Good JT article on historically-ignorant blackface on Japanese performers and “modern-day minstrel shows” in Japan

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Hi Blog.  I had heard about this issue of blackface in Japan (a la other racialized “gaijin” characteristics in Japan, including blond wigs and stuck-on big noses) but wasn’t sure how to raise it (Debito.org was embroiled enough in the Japartheid issue enough over the past few days).  However, Baye McNeil does it instead, and better than I could.  The part of the article I like best is about the lack of historical research these performers (such as Rats & Star) who profess to love the people they so carelessly imitate:

Doo-what?: An image that went viral on the Internet shows members of male doo-wop group Rats & Star and idol group Momoiro Clover Z blacked up backstage during the filming of a show for Fuji TV scheduled for broadcast on March 7. | THE JAPAN TIMES

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McNeil: All of which speaks directly to this racist bullsh-t — I mean, this cultural misunderstanding — one that could have been avoided in the 30-some-odd years this band [Rats & Star] has existed if, while they were researching the music, costumes and other aspects of black music and performance, they had simply taken a second to see if what they wanted to do with blackface had ever been done before. You know, just a little proactive research about the industry they would spend the next three f-cking decades profiting handsomely from.

But alas, when I saw this story on the Net the other day — that they were going to be on Fuji TV alongside popular girl group Momoiro Clover Z, who would be similarly blacked up — all I could say was, “Mata ka yo?” (“Jeezus! Again?”), suck my teeth and click away. To me, it’s not shocking to see blackfaced bands here. With the attitudes and ignorance encountered here regularly, the only shocking thing is that there aren’t more of these groups. A Ku Klux Klan-themed idol group wouldn’t even surprise me here.

I’m still, however, pleasantly surprised when non-Japanese people in Japan get worked up over something important. They’re a beautiful sight to see! Like when Julien Blanc was spreading his misogynistic garbage about Japanese women. Remember how the Japanosphere responded? They damn near shut down the Internet with their furor over his antics. Of course, everything he said could be heard in any gaijin (foreigner) bar in Tokyo or Yokohama on any given day, but it was still great to see people get activated for a good cause. Not to mention that, let’s say, inappropriate ANA advert that got a lot of people upset and resulted in Japan’s biggest airline re-editing a television commercial advertising new flights.

And even Japanese get worked up when they want to. Like back in 2011, when the Japanese Embassy in London sent a letter to the BBC complaining about A-bomb jokes on an episode of a British TV comedy quiz, leading the BBC to apologize for offending Japanese sensibilities. And very recently, conservative Netizens in Japan campaigned to keep Angelina Jolie’s biographical movie about a former American POW from opening in theaters here because of its depictions of Imperial Japanese Army brutality. All beautiful acts of activism, right?

Well, I say, if ANA and the BBC can be made to change their tunes, and if Blanc can be shut down, so can these guys…
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Read the entire article at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2015/02/18/our-lives/time-shut-modern-day-minstrel-show/. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

21 comments on “Good JT article on historically-ignorant blackface on Japanese performers and “modern-day minstrel shows” in Japan

  • @ Kirk #2

    An update to the article you linked shows that Momoiro have cancelled a press conference due to be held at the FCCJ to promote a new movie.
    I guess they are now worried that the worlds journalists will hammer them over the blackface.
    Which would kind of indicate that they know this is a big issue. So why aren’t they calling for to be cancelled, or their spot to be cut, or rerecorded? Why aren’t they making an apology?

    Just like their much admired Abe, they are silent when it all goes bad.

    Reply
  • The JT article has a lot to say about how Baye McNeil deals with things, but little about why blackface ought to be reconsidered in Japan.I would like to have read about the history lesson he gave his Japanese coworker.

    Reply
  • @ OneMoreBill #4

    Yeah, me too. Sounds like an interesting conversation.

    I’m pretty sure that if set myself up as a ‘tarento’ by painting my face yellow, wearing buck-teeth, and bottle thick glasses, whilst saying ‘me so solly’, the Japanese would cry ‘hate-speech’ no matter how much I protested that I was doing it ‘because I admire them’.

    Reply
  • 30 years doing the shows, including twice in LA, without knowing that blackface is offensive in the US? Ignorance is just not possible for Rats and Star. Everyone involved knows what this is, but does it because it sells in Japan still. Only consumers and public scrutiny can turn this off.

    Reply
  • The real problem with this conversation is that we are constantly saying, “It is offensive to use blackface because of the history of minstrel shows.”

    This is wrong. Frankly, this is stupid. This is why people respond by saying, “Stop trying to impose your culture on Japan!” I saw one person say that, if Japan wants to import American culture, they have to import the baggage and history of that culture, too. This is not really fair. That’s not how culture works.

    We have to stop talking about this in terms of Japan vs. America, or Japan + America.

