Sayonara to Stereotypes?

Educators on both sides of Pacific join fight over controversial Japanese images

By Brian Covert
Special to the Tribune

OSAKA, JAPAN — Picture the scene during the mid-1960s civil rights era, as a well-known Japanese cartoonist strides into the plush offices of a major U.S. television network interested in broadcasting an animated cartoon version of his famous comic book series containing African characters.

The cartoonist is the immensely popular Osamu Tezuka, and he is meeting with white network executives who are careful to remind him that race relations is a controversial topic in America.

To make Tezuka’s “Jungle Emperor” characters more palatable to the U.S. viewing audience, network execs suggest he transpose the traditional stereotypes by redrawing “Blacks as handsome and smart, and whites as ugly villains.” Tezuka ponders over the mental images of such dignified African men in their grass skirts, spears and shields, standing over a dwarfish, cross-eyed, Caucasian hunter. “Hmm…this just won’t do,” Tezuka concludes about the role-reversal.

This cartoon scene, reportedly based on an actual meeting, was drawn in 1977 by the late Tezuka himself, who is revered as the reigning
Manga no Kamisama (God of Comics) and who may be even more beloved than Japan’s own royal family. Tezuka, who passed away in 1989 at age 60, is considered by many as the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney.

But like Disney, Tezuka’s work too has come under fire for its stereotypical Black images — an ongoing controversy that finds educators in both Japan and the African-American community joining the battle against some of the most powerful publishing companies in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“You can find racial discrimination not only in Tezuka’s works but in many other publications as well,” says Kimiko Arita, an elementary school teacher and chairwoman of the Osaka-based Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks.

“I want Japanese people to realize prejudice against Blacks does exist in Japan, and I want them to know the pain it causes Black people,” says Arita. “As a teacher, I can’t ignore this situation.”

Indeed, the controversy neither begins nor ends with Tezuka’s images. The cartoonist’s portrayal of himself refusing to accept people of African ancestry as anything other than a stereotype is something shared to varying degrees by many Japanese people. Racially motivated comments over the years by high-ranking Japanese figures in various fields only serve to confirm that underlying prejudice.

So, how did a historically isolated nation like Japan obtain such notions? More importantly, how do these racist attitudes continue to flourish in a nation like Japan that prides itself, as former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone often boasts, of being on the cutting edge of modern civilization?

The answer to the first question lies in Japan’s initial contacts with Europe and America in the last few centuries, when Japan saw firsthand the western slave ships docking at its own ports and later experienced the inundation of negative stereotypes from the west, according to Dr. John G. Russell, a Tokyo-based African-American anthropologist and author. That process continues today via mostly the American mass media, he says, in a postwar Japan that has come to embrace racial prejudice with the rest of western culture.

“The Japanese grow up in an environment that consistently degrades and demeans Blacks — borrowing images from the west that were once used as levers of social control against Blacks and other races,” says Russell.

The second answer lies partly in the Japanese art of cartooning known as
manga, a popular medium that pervades every corner of society in this island nation of 121 million residents.

People of all ages and walks of life here go through comic books and magazines as if there were no tomorrow, making manga an estimated 440 billion-yen ($3.25 billion) industry per year — 32 percent of all publications printed nationwide as of 1989. The circulation of just one weekly manga magazine targeted to youth,
Shonen Jump, is around 6 million, a number far exceeding that of some highly respected newsmagazines in the U.S.

In a country like Japan that increasingly suffers from information overload, manga’s power of the picture is recognized as a simple but effective communicator of ideas within schools as well as corporations. Most over-the-counter commercial manga are viewed as harmless and cheap entertainment, while others are blasted by critics for contributing to sexual violence and other rising social ills.

Racism included. Manga images of Africans and African Americans in books, magazines or newspapers largely consist of sexually uncontrollable beings, mindless half-wits, servants to whites or even flesh-eating jungle cannibals. Such images are often no farther away than the nearest newsstand, bookshop or convenience store in Japan.

Seeking to expose the racism behind these images, Kimiko Arita, her husband and son founded the Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks in 1983. After successfully pressuring major corporations and publishers of books like “Little Black Sambo” to drop their stereotyped symbols, in autumn 1990, ASRAB began directing the spotlight on racism in manga.

