To be Black in Japan: A Fight for Space, Recognition, and Erasing Stereotypes

Japan’s work culture is extreme, I am not sure of an appropriate adjective best suitable for an African attempting to assimilate in such a culture. And how about what to feel when a student of yours shouts to your face “kimochi warui” (Japanese word for disgusting)?

Being black in Japan is still rare, and being a black African even much more. In this regard, Africans in Japan are not only a minority, but also pioneers in disparate experiences. The experience of being black in Japan not only exposes you to a different cultural space, but also spurs new curiosities while inviting new fears.

Black skin in Japan is both revered and loathed. The fetishism of the black skin can be experienced in two ways; and consequently one can take it to their advantage or in detest protest. The category black can also be demeaning, especially when it defines a whole spectrum of black community in aggregate, robbing it of diversities and variety of individual characters.

It is no wonder that a YouTube documentary called “being black in Japan” has gained traction. In this video, many black people are seen to be compelled that Japan is indeed a great country for the people of colour. It is seen as a safe ground for those escaping the realities of racism. While this may be true to such countries with struggles with race, it is a confusing new reality for those who experience Japan as their first intercultural ground. Racism comes in a peculiar form in Japan, it is nicely packaged, not crude, comes with such compliments like “I like black people” while feeding on the stereotypes that dehumanise, discriminates, and alienate systematically. On the other hand, being black in Japan is relaxing, and liberating. Just like being different as any other foreigner in Japan is, different looks accords one a space to escape the often stringent requirements of an extremely demanding society.

As an educationist in Tokyo, I have become used to a demeaning baffling silence on Africa in the Japanese education system, which seems more Europeanised and Americanised in its approaches to history of learning. So while the Tokyo experience challenges an African to understand the global society, it also familiarises him with the hard truth of how much Africa is a shadow in the global discourses.

The stark reality of the African absence in Japan reminded me of my identity, that I am a black African man, not just a black man, living in Japan. Although you can hide what kind of black you are, you cannot hide that you are black, its out there for all to see. It is such a moment that one fails to know how to react when a student slams you with “kimochi warui” phrase. During my PhD candidature in one of the universities in Tokyo, I joined a private international schools to spend my days there when the stresses of PhD life strikes. I do not consider it work, although I do get paid for the hours I spend with high schoolers. The pupils at the lower primary level do not know me well. So this morning when one of the lower primary pupil shouted at me “kimochi warui” I was little troubled. But when she added, “oh sorry, I did not know he is a teacher” after a whisper from her friends who know me well, I got so much troubled. She reminded me of how if your blackness has a specific tag you can get a pass. She also reminded me why so many people receive me with happiness only for that moment to fade away after introducing myself with an African tag.

As an African from a monocultural background (I was brought up in the village where all of us were black), it is not so much the colour of my skin that troubles me, than the opportunities and respect I am denied because of the name of my country. I wonder how many countries of Africa, as they lobby for donor support spare time to market the beauty and capability of their human resources.