Are There Any Black People In Japan?

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.






16 responses to “Are There Any Black People In Japan?”

  1. Baye avatar

    Hey David. great post, man! Thanks for linking to the article on my blog.
    I’m a black man and have been living in Japan for over a decade. The kawasaki survey is admittedly flawed right? ” These data are flawed, but they are the best we have at the moment, as far as I know. The biggest unknown is how far these results generalise to the rest of Japan.” and the reasons are clear. I realize it must be difficult to get accurate numbers reflective of the truth but I do appreciate the effort you’re putting into getting to it for it is a useful bit of date to have on hand at any given time…particularly for a writer like me.

    Might I recommend something? (and forgive me if you’ve already approached it this way…please link to the results if you have). Ask Japanese people questions like: 1-Do you view black people and white people and Japanese people (and others) as equally capable of good and evil? (If not, how would you rank them from most to least) 2- Among gaijin, which race would you find more likely to commit a crime in Japan? White, Chinese, Korean, Black, etc…? Tell them to rank them as well. 3- Which gaijin comes to mind first when you think of high class, high culture, high education, and affluence? Which last? Why? 4- Which race do you find most threatening / fearful? Why?

    These are the types of questions I have asked Japanese people over the years and the answers have unequivocally made it clear to me that a gaijin is NOT a gaijin in Japan, and that many of the people here (though I hate to generalize), while definitely exhibiting xenophobic / other-izing tendencies at conspicuous western gaijin across the board, there exists an increased amount of not only ignorance when it comes to black people, but fear and occasionally loathing (generated by said ignorance, misinformation and fear).

    Unfortunately I don’t have quantitative data to support this, and my experiential knowledge is just that. Thus I am very supportive of what you’re trying to do here, and would love to help out in any way. Hope you’ll consider my suggestion. I’m not a scientist by any means so not sure if my questions are scientific enough. Maybe they’re leading? Maybe they’re too rigid? I dunno. To me, when I used them, they felt as straight to the point as I dared without making the interviewee uncomfortable.

    After all, like you said, it’s about racism (and notice I didn’t drop the R-word either..I avoid it like the plague because I’ve found once its introduced everybody gets so uncomfortable that the truth becomes muddled in defensiveness and emotion).

    For it has been my experience here that the “politically constructed racial categories of “black” and “white”” DO “apply to the Japanese context” and “It is quite possible that, when it comes to questions of racism and prejudice, there are” MANY “black people in Japan.”

    I’m just saying…

    Give me a shout any time!


  2. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Baye, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found the post interesting.

    I hope you find the data from the survey useful; the full report is also interesting, but I don’t have time to translate it.

    We haven’t done any surveys on Japanese perceptions of foreigners, and I’m not aware of any. As I say, I think it would be very helpful to do so. One problem, when the categories are in question, is that you can’t just give questions that ask them to rank “White, Chinese, Korean, Black, etc”, because that starts by framing people in terms of the categories we’re trying to investigate. The best idea I’ve come up with so far is to use pictures of people, and ask them to supply words to go with the pictures. (Maybe from a list, to make analysis tractable, which would let us test for associations with high class and so on.)

    Quite apart from my largely philosophical interest in the categories Japanese people use to organise the people around them, I’d really like to know just why landlords don’t want to rent to foreigners. At least in Kawasaki, that’s the largest concrete problem by a considerable margin, and no-one seems to have any solid ideas on how to tackle it. I would hope that some insight into their reasons would give us some hints on what might work.

    In any case, there’s still, to the best of my knowledge, far too little known about what (and how) Japanese people, on the whole, think about foreigners, so I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that this question is anywhere close to settled. I just think it’s a question.

    Thanks again for the comment.


  3. Mike Hommey avatar
    Mike Hommey

    > I’d really like to know just why landlords don’t want to rent to foreigners

    My understanding is that in most cases, it’s for the same reasons landlords don’t want to rent to part-timers, or other unstable income categories. Landlords are not renting for people to have a roof, but to earn money. Renters are a liability, so risk needs to be minimized. A foreigner is someone who can go back to their country at any moment, possibly without paying all that is due. A foreigner is someone who, if they lose their job, might also lose their residency at the same time, depending on their residency status. They might also have more difficulty finding a new job if they don’t leave the country. Those are the reasons why loans are harder to get for foreigners as well, because banks are not loaning to lose money.

  4. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Mike, thanks for the comment. That understanding was the reason why Kawasaki started a scheme to provide guarantors for foreigners, through an insurance company. If the foreigner stops paying or goes back home, then the insurance company pays the landlord and takes over chasing the tenant. It should effectively eliminate the financial risk. However, it doesn’t seem to have fixed the problem. Hence the concern that there may be other reasons, and that there is no way to address those reasons if we don’t even know what they are.

    Thanks agains for the comment.

