Japan Times: “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” Book is behind bullying of mixed-race children; contrast with “Little Yellow Jap”


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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 discriminationsome 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
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

12 comments on “Japan Times: “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” Book is behind bullying of mixed-race children; contrast with “Little Yellow Jap”

  • Yeah, I posted this to social media a while back.

    “And anywhere there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.” . (o_o)

    Missing the point (and being thoroughly objectionable while doing so).

  • This is the top unbelievably stupid quote I ever heard about discrimination of school children: “And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.”

    — That is how predominant the majority discourse is in this case in Japan: to the point of denying even THE EXISTENCE of the minority.

  • “And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.”

    Honestly this just reads like the classic blame-shifting anyone who lives here for a time will come to see everywhere. “It’s not our problem because excuse X and anyways, irrelevant excuse Y.” X to absolve themselves of any responsibility in their own eyes and Y to try to convince you to absolve them as well.

  • Baudrillard says:

    “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;”

    Japan has forgotten history. How convenient.All recent pre war history is discredited.

    They worship fakes and copies (not the author’s VERSION of a Japanese folktale, not the original). And fictional characters and cartoon characters-hey, they even get Juminhyou!

    And this is Japan’s “rich culture”? Seems quite impoverished to me….

  • I have a different view.

    I think that the full quote is important:

    ““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.””

    I take from this that the editor Yoichi Ikeda is saying that: 1) the book is intended for Yamato J children as a part of their acculturation training, and 2) that it is not intended for non-yamato children.

    So, while I agree that there is a denial of small minorities in Japan (a common though lamentable issue globally), I think it to be ore important that the book is intended to develop a perspective amongst future Yamato J — that purity and light skin are linked.

    I would be interested in whether this book is also used in Okinawa, where there seem to me to be more with darker skin.

    In other words, I assume that the racism that is being nurtured is not focused on the rather rare African-Japanese children, but rather on the slightly darker skinned groups with which J are most likely to encounter — Okinawans, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, etc.

    Of course, none of this is to excuse the racism, but it may be useful to an understanding of it.

    If J is trying to develop a sense of racist solidarity (like the Blut und Boden of NS Germany) amongst Yamato J, then it has a different tenor than merely the one off racist book.

    It means that J will not abandon such cultural training guides, because they are important to the J effort to instill a racist sense of distinction between J and other East Asian peoples.

  • Handing down folk tales to the modern generation is a major issue not only in Japan, but all over the world, mostly because of the contradictory/obsolete values and moral lessons these tales teach. While it is important to preserve these tales as an important part of each country’s cultural heritage, it is obvious that many of these tales have already lost their primary, educational function. I can assure you that the conflict described in the article above is not an isolated event-many young Japanese parents also don’t like the fact that some really old, obsolete ideas are taught to their children. Unfortunately, there are the ” this is our culture, kids need to know their culture” educators (mostly elderly). What can be done?
    For now, working localy is the only way- with his local kindergarden, with the kids there, with the teachers, with the parents.Here is Miyoko Matsutani’s lab , he can also call there:

  • Christopher Glen says:

    True enough about forgetting history. It’s safe to say that many expats in Japan know more about history here than average Japanese. It’s all forgotten after junior high. Perhaps the militarism of WW2 and it’s distortion of the code of bushido is what has caused many Japanese to shun history and embrace Mickey and Kitty-chan. The atrocities of world war 2 are swept under the carpet along with the samurai period.
    Likewise for bullying. Take the recent case in Shiga. 9 months for the police to act. That is a lot of burrowing-your head in-the sand time

    — Link to the Shiga case you mention, if you would please, for the record. People do read these comments years after the fact. Thanks!

  • Well, even if we accept Charuzu’s theory (which I tend to think is a good one), the problem is, there are no “pure” Yamato J anyhow. Ever J has some Jomon at the least, if not other bits and pieces of various Asian ethnic groups. Yamato J is, and has always been, a myth.

    I recently chided a Japanese coworker for the comment, “In America, you have people of all different body types and colors. In Japan, we all look the same.”

    Uhm, no you don’t. Not even close.

  • Kionon #9

    I think that the comment by the J worker

    “In America, you have people of all different body types and colors. In Japan, we all look the same.” ”

    reflects the acculturation that racist concepts as a way of developing Yamato J solidarity.

    It is clearly true that not all J look alike, but what is interesting is that some J BELIEVE that all Yamato J look alike.

    It is striking that your colleague went so far as to say that J all have the same body type, when that is so clearly false.

    If he had stayed with something like hair colour it would have been more ambiguous as to what was meant.

    But there are obviously highly muscled and weakly muscled J, fat and thin, taller and shorter.

    It does raise the question, though, of how J who have dwarfism or other similar physical conditions view themselves, and to what degree they are marginalised, given that they manifestly have different body types from the average.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Norik #7 is quite right. many western countries used Aesop’s Fables, and then other children’s stories for ‘educational’ purposes (whether that be common sense a la ‘The tortoise and the Hare’, or to teach christian moral values), and whilst some of these stories still retain some relevance (after all, Goldilocks does teach children to be wary of danger), formalized education has in many senses made the primary role of such stories obsolete, and it is for their value as historical parts of our culture that we still retain a fondness for some of them.

    However, Charuzu #6 is bang on target with his assesment in this case. Imperialist era Japanese ideology specifically linked paleness of skin to the uniquely ‘Japanese-esque’ opaquely described mythology of shinto ‘purity’. Dower’s excellent War Without Mercy has a chapter on J-wartime propaganda in which all Japanese are depicted as being ‘whiter’ skinned than even westerners, and certainly whiter than other asians, with this being a ‘divine sign’ of Japanese purity and therefore supremacy over all races. Is this the ‘rich culture’ that Matsutani wishes to prolong? Again, it is another (on a long list of) indicators that the Japanese don’t really understood why it was a good thing that Imperial ideology lost the war.


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