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An expat moves to Japan and discovers a fascination with his own culture.

Whenever I meet someone who has been to Japan for any amount of time a superficial bond is instantly formed. The script begins: Where were you living? How long were you there? Were you teaching English? What company were you with? These conversations eventually turn into personal experiences about the struggles of daily life for a foreigner in Japan, and what it was like in the first few weeks after arriving (or surviving).

I moved from Montreal to Tokyo excited about discovering new food, learning a new language, and seeing old temples. All of which I did. But no one told me I would also find Caribbean themed restaurants, girls wearing bomber jackets with ‘respect the black woman’, or ‘black for life’ written on the back and guys hanging out in old Cadillacs they converted into low riders. In my naivete I wondered where the ancient land of the mysterious orient I had envisioned was. I was experiencing my very own version of culture shock.

To see aspects of my own culture in Japan was, to say the least, surprising. I didn’t quite know what to make of Jamaican food and music festivals, Japanese reggae artists or clubs named Harlem or Bootie which played the newest Hip hop and R and B music. Seeing this apparent fascination by some Japanese people with all things black, my mind went from wow to why?

“Kokujin kakkoii!” is what I was often told whenever I asked what was behind the admiration of black people. Basically, I was cool, simply for being black. I admit it was a bit of an ego boost hearing it whispered behind me as I walked down the narrow yet crowded Takeshita –Dori in trendy Harajuku or while getting down on the dance floor till 5am in Shibuya. Sometimes people would come right up to me and say it. To which I would smile and say a simple thank you.

But soon I started to feel like a celebrity without all the perks. People didn’t know me, yet they thought they knew what I was about. I got tired of conversations that started with ‘Where are you from? New York?’ ‘Are you a DJ? ‘ ‘What sports team do you play for?’ I’m from Canada, and I came here to teach English. Sorry to disappoint you.

I was mistaken for both a band member from The Roots and Tiger Woods (who I look nothing like) and asked to sign an autograph by a high school girl while at Tokyo Disney. I was asked to pose for pictures while holding a newborn, and complimented by a group of small town teens on certain parts of my, ehrm, anatomy at a Tanabata festival. One guy even went out of his way to buy his train ticket at the counter next to me only so he could say ‘what’s up my brotha?’ then left with a satisfied grin. I guess I made his day.

Then there were the countless number of 20 somethings I saw wandering around, who payed 50, 000 yen (roughly 500 US dollars) at some chic salon to make it look like they had natural dread locks for a month or two. Or the guys dressed like they come from ‘the hood’ trying to have the speech to match. In reality there is no hood in Japan and their language is built around self effacing pleasantries and kindness instead of tactless blunt directness.

People often say that imitation is the biggest form of flattery. But is it really? Just what they were getting out of perming their hair to get an afro then sticking an afro pick in it? So much of it seemed disingenuous. For one thing, I knew today’s b-boys, popping and locking in the hallways of train stations (with extra effort as I walked by it always seemed), dancehall divas, and rent-a-dreads were tomorrow’s salarimen and OLs (salary men and office ladies, colloquial Japanese for corporate business men and secretaries). They would eventually grow up, conform and consider their former passions and pastimes as just kid stuff.

A black male colleague of mine who also lived in Japan offered another perspective. He found it refreshing to see a new take on music, fashion and food we both grew up with. I wasn’t so easily convinced. Playing with culture the way you play with the latest gadget could hardly be a positive thing, especially if you don’t know the culture well enough. There seemed to be no concern at all about whether their actions, dress, comments or hairstyle might cause offence.

Over time, I realized for Japanese youth, being into black culture is a form of rebellion, and therein lay the attraction. Young people like to be different in one way or another and stand out as individuals. Hard to do in a country where conformity is encouraged. Live the same, think the same, look the same, BE the same. To purposefully stand out is asking for trouble. As a well known Japanese proverb says: The nail that sticks out must be hammered down.

Maybe it’s just a form of admiration and shouldn’t be considered anything more. So much of hip hop culture today has now become youth culture it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. But my colleague had a point. Japanese people put their own twist on things. Whatever subculture they adopt, they become masters, collectors and Aficionados.

You need look no further than Mighty Crown Sound Crew, who are internationally known and won multiple awards for their reggae remix and DJ skills. Not to mention Junko, a dancer who won the dancehall queen competition in Jamaica in 2002 and now teaches kids in Japan how to dance like her. I’ve met Japanese dudes that speak better Jamaican patois than even I could imitate and owners of soul R&B and hip hop vinyl collections that must have cost a small fortune.

