10 Things I Like and Dislike About Tokyo

Tokyo Fashion

Shock and awe: Living in Tokyo has its hits and misses just like any other city in the world…how about that? And I do enjoy my glamorous life here, but there are some things I could do without. So enough of my rambling, let’s get to it.

A thing I like about living in Tokyo:

The convenience – especially where I live. I’m right in the centre of the city so everything I could ever want and more is within walking distance (and before you ask, yes that includes food, shelter, financial security, health, love and acceptance). There are three chain grocery stores nearby plus countless independently run shops, my bank, two post offices, two train stations, karaoke  (in case I have an unstoppable urge to sing badly and drunkenly), clothes stores, shoe stores, convenience stores and drug stores, restaurants, bars and a McDonald’s.

A thing I don’t like about living in Tokyo:

Lately, the earthquakes: Nothing like being shaken awake at 4am, scrambling to find the pajama pants I kicked off in the night because it’s so hellishly hot. And what’s merely inconvenient for me so far is devastating for the people closest to where they hit. As many of you know, the last big earthquake triggered a huge tsunami that wiped out parts of north-eastern Japan, and crippled a nuclear power plant. It will take years to recover. I heard one sad story of a farmer committing suicide because he couldn’t sell anything from his farm, for fear it was contaminated with radiation. The natural beauty of this county is astounding but earthquakes are a heavy price to pay.

A thing I like about living in Tokyo:

The nightlife: I’ve been known to cut a rug in my day, and there are lots of places to go out and party depending on what you want to do. There’s of course Shibuya, where there are lots of bars, clubs and izakaya restaurants. When I go clubbing it’s usually in Shibuya. Places stay open until between 4-5 am, so if I miss the last train all I have to do is stay drunk enough to party until the trains run again. There’s also Roppongi, where many foreigners go to party, and find willing “prey”. The gays live it up in Shinjuku’s nichome district. I’ve been there a couple times and people are always so friendly. Shinjuku’s also got a ton more izakaya and 24 hour restaurants.

A thing I don’t like about living in Tokyo:

Chikan, or perverts. Here there are women-only train cars because molestation on the trains is such a big problem. Luckily, I haven’t had any experiences myself, well except this one time. I noticed a salaryman was awfully and unnecessarily close to me on a train that wasn’t even crowded, to the point where his thigh was rubbing against my butt ever so slightly. I thought it might be an accident so I moved forward, and I soon found myself having to move again, until I was being pushed forward against the train door. I not-so-accidentally, elbowed backward into his crotch, but that only seemed to spur him on! Finally I turned around and looked him in the eye, and that got him to back off.  My roommate also told me that on her way to school every day during the morning rush, it’s so crowded she can’t even move her arms and legs. That’s when the chikan really come out to play. She says there are hands touching her butt, even going up her skirt! And there’s no way for her to tell who it is, or get away. I haven’t had to endure that kind of groping — maybe the chikan are afraid of my foreignness (they’re a bunch of cowards, groping women who can’t do anything about it) or maybe they can’t work out how to wrap their disgusting fingers around the unusual rotundness of my African-American behind. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it hasn’t affected me as badly as it could. Still, it’s an aspect of Tokyo life I really dislike.

A thing I like about living in Tokyo:

The fashion – I love playing dress-up and I get so many ideas just walking the streets of this city.  The shoes are my favourite part. Japanese women take the art of shoe wearing to a reverent level. I am not worthy! The dedication it takes to totter around the city on 5 inch, peep toe heels is staggering (pun intended). I know my feet get tired after 15 minutes, so I don’t know how they do it. But I have to admit, they look hot! I also like the layered look, the miniskirts, the hats, the bracelets, the necklaces and all that vibrant colour.  Looking good, Tokyo!

A thing I don’t like about living in Tokyo:

Not many people speak conversational English. I can hear you now all you Captain Obviouses: “Well duh, it’s Japan!”

