Part I: Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)
Part II: Color Symbolism
Author's note: I'm sorry if this comes across disjointed. There was just so much material to work with and I had limited time to prepare. It's tough to write an overview of a topic that's so complex.
The media, more specifically advertising, primarily drives the Japanese perception of Black people of African descent. Thankfully, movies featuring Black people are few and far between. On the silver screen, Black men are being represented by Will Smith and Denzel Washington. Black women? Nobody. Raise your hand if you’re surprised.
In modern times, the overall image of Black people tends to be negative. Though an argument could be made that things are changing today, that is a matter of perception. While reading this post, please remember the ranked association of racial groups and where Black people are positioned.
Japanese advertisements seldom emphasize information about the products. They have an essentially symbolic focus and normally only provides pleasant, unusual imagery and playful excursions into a fantasy world. Images of foreigners “become fantasy vignettes, representations of exoticism, visual quotations of Otherness, while foreigners are rendered（見世物）”misemono,” things to look at, and not quite real.
If only, we were not quite real equally. Is it a “white” world or isn't it?
There are significant representations of Blacks, other Asians and whites in Japan. Since the Meiji Era, whites have been associated with power, technological expertise and economic dominance. Since that time, the white Western world has been the model to emulate, the standard by which to gauge Japan’s progress and modernization.
As such, whites set the standard of beauty as well and these standards were reinforced by the early post-War (WWII) period prominence of American-made movies that created the feeling that seeing white imagery was （当たり前）atarimae, “natural.” Moreover, when the average household was finally able to afford a television, all American productions involved the white middle-class and this reinforced the images of whites on screen as “natural.” As a consequence, the term 外人, “gaijin” is no longer applicable to all foreigners. It was exclusively reserved for white Westerners.
Though often glorified, images of white foreigners in advertising are primarily used to break with social conventions. They’re used for eroticism/sexual fantasies (nudity, which is a no-no for a self-respecting Japanese woman) and to express selfish sentiments in a culture that frowns upon （我儘）wagamama, “self-centered” concerns. In other words, whites are puppets and the Japanese are the puppet masters. Basically, using white foreigners in advertisements reinforce the concepts of Japanese identity by oppositional statements of what Japanese identity is not.
In fact, from the late 80s through the 90s, whites were used to highlight the economic dominance and the world prominence of Japan. After decades of having advertisement reflect the “gaijin complex” that “it’s a white world,” Japan now promotes its own cultural identity and world prominence. With each passing day, they’re asserting that it should be “a Japanese world” after all. Making a mockery of whites and their ineptness is now the norm. Projections of their awkwardness with Japanese language and culture reinforce a sense that there is something about these cultural identity markers that is solely for the Japanese. This is very “white” of Japanese advertisers, isn’t it?
Cultural homogeneity has left Black people at a decided disadvantage and no one should be shocked that images of Blacks tend to be highly caricatured, comic, low-class or foolish figures. For this reason, we should be grateful that depictions of Blacks are relatively few to whites. There is a vast distinction between us though. Whites can appear in large numbers and can either be “talents” （tarento タレント), either famous celebrities or anonymous “nobodies.” Blacks though must be famous and nearly all of them are athletes, singers, or performers. This list includes Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordon, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Ne-Yo and so forth）. While these representations of famous Blacks are usually positive, or at least not degrading, it does little or nothing to help the mainstream Japanese conceptualize dignified adult Blacks in other occupations or forms of human endeavor. People are still shocked when I tell them where I work and what I do.
Because the numbers of Black people in Japan are extremely low in comparison to other groups, most Japanese will never have actual exposure to or have experience with Blacks. Negative imagery in the media is still the norm. It also doesn't help when Black marines rape little girls or kill taxi drivers. Primary exposure will continue to come via movies (which can be good because Denzel rulz) or the American mainstream media (NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news programs and CNN are broadcast here), which is detrimental to the imagery of Black people, especially Black men.
Let’s take a look at the past. There was once a cartoon called, “Adventurous Dankichi,” which was serialized in a children’s magazine in the 1920s and 30s. Dankichi was a Japanese boy who fell asleep on a fishing outing and drifted to the South Pacific. There he outwitted the Black natives of the island and eventually became their king. From 1958 to 1960, Japan was rocked by a Dakko-chan doll fad. Dakko-chan was jet black with big eyes and huge red lips. He was sold with a pole and when inflated, he would scurry up the pole. It sold so well, with just about every household possessing one, Takara, the manufacturer made Dakko-chan image it’s corporate logo. Though the logo was dropped in the 1980s, the Japanese continued to buy 100,000 Dakko-chan dolls per year for a very long time. Are these damned things still being sold? Probably.
Let’s not forget the Chibikuro Sanbo (Little Black Sambo) catastrophe. Produced by Sanrio, it was a huge fad and despite criticism from scholars and human rights activists outside Japan complaining about the dehumanization of Blacks, the doll sold at an astronomical rate. The Sanbo family included Sambo, Hanna and Bibinba, were all wide-eyed, large-lipped characters who were depicted as clumsy, stupid, silly, and uneducated. There was even a t-shirt with a Sambo image that proclaimed, “When I’m hungry, there’s no stoppin’ me, I’ll be up in the palm pickin’ coconuts before you can count to three. An’ I can count way past three, too!” Allegedly, if the children wore these t-shirts or played with the doll, they wouldn’t grow up to be racists.
Even my husband loved Chibikuro Sambo when he was younger because he perceived Sambo to be intelligent, brave and clever. As an adult, he certainly understands why this material is racist.
