What is it like being black in Japan?

I lived in Himeji in Hyogo in Kansai and the entire city was used to receiving Black teachers from Phoenix to teach English in their school district which is ironic since African-American teachers come out of universities in Arizona in high numbers but can’t get traction, stability, peace of mind, decent/equal pay or respect in most school districts. I usually recommend a newly graduated teacher with their ESL and reading endorsements to apply to the City of Phoenix Sister Cities Teach Abroad program.

Because I had certification, I was paid higher than those there without one but just their bachelor’s degree. I also was a Japanese language minor at Saint Joseph’s University so I had a great time being silent while I understood most of what was said around me in Kansai-ben (Kansai accent).

Although black persons are quite the minority here, people are more used to seeing black men than black women. So, I get more stares than my two other black teachers who were here before me and they are brother and sister. It might also be my height, my shape, my facial features, my hair or the way that I dress. Regardless of it all, I am strange to many persons here because they’re curious. Some of them might have only seen black women on TV. They’re curious to see how I act, and how similar it is to their expectations based on their previous experience or what they see in the media. They’re probably expecting that certain stereotypes are true like black women are great singers, dancers, always angry, etc. Since black women are scarce here, they can only go by what is shown in the media, so I would think the same perceptions of black women everywhere would also be present here.

In terms of teaching, the teachers I was paired up with each one of them was phenomenal each in their own way. Most of the male teachers I paired up with were married and I had a great time with them before and after meeting their families; most of the women were single which I found interesting as only one of them was under 30 years of age. especially in a society that subtly forces women to marry by age 25 lest you become ‘Christmas Keki’. But that’s a tale I’ll save for another time. Some of the women were actually caretakers of one or both parents or had a family member they helped out.

I think the only time I had an issue was when a teacher wouldn’t allow me to go with him to the special ed classroom and I fought to go because back in the states I taught preschool special education and other inclusive classrooms of different levels of special education. When I told the Principal I was in National Volunteer Service /Americorps at Saint Michael’s Association of Special Education and gave him the phone number and showed him the website, I pretty much used my assistant speech therapist skills from SMASE in the classroom. I still had Boardmaker on my laptop and made all kinds to things in English/Japanese for the kids. They were more enthusiastic and better learners than ‘regular’ kids. I special taught at preschools and elementary schools during midterms as I didn’t need to sit and proctor them.

Personally, my neighbors all of them were really cool to me. I miss my Sake Grandmom, who is the last one running a sake shop across the street; I miss my Japanese Mom who houses down whose husband was the Chief of Police and her children and I were great friends; I miss both bakeries in the neighborhood and most the of my neighbors from the local community center. I had very rich and unusual experiences while living there ( after all, how many women help carry an A mikoshi (Japanese: 神輿) is a divine palanquin (also translated as portable Shinto shrine during a festival/matsuri) and help the team with the fighting of them, too? Not many if any at all and I owed it to my awesome neighbors. I was disappointed when I reapplied to go back 10 years from when I taught there and wasn’t even as a sempai sensei ( senior/alum) given an interview from the same organization that I previously taught for. But those are the breaks, I guess.

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In terms of dating, many foreign women non-blonde and non-American, complain that the Japanese guys are too shy. A Japanese once told me that most Japanese men have a fantasy for the American blonde girl since most foreign teacher organizations across Japan are more sad to say accepting of them in their programs than not. One of my fellow teachers in the JET program, Amity is British -Indian and Japanese men were really stupid not to ask a woman who looks like a beauty queen but she was so down to earth, funny and cool out just even for coffee let alone a date, but it was because she wasn’t blonde. They would hear her first and then try to conceal their disappointment once she arrived where we were, and I can only assume that a black girl wouldn’t be a part of a Japanese guy’s fantasy because black women are simply not seen in the Japanese media, where they promote white skin, which tends to be opposite of what we black women have. Someone did tell me a guy was interested in me but when I found out that one of the Japanese female teachers liked him I actually was a wing woman for an outing with them. In the end they didn’t hang out for too long and I had to explain my “ if you can’t take me home, leave me alone” saying I had for guys, not my ethnicity who acted interested in college.

It’s easy to forget that you’re black sometimes especially when you can converse with others, simply because besides obvious stares from others in areas less populated by foreigners, people don’t treat us any differently. If there is racism here, it’s mainly towards foreigners in general as far as I know and it’s mainly racism because some of the older generations of people would rather Japan goes back to how it was when it was closed off to the rest of the world but many Japanese ages 20–55, 60 years old don’t feel that way especially since the population has been shrinking-there was a measure introduced to maybe open real citizenship difficult to come by in Nippon to foreigners. Regardless of it all, do not let what anyone tells you about Japan limit your views, come and experience for yourself.

NB: I wanted to provide for you all the reason why I took up Japanese language as I needed to give credit to someone I highly valued who left a legacy for me and her future grandchildren who are graduates of Sidwell Friends: Dominique, Jacob, and Michael Davenport, that person is my late Aunt, Naomi Davenport. My high school classmates know I took French and Latin in high school and I started taking French in college but changed it when I returned to complete my matriculation at Saint Joseph’s University (PA). Japanese was a language I picked up after the current Prime Minister of Japan Abe’s father was Foreign Minister during the 1980s; Shintaro Abe caused a stir during that time because according to the foreign press he made some disparaging comments on African-Americans that they were lazy, jobless lived in squalor, et cetera. Well while ABC News was playing the comment and we were listening to the news translator, my Aunt and Uncle were visiting my Gran during this time and my Aunt was at our house literally translating what he actually said. He had mentioned he was watching this American TV show while visiting a base that showed a Black family in America living in these conditions. The episode showed the Dad getting laid off. So my Aunt basically told me this and said, “ Damn shame, he was watching the show “Good Times” thinking all of us black folk in America live this way when we do not. Eventually he stepped down as Foreign Minister but the words my Aunt let with me as you all can see had made its mark in my lifetime: “ Learn a language and study a people so you can go out and be an Ambassador for our ( African-American) people because if you can speak their language you will be able to bring clarity to us and create understanding, not misinformation.” I studied the language formally for 6 years and it not easy. Read Here

From, Josapha Michal

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