    This is Japan by itself. Blackface is not ok for the simple reason that using other ethnicities or cultures as a toy, using it as a backdrop for your performance, using ethnicity or culture as a prop in your comedy – is **inherently wrong.** Blackface isn’t racist in Japan because of American history – it’s racist in Japan because it is racist in Japan.

    It’s a problem of, “Japanese people are happy to import foreign ideas, but refuse to respect the foreign people they get those ideas from.” Blackface in Japan is wrong because Japanese people are happy to do “black music,” and dress up as black people – but they have no interest in actual black people.

    And we should expand this critique. It’s the same thing that anime producers do – Shingeki no Kyojin? The entire show takes place in a foreign land. Is there even a single “foreigner” on the staff of the show? Did they get a cultural consultant?

    Look at Terumae Romae – the lead actor, playing a Roman, is…Japanese. In fact, look at the film – NONE of the actors in that movie are “foreign.”

    The blackface problem goes way, way, way, way beyond Rats and Momoiro Z.

    Reply
  • @ Chester #8

    I agree with your post.
    Maybe you have seen that some Japanese have started a petition to re-cast the lead in the upcoming hollywood live action movie Ghost in the Shell (based on manga & anime of the same name).
    They are apparently angry that Scarlet Johanson has been cast as the lead, and not a Japanese actress. It’s a total double standard;
    Japanese can play NJ in a Japanese film, but an NJ can’t play a character whose ethnicity is not specified in an NJ film because the original story was in the Japanese language!
    I guess no one ever explained to them that Kurosawa Akira’s film ‘Ran’ is Shakespeare’s King Lear transplanted into Japan (with Japanese actors and language, and everything!).

    Reply
  • I just realized that Momoiro will be opening for KISS in Tokyo;

    http://www.kissonline.com/news?n_id=121698

    Do you think that they will be doing blackface?
    I think it’s time to ask KISS if they think Momoiro were a bad choice and get a little gaiatsu going on! It’s the only way Japan can ever make any changes.

    — Good luck with that. KISS is only interested in one thing: making money. Gene Simmons has said as such many times; he’s that kind of guy.

    Reply
  • @Chester I agree that giving the reason that “it’s wrong in the US so you can’t do it in Japan” will lead to the easy excuse of “don’t impose your culture on Japan” – which leads back to the central question of the validity of cultural relativism, and meta-ethical cultural relativism in particular.

    Japan is turning inwards again, and has no interest in interacting with the outside world much beyond making money on foreign markets. They, meaning the majority and surely not the people in charge, don’t want foreign morals and values to interfere. Like an alcoholic who’s not reached rock bottom yet, they don’t want to realise that in order to have a future in this globalised world, they need to change the very fundamental ideas their culture is based upon, and for whatever reason (stubbornness, pride, task anxiety, or a mixture of all the above) they choose time and time again to not start rehab but dream on for “just one more day”. They must realise that the more inward they turn and the more time passes, the less likely it will be for them to have any kind of meaningful relationships with the outside world. The only other country that does this to a similar extreme is North Korea.

    They want their meta-ethical cultural relativism and they want 100% of it – everything and anything changes its meaning once done or said inside the borders of Japan or even just by a Japanese person abroad. At the same time they have absolutely no acceptance that cultures outside of Japan do things differently.

    With racism, I have heard the opinion that “it’s not racism as long as it’s favourable”, and that we Westeners are too masochistic about political correctness. Oh and they also told me that they can’t understand why Germans were so “masochistic” after WWII as to start their whole society from scratch.

    I know it might sound cynical, but as long as Japan does not acquire nukes to make Japan feared again (which I think is the end game of nationalists such as Abe), I’m fine with having such a country in the world which has fallen out of time. If you see it as an experiment whether a such a society can survive in a globalised world, it’s pretty darn interesting.

    I won’t come back to Japan, ever – not even for travel, and wouldn’t recommend anyone going there unless it’s out of a journalistic interest.

    Reply
  • Re Debito at 10: His family was wiped out in the Holocaust except his mother. He might have some concern for discrimination.

    — Go for it. Would be impressive if it happened.

    Reply
  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Jim Di Griz, #10

    Momorio Clover is just a dime-a-dozen dancing puppet dolls who are just doing their job by following orders from the top–their manager and agent. Like many “tarento” kittens, these young, innocent, naive girls don’t have much autonomy in music production. They know nothing about discrimination or distinction, whatsoever, thanks to the ignorance of their agent, staff, a producer, and anyone working in that crappy minstrel show for years. It’s all about ignorance thrown down from top to the bottom. That just goes beyond the anger to scream out R-word like Baye.

    It’s nothing about respect for cultural heritage—it’s a kitsch.

    All I can say is “Mou-iikagen-ni-shite-kure-yo!”

