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

Robot teachers replacing foreigners?

by Robert Moorehead

I don’t understand this one, or maybe I just don’t want to. While Japanese researchers focus on building high-tech robots that can provide health care to the country’s growing elderly population, South Korean researchers are building robots to teach English to Korean children. The planet is already teeming with people who can do both tasks, and who could really use a job. So why use robots?

According to the Mung Sam Kim, of the Center for Intelligent Robotics at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea has a shortage of English teachers. Plus, past teachers have suffered from a “moral problem.” These robots have no sense of morality at all–a clean slate! The robots will connect to a call center in the Philippines, where English teachers can help the children without sullying up Korean classrooms with their presence.

The $100 million the South Korean government is spending on robotics grants could hire a lot of English teachers, and the same goes for the Japanese investments into robot caregivers. The children and the elderly would have human contact, and after work the teachers and caregivers could go out into the Korean and Japanese economies and spend money, thereby returning money back into the government pension and health care systems.

But then we wouldn’t have cool robots tell us in lame computerized voices that our English pronunciation is not good.

What does this say about the prospects for integrating foreigners into Korean and Japanese society? Why are robots preferable to people? Should I be replaced with a robot?

Link: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Being Zainichi and being forced to choose

At his K-1 matches, Choo wears both a Korean and Japanese flag on his uniform. Provided by the JoongAng Ilbo

by Robert Moorehead

K-1 UFC fighter Choo Sung-hon and soccer player Lee Chung-sun have more in common than their Korean ancestry and their status as professional athletes Both also surrendered their Korean citizenship when they became “Japanese.” Lee (known in Japan as Lee Tadanari) says he grew weary of the taunts he suffered in Korea because he grew up in Japan. Choo (known in Japan as Akiyama Yoshihiro) acquired Japanese nationality so he could compete on the Japanese national judo team. Choo wears both the Korean and Japanese flags on his uniform when he competes, to honor his dual heritage.

Faced with older Koreans in Japan pulling them toward retaining a Korean identity, and younger Koreans in Japan feeling a kinship to the Japanese country where they had been born and raised, many activists have pushed for a “third way,” an identity as Zainichi (Korean resident of Japan) that reflects their experiences as both of and not of Japan and Korea.

This interview with Choo captures his thoughts on his in-between status.

Racism in South Korea?

by Robert Moorehead

The discussion of alleged racism in South Korea in The Diplomat sounded so similar to discussions of the same issue in Japan that I wanted to post a link to the article. I can’t comment on the prevalence of racism in South Korea, since I’ve never been there and have read little on the issue. However, the issue of English teachers complaining of racial discrimination is familiar to me.

Like the teachers in South Korea, in Japan I’ve had people avoid sitting next to me on the train or subway, I’ve been followed in stores, and I’ve been harassed by a train conductor who insisted that he had stopped me multiple times trying to evade paying my fare (did he think we all look alike?). English teachers have the same right to complain about mistreatment and to pursue positive social change. But these teachers also have a higher status than other foreigners who face far greater challenges. In both Japan and South Korea, foreign migrant workers toil in low-status and low-pay “3-D” (dirty, dangerous, difficult) jobs that native workers avoid. These workers are often on the margins of the society, lacking legal protections from discrimination.

So how to address both the concerns of the teachers and the foreign migrant workers? What’s behind the allegations of mistreatment, and how can we move forward?

Korean hibakusha

Hibakusha diaries: Shin Hyong Gun, South Korean consul general in Hiroshima, points to exhibits featuring the diaries of foreign atomic bomb survivors at the city’s peace museum on July 15.

by Robert Moorehead

An estimated 30,000 Koreans, many forced laborers, were killed by the atomic blast in Hiroshima, and another 10,000 in Nagasaki. Myths of Japanese homogeneity have limited our understanding of the extent of the suffering in the war. Colonial powers are, by definition, multiethnic, and Japan was no exception. This exhibit helps us recognize this fact.

Links: Japan Times, Mainichi Daily News, David Palmer’s article in Japan Focus