4.15.2011

Part XI: Present day Black-Japanese relations and Russell’s conclusions

The series ends with Russell’s conclusions on the Japanese construction of Blackness in present day society. Links to earlier posts and references/suggested reading can be found at the end of this document.

The following excerpts were reproduced from Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (Second edition 2009) edited by Michael Weiner/ chapter 5: “The other other – The Black presence in the Japanese experience” by John. G. Russell (pp. 108-110). Russell is a professor in the Faculty of Regional studies at Gifu University.

THE PRESENT

Koshiro has observed that 'Few people realize the extent to which Japanese people have interacted with and been influenced by African Americans and their history' (2003: 183). While there is some awareness of a black presence in Japan, it confines that presence to contexts and activities - the military, entertainment, and athletics in the case of African Americans, and civil war, disease, and famine in the case of Africans - that circumscribe the diversity and range of encounters between Japanese and people of the African Diaspora.

Contemporary discourse on 'black culture' almost invariably associates it with black, primarily African American, forms of musical culture, such as Negro spirituals, soul, jazz, reggae, and, most recently, gospel and hip hop, largely ignoring other areas of black achievement and arenas of historical interaction between blacks and Japanese that do not translate into expected stereotyped encounters a la Endo's Kurombo or the film-version of Tsutsui Yasutaka's Jazz Daimyo (1986). Indeed, for many Japanese young people today, black is now kakkoii (cool), a boundless reservoir of style and play from which they may borrow to perform their own acts of social resistance. Like jazz before it, hip hop has become a synonym for black culture, the measure by which 'blackness' is gauged, providing a medium through which some Japanese attempt to give voice to their own sense of alienation and rebellion against the restrictive social norms of their society. At the same time, the ascendancy of hip-hop culture has abetted the synecdochization of black culture by means of which a fragment of that culture is used to stand in for the whole: thus 'blackness' comes to be globally identified with inner-city, heterosexual black male youth, 'the street,' and various stylized and ritualized forms of rebellious, largely antisocial acts, postures, and impostures.

At the same time, old stereotypes of blacks continue to circulate and be adapted and updated for new media and new audiences. Media images of blacks perpetuated by news programs and imported popular entertainment when not portraying black people as inherently humorous and rhythmic, continue to stereotype them as dangerous, violent, and criminal. Black also emerges as a signifier of various forms of power and desire - creative, imaginative, transformative, athletic, sexual - and as a fetish to be consumed in sundry ways, including as masturbatory fodder.

Note: See Russell 1998 for a discussion of the commodification of black sexuality in Japan. -- In 2008, a search of the word kokujin in the DVD section of Amazon.co.jp website produced 280 titles, almost all domestically produced pornography involving black men and Japanese women.

Popular black talent (television celebrities) in Japan play to these stereotypes. Nigerian Bobby Ologun, voted in 2005 the most popular foreign celebrity in Japan, has become a ubiquitous presence on Japanese television, as has his American counterpart, former NFL athlete, K-1 kickboxer, and aspiring actor Bob ("the Beast") Sapp.

Note: ‘Kono Jinbutsu no Omote to Ura: Bobi Orogun,’ Nikkan Gendai, 11 August 2005:23. According to a survey of 8,000 Japanese, out of 30 foreign celebrities, respondents ranked Ologun the most popular rising foreign personality and the second most favorably viewed (TV mania, http://tvmania.livedoor.biz/archives/29627421.html). Sapp’s success in Japan has allowed him to secure roles in Hollywood films, including small parts in Electra (2005) and The Longest Yard (2005)

The personae of other black talent, such as Adgony Ayao and Zomahoun Rufin, have yet to break the template.