    @Bob, #12

    Would be great if it happened in one-in-a-million chance. Gene Simmons is very much pro-Japanese. I highly doubt he cares about it at all. He’s musician and entertainer who lives in a different world from the rest of people. Maybe it’s good for us to ride Ayn Rand Gravy Train just for one day to see their show to shake off social depression.

    Reply
  • Most of the discussion around this issue seems based on the idea that blackface entered Japan divorced from its original historical context, but in fact Admiral Perry’s white crew members performed minstrel shows all throughout Japan. (See “Excluded Presence : Shoguns, Minstrels, Bodyguards, and Japan’s Encounters with the Black Other” http://repository.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2433/71097/1/40_15.pdf)

    At best, these kinds of incidents are failures of the Japanese cultural memory.

    Reply
  • @ Mdo7 #16

    Yes, a petition.
    Maybe Fuji TV will decide that it’s too ‘meiwaku’ to go ahead with the program since it’s ‘regrettably’ the case that NJ will understand Japan’s ‘unique’ culture.
    OR…
    The program should be aired, and Japan receive the international criticism and disdain that it deserves for such a high level of latent institutional racism.

    Which is better?
    Face the problem, or sweep it under the rug, and out of sight of those pesky NJ?

    — My vote is to have it not air. If it airs, it will just be passed off as “quirky Japan stuff” by the relativists and culture vultures, and added once again to a self-legitimizing stew of “This is Japan, and criticizing racist things is not only ineffective, but also a sign of your own racism towards Japanese.” Better to have it admitted as wrong within Japanese society and withdrawn instead of having it broadcast and reaffirming the normal.

    Reply
  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Dr. Debito,

    I saw in the JT yesterday that Fuji TV has pulled the black-face segment (cue ‘Japan the victim’ routine). But this is a win.

    However…

    Flicking through the TV channels this morning, and what do I find on Fuji TV?
    A CM for a two hour special on how to ‘hangeki’ (counter-attack), against *even* ‘gaijin’, along with a Japanese and a NJ guy, faces mosaic covered, surrounded by reporters in the street, and the Japanese guy shouting in katakana English ‘NO! DONTO TOUCHI ME!’.

    WTF? Counter-attack? ‘Even gaijin’? What the hell is going on with these people?

    It’s on at 19:30 tonight, if anyone can find a way to record it and send it to Dr. Debito (I’m a luddite).

    Reply
  • I don’t know anything about the FujiTV program in question, but the above comment got me curious. I think that the commercial you saw must have been for this program:

    http://www.fujitv.co.jp/b_hp/hangeki/?pagelink=rmenu_rmd_program

    Which will feature a segment on “foreigner marriage fraud” (外国人結婚詐欺; I wanted to say “international marriage fraud” but that isn’t how it’s written).

    Here’s the synposis:

    <外国人結婚詐欺>
    大学を卒業しキャリアウーマンとして頑張って来たYさんには、夢があった。「大好きな人と結婚してお店を開きたい」。そして40代になったことを機に自分の夢をかなえたいと会社を辞める。そんな折、1人のアフリカの男性と出会う。「夫婦でお店を開きたい…」同じ夢を持っていることに運命的なものを感じたYさん。2人は結婚を前提に付き合い始めるのだった。しかし、それが悪夢の始まりだった。男性から徐々にお金の相談をされ、つい渡してしまうYさん。いつしか気づいた時には被害総額900万円。そして、まとまった金額を渡した直後から連絡がとりづらくなった男性におかしいと思ったYさんから依頼があった調査員は、早速調査を開始した。そして知ることになる男の驚がくの真実とは…。番組初の海をまたいだ調査を敢行!男を追い詰める!

    Reply
  • Jeff, that sounds like a typical Japanese scam. There was some news recently about (Japanese) men conning (Japanese) women into buying apartments. I think the entire scam was basically (Japanese) men telling their girlfriends something like, “I love you so much, that I need you to buy an apartment for us to live in.” Once the woman bought the apartment the (Japanese) man broke up with her or…something. It was a really stupid and transparent scam, so I’m not really sure I understand how it worked.

    So this is a pretty good example of blatant racism in media. This is a scam that has nothing to do with race or nationality. And, as a matter of fact, it is apparently a typical Japanese-style fraud: hook up with someone, take their money.

    It was pretty big news not too long ago when some (Japanese) men did this to women, but I don’t recall any big TV shows going on about “Hangeki! Nihonjin Sagi!”? Why aren’t we just seeing something more neutral, like, “Hangeki! Renai Sagi!” or “Hangeki! Kekkon Sagi!”?

    I’m so tired of the argument that “gaijin” or “gaikokujin” isn’t a racist term. When it’s used so blatantly as it is in this Fuji TV segment, yes, it is racist as hell even to say “gaikokujin.” Talking about people’s race when their race is not relevant is **racist as all hell.**

    Oh, hey, it looks like we can send a message directly to Fuji TV on the site you linked, Jeff…

    Reply

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