Thank you, and I know that. I live here remember? I don’t expect everyone to know how to speak English, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. There are days when I really wish either my Japanese were better or the English of the person I was talking to were better.  Days when I’m tired and hungry and I don’t feel like charading-out my desire for three 90 yen stamps, or that I don’t want a meal set, just the sandwich. I knew coming here that it would be an issue, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

A thing I like about living in Tokyo:

It’s easier to get a job than back home — if you’re willing to teach English that is. There’s a big market for it here that’s increased since the March 11 earthquake, as some of the native English speakers who were working here took that as a sign to move back to their respective countries. For better or worse, all you need is a visa and your English speaking ability and you’re set.

A thing I don’t like about living in Tokyo:

The real estate prices — I’d like to move in to my own apartment next year, because right now I live in a little matchbox of a room, and the mountain of clothes I keep buying is threatening to bury my alive — I don’t even have a closet! However, the rent on my own place plus paying for utilities like heat, gas and internet will cost me an arm, a leg and three of four of the fingers on my remaining hand. It’s the price I’ll have to pay though, because I’ve been spoiled by the convenience and bright lights of big city life, and I don’t want to live out in the bush.

A thing I like about living in Tokyo:

My friends — I’ve meet some fabulous students and staff through English teaching, and met some more friends through blogging and even met a couple people out partying. When living in a foreign country making some friends is essential in fighting off the onset of homesickness, and I’m glad I have people I can talk to and hang out with, or life here would be very lonely. Another benefit is that my Tokyo friends introduce me to new restaurants and places to have fun of go sightseeing. So when my Toronto friends come to visit I’ll know where to take them.

A thing I don’t like about living in Tokyo:

The stares — I’m black, get over it! Ah, here’s Captain Obvious and friends to the “rescue” again: “Of course they stare at you, you look so different! Japan is a homogeneous society blah blah blah regurgitation blah blah blah ignorance. I still don’t like it!  And no I will not “just go home” because I’m making good money and there are many more things I do like keeping me here. But damn if the staring doesn’t get on my last nerve every once in a while. Couple that with the fact that I still can’t understand much Japanese, and I don’t know if people are talking about me or not, and it’s extremely unnerving.

Well there you have it my friends, the 10 things I like and dislike about living in this famous city.  What are some of the things you like and dislike about Tokyo?



“You Should Give Up Trying to Learn Japanese”

This (or something along these lines in broken English) was the response I got from one of the students at the school I teach at when I told him I was trying to learn Japanese so I could better communicate with the people around me. You see, while charades is a barrel of laughs at a cocktail party, especially when drinks are involved, doing it every day to make myself understood gets old quick. But according to this student learning Japanese will pretty much be impossible for me because I’m a foreigner. And if you read between the lines: a foreigner of non-Asian descent.

I’d like to say I tore into him about the ignorance of such an assumption, but I was at a work party and I didn’t want to get all heated because I really enjoy making money, and I’m not about to compromise my job over the miseducation of one man. Also I could tell he was pretty old school and nothing coming out of my young, pretty, foreign mouth, short of fluent Japanese, was going to change his mind.  And aside from that one comment he was a decent guy and we had a good conversation.  So I just shrugged it off with, “I’m still going to try my best.”

I’ve come across this situation before while cruising the J-blogosphere. Others have encountered the attitude that Japanese is just too difficult for anyone outside of Asia to grasp. But I wonder why? It’s a language built just like any other. It’s got vocabulary, grammar, idioms…learn the rules and you can learn the language right? Sure there are different tenses for formal and informal situations but again, learn the rules and you can learn the language. I’m not so foolish as to believe I could become fluent in a year, and I may never be fluent,  but impossible to learn? Nah, I don’t buy it. I can at least get up to the conversational level many of my Japanese students have reached in English.

