When I moved from Montreal to Tokyo, I was excited about discovering new food, learning a new language, and seeing old temples—all of which I did.  But no one told me that I would also find Caribbean-themed restaurants, girls wearing bomber jackets with “respect the black woman” or “black for life” written on the back, guys hanging out in old Cadillacs that they had converted into low riders, and Japanese dudes that speak better Jamaican Patois than I could ever imitate.  In my naivety, I wondered where was the ancient land of the mysterious orient I had envisioned?  I was experiencing my very own unique version of culture shock.

To see aspects of my own culture in Japan was, to say the least, surprising.  I didn’t quite know what to make of Jamaican food and music festivals, Japanese Reggae artists, or clubs named Harlem or Bootie that played the newest Hip Hop and R&B music.  Seeing this apparent fascination by some Japanese people with all things black, my mind went from wow to why?

“Kokujin kakkoii!” is what I was often told whenever I tried to discover what was behind the admiration of black people. Basically, I was cool simply for being black.  I admit it was a bit of an ego boost hearing it whispered behind me as I walked down the crowded, narrow Takeshita Dori Street in the trendy Harajuku district or while “getting down” on the dance floor till 5 a.m. in Shibuya. Sometimes people would come right up to me and say it, to which I would smile and say a simple thank you.

But soon I started to feel like a celebrity without all the perks; people didn’t know me, yet they thought they knew what I was about.  I got tired of conversations that started with “Where are you from, New York?” “Are you a DJ?”  “What sports team do you play for?”  “I’m from Canada, and I came here to teach English.  Sorry to disappoint you.”
I was mistaken for a band member from The Roots and for Tiger Woods (who I look nothing like) and asked to sign an autograph by a high school girl while at Tokyo Disney. I was asked to pose for pictures while holding a newborn and was complimented by a group of small town teens on certain parts of my, ahem, anatomy at the Tanabata Festival. One guy even went out of his way to buy his train ticket at the counter next to me just so he could say, “What’s up my brotha?” From the look of his satisfied grin, I guess I had made his day.Arthur_with_friends_in_Japan

Then there were the countless number of twenty-somethings I saw wandering around who had paid 50,000 yen (roughly 500 U.S. dollars) at some chic salon to make them look like they had natural dreadlocks for a month or two, and, not to mention, all the Afros, picks included.  Or the guys dressed like they came from "the hood,” and they had the slang speech to match. In reality, there is no hood in Japan, and their language is built around self-effacing pleasantries and kindness instead of tactless, blunt directness.

On the other hand, being black in Japan definitely had its drawbacks.  When I finally was able to go to a Hip Hop club called Harlem that I`d heard a lot about and was dying to check out with two Japanese friends, they were quickly let in, but I was stopped at the door. The bouncer—himself a foreigner—walked over and explained that they had some problems in the past with “gaijins, ” particularly black males being too forward with Japanese girls. The name of the club was HARLEM, and they played Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae. Did they really not expect black guys to show up? True, I shouldn`t have been let in simply based on the color of my skin, but I shouldn`t have been rejected because of it either.

A black male colleague of mine who also lived in Japan offered another perspective. He found it refreshing to see a new take on the music, fashion, and food we both grew up with. I wasn’t so easily convinced. Playing with culture the way you play with the latest gadget could hardly be a positive thing, especially if you don’t know the culture well enough. There seemed to be no concern at all about whether their actions, dress, comments, or hairstyle might cause offense. 

They say imitation is the biggest form of flattery, but is it always?  Maybe their exploration of all things black is a form of admiration and shouldn’t be considered anything more.  So much of Hip Hop culture today has now become youth culture; it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.

Back in Canada now for a few years, I often find myself daydreaming about my time spent in Japan.  Having lived in several areas of Saitama and Tokyo over 3 1/2 years pulled me out of my Canadian comfort zone and tested the limits of my western patience. It challenged my way of thinking, making me aware of the difference between group and individual mentality. Japan and Japanese people always kept me guessing. Just when I thought I had them all figured out, they threw me another cultural curve ball.

The presence of black culture in Japan still leaves me with ambivalent feelings. What is clear, however, is that despite their own language and cultural barriers that sometimes keep them apart, there is a young generation of “ ‘nihonjin” who seek more than ever to be closer to the rest of the world, to feel somehow connected, and who are still in the process of figuring out how.




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