Note: Despite their public personae, both Zomahoun and Adgony hold advanced degrees. Zomahoun, who is a regular on Kitano ‘Beat Takeshi’s Koko ga Hen Da Yo, Nihonjin (This is Strange, Japanese), a popular television program featuring sparring panels of Japanese and resident foreigners who debate topical issues, parlayed his colorful, volatile persona into public celebrity, received his doctorate in sociology from Japan’s Sophia University. Adgony, who, along with Ologun, got his start on the popular ‘Funniest Japanese’ segment of Sanma’s Karakuri TV, where he appeared as one of a trio of Black Japanese-language ‘students’ who are instructed by a fluent ‘white’ talent constantly exasperated by their comic antics and exaggerated linguistic incompetence, holds a doctorate in acting and directing from Beijing Drama Academy (Hiragana Times, August 2002: 6-7).

Through such characters (caricatures), Japan achieves, in its own mind, a virtual internationalization that confirms its view of itself as tolerant of foreign difference and of black alterity. In all of this, however, one is unable to spot the faces or hear the voices of those who would challenge this illusion. In January 2006, while Japanese television broadcasts and sports newspapers devoted considerable attention to an alleged violent confrontation between Ologun and his manager, the dismissal by an Osaka district court of Steve McGowan's groundbreaking anti-black-discrimination suit against an Osaka storeowner received only cursory coverage.

Note: In his suit, McGowan, a Black designer and an 11-resident of Kyoto, claimed that in 2004 he was denied entry to an eyewear shop by the owner because he was Black. McGowan appealed the verdict, and on 18 October 2006 the Osaka High Court reversed the district court ruling and ordered the storeowner to pay damages. Reportedly, McGowan’s initial suit was dismissed because it failed to demonstrate that he was refused entry specifically because he was Black. Similarly, although the High Court ruling compensates McGowan for the ‘emotional pain’ caused by the discrimination he experienced, it still does not recognize that his skin color was the reason behind the shop-owner’s behavior. (For a discussion of the court rulings, see ‘Reporter Eric Johnson on McGowan Victorious Appeal,’ Debito.org Newsletter, 24 October 2006, http://www.debito.org/index.php/?p=52, posted October 19, 2006.)

The same month, similar media indifference befell the release of United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights Doudou Diene's report on racism and discrimination in Japan.

Note: It has been suggested that the Japanese media ignored the report because it was backed by IMADR (International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism), an NGO formed by the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) in 1988, the media being generally reluctant to cover burakumin issues – unless they involve scandals by the BLL members.

Embodiments of blackness are not confined to black celebrities or limited to human performances. The global expansion of hip-hop has spawned in Japan a burgeoning industry of products ranging from clubs and CDs, to hip-hop-themed fashion magazines, anime, and manga, to high-end Hong Kong designer collectibles - complete with miniature bling and scaled-down, impeccably tailored 'street' fashions - that can be purchased in boutiques and on the Internet and that have partially supplanted once ubiquitous sambo, domestic, and jazzman effigies. Such black simulacra allow Japanese to realize, if only through proxy, Japan's internationalization, their proliferation giving shape to a multicultural, cosmopolitan Japan, albeit an illusionary one, in which real black people are an invisible or negligible minority. Such racial productions allow Japanese to savor 'blackness' without the bother of having to deal with real black people or to make a place for them within their society.

CONCLUSION

The Japanese encounter with Black people has been older, more nuanced, and far more complex than has been generally recognized. Japanese regard of the black Other cannot be isolated from the social, political, and economic dimensions of its encounters with the West. The relationship between blacks and Japanese continues to be mediated by a confluence of the internal and external, the local and global.

In examining the presence of Blacks in Japan and in the Japanese imagi¬nation, one becomes aware of the fact that the manner in which their presence is constructed involves not only Japanese preoccupations and concerns with race and place. It also involves the influence of Western discursive power and cultural capital, which define notions of race relations and racism by constructing them in terms of pairs of binary oppositions (white/black, white/yellow, black/yellow). As a consequence, in the Japanese imagination blacks have not simply constituted a polar, dark-skinned Other against which to compare and contrast themselves but also the Other of a White Other whose existence has provided a basis for the appraisal and reappraisal of Japanese identity since the sixteenth century.

