New Years Eve 2017 TV Blackface Debate in Japan (again): Referential Links


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Hi Blog. With the recent broadcast of an “Eddie Murphy homage” (with Japanese tarento Hamada Masatoshi doing blackface) on one of the most-watched shows in Japan all year, feels a need at least to mention that there is a hot debate going on about whether Blackface is appropriate in other societies (such as Japan) with a different history of race relations.

(Courtesy of The Japan Times)

My opinion is that doing Blackface is almost always a bad thing, due to its historical connotation regardless of context. And I add the caveat of “almost always” while struggling to think of any exception, except for purposes of historical grounding behind the issue. (And it’s not limited to blackface: has covered racialized media in Japan, broadcast without input from the minorities affected, many times in the past, including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)  And the fact that this is happening again despite a similar Blackface incident not two years ago (which ended up with the broadcast being cancelled a priori) is merely willful ignorance on the part of Japan’s media outlets.

But that’s all I’ll say. I think Baye McNeil has a lock on the issue, and I’ll just refer Readers to his most recent Japan Times column, at

Even better is a YouTube panel discussion sponsored by The Japan Times that involves McNeil, Anthropologist Dr. John G. Russell of Gifudai, and YouTuber Aoki Yuta.

Dr. Russell’s comments about Japan’s history with Blackface (there is in fact a history, despite the narrative that Japan is ignorant therefore innocent) are particularly salient. Watch if you want a definitive conclusion to the issue of Blackface in Japan for yourself. Dr. Debito Arudou

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19 comments on “New Years Eve 2017 TV Blackface Debate in Japan (again): Referential Links

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Well, let’s try the ‘Shoe on the other foot test’, shall we?
    To my knowledge, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have no history of oppressing the Japanese, so…

    If a Congolese comedian painted his face yellow, wore coke bottle glasses, fake buck-teeth, and screamed ‘Me so solly! Me Japanese!’, would the japanese think that’s racist, or would they have a good laugh?
    I think they’re be outraged, and ‘japan as victim’ complex would come gushing out.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Watching the clip again, I think the other “comedians” are laughing at Hamada because of his ridiculous appearance, not at black people per se, but its insensitive, and as Baye says, black people are not a prop or a joke to be “appropriated”.

    The joke seems to be they were all supposed to dress like cops, so Hamada dressed like “Beverly Hills Cop”. But “dressing” like someone doesn’t require you change your racial features to do it.
    So yes, this is a racial joke.
    Now if Japan had irony, like Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson and his Indian Curry appropriation sketch or Noel Fielding (there is a sketch about ginger drummers overheating on stage, to which Noel says that is racist, stop it), they could have said to Hamada, hey that is racist, i.e. laugh at his unthinking, racist attitude. That would be funny and also a teaching moment.

    But they don’t, do they? Can anyone actually hear what they say exactly above the laughter?
    ( yet the J Embassy call the BBC for making light of a man who took a train after the Hiroshima bombing, a self effacing joke about the poor state of British railways. Oh, boo hoo, hypersensitive, Kowaiso Japan. The Beeb was saying your railways must be good, geddit? )

    The wider issue is that many Japanese people think world culture is a giant candy store they can help themselves to, willy nilly. Like swearing in English as I discussed before, blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions and without considering the feelings of non Japanese.

    They wouldn’t do something like that without considering the feelings of other Japanese, now would they? That is why there is no punk group called Unit 731, a la Dead Kennedys. The J- elephant in the room is that Japan isn’t a real democracy at all, free speech is actually timid and self censored, lest violent rightists harass you. Johnny Rotten took a knife in the leg for “God Save the Queen”; who is man enough in Japan to make a similar stand?

    Did you know that Japanese radio (Tokyo FM) (InterFm) is so strict that you cant even say “I dont like the Beatles that much” because they fear someone might get offended and complain. Let me get this straight; a Japanese fan of a foreign group (oh, yes but its “WORLD” culture, not (our private) Japanese culture), getting upset because I don’t happen share his taste, his fanatic devotion, in music? This is why radio here is usually just stating facts about release dates, album titles etc.

