What is it like, being black in Japan? Before getting to Japan, I heard that the Japanese are rather close-minded, that they don’t accept the fact that foreigners are coming to invade their territory, and basically that the Japanese are racists. But, at the same time, I was also hearing a lot of beautiful things about Japan : a wonderful country, delicious food, and a docile, respectful and friendly population. In the end, how is it over there? Is there any racism in Japan? Do they have prejudices against black people? Being black in Japan, what is it like?
First off, I need to tell you guys that I’ve never resided in Japan, I only visited the country as a tourist. I stayed three weeks there. The first thing to know, is that if you’re just passing through like I did, you probably won’t feel any kind of racism in Japan. It’s different when you live there but as a tourist, you won’t have any problems. However, tourist or not tourist, the Japanese may interact in a clumsy way with black people, or they may make displaced comments without realizing it.
Few immigrants in Japan
In fact, since the Japanese are islanders, for a very long time, they had no contacts at all with other populations. The outside world was completely unknown to them, they were isolated from the rest of the world. Immigration is very recent in Japan. To this day, 98.5% of the population of Japan are Japanese. Seeing foreigners is relatively new to them, and seeing black people is… exceptional!
Few black people in Japan
Even me, apart from a few touts/bouncers working for bars or clubs, I almost didn’t run into a single black person during my stay in Japan (it seems that everywhere in the world, the same guys are doing this kind of job…). Anyway, when I was spotting another black guy, we were doing the nod! A lot of Japanese don’t really pay attention to black people, but some of them will stare at you in the street (that’s what it’s like, traveling while black!), they’ll compare you to black celebrities…
Prejudice against black people in Japan
Anyway, when they see a black person, we realize the prejudices against black people are deeply anchored in their minds, and those are the same all over the world! I was asked several times “Where are you from?“. I was making them guess, and they were always saying “USA! USA!“, or “Africa! Africa!“. Indeed, most of the black people living in Japan are usually from the USA, from Ghana or from Nigeria. When I was telling them that I wasn’t from the US nor from Africa, I could tell by the expression on their faces that they were completely disconcerted “Huh… Where are you from then???” “I’m from France!” “Woooooow…“
In Nara, a group of Japanese people didn’t believe me! “No, French people are white, there are no black people of France, you must be joking. French people don’t look like this! Seriously, are you really French??? Nooo…” I told them that “Yeah I’m French…“, and I also said there are numerous black people in France, that they can go to Paris to check, or they can check on the internet the faces of our players in the France national soccer team…
There’s also this whole image surrounding black people : cool, love hip hop, good sportspeople, know how to dance, etc… Some Japanese want to get to know you, it happened several times in Osaka. As I said, quite often the locals thought I was from the US. Some Japanese touched my arm “to see what it feels like”. The kids can’t believe their eyes when they see a black person. A child touched my skin… then licked my arm 😀 I guess he wondered if my skin tasted like chocolate! Oh and I have to mention all the allusions and jokes they made about the size of my cock, which was quite often (damn, the Japanese and their relationship with sex…).
Racism in Japan
So… Being black in Japan, it’s fantastic? Apart from the prejudices (like anywhere else), there’s nothing to report? Unfortunately, it’s hardly a bed of roses. You can feel the effects of racism in Japan more if you decide to move in the land of the rising sun. In that case, you slowly become aware of what’s going on, of the existence of racism. You need to know something, the Japanese don’t really have a problem with black people, but with foreigners in general : black, white, it doesn’t matter! They quickly made the foreigners understand that they’re not Japanese, and they’ll never be, even if they speak Japanese fluently.
Finding a job is more complicated, and quite often, companies pay foreigners less than locals for the same job. Some companies specify that they don’t accept foreigners. Looking for accommodation is probably the hardest task for a foreigner moving in Japan. A lot of owners refuse to rent their place to a foreigner. They fear that they won’t pay the rent, get the place dirty, and leave the country without paying all the bills. Schools can refuse foreign kids if they feel like it’s gonna be too hard to teach them. A few bars in Tokyo (especially in Golden Gai) don’t accept foreigners. Instead of writing explicitely “Forbidden to foreigners“, you can read “Members only“.
Hafu, half Japanese half foreigners
For the foreigners who move in Japan and start a family, life can be complicated for them, but it’s gonna be even harder for their kids. Those kids are called hafu, from the word “half”. Those kids are regarded as half Japanese only, even if they were born there, grew up there, and they’re native Japanese speakers. They’ll never be regarded as Japanese people, even if they spent their whole life in Japan.