Hegemony, Antonio Gramsci tells us, is not merely a matter of externally applied force. It is a process whereby people actively - and consensually ¬work toward their own subjugation. It is also most successful when it goes unnoticed. Brannen (1992) has argued a 'Japanese hegemony' is at work in the assimilation of Western cultural artifacts: rather than being dominated by Western ideologies, Japan recontexualizes and manipulates them in such a way as to reinforce their own sense of uniqueness and superiority. Since the nineteenth century, the boundaries of that 'unique,' 'superior' Self have been defined primarily in relation to a dominant, universal Western Other. Two crucial processes are involved, one reactive, the other creative. While Japan may invest Western cultural artifacts with new meanings, it does not necessarily obliterate the old. Indeed, one of the ironies of transplanted Western anti-black artifacts is that many Japanese refuse to recognize them as 'racist' in Japan, said items having lost whatever racist meanings attached to them in their previous lives by the virtue of the fact that Japan is believed to lack racial prejudice and discrimination. In this case, Japanese hegemony preserves not only the dichotomy between Japan, the West and the rest, but also the national myth of Japan as a racism-free society that always manages to retain uncorrupted its essentialistic character, despite cultural borrowings. It is the symbolic power, the cultural capital of these artifacts and their embedded ideologies, that ultimately serve to reinforce and sustain Japanese notions of difference.

It is my sincere wish that this series has promoted an understanding of the relationship between Black people of African descent and the Japanese. – Hateya

Suggested Reading/References

Brannen, M.Y. (1992) 'Bwana Mickey: Constructing cultural consumption at Tokyo Disneyland,' in Joseph J. Tobin (ed.), Re-made in Japan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 216-234.

Endo, S. (1973) Kurombo (Nigger), Tokyo: Kadokawa Bunko.

Koshiro, Y. (2003) ‘Beyond Alliance of Color: The African American impact on modern Japan,’ Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 11(1), Spring, 183-215.

Russell J. (1998) ‘Consuming Passions: Spectacle, self-transformation and the commodification of blackness in Japan,’ Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 6:1, Spring, 113-77.

Part I: Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)
Part II: Color Symbolism
Part III: Imaging Blacks in Advertising
Part IV: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (First Contact)
Part V: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (Rangaku ? Dutch Learning)
Part VI: A possible Chinese influence on the Japanese construction of Blackness
Part VII: The Effect of anti-Black Stereotypes and Western Privileging on the Japanese construction of Blackness
Part VIII: Darwinist Thought and the Japanese Construction of Blackness
Part IX: The Pre-War period and the Japanese Construction of Blackness
Part X: The Occupation and The Japanese Construction of Blackness.

14 comments:

  1. Such racial productions allow Japanese to savor 'blackness' without the bother of having to deal with real black people or to make a place for them within their society.

    I'd argue that this is applicable to almost every non-Black society on this planet.

    Thank you to everyone who took the time to read and to comment on this series. Your efforts are very much appreciated.

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  2. Thank you for this very enlightening series Hateya. I'm quite sad we've reached the end.

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  3. Excellent series Hateya! I agree wholeheartedly about digging blackness without having to bother with actual black folk.

    Check out some of the work from The Metropolitician in Korea. He's a Blasian Rhodes Scholar whose been living in SK for almost 10 years and is a teacher there. He offers up some serious critical analysis on race in Korea.

    Why Be Critical

    Being Arrested in Korea

    Black Culture, Not Black People

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  4. In this case, Japanese hegemony preserves not only the dichotomy between Japan, the West and the rest, but also the national myth of Japan as a racism-free society that always manages to retain uncorrupted its essentialistic character, despite cultural borrowings.

    Girl...you know I'm going to miss this. But if I recall correctly, you plan to begin another series dealing with the issue from Black people's perspectives and I can't wait to read that.

    Brava!