    So the conclusion again is “NJ Feelings Don’t Matter”. Easy target.

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      Baudrillard, I’ve been thinking about your comment the last couple of days, and I’ve got a thought I just was to throw out there. Let me know what you think.

      I think that we shouldn’t see the ‘dumbing down’ of our cultural property my Japanese as malicious in intent (although it could easily by malicious unintentionally). I think that what we see in stagnant fascist Japan is an envy of other countries perceived (and genuine) freedoms and liberty.
      The Japanese ‘cherry pick’ from the outside world’s ‘candy store’ of cultural expressions of freedom (music, art, fashion, lifestyle) as an attempt to make up for what is genuinely missing from their own individual lives and Japanese society as a whole.
      However, without all the underlying structures of freedoms and liberties that westerners enjoy as a human right (exactly all the things that J-elites have been denouncing and attempting to crush for the last 70 years), these articles of appropriated culture are ‘out of context’ and hence meaningless. The vast majority have no cultural context by which to frame an understanding of Drum and Bass, Surf culture, Outdoorsman lifestyle etc.
      All they can do it reduce it to the simplistic and infantile level that the rest of Japanese culture functions at, otherwise people won’t be able to ‘get it’, and the person exhibiting this appropriated culture will be unable to get the positive reinforcement that they were searching for with their western ‘prop’.
      After all, acceptance of the complexity of the cultural context of (for example) Drum and Bass would require two things of the Japanese;
      1. That the outside world is more complex and nuanced than they can possibly imagine, and…
      2. Japanese imperial era semi-religious beliefs of Japanese racial and cultural superiority (nihonjinron giron) seem particularly ridiculous when infantilized Japanese culture is compared to western (or indeed any!) cultures that have developed from the struggles to define workers rights, human rights etc and therefore have complex and subtly nuanced cultural artifacts and practices.

      Critics please note;
      The Japanese as a nation have chosen to limit external influences as much as they can, and abdicate responsibility for how their country is run to backwards looking fascist ‘elites’, so this outcome should hardly be a surprise. I am not racist for putting forth the opinion that Japan can’t tolerate diversity.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Lenny Henry (respected, black British comedian) is a fan of the below clip, of which he says “Julian is blacked up but you don’t mind”. (Lenny himself whited up in “True Identity”)

    So what is the difference between this and Hamada’s lame attempt a “humor”? I have watched reactions to the Hamada clip by African Americans on youtube, and they are offended and don’t see any joke at all, except the fact that Hamada is blacked up- an easy shot. There is NO cleverness, no joke, except the black thing.
    Julian also has a door in his head in the clip above, and its not actually clear what race he is supposed to be, a surreal, ridiculous rival of Carlos Santana.

    One more comparison, which also caused a sht storm, is Harry and Paul’s Northerner series, in which the rich Southerner treats other Brits like pet animals- unfortunately they then got a Filipina maid involved and the Philippine embassy took offence- the Beeb’s initial defence was “it is so surreal how can anyone take it seriously?”

    It is not “about” the Filipina, its about the useless Northerner, but you have to watch the whole series and not zoom in on that one word “FILIPINA”. Ah well, lost in translation.

  • Brooks Slaybaugh says:

    This was picked up in the New York Times on the 10th of January.
    Baye McNeil was mentioned twice.
    The BBC may have been the first outside Japan to report this.

    One black teacher I knew said that blackface on a Japanese singer pretending to be Whoopi Goldberg’s character in a Sister Act performance did not bother him, but I don’t know what he would think of this.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Just an idea, but I think that this is just one example of a wider problem with counter-productive outcomes for the japanese (apart from the whole, you know, Japanese institutional racism and clinging to outdated and failed imperial era ideology and worldview).

