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)