Where My Girls At?

A Search for what Japan has to offer African-American Women

I grew up in South Texas. My city was mixed with predominately black and Hispanic people with a community of Asian people. In high school, a black friend of mine claimed that he knew Japanese. Seeing as how I had no precedence before of the two races mixing, I thought only white guys watched anime and enjoyed hentai outside of the Japanese race. Needless to say I didn’t believe him. He countered with the fact that he had lived in Hawaii when he was younger and promptly followed the claim by saying something in Japanese. I spent the ride home trying to pronounce onegaishimasu, and vowed to take Japanese in college.

For the first year, there was a black guy and girl in my Japanese language class. My second year, I was alone, but had met an older black girl who actually went to Japan to study abroad. She encouraged me to do the same. I figured since all the professors, advisers and upperclassmen strongly urge freshman and sophomores to think about studying abroad, I thought, Why not? I have never been outside of the United States and there will never been another time like now. Before leaving, the orientation meetings every week allowed me to meet another black girl, There were now two of us who would travel together to Japan. I decided to seek out other African-American women in Japan. I began wondering why they decided to go and what they were doing in Japan now that they were there.

Before I describe the accounts of my run-ins with the women below, I feel as though I should clear up a few terms. When I use the adjective “black” to describe a person, it generally means African-American, though it is acceptable to cover the range of African and African-American people. Of the African people, I refer to those who are not of European descent and are brown skinned. People are no longer so closed minded as to assume all of Africa is filled with “black” people, and instead there are “white” people mostly concentrated in southern Africa. “White” people are anyone of European descent. So, as I continue with the racially and gender charged paper, I will refer to black and African or whites with ease and now without hesitation.

Being the amiable person that I am, I had no trouble striking up conversations with strangers. The problem was finding the specific kind of strangers I was interested in talking with. After physically seeing only two black girls walking the streets of Kyoto, one girl inaccessible to me as I was riding my bike, I lucked out one Monday evening. While going out for ice cream, I met three black girls, all of whom were from America. Two of them were on vacation from California. One of the girls had always wanted to visit Japan and the other was just along for the trip. The first two girls from California and I spent a good hour or so discussing their trip so far and my experience as a student abroad. I taught them what exactly the shop owners said each time they entered a store (Irasshaimase) and they told me of their experiences.

As the first two girls and I stepped outside, I finishing my ice cream, we all literally ran into a black man and woman both also eating ice cream from a different ice cream chain from right down the road. We all laughed about how frozen dairy products can bring us all together and began a wonderful conversation about who each of us was an what we were all doing in Japan. The new woman had been an East Asian Government and Politics major and was now teaching English. She had been living near Kyoto for at least a year and hoped to improve her Japanese before entering law school. The first two girls left in pursuit of getting to their hotel before the doors were locked. I spent a few more minutes talking about my experience in Japan and mentioned how lonely I felt in the city. She claimed that there was an African-American community in Japan, and that she would make sure to let me know get-togethers and bar-b-ques.

The moment that I found the black girls in the ice cream shop, and the other when we ran into the other black girl, both filled me with joy. We all expressed an excitement due to finding sisters of our communities so far away from our homes. According to their accounts, however, when they saw other black girls before and waved or smiled, they more often than not got the cold shoulder. They mentioned that these particular girls were probably African, and seemed arrogant and haughty. I cannot speak for other cultures, but I am sure, to a certain extent, that all have a negative reaction to being ignored. In my community, there is a term for the act of acknowledging another’s existence and being colloquial: “to speak”.

As one black person to another, I have to “speak” and in return I expect the same. For members of the same family, there is a specific method. Whenever we visit each other, I must go to all present, or on the premises, and say hello and ask how they are. Show an interest and that I care. “You ain’t gon speak?” “Why ain’t you speak to nobody, gon straight to the kitchen” or “Yall didn’t speak to Mamaw in the back room!” are all phrases I have heard in various forms many a time as a child. It was considered rude if you didn’t say hello to everyone in a home, no matter where they were, when you arrived and goodbye upon leaving in the same fashion.

This concept of “speaking” and including everyone when doing so transcends to black people “speaking” to each other everywhere. Once the term is applied in general, its meaning simplifies to an acknowledgment of other blacks, a nod or smile, in passing on the streets. There are exceptions to everything, and if you are in a gang or a less than reputable person, the circumstance does change. However, for the purpose of this account, the description of the African girls not “speaking” to the American black ones could be interpreted as being rude and making the African-American women feel as though they were of a lower status. I personally did not meet any African woman, but I did meet one from Jamaica.