    I think that Japan gets a lot of self-satisfaction from bucking/denying international norms (be it whaling, ivory trading, blackface) under the excuse of having it’s culture ‘misunderstood’. It serves two purposes;
    1. It allows Japan to portray itself as the victim. Japan lost the war and is continually ‘bullied’ into accepting ‘western’ (see, Global) values. And,
    2. It allows Japan to exercise its parochial nationalism- Japan doesn’t have an independent foreign policy, and will never develop one since the USA is literally its only security ally, therefore only ‘acts of rebellion’ against ‘western’ social norms that western policy makers can effectively ignore are permitted by the Japanese themselves.

    At the same time, these two conflicting imperatives must be driving many Japanese to mental illness since it represents (yet again) another case of cognitive dissonance which is so rampant in Japan. The japanese would be so much happier if they could shake it off and free themselves.

    Anyhow, I recently read this;

    And I thought ‘yes, I agree with that’. Japanese social and cultural norms, intensified in Abe’s fascist Japan are exaggerating and compounding this problem precisely because fascism demands a docile and subjugated population with no social and political involvement. So the author is whistling in the wind; the Japanese are never going to stand up and have an opinion that the world will want to hear. Which is interesting given that the common narrative in Japan is that the world is excluding Japan; that the world is drowning them out and ignoring them with their ‘victor’s justice’ Great Powers club. But reality couldn’t be further than the truth- no one is ‘Japan passing’ in order to intentionally snub Japan, rather they are in fact ‘Japan passing’ because they already know Japan has got nothing to say and no ideas to bring to the table (and they could just ask the US what Japan will be told to think if they wanted to know anyway).

    And I think that the blackface incident should be seen in that context; bubble-Japan thought it had enough power in international relations to challenge global norms as a placebo for being forced to accept global norms after the disastrous failure of its imperial ideology. Do blackface and then tell offended westerners ‘hey, it’s your racism, our culture is different’.
    But the times have changed. Japan is in decline and everyone knows it (even the Japanese themselves who have stopped procreating since the future is so bleak), and these global standards bucking activities like blackface more realistically represent desperate cries for attention (even negative attention), desperate attempts at engagement and inclusiveness in a world that see’s Japan as a ‘has-been’.

    And I do mean ‘has-been’. I always used to describe Japan as the kind of place that looks like a 1960’s version of the future that never happened. Looking at Japan’s dated and crumbling infrastructure is like looking at Thunderbirds as history- it’s kitsch and dirty. It should have been replaced and updated.

    I went home for Christmas and was blown away by things like paying for parking at the mall on your iPhone, apps to deliver food from the (non-takeaway) restaurant of your choice, and a million other things, and I just thought ‘Gee, you know, Japan’s not ‘the future’ anymore. It’s an 80’s image of a future that never happened’. Japan is dated and stagnant beyond even my belief.

    • Baudrillard says:

      So Japan resembles mainland China, as”only ‘acts of rebellion’ against ‘western’ social norms that western policy makers can effectively ignore are permitted by the Japanese themselves.
      In China you can demonstrate again foreign companies or policies, quite violently. But woe betide if you start to criticize your own government.

    • I too was back in the UK during xmas/NY. I was also rather pleased/surprised by how the constantly changing and adaptable social availability of, well, just about anything via technology, and with such ease, was very reminiscent of Blade Runner (1st one) in that it was a vision of the future to come, is just about here already.

      Yet back in Japan, it is like a rerun of space 1999…stale and wooden, going nowhere fast.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Is it just me who saw this on TV this morning and cringed.

    Nanako Momota, of Momokuro Z fame (and known blackfacer) has been chosen to do one of the character voices for the Japanese dub of Black Panther. She was in Korea for the Korean premiere.

    On her encounter with lead Chadwick Boseman, she greeted him with “Hi, Brother!”

    Just so many things wrong, and she won’t notice any of them.