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  5. This has been an absolutely incredible series. I have a Japanese friend in my black history class and after we watched a movie about blacks in america's wars, he finally said to me in the end "I don't understand, why did not blacks fight with the Japanese instead" and I was speechless. I don't have a high enough Japanese vocabulary, nor does he have high enough English (although he speaks it amazingly well having been here for 3years) to REALLY explain to him. For that reason I wish there was some way this series could be translated into Japanese so he could read it. Hmm... At the end of this all I feel like I was holding my breath and now that I've exhales I find that I'm not truly relieved. Rather this is bruising... Thank you very much for this series Hataya, I learned an incredible amount and will definatley peruse the recommended readings.

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  6. @EccentricYoruba

    I'm grateful that I stumbled upon the source material and could share it with you and others.


    @Lenoxave

    Thank you for the links. I wanted to be surprised, shocked even, but to no avail. The author's writings regarding metroethicity reminds me of an article I was recently given by a colleague. When time permits, I'll put together a post using both sources and see if it'll help us understand this notion of "Black culture, not Black people" that has so captivated the world.

    @Ankhesen

    you plan to begin another series dealing with the issue from Black people's perspectives and I can't wait to read that.

    I haven't forgotten any of the projects. Right now the God of Time has me enslaved and we're still trying to cope with the on-going disaster. By mid-May (after Golden Week), I should be able to start the series. The source material is much more comprehensive.

    Again, thank you all for reading and for commenting.

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  7. @Kenji

    now that I've exhales I find that I'm not truly relieved. Rather this is bruising

    Like the rest of you, when I first came across the information, it felt as though someone had conked me on the head with a brick. Sometimes, I can't shake the feeling that no matter where we go, what we do and how much we achieve, the world will never ever SEE us as fully realized human beings who have made and are making tremendous contributions to this world.

    Your friend has forced me to fully appreciate just how much history ISN'T taught in Japan either, let alone critical thinking. Given the nature of Japanese society, especially in terms of how they treat (read "torture") each other over tiniest transgressions, your friend SHOULD understand why Japanese would never side with Blacks against anyone else.

    Recommend that your friend read In'ei Raisan by Junichiro Tanizaki (陰翳礼讃 - 谷崎潤一郎) first and then have him track down the Japanese source material. *can kill two birds with one stone.* ;)

    I learned an incredible amount and will definatley peruse the recommended readings.

    Good luck with tracking down the original source materials. It's been tough for me, but if all else fails, I'll take a trip to Gifu and ask Russell to share as a professional courtesy.

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  8. Hateya, thank you for this. Now that it's complete, I can go back and re-read at will. For someone throughly ignorant of race relations in this regard, it is greatly appreciated. I respect the time and effort you put into this series. I feel like I should get ready for a test at some point.

    Bravo!!

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  9. Loved this series. It was eye opening and a wonderful read. I praise your ability to keep an unbiased stance through it all. I've learned much more here about race relations than in my net searches. Thank you for the wonderful information.

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  10. @Everyone!

    Russell wrote the latter part of this series (where he is credited). I basically did a complicated cut/paste job. I'm reiterating this because I don't want him SUING me.

    @Amaya
    I feel like I should get ready for a test at some point.

    Great idea! :D

    @GoddessMaverick
    I've learned much more here about race relations than in my net searches.

    The internet gives the illusion that it's a virtual library with everything we need and it's terribly disappointing to discover that it isn't. In truth, it doesn't remotely scratch the surface. In a sense, I'm relieved because now I have a purpose. There are stories to be told and people like us can finally position ourselves on the front line and disseminate the information ourselves.

    I can't write as well as Russell. I wish I could.

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  11. Japanese are part-Black, anyway. The first Shogun was a cat named Tamuramurano, or something. He was Black. Also, there is an old Japanese saying that basicly tells you that in order to be a good Samurai, you've gotta be part-Black. Also, BUDDHA was Black.

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  12. OK--call me Blackie.

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  13. @ Anonymous/Blackie

    This is Advanced Blasian Studies, so sources are required. Can we get some book titles, some article links, anything?

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  14. Check out JA Rogers' NATURE KNOWS NO COLOR LINE, SEX AND RACE.

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