The most striking example? In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, a Japanese woman who was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother, won the title of Miss Japan. That meant she was about to represent the country for the Miss Universe beauty contest. And guess what? It caused an outcry on the internet! “How is it even possible that this foreigner, this woman only half-Japanese, will represent our country for the Miss Universe beauty contest!? The idea is to have a pureblood Japanese to represent Japan!” Ariana Miyamoto competed at the Miss Universe pageant anyway, where she made it to the top 10. It hadn’t happened since 2007, when Miss Japan won the beauty contest. Mixed-race kids (half black, half Japanese) are sometimes called blasian, a contraction of black and asian.
The Japanese don’t really like the Chinese and the Koreans
Even though the Japanese have a certain image of black people in their minds, you probably won’t have any problems there. Most of the time, they lump together all the foreigners. In fact, the Japanese mostly have a problem with the Chinese and the Koreans, they hate them. It’s because of history, Japan was at war with China in the past, twice actually. And not that long ago, Korea was a former Japanese colony, and the Japanese committed atrocities against the Koreans at the time. The Japanese forced the Koreans to emigrate and to fight for the Imperal Japanese Army, Korean women were forced to be sexual slaves of Japanese men…
Since then, a lot of Koreans went back home but some of them stayed in Japan, we call them the zainichi. The zainichi are discriminated against, threatened, insulted… But other foreigners (black, white…) are most of the time left alone. In Japan, it’s possible to spot gaisensha. Those are white or black vans, equipped with loudspeakers and decorated with flags of Japan, riding in the city. The people in those vans are uyoku (Japanese nationalists) broadcasting the national anthem or nationalist songs. They don’t want to see foreigners moving in their country.
But once again, the ones targeted are mostly the Koreans (especially the zainichi) and the Chinese, not black people (nor white people or other ones…). Immigrants from South Asia and from Latin America -who mostly come from Brazil and Peru- are also discriminated against sometimes, and they can be regarded as inferiors, lazy and freeloaders.
Are the Japanese racists?
As a black person in Japan, it may be possible to be stopped by the police more often than the other ones (it happened to me at the airport, in Hiroshima, in Kyoto…) but that’s it. There’s almost no security issues in Japan, I guess the cops are bored and try to find a way to fill their days… You’ll also notice that in the subway, even if it’s packed and there’s a seat next to you, the Japanese will never sit next to you, in fact never next to a gaijin (foreigner). For a reason that escapes me, they don’t dare to sit next to a foreigner. But I think it has nothing to do with racism. Apart from that, there’s no real problem linked to racism in Japan, especially for a tourist.
B-style, black culture in Japan
By the way, in Tokyo, I spotted a few Japanese who seemed to like black culture. They’re called B-stylers. Japanese people who listen to black music, love fashion, and black culture in general! It’s surprising to see that, but yeah it does exist! There are also ganguro, Japanese people who decide to get tanned in order to look like black people. Again, it’s surprising knowing over there, a fair skin is associated with beauty! I mostly saw girls being B-stylers, but there are also Japanese guys into black culture.
No racist attacks in Japan
You probably already know anyway, the Japanese are introverts by nature. Therefore they hold in their thoughts, and we don’t really put up with racist comments (but that doesn’t stop them thinking…). Even if they think “Get outta here, you fucking ape!“, they’ll never say it. There are no physical or verbal agressions, however, analyzing their body language and attitude, you can tell those who have a problem with foreigners. It’s a more subtle racism, different from the one we’re used to go through or hear about in Western countries.
That means the Japanese who have a real problem with black people (or foreigners in general) will not bother you, they’ll disdain you and leave you alone. That also means those who will come up to you, or try to get know you will be genuinely interested, they wanna know a bit more, where are you from, what you’re doing here, etc… They’re more open, they speak several languages, and they understand better the Westerners codes.
As I said, being black in Japan shouldn’t be too difficult, especially if you’re on vacation there. If you settle down in the country, you’ll face the same problems as the other foreigners, nothing more. With the aging of the population, the Japanese are slowly getting more open to the outside world. Ariana Miyamoto, miss Japan 2015, received a lot of criticism for not being pureblood Japanese. A year later, in 2016, Priyanka Yoshikawa, a hafu woman born to an Indian father and a Japanese mother, won the miss Japan contest. She received criticism too, but a lot less than Ariana a year before.
Are you black? Have you been to Japan? How did it go? Let me know in the comments! If you go to the Land of the Rising Sun, check my Japan travel guide with all the things to know before you go. And as usual, do not hit the road without a travel insurance!