Back in Canada now for a few years, I often find myself day dreaming about my time spent in Japan. Having lived in several areas of Saitama and Tokyo over three and a half years, pulled me out of my Canadian comfort zone and tested the limits of my Westerner patience. It challenged my way of thinking making me aware of the difference between group mentality and individual. Japan and Japanese people always kept me guessing. Just when I thought I had them all figured out, they threw me another cultural curve ball.

The presence of black culture in Japan still leaves me with ambivalent feelings. What is clear however, is despite the fact their own language and culture keep them apart there is a young generation of nihonjin who seek more than ever to be closer to the rest of the world, to feel somehow connected, and are still in the processes of figuring out how.

Want more? Check out Matador’s resource page for travel in Japan.

Culture + Religion


 

About The Author

Ricardo Arthur

I'm a writer hailing from Montreal with a West Indian background. When not indulging in my passion for writing, travel, pop culture, or photography, I'm usually indulging in my one of my vices: hipster watching, over clubbing, or watching nostalgia clips on You Tube for an unhealthy amount of time.

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  • http://miller-david.com david miller

    more fire

  • http://musictravelwrite.wordpress.com Michelle

    Ricardo, this is amazing. I noticed a lot of what you mentioned when I lived in Korea, but I never in a million years could have articulated what I thought about it as well as you just did. You really made me see both how flattering and insulting this kind of “culture adopting” is.

    Really interesting stuff.

  • http://www.twitter.com/gabimgarcia Gabriela Garcia

    Fascinating! Reminds me of this blog post I read a while back, that dealt with some similar issues but in a comical way:

    http://www.outpostnine.com/gaijin_smash/2004/11/my-kids-are-perverted.html

    • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

      Don’t take too much of Gaijin Smash to heart. He really directs a lot of it to a Japanese audience, not foreigners coming into Japan.

  • http://nancythegnomette.ocm Nancy

    Sweet piece, Ricardo. Fresh story-I had never even heard of Burakku or considered black culture in Japan. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  • http://matadornights.com Kate

    Wow! That’s an interesting take on a sub-culture I had no idea existed! You see some b-boys here in Argentina, too. It seems strange in a different way from the largely imported metal culture. I hope to hear more about this and from you on Matador.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

    Awesome article. Did you ever encounter any discrimination in places like hot-spring resorts? I remember watching an NHK documentary on occasional outright prejudice against blacks in Japan – one man was barred from an eye-glass shop, of all places.

  • http://milesofabbie.com Abbie

    Such an interesting perspective – great piece!

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    I’d like to hear more. Maybe compare notes with you about being a white foreigner in Japan vs. a black foreigner in Japan. Certainly not the same experience, I’m sure. We’re all gaijin, but not all the same.

  • Luna

    Oddly enough, this is a phenomenon that isn’t exclusive to Japan. Many Asian countries are fascinate with Western cultures, they tend to emulate them. I’ve seen many kids here try to walk, talk & look like Snoop Dogg or any American hip hop artist. Then there’s another group that tries to emulate everything Japanese: clothes, habits & mannerisms, speech. It’s either annoying or amusing, depending on which way you look at it.

  • http://www.matadornetwork.com Julie

    Really enjoyed the intellectual and experiential progression of this piece. The writing was fresh and real. Thanks, Ricardo- looking forward to reading more from you.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    Straight and smooth writing. Hope you’ll share more of it with Matador.

  • http://picasaweb.google.com/ghoul922 Thomas

    Good job Ricardo….

    As someone who knows you (who is still in Japan at the moment) I must say you gave them a pretty good take on being “Black” in Japan. At least from the standpoint of the wannabees. But as you alluded to in the piece..do the really “wannabe”?

    Good Job!

  • http://www.nehasweb.com neha

    Fantastic, thought provoking read. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://MaxTheITpro.com Maxwell

    Ricardo, nice blog post dude. Very informative.
    I’m also from Canada (Ottawa), but I party a LOT in Montreal (I sooo miss Aria; love Bal en Blanc).
    Wah part’a de islands ya frum, mon?? I’m Bajan (from Barbados). :-)

    Cheers!

  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    Awesome piece.

  • http://travelerahoy.wordpress.com Alouise

    That was a really great and interesting article, definitely gives the reader something to think about. I’m looking forward to more articles from you. Thanks.

