A couple of years back there was a furor over a Japanese McDonald’s ad campaign featuring a white flunky japanophile who can’t manage to get nihongo (spoken or written) through his thick foreign skull…reinforcing this and other negative stereotypes about white foreigners, as if they needed reinforcing…
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I don’t know about that.
I thought it was ironic, though. A former American, white, not having much or any racism, bigotry or negative stereotyping aimed at his own race to cite used the experience of African-Americans as a reference. God bless America. Being a minority and the target of racism or xenophobia is something most white people, American or otherwise, will never experience.
The same can be said of Japanese.
I feel hesitant to go here.
Yesterday, while printing out photos of my China trip to show my students I printed out and placed on my desk at work the following photo:
The Gospe*Rats have been around for years. I’ve seen them on posters and billboards around Shibuya and other places in Tokyo. They were and are very popular. They are very talented. They are very cool.
They are also a Japanese minstrel act.
They seem like really nice guys, though. I feel pretty confident that though they are no doubt aware by now that their black face offends black people (and most any person with a respect for the dignity and humanity of all people) they don’t wear it to be offensive. They simply feel that our offense is not their intent so we need to get over it, or something to that effect.
So, why did I put the photo on my desk? I’m not really sure. I know it’s connected to the McDonald’s thing, though. I had asked my co-workers what they thought about the Nippon All-Stars ad campaign the other day. Most had never heard of it. A couple had but didn’t see anything remotely troubling about it. So, I guess I just wanted to see their reaction to the photo. Would they find it troubling…I guess part of me was hoping they would.
One teacher walked by my desk, glanced at the picture and stopped.
JT: Loco-sensei, what’s that?
Me: It’s a singing group called the gosperats. Do you know them?
JT: I’ve heard of the name but I don’t know their music.
Me: Mostly soul music and doo-wop…American music…African-American music.
JT: Is that right? Why do you have their picture on your desk?
Me: I just thought it was interesting. Don’t you?
JT: I guess so…
And she walked away. Another teacher came by.
JT2: Loco-Sensei, good morning. How are you?
Me: I’m fine, thanks for asking.
JT2: Oh my. What’s that picture on your desk?
Me: It’s a singing group. They call themselves Gosperats. Do you know them?
JT2: Yes! They are great! Do you like them, too?
Me: Not especially.
JT2: I see. Why do you have their picture on your desk?
Me: I just thought they looked interesting. Don’t you?
JT2: Yes. Their makeup is a little strange, but I love their costumes.
A little strange, she said. Just a little?
I rarely get into race stuff with my co-workers, unless they initiate it and won’t let me escape the conversation; with questions that begin with, “do black people…” this and “do black people…” that. But, if it is avoidable I avoid it.
I learned the hard way long before I began working at this school, back in my NOVA days as a matter of fact, that the Japanese (and to be honest, that of some of my Western co-workers) level of ignorance in all matters related to race is at a level where a discourse with them on the subject will invariably, at best, leave me frustrated and / or shocked. As for my fellow English teachers, what is said about Japanese can easily be said about many other countries and even parts of the US: homogeneous, xenophobic, ignorant, insensitive, intolerant, etc…
Not to suggest black people are immune to any of the above. We aren’t. Not by a long shot. I mean, Stepin Fetchit was a black man (as were many black face performers) after all and he didn’t perform at gunpoint (at least I don’t think so) (-:
No, these are indisputably human issues.
I’ve never mentioned The Gospe*rats (nor the other black face groups in Japan) before on my blog because, well, they’re like low-hanging fruit, you know. Like talking about how beautiful Mount Fuji is or how there are no Ninja in Tokyo nowadays, or how crowded the trains are…just too friggin’ obvious.
I mean…in my eyes, it is so blatant. But, I know it isn’t. Not to everyone. Somebody reading this is thinking of rationalizations and/or justifications. Just dying to come to the defense of what I feel to be the essentially indefensible…they’ll say: Most Japanese don’t have experience with other countries so they have no idea what is offensive or racist. They are a naive people and culture, isolated from the rest of the world etc, etc…blah blah friggin blah.
