Being Black in Japan

Yo my n***** !!  Here is an article that smells like good Rap, Hip-Hop, Zouk, KFC and basketball! Okay I’ll stop with the stereotypes: to make it short, in the land of rice eaters (ah s*** a stereotype again), this is an interesting topic to address. I, myself having a bit of chocolate complexion, I was wondering if my skin colour would be a problem for me coming to Japan; whether or not I would be treated differently by others. Important questions are as follows: are Japanese people racist? Do they have prejudices about people of colour? What are their reactions to seeing Black people in their country? Nonetheless, I have been in Japan for 3 years now and have built ideas on these questions.

What do Japanese people think about black people in general?

The main impression I have got is that they do not care. Whether you are Black or White, for them it’s the same thing; You are a stranger, period. The only differentiation happens in cases of mixed-race people. For them; a black person is either American or African. However, in regards with mixed-race people, they cannot categorize them that easily. A logical reason for this is that there not many Black people in Japan. Those that are there originate from Africa, America and Europe etc. Having been here for quite some time, I can go for days without seeing or meeting other people of colour that includes tourists!  Unlike other countries there has been neither a country nor community that has established itself visibly in Japan, they are only present in specific places: Roppongi in Tokyo is known as the district of foreigners and Okinawa for the American military. This is the main reason why the Japanese people do not really have opinions on people of colour, thus cannot really put a label on them.

Do Japanese people have prejudices about people of colour?

Not really. I have noted that they have common clichés and awkwardness such as: Black people only have only two representations in the media.  The first being the African who dies of thirst and who needs donations in order to survive. And the second is the Black American who is a rapper or a sportsman. Additionally, job wise every time I have seen black people working in Japan it has been security guards for bars, clubs including strip clubs as well as American clothing stores. Seeing this has led me to believe that the security is the certified job for black people in most countries. Furthermore, let us not forget the most common cliché of the eternal question about the size of the penis. I have been asked this question few times.   When I am asked what my nationality is, I usually get them to guess and the answers I get are African and Brazilian. Another norm for some Japanese people is that black people are synonymous with crimes, gang and violence. Some people asked me if I was a Muslim as well…

Cultural politeness.

As you surely know, in Japan, politeness dominates all aspects of life. People rarely say what they really think, especially if it’s a hurtful or insulting remark. So, it is very unlikely that anyone will make an unpleasant comment such as Ebola joke or a racist comment about your skin colour in your face. They have that traditional restraint, the famous Tatemae (建 前). Sometimes when I walk past people I can hear the word “gaijin” or “こ く じ ん” which means “Black person”. But I do not always understand what they say so It is hard to know if they are talking about me in a good or bad way. Some friends of mine also had small issues because they were foreigners but they are white so it’s off-topic.

Being Black and French, an advantage.

People always ask me where I come from, which is normal because I am clearly a foreigner and Mixed-race hence people are curious. Nevertheless, I do get weird questions sometimes simply because they are not exposed to foreigners. Though in my case, being Black AND French is a big advantage. France has such a good reputation here. They stereotype the country instead of my skin colour. I went to a Franco-Japanese party; everyone who came to talk to me was more interested in France than my colour.

Japanese interest in “Black culture”.

A lot of Japanese, especially the young generation in Tokyo are interested in Black culture. This has been evident especially since the 90’s. I am talking about music, fashion, and the African-American culture on top of the list of course. The nightclubs here systematically play Hip-Hop, R & B, as well as Rap music. It is not unusual to see Japanese people dressed up in a gangsta style with gold chains and baggy trousers. Nonetheless, recently Jamaican culture has been on top with Dance Hall and Reggae becoming as popular as Rap music.  There are some documentaries on these topics that you can easily find on YouTube. I think It’s a good thing that these very different cultures fascinate and interest them so much. Other Japanese I have met had the opportunity to go to Africa for humanitarian missions or to learn French. They were interested in tribal art, braids, etc. And interesting enough, my boss at my first job in upon arrival here knew the French singer Tété!

What about love?

For love, there is nothing impossible! It’s a principle. I have seen Black-Japanese, sometimes with children. There have been cases where young trendy Japanese girls proudly show off their Black or Mixed-race boyfriends. However, some Japanese people clearly have a slight preference for tanned guys. I have been told many times that I was cute so there is no need to worry. People have different tastes so it’s up to you!

To finish, here is a little list of things that have happened to me in Japan as a mixed race

I.            People stare at me in the streets, even in Osaka a cosmopolitan city. It is like some of them have never seen a tanned person in their life! Sometimes I wonder if they have a TV … In the French restaurant where I worked, some customers were clearly surprised to see me as a waiter.  They would often ask me several questions about that. It’s a little tiring in the long run, but I have learnt to pay less attention now.

II.            I am regularly compared to famous people such as singer August Alsina, Jake Puckerman of the Glee series and more famously Stephen Curry an American basketball player who is apparently well known here. It is as though for them, I look a little alike with every famous black person…

III.            At the onsen, in changing rooms of the pool or at the Spa (as we are all naked) I often get small glances below the belt, just to sort of check!

IV.            As I said above, in Osaka (and Japan in general for that matter), there are very few black people so every time I meet another black person, we often nod discreetly at each other, a bit like the gaijin nod for those who know. Most of the time I do not even know which country they come from. Some are just as astonished as I am to see another person of colour, it’s a pretty funny situation.

V.            Very often, when a Japanese kid sees me in the street, he blocks: He looks at me with big round eyes (well I mean almond-shaped eyes. you get me) and remains fixed for about 20 seconds. To make it less awkward, I give them a big smile and I say hi, generally they smile too. They must be afraid that I eat them.

VI.            I was a little apprehensive to go to the hairdresser to fix my hair. I could not find any afro hairdressers hence I decided to go for a Japanese one. I took a picture of me and showed the hairdresser what I wanted done as well as adequately explained it. To my surprise, he styled it so well! He killed it! He was even better than some hairdressers in France.

 In conclusion

I would say that racism against people of colour is almost and in my case never noticed in Japan. Sometimes, we feel like foreigners are not too welcome here or there, but that is the case for all foreigners not just one specific race or group of people. I obviously know that some Japanese people are racist, they clearly hate foreigners (especially Koreans and Chinese) but they are only a minority. Additionally, even a racist Japanese will never allow himself to insult you in public or to tell you what he really thinks about you as it is against their norms and values. If someone does not like you because of your skin colour, you do not risk direct confrontations or racist situations. Moreover, things are clearly evolving in the right direction because the Japanese people are becoming more and more open-minded to the outside world. They are gradually losing the isolationist mentality that has characterized them for a long time. Nevertheless, remember also that it’s your duty to present a good image of yourself; you are the ambassador of your country and your culture. If like me you are Mixed-race or Black regardless of your origins, you have nothing to fear if you are to come to Japan. You will not be discriminated against. Dress well, speak Japanese and believe me people will happily come to talk to you. Here, I hope that my article helped you a bit to overcome any apprehension you had about visiting Japan.

Post By Manu


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  1. Thank you for your article. It’s very important to know that I have nothing to fear if I have one day an opportunity to come to Japan. “Proud to be Black”.


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