  • http://www.blacktravelwriters.org Kitty J. Pope

    Hi Ricardo,
    Great article. Please contact me at admin@blacktravelwriters.org at your earliest convenience. I would like to speak with you about this article and our association. I look forward to hearing from you.
    Kitty

  • http://www.hopandjaunt.com Aly

    Great article! I grew up as a gaijin in Japan and have not only been back since but many of my friends are Japanese. One girl in particular I knew was a Ganguro, which literally translates to “black-face”, and it is a term used to describe Japanese girls who only date black men. Having seen a lot of different and very specific groups and trends in Japan, this one threw me off at first for sure. They are famous for hanging around army bases as well. Even though Japan is where I grew up and I understand their culture better than others, Japan is place no one can ever understand completely.

  • Ricardo

    THanks for all your comments, opinions and encouragement guys!
    Will definitely try to keep it up.

  • jesa

    ~ i spent 3 weeks in tokyo last summer. as a female of mixed race (black, polish, and russian) i was in awe of how much people would react to me. i was alone at the imperial palace i was cornered by a group of tourists who wanted to take pictures with me. i thought to myself- ‘so this is how the harajuku kids feel’.
    ~ i saw some crazy t-shirts referencing black culture, hip hop, and my favorite was a small boutique in harajuku called “black adult style”. and it was like walking into kimora lee simmons closet.
    i wish i had had more guts to ask stragners questions, even though it is not a cultural norm there.

  • http://www.takenbythewind.com Reannon

    Excellent topic!

    I lived in Tokyo for a while so I could definitely relate to a lot of what you said here. I remember reading an article once (I wish I could find it online so that I could post it here), about a Japanese tourist who was shot and killed in South Central Los Angeles in a drive by. He was (cluelessly) wearing a t-shirt with a gang symbol on it that he’d bought off a vender somewhere in Shinjuku.

    That sort of reiterates the point you made about how:

    “Playing with culture the way you play with the latest gadget could hardly be a positive thing, especially if you don’t know the culture well enough.”

    I feel the same way though about how Westerner’s view Japanese culture. I mean, how many people do you know who’ve never set foot in Asia yet have Kanji characters or cherry blossom tattoos?

    One of my friend’s just had a “japanese themed wedding” (she even wore a kimono) even though neither her or the groom are Japanese have ever even been there before…

  • JUJU

    I lived there i the early 80s. I remember riding the trains, the men always stared right at a woman’s breast if she were “well endowed” there. They also stared at females who were blonde haired. The whole trip was such an experience. The culture is as different from America as night from day. Such a cuteness factor in the little tiny gadgets. The Ginza was so fascinating. Yes many of the women dated black guys. That was a shock also, I don’t know why. For the most part, the people were very friendly and helpful.

  • Chvonne

    Great topic!

    I just experienced this on a trip to Greece. I was walking up to the Acropolis when a group of Japanese tourist stopped me for photos. They encircled me and started touching me. I was scared at first. One of the group members then explained to me that they were excited to see a black person and though I was cool. I was confused, but now I understand.

  • http://www.wasini.com Charlie Claw’s – Wasini Island

    This is an interesting article and it provides a lot of food for thought on different aspects of “culture.” I’ll have to ask my staff if our Japanese guests are like this (take many photos) with them aboard our dhow tours as in Chvonn’e case. :-)

    Cheers!

    Sally & Steve Mullens, and the Cheery Charlie Claw’s team

  • http://www.chengduliving.com Charlie

    This is too funny. I had heard about reggae festivals and black culture permeating Tokyo but it’s great to read a first hand account!

  • http://fly-brother.blogspot.com Fly Brother

    Nice article. Interesting to see your perspective as a black Canadian vis-a-vis the Japanese interpretation of an originally-U.S. cultural expression. But then, growing up in Florida, you couldn’t tell us we didn’t invent dancehall reggae and the chicken patty.

  • http://ngifunaukuya.blogspot.com/ Terra

    Great piece. I’m a black female and been considering teaching English in Japan for a while now. It’s nice to get some insight into their feelings about black culture.

  • http://www.korea-diva.com Claudine

    I am in Busan, South Korea, and I have seen that some people are curious about me. Busan is the second largest city in South Korea. I sense that some people are afraid of me, and some simply believe the stereotypes. Many people in my community have not had real contact with an African American person. I’ve had a couple of occasions when people have tried to rub my skin to see if my brown will rub off.

