This blog has been quiet for a bit, because development of Kannagara has been on hiatus while various life things happened. However, they’re over now, and I’ve moved this game to a higher priority. Today, I ran the first mini-playtest of the new version.
In a sense, it wasn’t a real playtest, because I was the only player. Because Kannagara is designed to have no gamemaster, it ought to work perfectly well for solo play, which means that I can do preliminary testing by myself. It will still need proper testing with other people, of course. However, to do that, I would need rules and content that was written up to be fully understandable by other people, with explanations of what is going on.
At the moment, I don’t have that. I do have a full set of rules, and I wrote up all the content I needed to run a single “situation”, the Kannagara equivalent of an encounter. (“Encounter” is a bad name for them in Kannagara, because in most cases the personae do not encounter anyone or anything.) Then I ran through it.
There were plenty of minor moments of tension when rolling dice, and some of the mechanics worked well. Then there was a good section of making meaningful choices, and a climactic moment of tension (when I rolled very well. I win!). I think the basic mechanics are sound, finally.
That’s not to say that they are perfect, because I noticed a few flaws. One was to do with the consequences, and I think it will be fairly straightforward to fix. The others may take a bit more effort.
The biggest was that the first part of the situation did not, in the end, involve any meaningful choices. In part, that was because of the solo-player set up; with multiple players, it would make sense for particular personae to take particular actions, which would add a bit more choice. However, even there, the choices would mostly be obvious given the persona’s game statistics, so while it would distinguish the personae, it would not give each individual player meaningful choices to make.
I think I may be able to combine a fix for the absence of choices with a fix for the problem with the consequences. Let me explain the structure of a situation in general terms.
In the first stage, the players generate their options. This involves dice. In the second stage, they use their options to set up the possible outcomes. Finally, they roll a die to see what the actual outcome is. This final die roll is the climactic moment of tension in the situation, and always will be; the rules guarantee a wide range of possible outcomes, while also guaranteeing that the outcome cannot stop the story moving forward.
Part of the problem with consequences is that the outcomes ended up too purely good or too purely bad. Mixtures are more interesting, from a gaming perspective. I didn’t end up with a bland middle possibility, which is good, and I don’t think that’s possible, but I’d still like more good at the bottom and more bad at the top. I think there is a change I can make to the generation of options that will have that effect. The next step in development will be to try to make that change work.
A month or so ago, I wrote an article saying that I disagreed with OneBookShelf’s decision to start refusing to sell “offensive content”. In the discussion of that on my Facebook page, a number of people expressed incredulity at the idea that anyone might have a right to be sold. That comment thread was not a good place to discuss the issue, and I promised to come back to it. It’s taken some time, but this article will address that question, and related issues, in more detail. Three thousand words of more detail, it turns out.
First, I should sketch out my basic position. I start from the foundations of classical liberalism: freedom and equality. That is, everyone should have as much freedom as possible, and everyone’s freedom is equally important. I believe that the state’s role is to ensure that everyone has as wide a range of opportunities for action as possible. This means that people need to be healthy, educated, financially secure, and living in a peaceful, orderly state with a functioning infrastructure, so the state ends up being quite substantial. In addition, I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. I think that ensuring the freedom of others must be an important part of anyone’s personal ethics, and that someone acting in a way that excessively limits the freedom of others is behaving unethically.
On the other hand, material property is not that significant to me. People only have a right to private property because, on the whole, that maximises their freedom and ability to plan their lives, so there is no problem with taxation to ensure that other people also have that freedom. Conversely, there is no reason to seek material equality, although particularly gross inequality may well limit the freedom of many people, particularly the poor. Thus, I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist, although in practice I think I tend to end up closer to the socialists on economic policy, and closer to the libertarians on social policy.
I don’t claim that this position is obviously right and indisputable, and there are many difficult problems to be solved if it is to be put into practice. However, in this article I’m not going to defend it, and I will do my best not to respond to comments querying it. As I mentioned, this is already 3,000 words long, and it would be far longer if I tried to deal with those issues. What I do plan to do is engage, in detail, with one of the difficult problems: should DriveThruRPG sell products like Tournament of Rapists?
