Recently, I read a couple of articles that made me think. One was an open letter to Japanese people from a black man, listing a lot of “microaggressions” that black people suffer here, and posted on another blog. Another was the article “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races””, by Chike Jeffers, in Ethics Vol 123 (pages 403-426, 2013). One of the things they made me think about was the question “are there any black people in Japan?”.
In a biological sense, there obviously are. In this sense, black people are people with very dark skin, of African ancestry. There aren’t very many; looking at the statistics from the Ministry of Justice, and making some estimates, it looks like there might be about 25,000, or about 0.02% of the population. That could get up as high as 0.05%, I think, but not much higher than that. (Foreigners as a whole are only 2% of the population, and the great majority are Asian.) By comparison, the Amish are about 0.07% of the US population, if Wikipedia’s statistics are accurate.
However, biologically, “race” has been known to have no solid grounding for decades. Indeed, serious doubts have been cast on the idea that “race” is a biological concept since Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races”, which was published in 1897. In a fairly recent study of genetic diversity, it was discovered that sub-Saharan Africans have more genetic diversity than everyone else, and, if I recall correctly, that there was no sensible way to draw a line that included all sub-Saharan Africans, but did not include every living human being. This is not unexpected; human beings originated in sub-Saharan Africa, so people outside that region are descended from people who made it across the desert or the ocean, a fairly limited subset. While concepts of “race” do pick up on biological features — skin colour is a biological feature, after all — the issues of how those features are interpreted as “race” are socially constructed, and most people working on these issues accept that some form of social construction is important.
There is a second sense in which there obviously are black people in Japan. This is the cultural sense, in which “black” is a culture which, according to Jeffers, includes not only US blacks, but also black Africans, and black people from other countries. The author of the open letter would not agree with drawing the boundaries so broadly, I think, but if we restrict the culture to “US black culture”, then there are clearly members of that culture in Japan. Again, not many; a lot of the “biologically” black people I estimated above are from Africa, for example.
The last sense is the interesting one for my purposes. Jeffers describes this as the political construction of blackness, and accepts it as an important part of the definition and origin of blackness:
[R]acial divisions as we know them today are the ideological and institutional products of modern European expansion, with its expropriation of non-European lands and subjugation of non-European peoples. On this view, the origin of something called the black race is to be located in the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans and the colonization of Africa.
It is, in my opinion, undeniable that race, in this sense, has a massive impact on the lives of black people in the USA, and also in the UK. However, are there any black people, in this sense, in Japan?
First, and most obviously, Japan does not have a history of enslaving sub-Saharan Africans or colonising Africa. Black people living in Japan are not living in a culture with that historical background. This does mean that there are things it may be acceptable for a Japanese person to say or do that would not be acceptable for a white person, because the Japanese person has not inherited those legacies. At the very least, it means that that history of the black people cannot be simply assumed to be part of the background in Japan; one would need to argue for it.
To put this most starkly, the Japanese have less historical responsibility for the enslavement of black people than black people do, because some black people were involved in the slave trade, and no Japanese were. The history of the USA is not the history of Japan, and Japan has an entirely different historical legacy to deal with. There is nothing in Japanese history that suggests that “black” would be politically constructed as a racial category here.
Second, there do not seem to be large differences between the black and white experiences in Japan. I wrote a year or so ago about the fact that white people in Japan do not have so-called “White Privilege”. The results of the Kawasaki survey of foreign residents suggest that white people suffer significantly from racism, although the results do not directly apply to those categories. (There aren’t enough black people in Kawasaki to pick them out; a quick estimate based on nationalities suggests that there are probably about 300 to 400 black people in Kawasaki in total, which means we would have needed to send every single one of them a survey, and get a better response rate than we actually did, to have enough for statistical analysis.)
Further, if we go back to the an open letter, I find it extremely easy to believe that this happens, because a lot of these, or their analogues, have happened to me or are notorious for happening to other white people. 1 & 2 happen to white people all the time, as do 6, and 8, and 11, and 12, and 16. There are, obviously, different stereotypes about white people, but “please don’t assume that all white people are American”, “please don’t assume that all white people speak English”, “don’t talk about Europe as if it is a country; it is a continent”. The number of people who, on learning that I am English and from Manchester, assume that I like tea and Manchester United is really astounding. (For the record, I’m not that interested in football in the first place, and when I was a child I eighth-heartedly supported City. And I strongly prefer green tea.) The black experience in Japan sounds very similar to the white one.
