Blackface is back (if it ever left)

Window Display of Ufu and Mufu

by Robert Moorehead

Imagine my surprise as I walked through Kyoto Station’s shopping areas today, when I came across a large window display filled with cartoon images of blackface children. Skin as dark as night, giant, oval eyes, ruby red lips, and large, bushy afros greet customers to the shop “Mono Comme Ça.” The display announces the release of a sequel to “Little Black Sambo,” called “Ufu and Mufu: The Cute Little Twins’ Big Adventures.” Ufu and Mufu are Sambo’s younger twin siblings. The parents, Mambo and Jambo, are still around, and with Mambo still dressed as a mammy, right down to her plus-size body, red apron, and red bandana. Accompanying the release of the book are a CD-DVD combo, and various merchandise, like pins, patches, dolls, mugs, and purses, all adorned with jet black faces and giant eyes. The DVD features a music video of the whole family dancing in the jungle with wild animals.

So, is this racist? Is it just a cute children’s story about two African children who have an adventure in the jungle? What harm could there be in that? What could be racist about “Little Black Sambo”? I won’t rehash the history of LIttle Black Sambo here, but you can check out the Wikipedia page. I will ask why some people find stories that depict racial others as simple, primitive, and musical so appealing. Why do we still see blackface characters in 21st century Japan advertising products and adorning t-shirts?

Cover of the story of Ufu and Mufu

Before showing my Japanese students the documentary Ethnic Notions last semester, I asked them this question. Several raised the valid point that the images can have different meanings in Japan than in the United States, and that we shouldn’t impose American meanings on the Japanese context. Others noted that Japan lacks the United States’ particular violent history of systematic racial oppression. I agreed, but I argued then (and still argue now) that these images still do the same thing in Japan as they have done in the US: they define a racial other, and thereby help those who are consuming these images to define themselves as superior.  As John G. Russell has argued, Japanese people have historically used these images to place themselves within a global racial order.

Some have used cultural arguments to claim that these images represent long-held Japanese beliefs regarding skin tone, and the valuing of lighter skin. However, this claim fails to recognize the historical evolution of these images in the popular imagination in Japan. The images are not recent imports from the United States (Commodore Perry’s crew performed a minstrel show in blackface for their Japanese hosts upon securing the opening of Japan to US trade in 1854), nor are they simply kawaii (cute) adornments for modern-day children or adults.

As Russell (2008) notes:

The various characters in the story, including Mambo

Japanese attitudes toward black people have been neither static nor universally negative. Rather it appears attitudes evolved in tandem with Japan’s exposure to outside cultures, principally—but not exclusively—those of the West, whose own attitudes toward blacks and other dark-skinned peoples were decidedly negative when it encountered Japan in the sixteenth century. Cultural reductionist models that attribute Japanese antiblack attitudes to deeply embedded, remarkably static traditional aestethics or to a visceral revulsion toward black skin tend toward an ahistoricism that retreats from interrogating power relations in the construction of color prejudice writ large and the role Western racial paradigms have played in the global invention of black alterity. Such models fail to explain why racially ascribed attributes such as laziness, stupidity, and hypersexuality—which Japanese had ascribed to outsiders regardless of skin color—came to be associated primarily with dark-skinned people. Nor do they explain why—unless one is prepared to posit a universal negrophobia—these traits are identical to those ascribed to blacks in the West.

Ufu’s merchandise

Russell connects negative perceptions of Africans with the various historical institutions of slavery, which transmitted images and understandings to Japan. These perceptions were further fed by the import of Western “scientific” racism, and other global discourses on race.

Long story short, these images not only matter, they also travel. Japan doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While we can re-interpret these images in new contexts, those new interpretations often hew closely to their original meanings. Race remains a key social marker, and using images of happy little darkies sitting down to a meal of pancakes after a long day of dancing with tigers and monkeys does little to help us reach the promised land.

This story depicts blacks as primitive and musical—showing them as sexual might be too much for a children’s story. Perhaps we should be thankful they’re not also playing basketball?

So what do you think?