Perhaps it’s the human need to feel unique. Think how special someone must be to be able to fluently speak a language that is “impossible’ for half the world to learn. Or perhaps it’s something a little more sinister — a belief that I and other western foreigners have a slower brain, incapable of picking up the nuances of such a complicated language. I hope not, because then we’re trotting down that shadowy road called genetic superiority, and that’s a little scary.

In a way this is positive. His comment didn’t discourage me, oh no. Comments like that fuel me. It’s a challenge. I’m going to be in this country for a while so let’s see how much I can learn. It’s on, dude.

For all of you out there spying on my through this blog :) what are your thoughts? Whether you’re a foreigner learning Japanese, a Japanese person who is already fluent or you’re just passing through. Is it impossible for me to learn Japanese?

I’m One of the Ugliest Women on Earth

Perhaps you have heard about this article by Satoshi Kanazawa. Titled, Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?, it was originally published in Psychology Today and has since been removed. According to this article it is scientifically proven that I am one of the ugliest women on the planet.

One of the ugliest women on Earth

One of the ugliest women on Earth


Isn’t that lovely?

Many before me have already commented on exactly why this article is not to be trusted. The “science” is faulty. Says Nanjala Nyabola on the guardian.co.uk:

He fails to provide information on the sample size for his research, or the social or economic factors (including race) that would have impacted on his findings so that readers can deduce for themselves as to what extent these findings can be generalised across time and space. As some tweeters have noted, it’s a classic trick in which pseudoscientists blind you with multicoloured graphs and three decimal place figures to convince lay readers that their research was thorough and is conclusive. I mean, who can argue with three decimal places?

I couldn’t put it any better. However I do wonder what the point of this article was in the first place? What was gained? What was meant to be the benefit to our understanding of the human race? Kanazawa concludes his article with:

The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races[...]women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.


I try to use the term “racist” sparingly, because if it’s used too often and when it’s really not merited, you have on your hands a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, and then when something comes along that truly does hold all the malice and/or ignorance that racism implies, few are likely to believe it. I gave some good thought to whether Satoshi Kanazawa’s article was actually racist or simply insensitive and unnecessary, and I believe it comes down to a matter of Kanazawa’s personal belief. If the article is an extrapolation of his personal belief that black women are the least attractive of all the races then, the way I see it, the article is in fact racist because we are no longer dealing with something objective. We are likely dealing with someone, possibly without even realizing they are doing it, twisting stats to fit their reality, and trying to pass that personal reality (a.k.a opinion) off as fact.

I believe that is what Kanazawa is doing and therefore I believe that the article is in fact racist. However I believe it is a racism born of ignorance rather than malice. The clues are in the body of the article.

As the following graph shows, black women are statistically no different from the “average” Add Health respondent, and far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women.

Black women are[...]far less attractive than other races. Would it be so difficult to be accurate and write “black women are considered by the respondents of this study to be far less attractive than other races”? This is supposed to be science right? Objective? No, he states this like it’s some kind of biological fact. Which is exactly what he believes.

Africans have more mutations in their genomes than other races. And the mutation loads significantly decrease physical attractiveness (because physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health). But since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive, while black men are, if anything, more attractive.

First of all, “physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health”. Oh! Of course! Well everyone knows that. Let’s squash all this nonsense about any kind of socialization affecting what we consider attractive. 1+1=2 and physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health, period. Glad we have Satoshi Kanazawa here to tell us what’s up. And for the few who won’t be able to tell, I’m being sarcastic.

Second, “since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive”. You said it yourself Kanazawa: Your science can’t explain this one. At best all you can do is make a weak guess about testosterone. Maybe your mutation load theory can’t explain anything because it’s not true? Hmmm.

I think Kanazawa believes he is some kind righteous herald of scientific truth when all that his article proves is that there is a perception among his respondents that black women are the least attractive of all the races. He is trying to take this information and extrapolate it to mean that black women are objectively, inherently less attractive than the women of other races. I think this is misleading, irresponsible and  yes, racist.

