Positive Aspect of the Story of Little Black Sambo

In Japan, people have a lot of different images of black people. Many people, especially the older generation, have the images of them as the slave, the savage, the buffoon, and the GI as John Russell claims in his book “日本人の黒人観(Japanese People’s Images of Black People)”. And some people in the younger generation think black people are cool. They listen to Hip-hop, R&B, and Reggae, and watch many black celebrities and athletes on TV.

I went to New York during the winter vacation, and that was the very first time for me to get to know black people personally. Although I went to high school in the US as an exchange student, I had never had any black friends because where I was living was a pretty much white community and I went to a private Catholic high school in which I don’t think there were any black students. Before going to New York, I had the both images of black people as scary and cool. I don’t remember why, but my friends and I decided to stay at a hostel in Brooklyn. On the first day, we got scared as hell because more than 80% of people we saw there were black. But as time went by, we realized black people were nice. Whenever we asked them for help, they helped us. And the guy who was staying at the same hostel with us was super nice. So now my negative images of black people are totally gone.

But how can we, Japanese people, get rid of negative stereotypes against black people? To me, it was to have a talk with them and get to know them personally. I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to New York, and to be able to speak English. However, not so many people have that opportunity and not all Japanese people speak English. Furthermore, there are not that many black people in Japan, so people don’t have many opportunities to get to know them here either. Japanese people tend to create negative images against things they don’t know very much. I think “ちびくろサンボ(The Story of Little Black Sambo)” is a good way to introduce black people to the Japanese society. When we watched a video of Little Black Sambo in class, I didn’t feel it was offensive or gives children negative images of black people. What you see when you are a child has huge impact on your life. Although I have heard that even a three-year-old child notices differences of skin tones, I don’t think children will have prejudice or feel barriers against people of different skin tones if they grow up having positive images of them. When it comes to racism, people usually don’t really know about people who they hate. Getting to know people of different races will increase understanding among races. And I think The Story of Little Black Sambo is a good beginning of knowing black people.

by Haruka Kono

2 thoughts on “Positive Aspect of the Story of Little Black Sambo

  1. Completely wrong. The book is famous for its racist imagery. It assumes that Indian people and blacks are “the same” as they are both “black”. Thus this gives children the impression that two very different ethnic groups are “the same”. Also, the imagery used suggests that blacks are primitive or conform to stereotypical behaviour.

    Imagine a similar book depicting stereotypical Chinese with big teeth, a big Chinese hat and yellow skin titled “Little Yellow Matsumoto”. How would you feel? Would you be happy that a book suggested that Chinese and Japanese were the same race, culture and appearance? Would you be happy to see illustrations of Japanese people living in bamboo huts with panda bears outside? Would you be happy for white and black children to read this book at American and other schools around the world?

  2. I think a lot of the problem with the Sambo imagery in Japan is that it fails to look at its meaning and context in America. For example, images as seen in the 1953 Japanese version are offensive to Americans because of the implications through the portrayal of black people, but I think what’s truly discomforting for Americans is that when we see Sambo, it is immediately reminiscent of Jim Crow America and lynching. For Americans, Sambo is not a cute and clever child who outwits tigers, it’s part of a larger society that dehumanized blackness, and made whiteness superior to blackness in every conceivable way.

    What’s lost in translation and needs to be understood by Japanese when they view Sambo is that it came from a time in America where being black could be a death sentence. When black men were taught to look down on the sidewalk and move to the other side of the street if a white woman was approaching. This was an America where black men who looked at white women the wrong way were liable to lynch mobs, castration, torture, and death.

    Sambo at face value is seemingly harmless. But it’s what he represents, that’s real and true violence, which needs to be understood by the Japanese. When Japanese see Sambo, they also need to see and understand this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching

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