About This Business of Racism

By Brian Covert

Little Hajime Arita’s anti-racism crusade in Osaka two years ago — when he was only nine — started out small: a Sambo souvenir here, a cannibal key chain there. While his peers were more concerned with the typical sports and seasonal distractions of youth, the boy’s own preoccupation was driving him to one local department store after another in search of “racist” toys and other products depicting blacks in distorted, derisive images. “At that time I became aware of the discrimination against black people and how big the problem was,” Hajime, now 11, remembers.

At the boy’s suggestion, the family started a grass-roots campaign against the sale of such products in Japan. Thereafter, Hajime and his parents, Kimiko and Toshiji Arita, dubbed themselves “The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks.”

Since then they have filled — almost to the ceiling — one room of their home in suburban Sakai with more than ¥5 million worth of discriminatory toys and goods that are sold in Japan. Ironically, the Aritas have also received death threats from fellow Japanese. Yet they have been honored by America’s more successful African Americans.

Albert L. Nellum. It was Nellum, an accomplished businessman and respected social activist, who last year brought the Aritas’ story from the depths of an apathetic Japan to the forefront of the African-American community’s fight against racism, Japanese style.

“The crux of the problem here in Japan,” Nellum says, “is the refusal to recognize, and therefore admit, the existence of racism. When a person as young as Hajime sees it and moves his family to do something about it, yet the whole national authority refuses to admit that it exists, it is tragic.”

That is why Nellum supports the work the Aritas are doing. He adds, “They are among the few people who’ve said ‘We have a problem.’ You first have to say that before you can be treated for any illness. You have to recognize you have an illness.”

But this, he says, has not occurred at the official level in Japan. And that, he contends, is where Japan’s racism most often appears. “The guys we’re talking about here,” Nellum says, “are all high-placed officials — a prime minister and leaders of what the Japanese call the ‘ruling’ party, and so on. What’s the guy on the street thinking if the racism he’s hearing about is coming from the top?”

Nellum’s ties to the “average” Japanese go back to the mid-1950s when he came here as a serviceman in the U.S. Army. During the height of the American civil rights movement in 1964, he established A.L. Nellum and Associates Inc., the oldest black-owned management consulting firm in the United States. In the early 1970s he helped establish the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African-American representatives within the U.S. Congress.

Since the mid-1980s, Nellum has visited Japan about half a dozen times a year — to promote business, governmental and cultural links between the Japanese and the U.S. black community. The need for his visits has become more apparent in light of the racially offensive comments by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1986 and Liberal-Democratic Party elder Michio Watanabe in 1988.

Coincidentally, his most recent trip here, in September, came shortly after Justice Minister Seiroku Kajiyama had likened American blacks to unwelcome Tokyo prostitutes. In fact, Nellum was among the many prominent black leaders who demanded Kajiyama’s resignation. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee passed a milder resolution calling on the Japanese government to “reprimand” Kajiyama and to begin an “aggressive educational initiative” on race relations. It is no mystery, then, why the influential U.S. Black Business Council, under Nellum’s present leadership, intends to continue anti-racism efforts in Japan and the Far East as its first priority.

Albert Nellum himself is no stranger to racism, having been born in the heart of the Deep South, in Greenville, Miss., and having grown up in Chicago. (He and his family now live just outside Washington D.C., in Virginia). Nellum has also long been active in various sectors of the black community, especially in the black entertainment industry. He serves as a board member on the
Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the United Black Fund of Washington D.C., and the Washington Board of Trade. Among the honors he has received are Black Enterprise magazine’s “Top 100 Black Business Award,” the American Heritage and Freedom Award, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award.

“The wisdom that comes with my 58 years says that progress can be made between Japanese and African Americans,” Nellum says. “But there’s the impatience that comes with: ‘How many more years are left? How long do we have to wait for it?’ Therefore, what do we do to accelerate it? You do every darn thing you can.”

One way for Nellum to accelerate that process came in the Aritas’ little-known fight against racism in Japan. The family had originally started their protest against racist goods in the summer of 1988, when race relations were very much in the Japanese public eye: The Washington Post’s Tokyo correspondent, Margaret Shapiro, had
filed an article on Sambo-type dolls sold in major Tokyo department stores, while LDP elder Michio Watanabe had publicly espoused his theory on blacks’ erratic tendencies in business matters.

Talk of a possible African-American boycott of Japanese products sold in the United States blared in the Japanese mass media. Among the many companies the Arita family confronted were the Calpis soft drink manufacturer, for its logo of a lanky black man attired in top hat and tuxedo, the Sanrio toy firm, and a local streetcar company for its logo of a cannibal among jungle animals. Embarrassed Japanese publishers even quit printing — though only temporarily — the children’s book “Little Black Sambo.”

Word of the Aritas’ fight reached Nellum, who subsequently invited the Aritas on an 18-day U.S. tour to publicize their story. Through Nellum, the family was introduced to such prominent African Americans as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and entertainers Michael Jackson and Marla Gibbs.

