Racism in Japan

Hajime Arita’s ongoing fight against negative African-American images

by Brian Covert — Special to Black Issues

OSAKA, JAPAN — Hajime Arita’s anti-racism crusade two years ago started out small: a Sambo souvenir here, a cannibal keychain there.

While his peers were more concerned with sports and seasonal festivities, the 11-year-old’s preoccupation was driving him to the toy sections of one local department store after another.

“At the time I became aware of the discrimination against Black people and how big the problem was,” Hajime says through an interpreter.

The youth and his parents have since filled an entire room of their suburban home with 800 such “racist products” (about $33,000 worth). They have also received death threats from fellow Japanese, yet been honored by the United States’ most successful African Americans.

Hajime’s whirlwind tale perhaps best exemplifies the state of Japanese racism toward Blacks today — and what befalls the rare individual who dares to challenge that prejudice.

Race relations were very much in the Japanese public eye in summer 1988, after Washington Post Tokyo Correspondent Margaret Shapiro filed an article on Sambo-type dolls sold in major Tokyo department stores.

The Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC was also scrambling to explain Parliament member Michio Watanabe’s public remarks about Blacks’ tendencies toward bankruptcy in business matters. Talk of a possible African-American boycott of Japanese goods sold in the U.S. blared in the headlines and airwaves here.

Mr. Toshiji Arita, a local education department employee specializing in Japan’s buraku (“untouchable”) minority, was intrigued by the Post story and began investigating the matter in Osaka. What he found disturbed him: Scores of Sambo dolls and toys like those cited in the Post could easily be found on store shelves and bought over the counter.

Arita’s son, Hajime, then 9 years old, suggested the family initiate a grass-roots protest against the sale of such items in Japan. With that, the three-member family dubbed itself “The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks.”

The Aritas noticed that the discriminatory retail merchandise such as floor mats, dolls and miscellaneous toys tended to fall in three categories: cannibals, servants and “jazzmen.”

“I realized a big difference between real Black people and the stereotypes,” said young Hajime. “These dolls have fat bodies and thick lips — lips as thick as fish eggs, as we say in Japanese — and big eyebrows. But real Blacks didn’t have those features.

“Many dolls also show Blacks as laborers and waiters, but the Blacks I met are really successful in their careers,” he said.

Mr. Arita picks up the story: “So we started sending those products back to the Japanese companies that sold them, telling them that Blacks, whites and Asians are all hurt by these stereotypes and that those items could easily spark a racial battle. We asked them not to sell those products.”

The Aritas also confronted Calpis, a major soft drink manufacturer, about removing from its bottles the logo of a lanky Black man attired in tuxedo and top hat. Calpis management responded in “typically Japanese” fashion, accord to Mr. Arita: “‘Our logo has been loved by the Japanese people for the last 65 years. We realize it may cause problems, but it is a part of Japanese cultural heritage’.”

But considering Japan’s historic isolation from African culture and colonization, just where and how does the Land of the Rising Sun get its racist attitudes?

Look to the West, says Dr. John G. Russell, an African-American anthropologist now researching this subject in Tokyo.

Japanese stereotypes are that “Blacks are lazy, intellectually inferior, natural athletes and entertainers, and oversexed,” said Russell, 34, a Harvard University graduate. “It’s not just a matter of color: It replicates the entire field of Western stereotypes.”

Japan’s first views of Blacks were those of African slaves aboard European trade ships docking at local ports, according to Russell. He adds that when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan in 1854 to force open its trade, Perry’s own crew members performed in blackface before the Japanese delegation.

Little has changed in the last century, Russell said, with the Japanese still receiving their distorted perceptions directly from American films and television.

“[Japanese] don’t receive many of those positive images” of Blacks, he said.

Certainly the Aritas never received positive images of Blacks before forming their group, now about 60 members strong.

“We realized we had those stereotypes in ourselves,” said Arita. “I felt a responsibility to myself and to my son to do something about it, because I probably unknowingly conveyed those same stereotypes to him.”

The Aritas were making their own headlines in 1988-89: The Calpis soft drink company and a local streetcar operation, along others the family petitioned, decided to remove their logos. Embarrassed Japanese publishers later quit printing the children’s book Little Black Sambo.

Word of the Aritas’ fight filtered to the U.S., where the influential Black Business Council under Albert Nellum invited them on an 18-day U.S. tour to publicize their story. The Aritas were introduced to such prominent African Americans as Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, then-Manhattan Borough president David Dinkins (who proclaimed Aug. 15, 1989, Hajime Arita Day), Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Hajime and his parents wound up the tour with personal visits with entertainers Michael Jackson and Marla Gibbs.