And to what end? If Kanazawa was coming at this from some kind of social perspective I’d be right on board with him, really I would, because if the entire world’s perception of beauty is so skewed against one race and toward another that’s something worth knowing. Then the article would have some kind of purpose, because it points to something deeper: A lack of equality. In this day and age, especially in the west, we love to talk about equality. We love to say we are for equality but few of us know where to find it or how to achieve it.  Well one way is to take a good hard look at ourselves, to be aware of what we’re all really thinking. If we think one race is ugly we consider it inferior. If we think one race is beautiful it’s superior. I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say we associate beauty with good and ugly with bad. Of course even this, a study in attractiveness, would only be one piece of the puzzle.

So how does this article concern me personally? Aside from the fact that I am a black woman, after living in Japan for four months, watching Japanese TV, talking to Japanese people and being bombarded by Japanese advertising, I think this country is a prime example Kanazawa’s findings if they are considered socially. The female models in this country (when not Japanese, of course) are frequently women of European descent, often with blond hair and light eyes. I can recall seeing all of two ad campaigns featuring black women in my four months here. Some Japanese celebrities undergo surgery to make their eyes bigger, rounder, less Asian and more European looking. If there’s a market for white women wanting to go so far as to get surgery to make their eyes look more Asian,  it’s minuscule.

It may sound like I’m ranting, but I’m just calling it as I see it. It may sound like I’m trying to say that whites are unfairly idolized. Not so. Right now I’m not trying to get into a discussion of fair or unfair, just equal. I’m simply giving an example of how living in Japan coupled with Kanazawa’s article has shown me that the world is still not equal, how the races are not still not perceived as equal. And it has not slipped my notice that Kanazawa is Japanese, and that his perception could be molded by this very environment. However, I’m not sure if he was born and raised in Japan or another country, like America, but frankly it doesn’t make much difference. This racial bell curve exists all over the world. All you have to do to see it is turn on your TV or look up at a billboard.

**update** Kanazawa has been fired from Psychology Today. It’s good to know that he had to face the consequences for writing this irresponsible article, but I can’t help but feel it was only due to public pressure that he’s gone. That said, it’s encouraging that the pressure even existed. An article like this would have been taken as fact maybe as recently as 50 years ago, so I think that even though it’s disheartening that the article was published in the first place,  on the bright side people are waking up, and seeing this kind of propaganda for what it really is.

This post is a part of the January 2011 Special edition J.Festa over at Japingu.

Whoa…I’m Not in Japan.

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

As I sit here, watching the movie Inception with my sisters in the room where I grew up, I wonder, like the characters in the movie, if I’m not having some kind of lifelike dream myself. I’m back in Canada, and it feels surreal. This time last week I had no plans and certainly not enough money to take an impromptu trip halfway across the world, even though I was sort of missing my family. So what am I doing here?

Well, the decision was based on many factors. As many reading this may know, right now, north east Japan including Tokyo is in a mild panic. A nuclear plant a couple hundred kilometres away could possibly go into meltdown. Workers are having an extremely difficult time keeping in under control. TEPCO – the company that owns the plant — and the Japanese government are being vague about the exact situation, giving us information hours after events have happened. There is the sneaking suspicion that there is something we’re not being told. Though we’re been assured by the Japanese government that only those within a 30KM radius need to evacuate, the US and UK governments suggest an 80KM radius. We’re told any radiation that does reach Toyko will be very low, not enough to impact human health.

However, many of us expats in the Tokyo area have family and friends who are not appeased. They have no perception of the situation other than what they hear and see in the media abroad, and the media always goes for the worst-case scenario, because if it bleeds it leads. So our families fear the worst –  a full meltdown followed by an explosion that would send massive amounts of radioactive material into the air. They feel helpless and terrified believing we could be in harm’s way. Many of us have been urged to pack up and leave the country, to leave behind our jobs and our friends and just come back home until things get better.

