Blackness Through a Japanese Lens

I have spent all of my life as a minority. Always one of at most a dozen Black children in a sea of White faces, no matter the institution.  In these schools, I was received with gratuitous praise, not because there were few high performing students at these institutions, but because it was almost unthinkable to many educators that I, as a Black female, could be so successful as a scholar. Unimaginable that I could even be on par with White students. I was treated as though I were a miraculous exception, because racist conceptions of Black intellect as inferior proceeded me. My time at Spelman, a historically black college in the midst of Atlanta, which most people will concede is a Black metropolis, has given me reprieve from this phenomenon. However, when I knew I would be studying abroad in a country where I would be part of an even smaller minority representing the African diaspora, I prepared myself once again to go to war against these stereotypes that had boxed me in in the past.
However, unexpectedly, I found that in spite of negative stereotypes about Blacks that Japan has absorbed along with many other aspects of Western society, depictions of Black people are so few in Japan that they have not had a very strong impact on the Japanese perception of Blackness. As a Black woman in Japan, I don’t feel the weight of negative stereotypes proceeding my actions as I have in the U.S. or other nations I’ve visited. In my day to day life, especially in the classroom, I feel as though I am treated no differently than any of the other international students. Ironically, the near invisibility of Black people, especially Black females, on the spectrum of Japanese society allows me a certain freedom to define myself as an individual based on my own actions and merit. Refreshingly, Blackness in Japan—in my experience—is solely what I make of it.

The best example of this difference has been my treatment by the Japanese police. I want to preface by saying, I have not personally had any particularly negative experiences with police even inside of the United States. However, due to historical discrimination and especially because of the recent string of unarmed Blacks having been gunned down by police officers, there is a relationship of mistrust and discomfort between many Black Americans and law enforcement. In Japan, however, I feel no such discomfort. I don’t worry whether I’ll be profiled or harassed, and of course I don’t feel the same physical threat of possibly becoming another victim of unwarranted police brutality. Although Japanese police do carry firearms, it is so extremely rare when they are used that most people are unaware that police officers are issued any weapons outside of a nightstick.

What is most notable to me is that as an expat to this country I feel as though I am treated like a valued citizen by police when I cannot say the same all the time of law enforcement in my own nation. Any time I have needed help finding my way, I have been able to rely on the police to go above and beyond to help me find my destination in spite of my broken Japanese. This has occurred multiple time, however, the most recent time was when I was in Kyoto, six hours away from my university, and needed to find my bus home. My bus was soon departing and, although I was at the station, I could not find the bus I was supposed to be looking for. I stopped to ask a kind looking man for help, he inspected my ticket until two police officers patrolling the perimeter happened to walk by. These officers went above and beyond to help me find my way, one officer ran off to look for where he thought the bus stop might be, while the other actually used his phone to call the bus company and ask them for clarification. After they had discovered where I was to go, they both physically escorted me to my bus stop and made sure with the attendant that I was in the right place.

Please do not misunderstand, even at the time of my writing this post, I’ve received some obvious stares and even pointing from drunken office workers just in this night. My Blackness certainly makes me highly visible in the streets of Tokyo. However, what is different, what has left an impression on me is the fact that when I speak or when I act, my words and actions are taken as my own and are valued without the shadow of stereotypes about intellectual inferiority. In summary, in my experience Japan, expects more of Black people.

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