    • Baudrillard says:

      I think that was literally her 15 minutes of pseudo fame. Or 15 seconds with an international star. Boseman doesn’t seem bothered either way, but she is clearly overjoyed/overwhelmed to meet him.
      I hope that is the last we hear of it, and her blackface acting.

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      You know what though, the other day I was discussing this whole blackface thing with a professor who taught me back home a million years ago, and he threw up an interesting insight.
      Basically, he said that whilst Japanese society has a lot of insecurities re: ‘white westerners’ and western ‘advanced global power’ societies. This leads to a fetishization of the ‘blonde, blue-eyed gaijin’ and an over-(mis)representation of that image in Japanese culture and advertising (along with the penchant to attempt to include ‘English’ totally out of context and unnaturally). This insecurity that dates back to Meiji-era ‘Japan has four seasons’ protestations as a sign of parity with the Great Powers and can still be seen in Japan’s stubborn determination to apply for Permanent Member of the UNSC status.
      Japan is desperate for recognition as a member of *what it imagines to be* the continuing elite status club of the Great Powers. Japan craves recognition of the imagined fact that it is more important than other ‘merely’ Asian nations.

      During the era of the Great Powers there was no way on earth the west was going to voluntarily share some of their dominance with ‘wannabe Japan’ and Japan resorted to force in an attempt to gain Great Power status. It failed. And as we all know, the Japanese narrative describes this in terms of a racist ‘white powers’ suppression of Japan’s national entitlement (a kind of abuse of Japanese rights!), and in the postwar era this dysfunctional relationship with the US that subordinates Japan’s international relations to US policy, means that Japanese society is also able to identify itself with other ‘non-white’ peoples of the world subjected to white power imperialism.
      Of course, this is all an imagined world view on their part designed to rationalize their history without having to take responsibility for it.

      On the one hand, they ask themselves honestly ‘why aren’t we being accepted as equals?’ whilst at the same time telling themselves ‘were being kept down with the other natives’. Two equally powerful and sincerely held world-views, in direct conflict, with associated cognitive-dissonance related convoluted ‘logic’ to rationalize it.

      In this context, it’s perfectly understandable how the Japanese comedian who likes western clothes and movies, and the idol who uses skin bleaching make-up, can with no sense or irony, also black-up with no sense of disrespect.

      I thought about that for a long while. And I think my old professor may be onto something there. It includes Japanese superiority/inferiority complex combined with a kind of shared victim-status.

    • Baudrillard says:

      Out of the mouth of babes and fools, a priceless insight into the mind(less) Kanako. Interesting how she is regarded as “Stupid” and this is seen as endearing (very Japanese trait) but is the leader. I am seeing some parallels with Japanese politicians….

      “Kanako displaying her unmatched skills at being baka. Despite being the Leader of the group she’s quite stupid, and some would even go as far as to say very stupid. Kanako herself denies this fact feverishly, thinking her friends are only messing with her when they call her “baka”.
      Political career and ambitions
      Kanako has been Leader of Momoclo since Reni was forcibly removed from the position in the early days of the band.
      Special abilities
      Stupidity E
      While this may sound harsh, it is indeed meant to be endearing. There is no denying the fact that Kanako isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. She often questions basic concepts and statements, simply because she doesn’t comprehend them. Common phrases are “Ehh??!”, of varying intensity, and “Nani?”

        • “Ehh??!” “Nani?” Makes Brit Chavs look like intellectuals. So her blackface had zero thought in it.

          I ‘m out of here, I think I ll write a thesis how Japanese is actually better suited to “anti communication” ie. obfuscating deep meaning to maintain (meaningless) harmony. Someone mentioned Japan now resembling a “Space 1999” rerun, specifically “The Guardian of Piri” where harmony and peace equated inertia, apathy and eventual death through stagnation (partial digression).
          They favored robots to care for the populace too.

    • Just noticed the event and filming was in Korea “premier event in Korea which is also the location of the work”. So she traveled there to represent J-blackface?

      As the movie is supposed to be set in a hi tech futuristic city, Japan passing much?


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