I love my family. I don’t want them to worry, and despite the fact that Tokyo remains safe at the moment, I do feel some uncertainty about what will happen in the future. However I’ve been reading almost obsessively any articles I could find about the current crisis at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. I’ve read some reassuring articles on why this will not turn into a nuclear disaster the likes of Chernobyl, as many seem to believe. But I had to make a choice. The stress of worrying about me was impacting my parent’s health. Though I wasn’t worried about myself, as I had relocated to Osaka to wait out the worst of this scenario, I was worried for them. So, I decided to go back to Canada for a while.

Getting the re-entry permit

The crowd at the immigration office

I’ve taken a gamble, as I don’t know how this will affect my job, but I do know I’m not the only teacher who has left, and these are unusual circumstances. Before I left I went to the immigration office in Osaka to get a re-entry permit.  It was chaos. I waited in a crowd of about 200 people for three hours to finally get that stamp in my visa. I didn’t want to have to use it. I felt safe in Osaka because even if the absolute worst-case scenario did happen — the plant experiences a full meltdown and the containment somehow fails — the radiation would weaken before it reached as far as Osaka.

I don’t fear some kind mass-scale nuclear contamination, but I have to admit I was scared. I’ve never been a situation where my life could technically be at risk – however unlikely the worst case scenario may be. I can in no way compare with the people who have actually had to suffer because of this earthquake: the people in the shelters who are running low on food and water; the people who have lost their homes and their way of life to the tsunami. Yet this has been probably the most stressful week of my life. Every morning started with a frantic phone call from my mother, begging me to get on a flight, making me wonder if maybe I was in more danger than I thought. Every night was spent in fitful sleep, jumping up at every aftershock. So in the interest of lowering everyone’s stress level, I’m back in Canada for a while.

P.S: To give some much needed support to the survivers of the Tohoku Earthquake you can donate to your country’s Red Cross Society. Here’s a link to how to donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society. http://www.jrc.or.jp/english/relief/l4/Vcms4_00002070.html

You Want to Teach English in Japan?


You better listen, 'cause you're about to get skooled.

Now that I’ve been doing the Eikaiwa school gig for a month now I can finally give a (wo)man-on-the inside account of what it’s like, and what you, the  hopefuls should be aware of before deciding it would be a good idea to leave it all behind in your home country and experience Japan while teaching English to pay the rent.

Are you introverted? That’s not good. You’d better start learning to like talking to people because you’ll be doing that all day. If you want to work at an English conversation school, you should probably be somewhat good at having a conversation…in English.  I had an interesting talk with one of the teachers at my school, who was talking with another teacher who was soon leaving. The teacher who was soon to be going said to him “I don’t like talking to people,” to which his reaction was “then why are you here?” As an English conversation teacher you need to kind of direct and moderate the flow of conversation, to get your students talking and practicing their English. At my company, there are textbooks but at the higher levels there’s a lot more free conversation — same deal if you want to teach private lessons. You gotta be able to talk. You don’t have to be Mr. or Mrs. Chatterbox but you should at least be able to turn it on when you need to.

Do you hate kids? That’s not good. I can’t speak for every school, but at mine you will definitely end up teaching kids: Squirmy, easily distracted, bored-every-five-minutes kids… usually as their parents watch. Here it helps if you have the ability to throw all sense of pride and dignity out the door and just make a fool of yourself for an hour. With the kids you need to go big or go home. Use big animated expressions, silly voices, dances, anything to manipulate the little  darlings into actually learning something. In my (limited) experience they seem to like games that involve running and jumping. If you do it right, teaching kids can be really rewarding, because most of them are smart little buggers, and if you can get them to listen they pick up the English really quick.

Are you lazy? That’s not good. Be honest with yourself, because this is still a job, no matter how easy you might have heard that it can be.  And if you’re a lazy mofo who puts in all the effort of a glacier well, you might not got fired, however students and school directors will complain about you and guess what, you’ll get sent to all the schools way out in the bush like two hours away from where you live that no one wants to go to. So bring your shining examples of great work ethic ladies and gentlemen.