Biking to lunch one day, I turned the corner out of the backstreet alley behind the center and coasted across the street past a bus stop. I stopped abruptly when my brain registered that a black woman was standing at the bus stop . . . and that I was in Japan. Filing my hunger aside for the moment, I backed up as sanely as I could and introduced myself, rather clumsily, to the woman. After responding with her name, I asked if she went to school or worked. I figured the black women I met in Japan would either be on vacation, or be abroad such as myself. Thankfully, there is more to experience from Japan than tourist sites and classes. The woman told me that she did not work or go to school. With a surprised response, she clarified that she was a housewife. My facial expression must have distorted her “matter-of-fact” one, because she went on to explain why she was a housewife.

She met her husband (a Japanese man) in Jamaica and lived with him there for a number of years. After 3 children, the family moved to Japan. She had just finished volunteering at the Kyoto International House and waited for the bus to take her home. Seeing that she was anxious to return to busily waiting for the bus, I dared to ask her what she thought of the black women in Japan, since she had been in Japan for so long. Her response initially substantiated what I already knew to be true. She told me there were not a lot of black people in Japan. She then expounded by adding, “Those here with their families rarely go out and the rest here are students.” At the time, I knew one other black female student. She was in the SCTI program. So I continued to look for other black females studying abroad, on vacation, teaching English, or even married.

Over the next two weeks, I met three other English teachers, none of which from America, who choose Japan for its financial opportunity. In the Osaka subway, I rushed past a black woman after exiting a train and decided to stop, if only for a moment, to ask her who she was and why she was in Japan. She was nice and offered that she came to Japan to teach because the money was good. From her accent I immediately concluded that she was from England. The other two black women I met later that night in Osaka were at the opening of a soul food restaurant. The women were from Canada and took advantage of the ease with which one could obtain a visa for teaching in Japan as opposed to the process America. One of the girls even wanted to return to Canada, or go to the states, to get her teaching certificate.

So far, none of the women I talked to had any knowledge of the Japanese language or culture prior to arriving except for the East Asian studies major. I did run into a fellow ryugakusei in the Osaka subway. She was a student of Southwestern in Texas and had decided to “do the Japan thing” because it was different. I saw in her the reasoning I used in finding myself abroad in Japan. She seemed open minded and ready to encounter and enjoy all that Japan had to offer. The question was what does Japan have to offer for a black woman?

In my quest to find my place in Japan, I found a nearly barren land in academia. The readings in the Immigration, Citizenship, and Identity in Japan course focused mainly on the more significantly numbered Korean experience. The other groups mentioned include Brazilians, Peruvians, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Philippians, the Bangladesh, South East Asians, and Middle Easterners. The articles, books, and papers all explore the various types and kinds of foreigners in Japan, as well as the reasons for the groups coming to and leaving from Japan, but none include a discussion of the black foreigner. The closest non-Asian minority I could relate to in the articles discussed Brazilian nikkeijin. These second plus generation, mixed Japanese persons flocked to Japan under the ease of a new visa revision only to find an unexpected life awaiting their arrival. The Japanese who also expected to receive their blood-kin with open arms were surprised to find the Brazilians unlike the Japanese in so many ways. I related to these Brazilians in the sense that Japanese youth are becoming interested in “black culture” and perhaps we could connect on that level. I expected to be embraced because of the popularity of hip hop, however the popularity I witnessed for hip hop was shallow and lacking in the understand necessary for me to connect with.

Walking the streets of Kyoto and witnessing the night life of Osaka, I saw my people . . . being copied. The clothes, the music, even some afros and cornrows adorned many a Japanese teen. I had a feeling that the girls and boys wearing Phat Farm and sporting their fros were not aware of the foundation behind the clothes and the meaning behind the words. In her article, “Raw Like Sushi,” Vanessa Altman-Siegel describes the hip hop culture in Japan amongst its youth as “repackaged for trendy teenage consumers.” (Altman-Siegel) The baggy pants children in the ghetto wear are the result of hand-me-downs or providing larger pockets and more space to hide stolen or illegal paint cans. When this attire became available after the mid-80s in response to rap and hip hop music and dance, a venue for westernization opened up seemingly never to close.

After the 70s and 80s, Japanese women were no longer strictly held under the impression of a kimono’s fashion and style. “[N]o self-respecting woman ever went out with bare arms, much less uncovered legs or feet. Sleeves were mandatory and going bare-legged was out of the question, even during the hottest months of the year.” ( Jolivet) Today, Japanese women can wear trendy shirts, shoes, hot pants, skirts, and flaunt their “carefully polished fingernails . . . false eyelashes, their bodies burned to a crisp by UV rays and their hair dyed blond or bleached.” (Jolivet) Yuka, a Japanese student in America, explains, “If Alaskan Eskimos were cool and in the top 40, teenagers in Japan would think they were cool too.” (Altman-Siegel)