  5. Vuyisile avatar

    @David Chart, Baye

    An implicit association test, often called a prejudice test sounds like it would be perfect for the research that you have in mind.

    Here is a link to a race and gender test online.

  6. Kit avatar

    “There is nothing in Japanese history that suggests that “black” would be politically constructed as a racial category here.”

    Sorry to be writing in 2016, but I have to correct you here. Despite the misconceptions, this is absolutely false. While (European) conceptions of race are not well-known features of Japan’s “contact with the west,” I assure you that it is an important theme.

    From the moment Matthew Perry landed in Japan with his African slaves (which most people don’t know), definitive ideas of racial hierarchy were already taking root in the psyche of Japanese elite. In fact, catching up with the west was not only in terms of industry, but in terms of RACE (as in China)! In other words, it was the beginning of the reorientation of the Japanese as “not quite white,” but definitely not really Asian either.

    For black people in particular, their race and identity as BLACK was particularly key during WWII and the Occupation of Japan (although, again, this is a much understudied topic).

    I don’t disagree with you that blacks and whites in Japan suffer a lot of the same microaggressions. But at the same time, to suggest that the categorization of “black” doesn’t exist in Japan historically is just 100% incorrect. In fact, the history seems to suggest that these categorizations were MORE important in the past than presently (rather than nonexistent).

    In addition, most foreigners that I talk to (who are nonwhite) agree that there seems to be somewhat of a preference for white foreigners in Japan. OF COURSE THAT IS NOT TO SUGGEST BY ANY MEANS that whites have privilege over Japanese (b/c that would be absurd). But, that is not a surprise nor a trait particular to Japan. It appears to be the same in China, Singapore, etc…

    I’d be happy to provide sources for any of the above (besides of course the last paragraph which are only my observations/ experiences).

  7. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Kit, thanks for your comment. No problem with it being this year; this isn’t a topic that is no longer relevant, after all.

    I’d be interested in your sources on those points. I’m well aware of the growth of pan-Asianism in Japan, and the idea of #AsiaForAsians that was used to justify the Japanese empire, but none of the sources I’ve read have suggested that “black” was a category there; the distinction was Asian/European. There was also the idea that the Japanese were the natural leaders of Asia, but, again, that was a Japanese/Chinese-Korean split; “black” didn’t come into it. The kanji used in the phrases to express those ideas all refer to westernness, rather than skin colour. Now, I can easily believe that black identity was very important during WWII and the Occupation, because at that time the black people were all under the authority of the pre-Civil Rights USA. It’s certainly not impossible that the values would be adopted by the Japanese, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they were, so I’d be interested in seeing yours.

    Incidentally, on your last paragraph, I agree that most non-white foreigners in Japan think that there is a preference for white foreigners. I also assumed that. However, the results of the surveys of foreign residents of Kawasaki (we have the meeting to finalise the report on the interview survey tonight; I plan to translate my bit of that report as well) suggest that it isn’t true. White people are possibly more likely to encounter micro-aggressions (and blatant “no foreigners here” discrimination) than non-white people, and the person who reported the worst experiences of discrimination in the interview survey was white. The people asking whether any foreigners suffered discrimination, because they certainly hadn’t, were southeast Asian.

    Thinking about it, personal experience should not be expected to be a useful guide here. I have no experience of being non-white in Japan, and non-white foreigners in Japan have no experience of being white here. Thus, it is very difficult for any of us to compare the two experiences. This is one point where we really shouldn’t rely on our own experiences. (I’ve written in the past that white people do not experience racism in Japan; I wouldn’t say that now. I haven’t, but it appears that I’ve been lucky.)

  8. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Interesting article, thanks. It does raise a lot of important issues, but I don’t think it does speak to this question: the article assumes that “black” can be applied as a category to race relations in Japan. One of the things it mentions in passing is significant here. Yes, the Japanese do blackface. They also do whiteface. Further, Takarazuka might play the black parts in Gone with the Wind in blackface, but Rhett Butler is played by a Japanese woman in make-up. There is no simple assimilation to US blackface available.

    One of the clear results of our survey of foreigners in Kawasaki is that the idea that white foreigners are treated better here than non-white foreigners is completely unsupported by the evidence. Beyond that, it’s little more than speculation. I suspect, as I said, that Japanese/Gaijin distinction is of fundamental importance, and that divisions within “gaijin” are not that important. If I’m right, black people will encounter racism, both actively hostile and passively ignorant, in Japan, but for the same reasons as white people do.

