Sunday, 19 May 2013

Being Black and Japanese in a Japanese School

Safarii. Vocalist Sophia is half Japanese, half Ethiopian. Image from their website via this this blog.
Allow me to clarify, since the title is misleading. I am writing my observations from one school district in Japan. I am neither Black nor Japanese. I have done no comprehensive survey or research. I’m not claiming that these vignettes represent a universal experience or even a representative one.

A group of thirteen year old girls are standing in a circle, chatting between classes. Another girl walks over and tries to join them, hovering awkwardly over their shoulders when no one moves aside to include her in the circle. “Hey” she says, lightly touching the arm of the girl in front of her. “Ewww, gross!” The girl who has been touched recoils as though burned. The other girls cover their mouths and giggle in a mixture of shock and hilarity. They disperse back to their desks but continue talking to one another, still excluding the Other girl.
Words like disgusting, smelly and dirty are standard bullying weapons between girls here in Japan. This incident felt slightly different though. The excluded girl has a Japanese mother and a Kenyan father. The name on her uniform is written in the Roman alphabet rather than any of the Japanese scripts. She speaks Japanese and Swahili at home. Her figure, facial features, hairstyle, family name and Christianity are the target of considerable negative interest. Let’s call her B. I also taught her older brother, A, who graduated last year, and I have taught their younger sister C since she was in kindergarten. A is handsome, gregarious, outgoing and good at sports. He had a large group of friends and I never observed any nastiness directed at him. When racially loaded comments were made he usually turned them into a joke. He spent an inordinate amount of time in 2009 saying “Yes We Can!” This is not to say that his way is the “right” way to deal with that kind of situation, just to observe the difference that personality (and I think probably gender) can make. B is quiet and shy. She likes art and music. She does not fit Japan’s narrow ideal of female beauty. When she is bullied she becomes visibly distressed, and her loneliness is palpable. I think, given the wolf-pack mentality of the kids at her school, that she would have been bullied irrespective of her race. Those kids see weakness and attack. Even so, the history of seeing black skin as unclean gives her bullies a ready-stocked arsenal. Women in particular go to extreme lengths to protect their skin from the sun so that they don't "become black".

The message is implicit in children’s stories and TV variety shows. This article talks about a Black Japanese child crying in the bath as he tries to scrub his skin “clean” after being bullied at kindergarten. One day when C was in kindergarten the kids were doing a pre-literacy exercise and she made a mistake that many of the other kids also made. The teacher singled her out though, repeatedly asking her “Did your father tell you that? Is that something you learned at home? He’s Black; don’t listen to his Japanese because it’ll definitely be wrong.” From time to time Junior High English textbook feature Black characters (who, as the kids notice, never gets to say anything important). Whenever they see such a character B’s classmates will yell “Look, B is in the text book!” and laugh hysterically. There isn’t much I can do for B, but her situation has made me very aware of the lack of visual representations of Black women (some more detailed discussion can be found here). Advertisements feature Japanese or Korean models, occasionally Chinese, often white and almost never middle-eastern, South Indian, south-Asian or Black models. Sometimes sports magazines or music posters feature Black men, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Black woman prominently depicted anywhere. This is a subjective observation, but judging by the students’ reactions I guess their experiences are similar. So although it isn’t much, every flashcard I make from now until my contract ends is going to feature non-white, non-East Asian faces. They’ll have to get bored of laughing eventually.

*I wonder if the capitalisation is appropriate for non-American people with African heritage? If anyone can advise, please do.
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  1. Thank you for being empathetic toward B and feeling prompted to change the view the school kids have of a black female. When taught individuality, kids will learn to judge each person individually, not based on what they've seen or read. Thank you for shedding light on how media can impact innocent free thinkers.


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