Wikipedia page on Little Black Sambo.
Russell, John G. 2008. “The Other Other: The Black Presence in the Japanese Experience.” In Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, 2nd edition. Edited by M. Weiner. London: T&F Book UK.
iPhone App for the book in the Japanese iTunes Store. Write a review.
Facebook page for Ufu and Mufu. Post your thoughts on their page.
Five Foxes Customer Service number: 0120-114563. Share your thoughts with the corporate office.

Window display for Ufumufu merchandise


8 thoughts on “Blackface is back (if it ever left)

  1. Found this post just now. Will check it out more closely later, but now only on phone. Just now found this book in dentists office waiting rm. Was google/wiki ing while waiting. Oop. My turn…

  2. “Japan lacks the United States’ particular violent history of systematic racial oppression. I agreed…” YOU DID?! How long have you lived in Japan? Who have you been hanging out with? Apparently you don’t know about the Ainu (or Utari, in their own language), the indigenous peoples of northern Japan, but you should. At the very least, here’s what Wikipedia says about them:

    “In 1899, the Japanese government passed an act labeling the Ainu as former
    aborigines, with the idea they would assimilate—this resulted in the land the
    Ainu people lived on BEING TAKEN BY THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT, and
    was from then on under Japanese control. Also at this time, the Ainu were
    granted automatic Japanese citizenship, effectively denying them the status of an
    indigenous group.”

    I’ve lived and taught in Japan, and have wonderful memories of it and the friends I made there, but I have no illusions about the Japanese people’s passion for, and success in, whitewashing their less-than-honorable actions. The Rape of Nanking; experiments on humans in Harbin, China during WWII – no Japanese schoolbook touches on these subjects.

    Do your homework – and don’t embarrass yourself any further.

    • Jeanne,

      Thank you for reading my blog and for posting a comment. I will not respond to your questions/comments about my tenure in Japan, my acquaintances, my academic work, or whether I should be embarrassed. Your response is simply off-target.

      Look again at the sentence you quoted, and the sentences that preceded it. “Japan lacks the United States’ particular history …” That sentence makes no reference whatsoever to Japan’s treatment of its own minority populations or to Japan’s period of colonial/wartime aggression.

      My students’ point was that we should not assume that American racialized depictions of Africans have the same meaning in Japan as they do in the US. Images of mammies, sambos, and pickaninnies come from the United States’ particular history of violent, systematic racial oppression and attempted to justify that oppression. However, Japan and the United States are two different countries, with different histories in terms of their treatment of minorities. The images in the blog post are of Africans, and Japan wasn’t a player in the transatlantic slave trade, nor does it have an American-style, 400-year history of violent, systematic oppression of Africans. So what do images like Ufu and Mufu mean in Japan? I connected those images to John Russell’s insightful analysis. For more info on that analysis, see the links I provided in the post.

      Nowhere in the post do I state that Japan does not have its own history of oppression. I also do not imply that Japan lacks such a history. Clearly, Japan has a well-documented history of negative treatment of Ainu, Burakumin, Okinawans, Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Peruvians, Brazilians, Filipinos … need I go on? It’s a shame you’re not attending the class on Japanese Society I’m teaching this semester. I’m focusing on minorities and diversity in Japan. We talked about the Ainu just two weeks ago, and this week we’re looking at the experiences of Chinese.

      As you note, Japan has whitewashed (pun intended?) its history of oppression, but to understand Japanese depictions of their history and of racial and ethnic “others,” we have to start from Japan’s own history, rather than assume that the images have the same meaning as in the US. And we can examine the depiction of Africans in Japan in short blog posts without having to mention all other instances of oppression.

      To conclude from my post that I don’t know about the Ainu or any of the other topics you listed is simply nonsense.

  3. Pingback: Links: Blackface and Sono’s Apartheid Comment | The Lobster Dance

  4. Reblogged this on JAPANsociology and commented:

    A quick post to note that blackface remains part of mainstream Japanese culture, as shown by the pictures of teen idol group Momoiro Clover posing in blackface. Despite the fact that the girls in the group are quite young, they seem to be going after an older demographic. First they record a song with KISS, and now they’re performing in blackface.
    What does it say about race relations in Japan when in one week we have an op-ed in a major newspaper calling for a system of apartheid, and a teen girl group performs in blackface? It’s depressing that my post on blackface is as current now as it was four years ago.

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