Obviously, I do not know what it is like to be black in Japan. I am white, and so only know, from personal experience, what it is like to be white here. On the other hand, black people in Japan do not know what it is like to be white in Japan, because they have not had that experience. For a long time, I thought that the experiences were very different, because that was what everyone said. However, the Kawasaki survey undermined some of those conventional certainties: Chinese and Koreans do not face more racism than westerners. The open letter from the black man undermines it further. The experience he describes sounds a lot like my experience.
This is very different from the USA or Europe. White people in the USA or Europe do have white privilege. I know; I’ve lived in both areas (admittedly only for a few weeks at a time in the US), and I know what it’s like. White people in those countries do not face the sorts of comments and behaviour picked out in the open letter. When I hear black people describe their experiences of life in the USA or Europe, it sounds nothing like my experience of life there. However, as I said, that’s not the case for their experiences in Japan. This is another reason for doubting that “black” is a (politically constructed) racial category in Japan.
Finally, “black person” and “white person” are not terms that get used much in Japan. That is, people do not actually use “black” as a racial category. They exist, certainly (“kokujin” and “hakujin”, respectively), but they are most often used in the context of reporting American news. That is fair. Japanese people know that these are important categories in the USA, and so use them when reporting what is happening there. On the other hand, they do not use them in normal conversation. I recent days, I’ve had a couple of conversations where it would have been most obvious, to me, to talk about “white people”, in one case because the topic was what someone looked like, but the Japanese person never went for “hakujin” as a term. Instead, they used terms for “western European”, or “European”, or “American”, with obvious discomfort because they were clearly aware that not everyone in those areas is white.
That raises the question of the categories that the Japanese do use. The big one is “foreigner” (“gaikokujin”, or “gaijin” when people aren’t being careful about being polite). That, obviously, includes black and white people, and also includes a lot of Asian people. Another one is “westerner” (“ōbeijin”, literally “Europe America People”, but it tends to include Australians and New Zealanders as well). It is true that the default image of a westerner is a white person, but black westerners are still westerners. So, it could be argued that the reason black people and white people have very similar experiences in Japan on this dimension is that, in Japan, they are the same race. Just as Japanese people produce different stereotypes when they learn I’m British (You drink tea! You like beer! You are very polite!), they produce different stereotypes when faced with a black westerner, but they are still stereotypes of westerners. Black Africans probably do face different stereotypes, connected to the “Africa is nothing but war and starving children” stereotype, and may be a separate racial category, but there are so few of them (under 250 Africans in Kawasaki, or less than 0.02% of the population) that there might not actually be a category for them.
A connected point is that one of the important racial categories in Japan is “mixed” (“haafu”, from the Japanese pronunciation of “half”, as in “half-Japanese”). This applies no matter what Japanese is mixed with; one of my daughter’s friends is mixed Chinese-Japanese, so she looks no different from a typical Japanese person, but she is still a “haafu”. It is quite possible for someone, the child of a Japanese person and a black person, to be haafu in Japan, and black in the USA. Of course, my daughter is also haafu in Japan, but she is not black in the USA. Although my daughter is the same race as that person here, she is not the same race in the USA. The categories are different.
Now, this is not conclusive. It’s based on rather more than just my own impressions, but it isn’t based on any systematic research into how Japanese people tend to categorise others. I would be frankly astounded if it turned out that “foreigner” was not an extremely important category, to the point that I would suspect serious flaws in the research. (That concept is everywhere as an organising category; it’s the nearest equivalent to “person of color” in the USA, but more important. It even gets used for naturalised citizens, who are, in a very important sense, not foreigners at all.) However, I would believe research showing that black people were not normally counted as westerners, although it would surprise me.
This is, in fact, something that it would be useful for Kawasaki to do, as knowing how the Japanese residents think about other residents, including foreigners, would be very helpful in designing policies to solve the problem of the discrimination perceived by foreign residents. As long as we don’t know why the Japanese are doing it, it is hard to propose concrete policies to remove it. I might try to get this survey carried out as well, but the lead time on these things is about five years, so there aren’t going to be any immediate results.
However, what I can say is that there are good reasons to doubt that the politically constructed racial categories of “black” and “white” apply to the Japanese context. It is quite possible that, when it comes to questions of racism and prejudice, there are no black people in Japan.