The Right to be Sold
Let me start from the point that raised the most incredulity: the claim that there is something like a right to be sold for publishers of RPG material. No-one commenting on my article thought that the authors of Tournament of Rapists should be legally prevented from writing and publishing it. Some people do, but my commenters were mostly authors and publishers, so they can see the clear threat to freedom of speech involved in going that way. What they could not see was why those considerations obliged DriveThruRPG to sell it.
The discussion did allow me to clarify my own position in my own mind. It is not purely about freedom of expression; it is also about freedom of employment.
First, freedom of expression. Recall that I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. If a certain private entity has an effective monopoly, or even a near-monopoly, on important means of expression, then that private entity acquires obligations to protect freedom of expression, even if it strongly disagrees with some of the content. The same applies to an oligopoly, except in that case the obligation is that they collectively protect freedom of expression. For example, if there are only five major newspapers, but they all have similar circulations, and all can easily be purchased, then as long as any opinion can find a publisher in at least one newspaper, the individual newspapers are free to exclude people with whom they disagree. If, however, all of the publishers disagree with, say, Islam, they do have an obligation to publish Muslim pieces, despite their disagreement. If they do not, Muslims are effectively deprived of freedom of expression.
This is, essentially, the idea that society can silence minorities by depriving them of a platform, and the claim that media outlets have a moral obligation to provide such a platform. I would also say that the state is permitted to force the media outlets to provide a platform.
On this basis, DTRPG probably does not need to sell Tournament of Rapists if Paizo or e23 is happy to do so. Paizo and e23 are not as big as DTRPG, by a large margin, but they are probably still big enough to count as providing a reasonable platform for expression. “Selling from your own website”, however, probably does not. (On the other hand, in table-top roleplaying, publishers have no obligation to publish anything they dislike, because “start your own publisher” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.)
This raises an important point about these rights. The obligations of private entities depend on the scale of their influence. An independent bookshop has no individual obligation to support freedom of speech, because it is clearly possible to sell a book elsewhere. If that independent bookshop develops into a national chain that is the only way to acquire books in most cities, then it acquires obligations to sell anything (through special order, if necessary; they are not obliged to stock everything). Obviously, then, there is an empirical question about just how big and influential an entity is, and this will not always be easy to answer. However, the fact that some moral questions are difficult is not a reason to abandon morality.
Next, freedom of employment. The freedom to choose your own career is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution (Article 22), and it is a fundamental part of any meaningful freedom. It is, however, a difficult freedom to pin down. We cannot sensibly say that I have the right to be a world-famous film star. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to say that I have the right to try to be a film star, to audition for roles at least. It also seems reasonable to criticise the film industry if it simply never hires, say, black people or women to play leading roles. Black people and women also have the right to aim at being film stars. Saying what this means in detail is very hard, so I’m not going to even try to address the general question here. Instead, I want to consider what it means for table-top roleplaying.
First, it is obvious that no-one has anything approaching a right to make a living wage in table-top roleplaying. In our industry, that dizzy height is reserved for the people who achieve major break-out success. Equally, there is no right to a proper job, with medical insurance and a pension. However, no-one should be excluded from being a freelancer, and for historically excluded groups that means that it is a good thing if publishers actively encourage them. One feature of our industry is that most publishers are micro-companies run in their owners’ spare time, and such publishers can compete with the largest companies we have. This is, I think, a very good thing. If a group of conservative Muslims decide that nothing available in roleplaying reflects their experience or the games they want to play, they can start a publishing company and publish the game.
However, they must be able to offer it for sale to the public. We are talking about the right to employment, not the right to a hobby, so new publishers must be able to offer their product to the market. That is the equivalent, in our industry, of applying for a job. Further, you must be able to offer it to most of the market, because otherwise there is no chance at all of making any money. The market is tiny to start with; restricting access to a small fraction of it is effectively a bar.
For electronic products, I believe this means that you must be able to sell on DTRPG. I don’t think Paizo or e23 is large enough (and the numbers I have heard from people who sell on two or more of those sites backs this up). If someone is to have a genuine chance to apply for the job of RPG publisher, they must be able to sell on DTRPG. This only applies to DTRPG, because of its size and dominance. Paizo can refuse anyone it likes, because it is small and largely irrelevant if you aren’t selling Pathfinder products, and not critical even if you are.