Do you easily lose your patience? That’s not good. Being any kind of teacher requires extreme patience, because you’ll be doing the same thing over, and over, and sometimes students just. don’t. GET IT! At this point you must resist the urge to bang your head, or worse theirs, on the table in pure, unfiltered frustration and despair. No, no, you must smile and explain again and again in different ways until they do understand, because that’s your job.

So, by now I’ve probably scared a few people off. Trust me I’ve done you, and anyone who would have had to work with you, a favor. I’ll end by saying although I’ve brought up a lot of the challenges about teaching at an English conversation school, it’s still the least stressful job I’ve ever had. The students, having paid quite a bit to take the courses, are usually willing to learn. You’re not stuck behind a desk, and you can meet interesting people and learn a lot of things about Japan from your students. But if you’re a lazy introvert with no patience who hates kids, please just stay where you are. You’ll be happier I promise you.

“Gaijin”: What Does It Even Mean?

What is Gaijin?

A couple of gaijin, gaijining it up.

It’s a term that’s seeing some good play time in Japan right now, but what does it really mean?

The technical definition is that gaijin is the short form of gaikokujin, which simply means foreign people or non-Japanese. But a quick search on Urban Dictionary will demonstrate the dilemma around this word — just shortening gaikokujin to gaijin can turn it into anything from a racial slur to casual slang. Confused yet? I know I am. But wait, there’s more! As I understand it, gaijin seems only to be used to refer to foreigners who are not of East Asian descent. Hmmm. Oh! And so-called gaijin also refer to themselves as gaijin. Say whaaaat?

So let’s get right to the point: If you are referred to as gaijin in Japan should you puff out your chest in indignant offense, or take it in stride? Well, there’s the argument that continued use of the word has diluted whatever racially poisonous effect it may have once had. Everyone says gaijin now, it’s all good!

Personally, I think these days the meaning of the word rests heavily with the intent of the person who says it. Maybe it’s because I’ve never lived in Japan (yet) but to me gaijin doesn’t have the same cultural weight as some of the racial slurs in the west. I’ve never been a slave, haven’t experienced much discrimination, I’ve lived a pretty peaceful, middle-class life, and yet hearing, or even just reading or writing the word nigger can send a stab of panicked distress right through me, or at the very least dis-ease, regardless of the intent behind it. I don’t have the same reaction from the word gaijin.

So I would say that while gaijin isn’t really politically correct, a Japanese person may not necessarily be trying to insult you by referring you as a gaijin. But if they are, you’ll probably know, particularly if they are yelling at you and waving a sushi knife or something and then, well you’re got a bit of a bigger problem than someone calling you a bad name don’t you? How’s that for keeping things in perspective? ;)

To all those current pioneers in Japan, what’s the deal yo? Is it time to start drafting our strongly-worded emails to whoever will listen about the use of the term gaijin?

I think I’m Learning Japanese

Japanese Script

Or, the cheapskate’s guide to beginner’s Japanese.

I’ve always liked the Japanese language. I wanted to take courses when I was in University, but I said to myself  “Why? I’ll never really need to know how to speak Japanese”.


So anyway, I now have less than 8 weeks to cram as much knowledge of Japanese language structure as I can into my MTV-scrambled brain, and since this move is the second most expensive thing I have ever done in my life (the first was university), I need to learn Japanese as cheaply as possible, preferably for free. Below is the list of resources I’ve been using to try to self-teach myself enough Japanese to get from the airport to my apartment when I arrive.

#1) My Japanese Coach — this is a game for the Nintendo DS. You may remember me mentioning it in the past. It’s good for learning vocabulary and the hiragana and katakana alphabets, but it’s not so hot at breaking down grammar points and rules of conjugation.

#2) Japanesepod101.com — I found this one after I used Italianpod101.com for my trip to Italy earlier this year. This is a series of podcasts which includes mock conversations, and much more in-depth explanations of the points of grammar: tenses, conjugations, formal vs. informal etc. I haven’t signed up for the premium service yet, so far I’ve been listening to the free preview lessons ( I wasn’t kidding about this being a guide for cheapskates) but based on the quality of the free lessons, I think I will be signing up for the premium site soon.

