I was always told that black people “just don’t go to Japan.” I was also told that black queer people “don’t have a place in Japan.” So, imagine the surprise of all the nay-sayers when I announced that I’d been accepted to the budding internship Come on Out Japan, a global English camp based in Tokyo. Instead of congratulations, I was met with confused stares and concerned frowns. “Won’t you be lonely?” “I hear black people get discriminated against all the time in Japan.”
I started studying Japanese during my first semester at Cornell. It always sounded like the coolest language when I was younger, but I’d never had the opportunity to actively learn it. Japanese at Cornell taught me about differences in culture and respect, which I fell in love with immediately. The internet and other Japanese students, however, quickly taught me that black people and Japan didn’t really have relations with each other. For some reason, the idea of a black person in Japan was almost stigmatized. Japan was a supposedly racist society, unwelcoming to foreigners. I’d be touched like an animal and disrespected. On top of being black, no one in Japan would understand my being queer, and I’d be a lower class. Instead of pressuring me away from Japan, I became persistently determined to visit. I needed to either confirm or dismantle the rumors I’d heard, and to experience this cultural fantasy world for myself. Had I been in love with a country that would hate me upon arrival?
Summer 2017 was my chance. For Come on Out Japan, I lived in a higher-class area in Tokyo, commuting to work every week by subway. I would walk in up to 100-degree heat, feet already blistering from heels I’d somehow managed to squeeze into. I would interact with store clerks and restaurant owners who attempted to explain in broken English that they had full English menus available and that I did not need to struggle with the Japanese menu (which I could understand, thanks to three years of Japanese language classes). I would get lost using the Japanese subway system and have hesitant Japanese people try to direct me the right way with the twelve English words they remembered from high school English classes. Each time, I would get stared at, looked up and down due to my brown skin and distinctly not-straight hair. I would most likely have felt alienated if it weren’t for two interactions I had during my trip.
During my first week in Japan, I went to a restaurant with a few other interns. I was the only one who could speak Japanese, so I helped us find the perfect alley one-counter place to grab lunch. As we were eating a delicious bowl of chicken and rice, I asked the woman behind the counter for more water, in Japanese. Her surprise at knowing her native language was almost funny, and from there she bombarded me with questions and conversation. Her first question? “Afurika-jin desuka?” Are you from Africa? When I told her that I was born and raised in America, she almost didn’t believe me. She told me that she didn’t know black people even existed in America, much less could be from anywhere outside of Africa and the Caribbean. We continued to talk, I finished my meal, and we left the restaurant. I had a slightly uneasy feeling, but it was nothing too serious.
During my last week in Japan, one of the students that I was teaching asked me, in broken English, why my hair was so “kurukuru,” or curly. When I explained to him that it was naturally curly, he wrote in his daily review sheet that he wanted to know why my hair was naturally curly. The next day, his daily review sheet said that he loved my hair and wanted to know what would happen if I cut it. For the final review sheet, the most interesting thing he learned during the program was about my hair. Before we officially parted, he asked if he could touch it. Hesitant as I was, I allowed him to.
Most people would criticize me for letting him feel my hair. But, based on my previous interactions there, I determined it was the right thing to do. Normally, a lot of black people, women/femmes especially, would call that degrading and disrespectful. I’m not a dog, so why let anyone touch me like one?
If there is one thing I learned about black people and Japan, it is that Japanese people know so little about us. I was the first black person that many of my students had ever spoken to. That I spoke Japanese was also mind-blowing to them. The concept, the very idea of a black person knowing Japanese and appreciating Japanese culture, seemed foreign. On top of that, I educated my Japanese students during my major presentation about the discrimination and institutionalized racism that people of color, especially black people, face in America. Many of my students were surprised and stared at me with pitiful sadness in their eyes. They couldn’t imagine someone like me being treated poorly, because the only black person they’d interacted with was me, and I was kind and supportive to them.
Thus, I needed to explain to the restaurant woman that black people live in America. I needed my student to touch my hair. I needed him to see that I am human, that I exist, and that there are differences between us that he needed to understand. Of all the things I learned in Japan, this lesson was by far the most important. The necessity of understanding, both in teaching English and teaching about blackness.
The interactions they had with me were the first interactions with a black person for many of my students, some of whom had misconceptions that black people were scary and unwelcoming. Of all the experiences I had in Japan, I’m glad that I could help people understand just a little bit about being black. We exist outside of the African diaspora in— surprise! —quite large numbers. We make up nearly 15% of the American population, yet we’re nearly 40% of the prison population. We are not dangerous, and I was happy to disprove any pre-conceived negative stereotypes my students and other Japanese people may have had. Going to Japan was a great inspiration and eye-opening experience for me. However, I genuinely think it was much more so for the Japanese people I interacted with. And I cannot wait to go back.
Cornell University class of 2018