An analogous situation to DTRPG refusing to offer something for sale because of its content would be 1950s Hollywood refusing to hire people because they were, say, Communists. It would, effectively, deprive people of the freedom to even attempt a career in a particular field.
To summarise, then, freedom of expression suggests that DTRPG probably, for ethical reasons, offer Tournament of Rapists for sale, while freedom of employment provides an much stronger argument that it is obliged to.
“But what sort of signal does that send to women?” I hear you ask. The signal it ought to send is “Even if you want to write an RPG inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you will be able to offer it for sale on DTRPG. We respect your freedom to try to work in this industry, not matter what you want to write”. The argument that group A can only be welcomed if group B is excluded is one that is frequently used by powerful groups to exclude and oppress minorities, and it is a bad argument. In a free society, you have to accept that you are living with people with whom you strongly disagree, and that you will see evidence of them doing things you disagree with. This is why conservative Christians have to put up with same-sex marriage, and why feminists have to put up with rape fetishists (but not rapists).
The problem that must be taken seriously here is that of “triggering”. For some people, certain themes or images provoke extremely strong negative reactions, and cause significant distress. The correct response to this is not “Free Speech! Get Over It!”. However, the correct response is not easy to determine.
Let us take food allergies as an analogy. I am very aware of the risk of trivialisation here. Food allergies can kill their sufferers, painfully, in a matter of minutes, and interfere significantly with eating, an activity necessary for life. Psychological distress caused by a hobby game product is not even close to being the same level of problem. However, this does mean that a response that is appropriate to food allergies cannot be an inadequate response to triggering, although it could be an over-reaction. If it turns out that food-allergy-like policies could be implemented without imposing excessive burdens, then that’s fine; when we are talking about the risk of harming people, some degree of over-reaction is good, as long as it does not cause other problems.
These days, I suppose most people know how food allergies are dealt with. Food products are clearly labelled with the common allergens that they contain; in Japan, there appears to be a standard set. This does lead to slightly daft situations, such as packets of mixed nuts with “Warning: Contains Nuts” printed on, but “slightly daft” is much better than “accidentally killed someone”. Further, these steps are taken even in cases where there is some doubt about the existence or prevalence of the allergy. For example, it is somewhat controversial as to whether gluten intolerance is actually a thing (although I think the consensus is that it is), and its prevalence is very controversial. Even so, “gluten” is listed, and gluten-free products are available. Even if it is not really a problem, gluten-containing products are still available for the people who want to consume them, so it is reasonable to issue a warning for people who may, genuinely, need to avoid it.
Moreover, I believe that in many cases it is possible to overcome food allergies, and, obviously, a good idea to do so. Nevertheless, this cannot be done instantly, and we have no right to force people to do so. Thus, the information should be made available, and people with allergies should be able to avoid those foods. Obviously, people with very unusual allergies cannot expect everything to be labelled, so they have to ask about ingredients individually.
Note that labelling a product as containing nuts is in no way a judgement of the culinary worth of the product. It is simply a warning so that people who are allergic to nuts can avoid it.
Can a similar approach be taken to roleplaying products? It seems so. DTRPG already has an “adult” filter, although it is applied very inconsistently. (I find it astounding that the Worlds of Darkness are not behind the filter, for example, given that every book includes an explicit “this is mature content” warning, and most books include nudity.) With a bit of thought and research, themes that seem likely to cause serious distress to a large number of people could be filtered out.
The immediately obvious theme is sexual violence. This is distressing to a large number of people, and should clearly be flagged, and people should be able to hide it from themselves. I think this is a very good idea.
Another theme is “nipples”. Sorry, nudity. This is largely a US hang-up, but it is quite an important one there, so people should be able to exclude such products from their searches.
However, there is another important class that seems to get overlooked: phobias. Arachnophobia is not a rare condition, and such people can be triggered by pictures of spiders. It might not be obvious to someone new to the hobby that “City of the Drow” is likely to contain lots of giant spider pictures, so it should be possible to hide spiders. Snakes and blood are also common problems, as I understand it.
More generally, it should be possible to filter out horror games in general. The whole point of horror games is to take disturbing images and work them into the game, because some people enjoy that. However, it is not always obvious from the title that something is horror, and the blurbs themselves are sometimes disturbing, so filtering them from searches should be an easily available option.