When the family met David Dinkins, then Manhattan Borough President, now mayor of New York City, he proclaimed Aug. 15, 1989 as “Hajime Arita Day.”

Says Nellum, “The Aritas’ anti-racism work is much better known and more widely recognized in the United States than here, and I say this with no pride necessarily, just through the trip and the exposure they got in the American media for the work they do.” The goodwill of such work, however, is often overshadowed by deprecatory remarks among high-ranking Japanese officials — like Justice Minister Kajiyama.

“African Americans are sick and tired of the nonsense that’s occurring between us,” Nellum said, citing Japan’s lack of recognition for billions of dollars in economic power within the entire U.S. black community. “We have been very supportive and responsive to the Japanese, all the way back to and before the war, being one of the major communities to have objected to the American encampment of Japanese. And whatever we get is always the same — insults and ignorance.”

The highest echelons of Japanese government and business should be the prime focus in eliminating racial intolerance in this country, he says. And he adds, “There has to be a statement by the Kaifu administration to the effect that ‘We recognize that for whatever reasons — out of our history, our culture, our training and background — that there’s a lack of understanding. And we intend to counter that. We intend to reach into the hearts and minds of those of us in office, in the administration and among the ruling and opposition parties, and steps will be taken to educate, to sensitize and to change some attitudes there.’ From that, then, you can begin to deal with private industry. You can begin to deal with your educational system.”

That may be easier said than done, given Japan’s historically deep suspicions of foreigners. Nonetheless, Nellum sees much more room for improving Japanese ties to the African-American community, and some of his suggestions are:

• Extensive scholarly research: “I think there can and should be research, first of all, to help us better understand our similarities and differences. I don’t know how far back you’ve got to go to figure out why Japanese say and think and move in certain ways, just as we do — quite different, say, from the European. Work needs to be done to research that. On the other hand, attitudinal research needs to be done. If we insist there’s racism and they insist there isn’t, then there must be scientific measurements to prove somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong. What can be done about it? We just can’t keep yelling across the water all the time.”

• Japanese industry support for practical training: “It is a fact that corporate Japan or philanthropic Japan supports, at a very high level, American education. But only to select and elite American schools. This almost never alludes to or involves African-American institutions — where the need is the greatest. I remember just reading something about a grant of several million dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from one Japanese corporation. That’s fine and well and good; it was to do some exploration in certain computerization techniques. But the very same work could be done at any number of African-American institutions, where there is a much greater need for the influence — not just the dollars, but the influence that goes along with a grant from a major multinational corporation.”

• Higher economic stakes in the black community: “The change that I notice is not among the Japanese people as such. If there is some sign of sensitivity, it is among a certain few of the corporations who perhaps see the necessity for economic reasons. I don’t mean to assign the motive, but it seems to suggest itself. And you can probably, in the space of five to 10 fingers, count those who are doing something or attempting to do something. …There has grown, in the past several years in corporate Japan, a great affinity for the use of the phrase ‘corporate responsibility.’ I recognize that it has taken time to actualize that phrase — but insist that it has to happen immediately and it has to include us. …The problem is not just a Japan-African American problem. The problem is Japan and the world. When you consider that the world is two-thirds nonwhite and that the involvement and influence of Japan and its economy is worldwide, it therefore involves Africa, it involves the Caribbean. It involves how you treat, respond to, and show respect for Nelson Mandela, who is indeed the moral leader of the black world, if not the world. It involves all of this. It’s not just me and you; it’s you and us. And somehow that has to be grappled with.”

• In general, more substantive and meaningful ties: “There does seem to have been in the past several years, by my observation, an increase in the number of invitations to Japan and in the number of self-initiated journeys by African Americans for cultural and/or economic purposes. That list of people — African-American church groups, business groups, non-profit organizations, governmental representatives — is increasing versus where it was three or four years ago. More people are coming, more people are being invited. The skeptic’s response to that is: ‘The Japanese are doing this to keep from doing anything more substantive.’ For example, they’re inviting professors from universities, they’re inviting gospel choruses and so on, to avoid the real issue — and that is dealing with, first, the problem of racism and how to combat it through education, and second, the whole economic issue of dealing with the African-American community on an economic basis. It is the view of the skeptic that this superficiality is all just a lot of whitewash.”

But perhaps the greatest potential for eliminating racism, Nellum feels, lies in youths like Hajime Arita, the kid with the most controversial toy collection in all of Japan. “I’ve recognized two things while working in this movement,” Hajime has said. “The first is: We are not white, black or yellow. We are human beings on this Earth. So we shouldn’t discriminate against each other. And second, if you discriminate against somebody, you too will be discriminated against someday.”

The depth behind such words coming from a boy so young is not lost on Albert L. Nellum, one of the most influential African Americans in the United States. “I am obviously grateful to the Aritas, as individuals and as a family, for their interest in the plight of my people from around the world,” said Nellum. “And I am reminded of several passages in the Bible that talk about ‘The child shall lead….’ Perhaps that is our salvation.”

Brian Covert is a freelance writer based in the Osaka area.