#3 Teach Yourself Japanese Script — This book is how I know I was always destined to move to Japan. It was a birthday present from one of my friends waaaay back at the tender age of 15 (I think). Sadly, I still haven’t read through the whole thing yet, but it has taught me some useful Kanji like the Kanji for numbers 1-10 and the days of the week. The book also outlines stroke order for Kanji.

#4 Streaming Japanese TV Shows — For me this has been Japanese Anime series. This method has been the least effective, probably because I’m mostly focusing on the subtitles. But what it has done is get my ear accustomed to hearing Japanese, and I have picked up one or two words this way too.

I plan to search for more free or relatively cheap ways to learn a few Japanese phrases before I leave, but the real fun starts when I actually get to Japan. There’s nothing like complete, inescapable immersion for learning a language right?

For you expats in Japan out there, what would you say are some of the most effective ways of learning Japanese?

Blacks in Japan — Preconceptions

Blacks in Japan

My first thought when I decided I was seriously going to Japan was, “this…will be epic“. The next thought was “Hmm, I’m black. Will that be a problem?”

I have to admit that when I first heard about the JET program in 2003, I had planned to apply once I got the required degree, however, when the time rolled around I chickened out, and I think concerns about how I would be received not only as a foreigner, but as a black foreigner — a black female foreigner, (which is a very rare sight in Japan it seems) were a big part of that. Videos like the one below made me nervous. The depiction of blacks here is sad, but hilarious too, simply because it’s such an over-the-top blatant sterotype. I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the one guy’s weapon of choice is a basketball

Sooooo, are blacks treated differently in Japan?

From what I’ve read, yes and no.

Of course, any info I give now will be based on second-hand accounts, mostly the blogs of others I’ve found online, but stay tuned, because I’ll be blogging my own experiences as an expat soon enough ;) .

Anyway, what do I mean by yes and no? Here’s my understanding of what will go down.

Yes: Blacks (and any other visible minorities really, including whites, indians, natives, hispanics, etc.) will have to get used to some staring, and this seems to increase the further you get from the big cities. The Japanese (and the rest of the world, North America is no exception) have developed stereotypes regarding other races thanks to the media. There is a huge hip-hop movement in Japan right now. You’ll see Japanese b-boys, Japanese with afros and dreads, and NYC hats and jackets. Since the vast majority of Japanese exposure to blacks is through Hip-hop/R&B and sports, they may ask questions like “Can you sing? can you dance? do you run track?” And they may be somewhat confuzzled if you can’t do any of that. So if you’re black and you want to come to Japan…um I guess you better practice your moves? There will be some ignorance, but overt racism is rare.

No: Over and over again I hear that the Japanese are unfailingly polite, and foreigners and natives alike can expect to be treated kindly wherever they go.

It was with great relief that I realized after reading many blogs and forum posts that the foreigners in Japan, including black foreigners, are loving it! There may be bumps here and there but on the whole they’re enjoying the experience, so I think I will too.

For more on what it’s like to be black in Japan (you know, from people who have actually been to Japan) check out these blogs. You can find them in my blogroll too.

Sista in Tokyo — this sista has been in Tokyo for a few years. She’s even having a baby!

Intro2the1 — excellent vlog about a black girl living in a rural area as part of the JET program.

Jasmine Louis (TUJ-circle.net) — she has some very informative posts, and she answers the three questions black women usually want to know about Japan: 1) Is there racism in Tokyo? 2) Do Japanese men like Black women? 3) What am I going to do with my hair while I’m there?

Gaijin Smash — A very popular blog, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s about the misadventures of black man who is an English teacher.

Loco in Yokohama — This one has a very philosophical vibe. It’s about another black man working as an English teacher in Japan.