It is also an undeniable fact that a large number of people in the US and the rest of the world claim to be deeply offended and upset by portrayals of same-sex sexual relationships. Now, I think that it would be better for them to get over it, but, as with food allergies, that is unlikely to be instant, and we do not get to tell them that they must change. I think it would be wise to include a “LGBT” filter. It could even be made bivalent, so that you could set DTRPG to only show you LGBT products, something that the LGBT community might find useful. In fact, all the filters could be set up like that, to make it clear that this is not a moral judgement.
The filter topics are not obvious, and would require some research. If we use “internet outrage” as our standard (and this is not a bad standard; avoiding internet outrage is a sensible strategy for a company), then sexual violence, nudity, explicit sexual content, and LGBT content are the current leading issues. If we use “clinical prevalence of people who are triggered”, then I have no idea what the list will be, but it could be very different. Research would be necessary. Indeed, it might be a good idea to cover both: internet hot-button issues mainly for PR reasons, and clinically prevalent reasons primarily to protect vulnerable people.
The elephant in the room, as far as RPGs are concerned, is violence. I am sure some people are triggered by violence, but a filter to hide all violent RPGs would leave you with nothing but Golden Sky Stories. (The “spiders” filter would get it, however.) It is true that violence is ubiquitous in US entertainment, but in most fields it is not quite as all-consuming as it is in tabletop RPGs. Even computer games seem to do better in this respect. Still, this is not DTRPG’s problem, and I am exaggerating (very slightly) for rhetorical effect.
It does, however, bring home the point that, if everything that contains a fairly common trigger were placed behind a filter that was on by default, DTRPG would display no products to the casual browser, and that would almost certainly be very bad for business. As this was another objection that was raised to my position, I’d like to conclude by considering it.
The Duty to Go Bankrupt
It was suggested that, if DTRPG were to sell Tournament of Rapists, the backlash would drive them out of business. Can we really require them to do something that will drive them out of business?
In general, the answer is “yes”. If you can only sell cars by adding software to cheat the emissions tests, then you should be driven out of the business of selling cars. Going back to my fundamental position, no-one has the right to a job that requires excessive restrictions on the freedoms of others. However, the answer in this specific case is not obvious. The fact that, sometimes, going out of business is the only ethical option does not mean that it always is.
The filter problem is a good example of this. DTRPG probably would go out of business if the filters were on by default. That means that it is permissible to have them off by default, as long as casual browsers can easily turn them on, and the user interface for doing so is very easy to find. Requiring someone who is triggered by violence to click on a “trigger filters” link and then select “hide violence” is not an unreasonable restriction of freedom, particularly if the alternative is going out of business.
What about the original question? What if the backlash against a product would drive the company out of business?
The first thing to note is that, if this would actually happen, the group threatening the boycott is not a marginalised group; it is the dominant group in the industry. Furthermore, it is a dominant group trying to drive a marginalised group out completely. (If you think the Black Tokyo line is mainstream, you need to learn a bit more about our hobby.) So, the question is, is it ethically permitted to cave in to a dominant group in its attempts to exclude a minority, if the alternative is going out of business?
This is a hard problem. I think you should err on the side of not caving in, because boycotts are almost never as effective as threatened, and we know from history how easy it is to get caught up in persecuting people. In this case, I do not think that the backlash would drive DTRPG out of business, particularly if they were introducing more consistent trigger filters at the same time.
Three thousand words later, where am I? (I would say “where are we?”, but I doubt anyone has read this far.) I still think that DTRPG is making the wrong decision, and that it should be selling offensive content. I also think that it should be working on better filtering for triggering content, so that people can make the site into a safe browsing environment for themselves, without restricting the freedom of others to aim at a career in table-top roleplaying games.
On September 1st, OneBookShelf, the company that runs DriveThruRPG, announced an offensive content policy in reaction to the outrage over a product entitled “Tournament of Rapists”. Steve Wieck, the CEO, published a blog post explaining his decision. It is a thoughtful and serious attempt to wrestle with a difficult issue, and one that recognises the complexity of the situation, particularly the fact that OneBookShelf’s marketplace dominance means that its decision to not sell a product is de facto censorship. Nevertheless, I think he came to the wrong decision. There are several reasons, and I will start from the least serious. (If you haven’t read his blog post, it would be a good idea, because the rest of this post will make little sense without it.)
