Hi Blog. Barring any unforeseen events of great import, I am planning to Summer vacation Debito.org for most of August, following the publication of my next Japan Times column on August 7. So as we wind things down a little, here’s something I had in the archives for commentary someday.
How the media portrays minorities and people of differences in any society is very important, because not only does it set the tone for treatment, it normalizes it to the point where attitudes become predominant, hegemonic, and unquestioned. This article in the Japan Times regarding a book that portrays blackness as “dirty” is instructive, in that it shows how people react defensively when predominant attitudes are challenged. The dominant, unaffected majority use the inalienable concepts of culture and identity (particularly in Japan) as blinkers, earplugs, and a shield — to deny any possibility of empathy with the people who may be adversely affected by this issue.
And I consider this to be a mild example. Remember what happened when Little Black Sambo was republished by Zuiunsha back in 2005, after years of being an “un-book” in Japan? But Sambo was just seen as a “cute” character, with no provided historical context of the world’s treatment of the Gollywog (after all, Japan often does not consider itself “of the world” when it comes to racial discrimination; some even profiteer off it). It was actually being used as a teaching tool in Saitama to impressionable pre-schoolers in 2010; nothing like forming Japanese kids’ attitudes early! So I did a parody of it (“Little Yellow Jap“) to put the shoe on the other foot. THEN the accusations of racism came out — but in the vernacular against me for parodying it! (Here’s an example of someone who “got it”, fortunately.) The same dynamic is essentially happening below. Read on. Arudou Debito
The Japan Times Tuesday, April 10, 2012
HOTLINE TO NAGATACHO
Book is behind bullying of mixed-race children (excerpt)
Dear Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hirofumi Hirano,
My three beautiful children were all born in Japan and went to Japanese public schools. Their mother is a native Japanese of Japanese ethnic background, and I am a Canadian citizen of African background.
Since my children are light brown, they were often teased by other kids because of the color of their skin. The culprits were cruel, directing various racial slurs. Among others, “black and dirty as burdocks” was one of the terms that often came up.
But, when I once ran across and brought home a picture book, “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” (“The Reason the Carrot is Red”) from the local library, my children got quite upset.
Written by renowned Japanese author of children’s literature Miyoko Matsutani, the story unfolds like this: A carrot and a burdock ask a white radish (daikon) out to a bath. The burdock jumps in the water but soon hops out because the water is too hot; it remains black. The carrot stays in the hot water longer and turns red. The daikon cools the bath with some cold water and washes himself thoroughly, which turns him shining white.
At the end, the three stand beside each other to compare their color. The burdock is black and dirty because he did not wash his body properly; the daikon is white and beautiful because he did.
When I was talking about this story during one of my lectures on human rights issues at a PTA meeting in Fukuoka, one of the participants, a Japanese mother of an African-Japanese preschool boy, started crying and saying that her son was taunted, ridiculed and called “burdock” after his pre-school teacher read the aforementioned book to the class.
When the little boy returned home that day, he jumped into the bathtub, started washing his body and crying, “I hate my light brown skin, I hate the burdock, I’m dirty and I want to be like the white radish!” How can this child have a positive image of himself?
We all felt sad after hearing this story, because the book associates the color black with dirt. The story’s underlying message is clear: “You’ll be black and dirty like burdocks if you don’t wash yourself well in the bath.” So children with darker skin will be victimized by the message it conveys.
How can such a book still be in libraries and preschool classrooms in increasingly multiracial contemporary Japan?
I called the publisher, Doshinsha Publishing Co., and demanded the book be recalled, saying it was racist. The publisher disagreed. My demand to meet with Matsutani to discuss revising the portions of the book I considered objectionable was also rejected.
Yoichi Ikeda, the editor of the book published in 1989, told me over the phone that the story was the author’s version of a Japanese folktale.
“Matsutani is not promoting racism, she was just handing down to Japanese children our rich culture,” he said. “And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.”
Surprisingly, the book is quite popular and was even selected as one of the Japan School Library Association’s “good picture books.”
Rest of the article at