What it's like to be black in Japan
“All they do is paper here,” says Ryan DeVon, a black American graduate student at Soko University in Tokyo, Japan. “You want to change your address? New phone number? New parking sticker? Whatever it is. Everything is paper.”
We laugh together about the bureaucracy that Japan is particularly famous for. Though I am aware of it, DeVon has become intimate with it: Between navigating his visa, opening a bank account, starting a new job, and more, he’s definitely done his fair share of paperwork in Tokyo.
In a city that both depends on and so widely celebrates technology, it can seem strange that so many applications for jobs or services, financial documents, and petitions to the government require paperwork that must be filled out by hand. In a place where robots are commonly utilized for everything from room service to public safety, it’s an odd disconnect that so many Tokyoites are buried in paperwork.
Japan is a staunchly collectivist nation. Culturally, the whims of the individual are nearly always trumped by the needs of the nation, and collectively, these needs are frequently informed by traditions that span generations. When you’re talking about something as inane as paperwork, this may seem like just a funny idiosyncrasy, but with so much of Japan’s national identity rooted in tradition, it can be hard to change the status quo even when that zeitgeist becomes harmful.
Isolated under the Tokugawa shogunate for nearly 300 years leading up to the 20th century, Japan began to craft its unique mores of culture, government, and social etiquette in a largely ethnically homogenous society. Many of these ideas persist today: Countless numbers of the touchstones of their contemporary culture that even foreigners associate with Japan — like the Japanese poetry style haiku and Japanese traditional theater, kabuki, for example — were invented during this time. While this sense of cultural tradition is lauded, and even sometimes emulated, this focus on tradition is just one signal of Japan’s reluctance to change. But as the birth rate plummets and its population of retirees skyrockets, Japan’s economy is becoming increasingly dependent on immigration. Yet many foreigners arrive to find that some of what the Japanese see as storied tradition feels to them like outright racism.
“I knew that it would be difficult for me to rent an apartment as a non-citizen,” DeVon says on his recent search for an apartment in Tokyo with a local agent. “But after we called five, six different apartments, and they’re all the same. Call, call, call, and they say no foreigners allowed. Meanwhile, no one even looked at my passport or checked my credit. No one knows what type of visa I’m on nor how much money I have. And I’m like, ‘Wow.’ This might be a little bit of what our ancestors felt like, getting denied from certain spaces. Right in front of us. It’s a weird feeling.”
DeVon has been looking for a new apartment for a couple of months, a process that involved weeding out entire agencies that refused to work with foreigners.
“I’ve even asked if I could just meet some of the landlords. I figured, ‘Hey. If they’ll meet me, they’ll like me.’ But no, these agencies kept telling me that they don’t ever meet the tenants.”
“Ever?” I asked, thinking maybe I had misunderstood.
“Literally — there are some cases in which you will never meet them, even if you move in. So really, it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Chinese — if you’re from outer space. They’ve never had foreign people living in their building, and it’s not illegal, so that’s just the way it stays.”
DeVon describes one of his largest challenges upon moving to Tokyo as one that hadn’t occurred to him before he arrived: finding a barber. In a nation of people who notoriously have stick-straight hair, getting a haircut, for DeVon, was much more difficult than for your average Japanese citizen.
Only taking bookings from a Facebook page, the Shibuya barbershop Brooklyn Tokyo has a clientele almost exclusively composed of black residents and now regularly lines-up DeVon as well. Jamaican-American owner and barber Tamru Grant opened the shop to give black people in Tokyo the perfect cut, as well as that perfect black barber experience. DeVon swears the atmosphere in the shop is exactly what one would expect from someone who had made such a pledge, divulging that it “feels exactly like my barbershop in Los Angeles or Atlanta. It’s exactly right.”
These types of experiences inform his work a great deal. Along with his studies, DeVon’s visa allows him to work 28 hours a week, a privilege he utilizes by working at a brand new hostel, UNPLAN Shinjuku. His role there offers him the position to act as an unofficial black ambassador, and he enjoys the times he finds himself in the position to recommend his favorite Afro-Caribbean party, run by The Black Experience Japan, or even his own barber to black nomads who stay there. Already knowing how foreigners can sometimes be treated, he tries to make his interactions with guests as welcoming and informative as possible. But it can be taxing — between work and school, DeVon works hard to improve and contribute to the Japanese economy but sometimes feels that sentiment isn’t returned in kind.
“When they had [the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami], all of these people from all over the world donated millions of dollars, people from so many countries came and supported Japan,” DeVon says, “so they’ll acknowledge it when they need help, support, allies. But when we come and live here, even when it’s because they need us to when it comes to making us feel accepted and comfortable just by the basic standards of their own people, it’s not even open for discussion. It just is the way it is. And so often, the ‘way it is’ is inside this anti-foreigner culture.”