“I was really pleased to get so much support from very famous American people,” Hajime said, smiling.

But that powerful support overseas hasn’t always translated into overwhelming encouragement at home. The scrawl on one anonymous postcard sent to the Aritas reads in Japanese: “You are getting real cheeky with this movement, so sooner or later you’ll be killed.” Another one warns: “Be careful about what you eat and drink — and beware of traffic accidents.”

While Japanese racism is usually not as violent as its American counterpart, it is just as prevalent in society, according to Russell.

“You probably wouldn’t have a Bensonhurst occurring here or have [many] people call you ‘nigger’ — but there are some who will,” said Russell, who came to Japan in 1977. “Overt racism is rare.”

“It’s important to say that it’s not something only African Americans face, but all foreigners [in Japan] face,” he said. The Japanese hierarchical view of people — especially its own minorities — provides prime breeding ground for discrimination toward foreigners.

“Even with that, generally whites come out on top,” according to Russell. African Americans are classified somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy, he says, just above African nationals.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s infamous 1986 remarks deriding American minorities appear representative of most Japanese attitudes, even among the nation’s movers and shakers.

Case in point: In his 1988 book Nihon wa Sekai o Shitteru Ka (Does Japan know the world?), Tokyo Mutual Bank Chairman Shoichi Osada blames affirmative action for the “decay” of America.

“One cannot possibly consider Blacks as equals to whites in the U.S.,” he said.

“I speculate that the total collapse of the United States will happen when the minority becomes equal to the majority,” Osada states. “…Nakasone’s words, indirect though they were, caused an overreaction.”

Such derogatory attitudes in Japan have two distinct characteristics, according to Russell: historical ignorance of racist ideas or products, and denial that discrimination even exists here.

These factors are illustrated in a recent magazine article by Parliament member Shintaro Ishihara, co-author of ‘No’ to Ieru Nihon (A Japan that can say ‘no’), a hotly debated book confronting U.S. racism toward the East.

Ishihara writes in the magazine: “No Japanese who has lived in the United States for three years or longer would deny the existence of [white] prejudice. More to the point, try asking non-white U.S. citizens, like Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. They would laugh at the very suggestion that the prejudice is not there.”

Despite the validity of his thesis, Ishihara avoids dealing with Japan’s own deep suspicions of gaijin (foreigners) or, for example, Japan’s “Honorary White” status in apartheid South Africa.

That Japanese executives prefer doing business with whites is no secret to successful Black entrepreneurs in Japan, Russell says.

On occasion, Black business owners “will put ‘General Manager’ or other lower titles on their business cards, because if the Japanese find out that the president is Black, [Japanese] feel very uncomfortable with doing business with them,” according to Russell.

Educating Japanese on Black achievements and history is the key to breaking those mental barriers, he said.

The 50-member Japan Afro-American Friendship Association, of which Russell is a member, strives to do just that through regular meetings, lectures and a monthly newsletter.

“If people realize [Blacks] have done things that are commendable, then respect might come in that way,” says JAFA President J.R. Dash, 27, of Toronto, Canada. “I try not to emphasize the negative.”

At the same time, she has no illusions about the slow pace of change in Japan.

“I don’t think you can totally eliminate” racism here, said Dash, a two-year Japan resident and an editor at a Tokyo securities firm. “Japan as a whole has a long way to go toward internationalization.”

Both Dash and Russell maintain that efforts to promote positive Black images in Japan are inextricably linked with the progress of African Americans in the States.

“If American Blacks stop their vigilance, one wonders whether change will occur” in Japan, Russell said. “There doesn’t seem to be that grass-roots movement [here] to change things. Vigilance in the U.S. has to continue.”

If Japan is to be faulted for its stereotypes, “one must also criticize the West and American attitudes. …[These] cannot just be ignored,” he said.

And while Japan may be slowly opening up to positive African and African American influences, the Arita family remains “an exception” in Japanese society, Russell said.

The Aritas themselves see even more work to be done: Now that the clamor of 1988-89 has died down in the Japanese media, Sambo-type dolls are back on the store shelves and the Little Black Sambo book back in print. Hajime Arita vows to continue the crusade.

“I’ve recognized two things while working in this movement,” the youth said. “The first is: We are not white, Black or yellow. We are human beings on the Earth. So we shouldn’t discriminate against each other.

“And second, if you discriminate against somebody, you too will be discriminated against someday.”

Sound advice indeed from the kid with the most controversial toy collection in all of Japan.