First, I think it will be very hard to implement the reporting policy. It will have to be limited to genuine accounts, so “genuine accounts” will have to be defined, and there will have to be a way to block people who use it frivolously, so there will need to be a definition of “frivolous reporting”. Neither of these will be easy to determine, let alone code. It will almost certainly have to be limited to people who have bought the product in question, but I doubt that OBS will be in a legal or financial situation to offer refunds. A product that has been challenged and passed will have to be removed from the flagging system, which means that OBS will put a badge of approval on fairly offensive books and high profile books that attracted protest flags, but not on uncontroversial books from small publishers. It’s going to be messy.
Second, the new policy is a PR disaster waiting to happen. If Mr Wieck is serious in his intention to err in the side of permitting books, and I believe him, then at some point he is going to refuse to drop a product that someone in the SJW community has challenged. Now, you and I know that there is a big difference between “This is bad, but not bad enough to justify banning it” and “I am a wholehearted supporter of the ideology expressed in this product”, but do you seriously think that the internet mob is going to respect that distinction? Similarly, it is very likely that he is going to have to exclude someone in the SJW community from the flagging system, because they are flagging too many books that don’t merit censorship. At this point, he is not only Steve Wieck, rape advocate, he is also an agent of white male oppression, silencing the voices of queer women of colour.
If the disaster waits for a month after the implementation of the policy, I will be pleasantly surprised.
Third, this was a major change to fundamental policy made as a snap response to a single crisis. By a roleplayer! All GMs know that it is a really bad idea to make general changes to house rules at the table in response to a problem that has just come up in play. You make a spot ruling to fix that problem, then think about a suitable general response, discuss it with the players, and come back in a week or two with the longterm solution. This principle becomes more important as the decision becomes more important. I realise that the internet feels that taking an hour to respond is a clear sign that you are ignoring their concerns, but the internet is wrong. A couple of days is the right timeframe to make a decision about this case; a month, at least, is an appropriate time frame to make decisions about the longterm policy. These snap decisions are almost always bad, and very often illiberal.
Now, those three reasons are quite important for OBS, but not good enough reasons for me to stick my head above the parapet. That’s reserved for the final reason.
I think it is an unethical decision.
No-one will be surprised to learn that this is a free speech issue. I find it a little difficult to make this point, because I actually agree with the SJWs that this particular product was almost certainly harmful and unethical. I haven’t read it, as it has been censored, but it is in the tentacle porn genre, and what I have seen of that genre convinces me that, in general, it valorises hurtful and harmful attitudes to women, sex, and female sexuality, and I am concerned that it might actually promote them as well. I think it is unethical to make and publish such things.
However, freedom of speech applies to unethical, harmful, and hurtful speech. Indeed, this is exactly the speech it has to apply to. No-one tries to ban speech they think is harmless. The people trying to ban RPGs for being Satanic in the 1980s didn’t sit there thinking “What harmless hobby should we try to ban? My DM killed my thief, so let’s try to ban D&D!”. They (at least most of them) genuinely believed that RPGs were harmful. Yes, there were some bandwagon-riders, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that that’s true of the SJWs. Freedom of speech means protecting people’s right to say things that you believe are wrong, harmful, and pernicious. It also means defending your right to criticise them for being unethical, but you must not silence them, and you must not try to exclude them from the general marketplace, whether of ideas or of products.
Now, that does not mean that you cannot try to create a marketplace or environment where they are not present, but that must be, in an important sense, a marginal environment. Safe spaces are important, but you must not create them by excluding groups from the main space. You can limit certain sorts of behaviour, such as harassment, but speech has to be free. (And yes, I have thought about the distinction, but this is going to be too long anyway, so I’m not going to go into it here.)
I think that preserving this sort of freedom, the freedom to say unethical things, and make hurtful and harmful statements, is an essential part of social justice. That is why I have abbreviated the standard name to “SJW”. The people strongly advocating this censorship are, in this case, fighting against social justice.
Now, there are a lot of points on which I agree with the SJWs, from the judgement that “Tournament of Rapists” is almost certainly harmful and unethical to the need to create societies that are more inclusive of people who are not members of the dominant group. I’m generally in favour of quotas to drive the participation of historically excluded groups, such as women, because waiting for it to happen naturally seems to be far too slow. I would like to work with them on those issues, which is why I have avoided criticising them on the points I don’t agree with in the past. But freedom of speech is too important. If we got everything else and lost freedom of speech, even for rape fetishists, we would not have created a just society. I fear that this will mean I won’t be able to cooperate with them in the future, although I hope I am wrong about that.