Though frequently frustrating, even sometimes disheartening, DeVon still maintains that he prefers his life in Japan to what he experiences in the United States, that at least, anecdotally, he just hasn’t experienced the type of racism he finds elsewhere.
“When I interact with white people [in Tokyo]? I mean, yeah, there’s definitely some anti-blackness there,” says DeVon, “but with Japanese people, to my knowledge, I don’t seem to be treated differently than any other foreigner.”
But DeVon, a very well-traveled person, still knows the weight that whiteness can carry all over the world.
“Unfortunately, television here shows white people as saviors,” says DeVon, “so I assume that people watch these shows, they think of whiteness as more acceptable among foreigners. So white people trying to open a bank account or trying to find a place to live — it may be a bit easier for them. But so far, I see white people here experiencing the same stuff that I do, but you can’t deny that they have more social capital.”
Last October, I went to visit DeVon in Tokyo and had the exact same feeling, like a weight was lifted from my shoulders, like my fears could be diverted to more worthwhile issues. My brow uncreased and I could feel the tension I carry with me in the States ease. Something as simple as walking down the street felt intrinsically lighter, and my day to day functions felt less fraught with danger. We recall this together, laughing.
“That’s why I’m here,” DeVon tells me, “The first time I came, I was just like, ‘Wow. I gotta get back.’ It was such a lasting impression. So I applied to grad school here.”
Baye McNeil, a black American journalist turned long-time Tokyo resident, wrote in a New York Times article about feeling similarly to DeVon and myself about the relative safety for black people in Japan. He said that living in Tokyo, “has given me an opportunity to view and address race issues in a sort of laboratory setting or safe space. Before going there, there was no truly safe space in the US. That burden I carried, that psychological armor, was out of necessity because, particularly as a black man in America, your very life or livelihood is in jeopardy constantly.”
Though thankful for the freedom that living in Tokyo has granted him, McNeil is possibly more critical about the responsibilities of the Japanese to accommodate immigrants and is sometimes the one to push Japanese culture in the direction of progress. Most famously, he once circulated a petition that spurned the cancelation of a racist segment of a Japanese variety show that aired on national television.
McNeil, it seems, has no intention of being complacent about anti-foreigner or anti-black sentiments and is more willing than many to analyze and critique Japanese nationalism, to find those places where it intersects with problematic conduct. In his 15 years living in Tokyo, unlike DeVon, McNeil stated that he has seen many instances where black people were targeted outright by Japanese nationals. He is one of the nation’s most outspoken figures against this behavior, though he admits in his writing that the understanding of blackness in Japan can frequently be informed by a uniquely myopic fear. “Their harangues are fueled by fear of the change in Japan that blacks represent,” wrote McNeil, “a change that is well underway.”
In 2021 (a one-year postponement due to the coronavirus), Tokyo will be hosting the Summer Olympics for the first time since 1964, and many believe this will serve as an unofficial turning point in Japanese globalization as far as their social responsibilities to foreign peoples. Already, one can see the changes in and around Tokyo: Much more English abounds, both spoken and in signage, and there have been some minor changes in policy to align Tokyo more closely with other major metropolises. While the Olympics could be responsible for prompting some of these changes, McNeil has argued that Japan is already heading to the point of no return as far as maintaining its national status quo. “Change ain’t always pretty. In fact, it’s often pretty messy. But it’s as unavoidable.” McNeil continued, “Japan is now a multicultural, multiracial country, and will become increasingly so in the years to come.”
But the difference between DeVon and McNeil’s experiences may be time. While McNeil has spent the last 15 years living in Tokyo, DeVon is just finishing his first. Their individual understanding of what it means to live in Japan as a black person is bound to differ. Time may have given McNeil the insight to interpret the same situations differently.
When I was in Japan, one night I went to a basement bar with a couple of old friends from Melbourne. Within an hour we had made friends of all the bartenders and most of the other patrons in the bar. We danced and laughed together, translating back and forth between English and Japanese on our phones.
At one point the bartender told me he had a surprise, just for me. He went over to the DJ and told him something in Japanese, and for the next hour, we exclusively listened to ‘90s American hip-hop.
I failed to tell him that I, having grown up in Seattle, was much more fond of grunge.
I didn’t feel like this experience was malicious. In fact, the music was great. But for a moment I felt what McNeil and DeVon must spend a lot of time grappling with: that feeling of being othered, of being reduced to, as the Japanese would say, a kokujin — just another black person, devoid of a personal narrative.
I asked him if it was worth it — if living in Japan was worth dealing with the microaggressions, worth constantly being in spaces where what it means to be black simply isn’t understood.
“Unfortunately, I’ve never been anywhere where I wasn’t discriminated against at all,” DeVon answers, “but here, at least I don’t fear for my safety. I’m happy here. And I’m definitely happier here than I was in the States.”