    I have dreadlocks, and they don’t know what to think about that. They call them “rasta look,” here. I am not Jamaican. One of my students thought that my hair was alive like Medusa’s hair. Korean woman try to touch my hair, and they are curious about how the style is achieved. A lot of people just stare at me. It’s difficult for me to know how the average person really feels or what they think due to the language barrier. Thanks for the article on Japan. It would be interesting to visit there and compare.

  • Nadeena

    I think the simple reality is that for some it is just a fad and for others, they take it seriously. I know it would be tiring to walk around having everyone treat you like they know what you are about based on how they just characterized being black with certain behaviors. But you also towards the end mentioned the few you knew/heard of that took it seriously (ie. Might Crown Sound Crew).

    I guess there’s good and bad where it is concerned.

  • Mercy

    Though not to the same extent – but also very interesting is the reaction of Mexicans (in Mexico) to blacks. 98% of Mexico is Mexican mestizo and indigenous Mexicans..very few blacks at all. My brother in law (American) is black and when he visited me in Mexico, people STARED at him, and they all thought he was either a sports player (the only blacks that they really knew of) or a Brazilian. Actually there is a whole village in Mexico (on the gulf side) that is black – but the Mexican census does not even have a check mark for black on the census so they are totally ignored. Interesting ..

  • http://www.blackpassenger.com stefhen fd bryan

    Ricardo, I think youll like my book, Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: A memoir Of Exile and Excess in Japan. Im a Jamaican living in Japan, been here 9 years now.

  • Kai

    Interesting article.

    When I first saw the title I thought it was about the Burakumin (部落民 ) culture in Japan

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burakumin

  • motto

    they got a really happening b-boy scene in Japan
    http://www.japansugoi.com/wordpress/tokyo-b-boy-park-festival-2010/

  • Aubrie

    The pseudo-bastardization of black culture in Japan is no different than what we Americans do to Japanese culture here in San Francisco. So many teens and young adults love everything Japanese pop culture has to offer, but hardly put forth the effort to learn about the history or the Japanese way of life.

    It actually makes me feel a bit better knowing the Japanese do the same thing!

  • http://www.blackpassenger.com stefhen bryan

    Hey, you used the word burakku in your title, which lead me to expect you to touch on some similarities between how the japanese treat burakkumin and how blacks are treated in north america and the UK.

    when i first moved to japan in 01 (still here) i found it uncanny how burakku sounds so much like the japanese pronouciation of black.

    • write-on

      When I titled the article ‘Burakku’ I wasn’t thinking about the burakumin at all. Rather it was for the exact same observance that you had when you first moved to Japan. ‘Burakku’ is the cool slang way of referencing black people in Japanese.

      • http://www.blackpassenger.com stefhen bryan

        thats what i kinda thought. Great article nonetheless. hit me up on facebook.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michele-Hema-Wells/100002018226410 Michele Hema Wells

    Great article!

  • Montrealer

    Excellent article! I’m myself a black west indian Canadian Montrealer so its interesting to have your take on the experience of being black in my favorite country. Since we probably share a very similar culture, it gives me an idea of what to expect whenever I vacation there. I assume my experience will be different because I’m a woman.

  • Poposhka

    very interesting perspective! do people use kokujin, gaikokujin, and gaijin interchangeably? or are there situational values behind each one? if so what. [edit] Aha, i see now. 黒人 is black person. i thought it was 国人、as in 外国人

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NMIKH2YFVNOIFEHIABNQA2MUNY Zona

    Well, seeing how you are from Canada, I wonder how different things would be for me being black from Philadelphia. 

  • Tyrcraig

    At least somebody likes us that much

  • Maxtx3

    Nice article, I’m considering heading over there to teach English and personally I’m happy they think so much of us. It’s not like we use our hip hoop culture as more than something to excuse poverty and violence while setting it to a beat anyway

  • Louis Noel

    WOW Amazing!

  • Kevin Boyle

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your perspective on Japan and cultural mirroring.

    • Erin Henri

      It’s not surprising to me since they are descendants of africa… http://youtu.be/oQJzhFGuoHg

    • Rashida Powers

      Erin Henri i was thinking the same thing.

  • http://www.survivingdating.com/ Deborrah Cooper

    If they only knew. You being from Canada eliminates you from the “Cool Black Person” crowd. You ain’t from The Bronx, Brooklyn, Oakland, Detroit, Philly, The A, or Chicago. What do you know about being African American and the hip hop culture WE started? NOTHING. You are as much an imitator and duplicator as they are.

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