Two problematic results of hip hop and its popularity in Japan are the fact that the youth involved are “negating their Japanese identity” and “missing the significance of [the] Afro-American experience in the United States.” (Altman-Siegel) In light of the trends and exciting new lifestyle hip hop music and clothing provide, Japanese youth have begun to “refute the ‘straitjacket society’ in which they live, where their lives are predetermined by the time they are 13 years old.”(Altman-Siegel) Japan’s nearly unrivaled low crime rate and stubborn assertion of “cultural homogeneity” create a sense of irony as Japanese youth sing along with lyrics about the ghetto in foreign apparel to their traditional attire. Even though the exposure to hip hop has prompted some Japanese to “explore injustice within their own society,” it is not enough to create a well-rounded depiction of America’s black people. (Altman-Siegel)

The discussion of hip hop in Japan is important in order to understand the exposure Japanese people have to black people in America. The media in Japan plays up the many crimes committed by gaijin regardless of their race or origin, but

“[s]tereotypical images of black Americans are disseminated throughout Japan” mainly through the media. (Altman-Siegel) The gap hip hop leaves about black people is filled by the media’s interpretations of events dealing with violent young black men or rambunctious black females in irrefutable clothing. The other way in which Japanese people come into contact with black people is through hip hop/rap concerts. According to a rap concert promoter in Japan, the “media has given us such wrong information” and the rap artists he has met are “different [from what we expected]. They are much nicer.” (Altman-Siegel) Meeting with black people face to face is the best way for the Japanese to learn of the richness and depth of the black culture. Until then, advertisements and toys rooted in stereotypes from America enter the homes and shops of Japan and provide unreached Japanese with another idea of what black people might be like.

The images depicting seemingly colored characters or people appear to be made out of naivety about the struggles colored people have suffered in America. The “Aunt Jemima” character mocks the female house slave, but a Japanese person sees a jolly happy black person. The above toothpaste label, for example, was used in Japan as late at the mid-1980s. Without an extensive and thorough understanding of slaveries repercussions, Sanrio’s Chococat and Badtz Maru, though a lovable addition to the Hello Kitty line, would never seem offensive. The Japanese do not understand how the toys created a controversy amongst westerners. By piecing together the information and images of African-Americans from America, black foreigners are grouped into a special category of cool and fashionable, but still foreigners.

Jeanne Belisle Lombardo, after writing a book review on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, was asked about the attitude Japanese people hold towards blacks. Though a white woman herself, she provided a well-rounded account of the reasons behind Japan’s stereotypical images as well as the bare essentials of “newspaper articles of racial strife in large urban centers in the United States and a small knowledge of the period of slavery in American history” for background information. (Lombardo) Japan receives its knowledge of the black community, if not through hip hop lyrics and fashion, then through news casts and American media. This can include movies, television shows, newspaper accounts, etc. If the news is serious enough to reach Japan, and it involves a person of color, chances are the news is not positive. Without a solid way of unbiased depictions and clear explanations about race and history in America, the Japanese take what is given to them and create labels such as the toothpaste above or believe hip hop embodies the life of all blacks. Of course, my exposure to Japan was anime and a few friends, so I understand how a lack of information and using popular media to formulate an opinion of a people can be incomplete and flawed.

I now understand the atmosphere into which I entered Japan. Aware already of the ease with which countries have learned the power of hip hop in advertisement, I was prepared for the clothing and music. I realize now, looking back on my time in Japan, that I represent America first, black people second, and a woman third. Had I stayed in Japan for 6 months, a year, or more, my experience could go one of several ways. In John Russell’s film “Struggle and Success”, the lives of several black men and women were examined. Some were students, others taught English, and others lived lives outside of the norm for a black foreigner. One man was married to a Japanese woman with children. Another man and woman worked in separate sectors of the business world beyond Nova and private tutoring. As a student, I could experience Japan in a way only a student could. Ultimately, my experience in Japan, though I am a woman who is black, is my decision. The Japanese I met may or may not have had a preconceived notion about me as I rode my bike through the streets of Kyoto, but I smiled and bowed whether or not I received the same. The most rewarding encounter was riding behind a group of Japanese businessmen. I said, “Situree simasu, sumimasen.” As I passed, I smiled hearing their, “Gaijin datta yo…” Despite the low numbers of women abroad in Japan, regardless of the meager selection of black women in Japan, no matter what the Japanese believe about black people, whatever I give of myself in Japan will only help to enhance what the Japanese give in return.

Bibliography

Altman-Siegel, Vanessa. “RAW LIKE SUSHI: Hip Hop Culture in Japan.” 06/28/05.

<http://eserver.org/zine375/issue1/living5.html>

Jolivet, Muriel. “The Sirens of Tokyo – Young Women and Prostitution in Japan.” UNESCO Courier, 07/01. 06/28/05.

Lombardo, Jeanne Belisle. “Importing Racial Stereotypes” 04/20/02. 06/03/05.

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