  9. Baye avatar

    I dunno man. I think there are things going on here that your research can not uncover because it does not (and likely cannot) take into consideration the current zeitgeist. (this is my theory…and yes purely experiential) That zeitgeist being one of “Positive-ness is the best way to spin things in order to assure not only that people will like you but that you like yourself and don’t regret your decision to come here.” You spin the foolishness here in a way so as to make the situation more tenable or de-victimize yourself. Mostly because western Whites, and many others as a result, have turned the blame for any victimization on the victim, much like society blaming a raped woman for wearing a miniskirt dark a dark alley–she was asking for it, society has become a place where marginalized people are blamed for their marginalization for not taking full control of the things supposedly within their control. “Oh, Japanese move when you sit down? Maybe it’s because you’re fat, or you can’t speak Japanese fluently or you have an air of anger to you. Have you thought about that? I wouldn’t want to sit next to you either!” Who wants to hear shit like that when they’ve worked up the courage to speak honestly on their experience? So many people, MYSELF INCLUDED, refrain from bringing to light the full extent of the “foolishness” (my favorite reduced-harshness euphemism if you haven’t gathered that) encountered and through some psychological calisthenics flip negatives into positives, or only focus on the positives. Now tell me a survey that can navigate THAT and I’d be impressed. (Not to disparage research of the like you undertake wholesale, but often surveys are like census taking in the ‘hood. They just predictably don’t tell the complete story but nonetheless are used to justify and rationalize all kinds of “facts”. Yes it’s crappy, especially for researchers who spend their lives dedicated to collecting such data, but there it is.

  10. Baye avatar

    For example, one of my best buddies here, a black guy, cool as hell. He has an interesting way of spinning every negative he encounters here in a way that places him in a light I’d personally LOVE to see myself in all the time. I envy him sometimes. If Japanese cross the street on approach once they notice him, he spins it as “they can feel the power I emit and are intimidated by it. I can’t control its potency. I just gotta be me. Some people can take it some can’t.” I LOVE that! And if he took your servey in Kawasaki, he’d likely answer that there is no prejudice or discrimination or any other foolishness in Japan, because his ego allows him to spin all questionable behavior thusly, when he retains his power despite the behavior, or even has it enhanced by the behavior. Ain’t that something? I too study people…not just numbers, but stories. Actual experiences, and listen to them describe their methods for navigating the minefield of foolishness here. And I am blown away at how varied and how consistent the methods are among the people who’d swear on a stack of bibles that Japan is racism free. When their anecdotes are analyzed you find that these people often see the same behaviors that the people who claim racists behavior is everywhere all the time here, but they’ve just managed to find a way to process this in a way that protects them from pain, from labels of victimization, from thoughts of self-pity, etc… That’s wonderful ain’t it? Doesnt deal with the problem, but it is, in a way, a solution to a better life here. I don’t think quantifying their “skills” and “talents” as proof that the problem doesn’t exist helps either. Some people really have mastered the “art” of seeing what they want to see and disregarding the rest. And yes I’m aware that works both ways, thus I try to keep an even keel about things…and learn from people who have not only survived here but have managed to thrive here (in fact that is the book I’m working on currently) (-;

  11. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    You’re absolutely right that there are things going on that the research can’t uncover; it was one of the major topics of discussion at the meeting last night, while we were trying to finalise the report. There are tricks that you can use to get closer, like asking objective questions: “Have you ever been stopped by the police even though you were doing nothing wrong?, for example. We don’t have a box for “Yes, but only because I’m awesome!”, which gets us a bit closer to the reality.

    Still, the interview survey is supposed to help to get closer to it, because we actually ask people about their experiences and listen to the stories they tell.

    I do believe that this sort of research is essential, because it’s the only way to break the deadlock. You see behaviour, and see racism, while other people see the same behaviour, and don’t. Whose perception is more accurate? Broad surveys can provide the additional point of view that helps to get to the truth. And while the truth might not set us free, it certainly enables us to address problems more effectively.

  12. Baye avatar

    I can cosign that! (-: Well said!

  13. […] while back, when I wrote an article about racial categories in Japan, I got a response from Baye McNeil, the author of the Loco in Yokohama blog, and the two books that […]

  14. Alex avatar

    Hi David,

    Writing to you in 2018. Appreciated the information that you’ve put together here. I was just wondering if you could provide me with a trail of breadcrumbs to follow to arrive at the numbers you’ve cited here?

    “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.”

    I’ve been having trouble, even with Japanese language skills, to come across this 25,000 figure.

    I’m also a bit concerned because, in Japan, where the population is 127,000,000. 25,000 people of that total would come out to .0002%. Could you possible clarify these points?

  15. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Thanks for the comment.

    Second point first: 25,000 is one five thousandth of 125,000,000, which is 0.0002, or 0.02%; making it a percentage gets you an extra couple of decimal places.

    As for the source of the numbers, this was a long time ago now, so I don’t remember perfectly. I started with the numbers for immigrants from Africa, and then used rough percentages for the ethnic composition of other countries to guess how many black people came from there, ignoring South America because the overwhelming majority of immigrants from that region are of Japanese descent. It’s not a solid number, because Japan doesn’t collect that data. As I say, I don’t think skin colour is an important factor in the way the Japanese divide people up.

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