Of course, they’re right. These Gosperats (and the fans who adore them) are not in the know. The idea to paint their faces black and dress up like black performers just occurred to them while watching old footage of black pop idols like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, The Platters and others from the 5os…they’ve probably never seen footage or photos of minstrel shows, which date back to slavery days. They just loved the music and loved the style.
They’ve probably never seen or read anything that dealt with the history of the style of entertainment they’ve undertaken…I mean, who does research about the field of endeavor they intend to spend a great deal of time and energy pursuing and presenting to people anyway? Most people just get what they imagine is a good idea and run with it, right? It goes without saying that they probably never saw Spike Lee’s brilliant take on the black face, called Bamboozled.
They wouldn’t know how painful and negative this kind of thing was, nor how ultimately detrimental to mutual cultural respect this kind of thing currently is.
They are a homogeneous culture and people. There is no history of racism in Japan. I’ve been offered such platitudes over and over and over, by Japanese and foreigners alike, rationalizing and/or justifying the prevailing ignorance.
So, they’re innocent by virtue of ignorance. Ignorance is indeed bliss profitable.
So, what you’re saying is, if they saw a black girl band in New York dressed up in Kimono with Geisha (or yellow) makeup on singing J-pop tunes in broken Japanese they would say,”Oooohhh Kawaiiiii, (wow, cute!)” right? Or 4 Chinese guys in Beijing dressed up like Samurai with ninja masks on singing Enka songs they would say, “Kakkoiii jyan! (mad cool!)” Right? These acts would be viewed by the racially ignorant, innocent and naive Japanese as simply another culture paying homage to their own…not degrading in the slightest. Not even on the wink-wink tip.
I find that hard to believe.
But, it’s all innocent, right? I mean, the whites who did this kind of thing…even some of them were innocent, weren’t they? Just products of their time. If you were a performer, whether child or adult, black or white, Shirley Temple or Judy Garland, Al Jolson or Stepin Fetchit, this was how the money was being made. This was the kind of entertainment in demand. White people wanted to see black people, but not real black people unless they were acting like fools or doing something amazingly entertaining.
Is there a vestige of minstrel-ism in Bob Sapp, or Bobby Olugun? Perhaps. I certainly cringe when I see either of them on TV (one of the main reasons I don’t watch it). But I won’t get into that right now.
Today in class, the Japanese teacher asked me, in front of the class, what Japanese TV shows did I watch. She’d caught me off-guard. She hadn’t mentioned in our pre-class meeting that she was going to ask me that. I answered, automatically, almost as if she were asking a ridiculous rhetorical question, “none!” She looked shocked, as did the class. And after hearing the echo of the vehemence in my own voice I immediately donned a smile. Before she could ask me why as a follow up I added, “actually I catch Crayon Shinchan and Dragonball sometimes, but I usually watch American shows like CSI, Heroes and Lost.”
The truth is every time I turn on Japanese television I have to sit through the crucible of a food show (oishii deshou? Sou desu yo ne!) or a talk show (nande ya ne!) or worse, a comedy show. The comedy shows often have someone making fun of foreigners, and there are a few that even get specific and make fun of blacks with the ubiquitous Afro wigs and whatnots. I realize that the same can be said of American TV, especially when I was growing up, but the PC level in the States is so high now even mildly goofing around at another race’s expense is taboo and done at the producer’s considerable risk.
I really don’t want to delve too much into this. Like I said, it’s low hanging fruit, but I do think that Japan had better realize that their claims of naivete and isolation are wearing thin. I mean, god forbid, the Gosperats go on a world tour and encounter an audience that does not see the compliment they must imagine they’re giving by minstrel-ing. If they came to NY doo-wopping in black face…I don’t even want to finish that thought.
I think many here (Japanese as well as some foreigners) would benefit from a film like Bamboozled becoming required viewing.
The following montage from Bamboozled speaks volumes, but maybe for Japan to hear it the volume would need be turned up a notch…you know, due to their isolation and what not.
PS: This is a re-post of an essay I wrote in 2009…