In recent years, the Sogo Department store featured a line of jet black mannequins with crossed eyes and large lips. Though a highly ranked government official admitted that the mannequins were “disgusting and offensive,” he defended the suppliers by saying there was no intention of racism. P. Essed stated in Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory, “It is important to see that intentionality is not a necessary component of racism.”
There was also a debate about the Japanese drink Calpis (カルピス). The trademark character was a stereotyped image of a black man with large lips, dressed in hillbilly clothing and a straw hat (it was developed from a painting by a German artist, only the man wore a Panamanian hat). While the character was drinking the white drink (literally), the image was accompanied by the phrase, （初恋の味）hatesu koi no aji – “the taste of first love.” Again, the “we didn’t know it was racist” excuse was used and to this day, it is still an excuse despite access to the internet and dirt cheap 3-5 day trips to almost any country on this planet.
In 1985, a voice command computer was displayed at the American pavilion at the Expo ’85. Designed by Texas Instruments, the system presented five American scenes which fair visitors could color-in by voice command. The scene of Texas depicted a rugged cowboy on a horse about to lasso the scrawny, slouching figures of two half-naked Native Americans. Years of ALLOWING the white Western world to inundate their society with racial stereotypes, paid off. Nearly all of the Japanese visitors colored the cringing Natives red and the cowboy on the horse white.
In the end, Japanese advertising, spurred on by a fundamental disregard for others, seldom allow ordinary Japanese people to have a greater understanding of black culture or individual Black people. We are still “not really real.” As long as the rest of the world continues to denigrate Black people, so will the Japanese media. Like the Eta-Hinin/Burakumin, these negative depictions of Blacks reinforce a belief in the value of Japan’s mythical homogeneity. In Japan, minorities are invisible. They don’t exist. We don’t exist.
Where I live there are only two commercials depicting Black people. One is for a newspaper (the name escapes me). A clumsy-looking Black man with over exaggerated eyes comes into the living room and sees his daughter reading a newspaper and says, “If you’re reading the paper, it must be raining frogs.” The WHITE mother with curlers in her hair then slips on the balcony, I think (I try to avoid this commercial) and says, “I hurt my back.” At the same time, frogs rain into her lap. The little girl, who is adorable (she is Black with natural hair) in a proper school uniform points out which emergency hospital is open that day.
Another one features Dante Carver, an African-American model and actor. He advertises Softbank phones. In the commercial, he’s the son of a woman (played by famous actress Higuchi Kanako), brother of a young woman (played by the very popular Ueto Aya) and also the son of a WHITE Hokkaido DOG. Yes, I said it. He’s the black son of a white dog. The son is very shy spends most of the commercials apologizing for one thing or another. You can following view a few of the commercials HERE. This particular link features a young Black boy, too.
I am somewhat ambivalent about these commercials. A part of me really wants to celebrate that Dante has this job because he is damned intelligent, his Japanese rocks and his timing is wonderful, yet…
The commercials are funny and humorous and the Black man is NOT being stereotyped yet….
At this point you might be wondering about other Asians. In simplest terms, Japanese look down upon them. Most Asians only appear in advertisements designated for ethnic products such as Chinese foods or for cleaning products, suggesting stereotypical labor roles. Two years before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Japanese department stores hosted exhibits of Spanish artist and architects and the travel industry promoted trips to Barcelona and other Spanish locales. The same did not happen during the Seoul Olympics in 1988. For the most part, commercials ignored the host country's location.
At that time, there was no Korean-BOOM. NOW in 2011 (beginning in early 2010) there is. Koreans are everywhere. They’re currently set to take over not only daytime television, but also the music industry. Japanese women currently crave this crop of sexy men, led by RAIN. Speaking of Rain, initially his Full House was garnering 41% ratings and this show is broadcast Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. (yes, the morning). At present, on regular television there are more Korean shows being broadcast than Western (i.e. white) ones during the day. I can’t say whether or not this means the Japanese are truly accepting the Koreans as kindred. I suspect this would be difficult given the status of the Korean-Japanese people here. For now, Koreans from Korea are THE FAD.
With all this bull to contend with, can Black people be successful in Japan? Of course, we can. We are. Not only are Black people, primarily women, teaching on a professional level (mostly English) in universities, I’ve seen documentaries about Black female lawyers who are defending the rights of little Blasian children abandoned by their service member fathers. Many Black African men and women with advance degrees from England are studying at various Japanese universities. I've also seen evidence that quite a few Blacks own their own business and I know that Tokyo has a tight-knit Black business community. Those of us who managed to survive the culture shock (this can be one bizarre place) are doing well.
Since any form of racism here is subtle and almost imperceptible, it’s easy to live here with one eye shut. If you’re coming to just make money or do research or get a man, you’ll soon learn how to play the game. At least here, it is highly unlikely that anyone will jump out and lynch you. No one’s going to burn a cross in your yard. No one’s going to physically attack you. You also won’t get arrested for driving while Black, but you might get pulled over for driving while FOREIGN. If you have the kind of personality that attracts people, you’ll soon make lots of friends and within friendships, there is an uchi. If you get a job, there is an uchi.
Through you, even if have to take it person by person, the Japanese people will learn about US. Until our numbers increase and we make more recognized positive contributions to the world, we'll still be considered individually successful, not racially so.
If you have the tenacity to stand up for yourself and create the life you deserve, then you can make it here as well as you can make it anywhere.
Primary SOURCE: Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity edited by Michael Weiner (1997)
Coming soon – A Japanese’s man perception of Blacks in America, the story of the first African to live in Japan (I’m waiting for the source material) and a series (I’ll write an overview of each chapter) about the African American perception of the Japanese from probably post WWII until the 80s.