I should say that, as ad hominem arguments appear to be de rigueur in this field, that although I am a white, cis, heterosexual man, I live in Japan, so I am not a member of the socially dominant group. I have chaired a meeting attended by several Japanese men (that is, members of the locally dominant group) who had expressed their hostility and intent to confront us online, in advance. The local police thought that their comments made it wise to send a squad of riot police (out of sight) and a couple of plain clothes officers (in the audience) to ensure my safety and that of my colleagues. And I still called on the hostile group to speak, several times, as long as they confined themselves to speaking, even though they were arguing that we, as non-Japanese, should not be allowed to speak out about social issues. When they got a bit too vehement, the police encouraged them to quietly leave the room, and they did. I am fully aware, from personal experience, of what it is like to be a member of a minority and to face hostility from members of the majority, to have members of the majority try to silence you, to face a real risk of violence from them, and to live in a culture in which you are not the norm and do not blend in. I do not take that to be a reason to restrict freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful and harmful the speech, as long as it is restricted to speech.
So, what do I think OBS should do? I think they should rescind the decision. They should say something like “On reflection, we over-reacted to an internet campaign. While we are glad that the publisher chose to withdraw the product in question, and hope that it does not reappear, free speech is an extremely important part of social justice. We will not be implementing any censorship on our sites.”. Yes, this will cause a massive explosion of outrage. As I mentioned earlier, however, I don’t think they can avoid that at this point, and if they take a stand in favour of free speech they can, at least, expect to have allies, and the confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.
But I know that reasonable people sometimes disagree with me, even about ethical issues, and even about important ethical issues. As I said to start with, I think Mr Wieck has thought seriously about the right problems here, and while I think I should publicly disagree with his decision, I don’t think he is a bad person for making it, nor do I plan to boycott OBS over it. I hope he changes his mind, but I hope he changes his mind because he is convinced, not because he has been threatened.
Edit: I have posted a follow-up going into more detail about my ethical position on this, and the reasons for it.
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 â€œmicroaggressionsâ€ 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, â€œraceâ€ 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 â€œraceâ€ do pick up on biological features â€” skin colour is a biological feature, after all â€” the issues of how those features are interpreted as â€œraceâ€ 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 â€œWhite Privilegeâ€. 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 arenâ€™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 â€œplease donâ€™t assume that all white people are Americanâ€, â€œplease donâ€™t assume that all white people speak Englishâ€, â€œdonâ€™t talk about Europe as if it is a country; it is a continentâ€. 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, Iâ€™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; Iâ€™ve lived in both areas (admittedly only for a few weeks at a time in the US), and I know what itâ€™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, â€œblack personâ€ and â€œwhite personâ€ are not terms that get used much in Japan. That is, people do not actually use “black” as a racial category. They exist, certainly (â€œkokujinâ€ and â€œhakujinâ€, 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 â€œforeignerâ€ (â€œgaikokujinâ€, or â€œgaijinâ€ when people arenâ€™t being careful about being polite). That, obviously, includes black and white people, and also includes a lot of Asian people. Another one is â€œwesternerâ€ (â€œÅbeijinâ€, literally â€œEurope America Peopleâ€, 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 Iâ€™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 â€œAfrica is nothing but war and starving childrenâ€ 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 â€œmixedâ€ (â€œhaafuâ€, from the Japanese pronunciation of â€œhalfâ€, as in â€œhalf-Japaneseâ€). This applies no matter what Japanese is mixed with; one of my daughterâ€™s friends is mixed Chinese-Japanese, so she looks no different from a typical Japanese person, but she is still a â€œhaafuâ€. 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. Itâ€™s based on rather more than just my own impressions, but it isnâ€™t based on any systematic research into how Japanese people tend to categorise others. I would be frankly astounded if it turned out that â€œforeignerâ€ 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; itâ€™s the nearest equivalent to â€œperson of colorâ€ 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 donâ€™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 arenâ€™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 â€œblackâ€ and â€œwhiteâ€ 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.