Publishers have labeled the subsequent protests over Tezuka’s works “deplorable,” citing freedom of artistic expression in continued publication of the illustrations.

“The nature of manga drawing is to exaggerate real features. If that is considered racist, then how do cartoonists create manga?” comments Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Production Co. Ltd., which oversees the business side of Tezuka’s immortal legacy. The Japan Cartoonists Association and influential publishers like Kodansha also oppose the anti-racism protests.

The Japanese media’s sketchy coverage of the subject has not helped much either, more often than not portraying critics of racism in Tezuka’s manga as misguided or even downright villainous in their attempts to confront Japan’s very real racial insecurities.

Conversely, ASRAB has found in the African-American community widespread publicity and support. Last year, Dr. Michael Washington, director of Afro-American Studies at Northern Kentucky University, established ASRAB’s first Stateside branch. With the support of Dr. Yasue Kuwahara, a Japanese communications professor from Tokyo who teaches at NKU, the U.S. branch began its own letter-writing coalition campaign and deluged Tezuka Productions with written demands to quit marketing the manga in question.

The combined domestic and overseas pressure eventually persuaded Tezuka Productions, in close concert with Japan’s publishing giants, to tentatively compromise by inserting this disclaimer on a slip of paper in newly released editions of Tezuka’s comics:

“To Readers: Some of Tezuka’s works contain many illustrations of foreigners, including Blacks and Southeast Asians, that exaggerate the appearance of their descendants. There is a great difference between the drawings and those people nowadays. Such methods of illustration have been pointed out as discriminatory toward Blacks and other foreigners. As long as some people find these drawings offensive and embarrassing, we consider them inappropriate.”

That justification of non-intention is an aspect that Russell, author of a Japanese-language book titled
Nihonjin no Kokujin-kan (“Japanese Perceptions of Blacks”), takes to task. Russell classifies those general perceptions into 3K’s: kawaii (cute), kowai (scary) and kawaiso (pitiful).

Dr. Harriette W. Richard, board member of the Association of Black Psychologists and visiting professor at NKU, has noted that the psychological danger of Japanese people actually believing such stereotypes is “very great because of these and other messages transmitted to the African-American community. In particular, communication and mutual respect are hampered.”

Organizations like the Tokyo-based Japan Afro-American Friendship Association (JAFA) and the Washington D.C.-based Black Business Council continue to actively work on such mutual exchange from both sides of the Pacific. But it is an uphill struggle. It will continue to be so, maintains Russell, until Japan also comes to terms with the myth of its homogeneity and begins to confront its own brand of racism against domestic minority groups like ethnic Koreans, Chinese, the indigenous Ainu people, Okinawans and the caste minority known as

White America, too, will need to take responsibility for the negative Black stereotypes it has conveyed — and continues to convey — to the Japanese if the problem of racism here is to be genuinely tackled, Russell asserts.

To assume, as Japan’s media and general public usually do, that the problem is limited to the Japanese version of “Little Black Sambo” or that the ongoing manga protests are a personal attack against Tezuka, would seem to severely limit the scope of the issue. For all their mass consumption, manga are merely one Japanese medium of many that consistently denigrate African Americans and that, unintentionally or not, generate ignorance and mistrust between the two communities.

Japan’s price for continued acceptance and perpetuation of such stereotypes is perhaps best summed up by professional musician Paul Jackson, an African-American resident of Japan who had been taking his “Jazz For Kids” program to public schools throughout the country to help raise awareness of jazz as an art form and racial discrimination as a human rights issue.

In a late-night traffic confrontation near Tokyo in December 1991, Jackson was attacked with blunt objects by a group of Japanese youths. The resulting injuries to his arm have kept him from playing the bass and touring Japanese schools for the past year. He has recovered and soon begins a new tour in Japan — this time of schools for delinquent Japanese youths.

“Violence is a social disease,” Jackson told reporters from his hospital bed just after his attack. “I hope that the situation in Japan will not turn into the situation currently facing the United States.”

Brian Covert is an Osaka-based freelance journalist for U.S. and Japanese magazines and newspapers.