. This is another country, but still. I had an exchange student from Beijing, China come to my school. Now, he wasn't trying to be racist, he even had to use a translator to try and understand everything I said, but he was shocked at how I acted. He told me "You aren't loud and don't have an angry, mean face! You're different than them." It surprised me myself, but I was glad to know I had shown him something other than what he knew, meaning the stereotypical, misrepresented black girl...still, it made me sad that he thought of Blacks that way..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sadly, Ji-chan, this is the world we've been forced to live in since mankind walked off the African continent. We can't be Black and female and not represent ALL Black females. In the minds of most people, BEFORE they meet us on an individual basis, we're just one single woman. Black men, while still suffering, are not necessarily seen that way since they dominate in so many sports. There's a downside to that as well. They're only seen as profit making machines.

      At least one young man from China has seen for himself that sometimes what we perceive to be "exceptions" are indeed "the rule."

      Delete

Comments are no longer accepted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.