Born and raised a black American, as a so-called minority I long ago acquired the skill of paying close attention to when and how black people are used in the media.
You see, the sad truth is that the so-called majority — who both create the media and are the main consumers of it — many of whom, for a variety of reasons, neither get to nor are inclined to interact with some minority groups, and therefore rely on the media to tell them what we’re like.
And, sadly, the majority often walks away from these films, TV programs, news reports and commercials ill-informed, yet convinced they have gained an insight that factors into their judgment of who we are in real life, regardless of whether the people depicted in the work’s conception had a say in it or not.
So, yes, I’ve honed my skill — as have others from minority communities, I’m sure — of consuming media through, at minimum, two sets of eyes. One set is focused on the idea or product being sold and the appeal employed to do so. The other set, my “black eye” (pun intended), is focused on how blackness is being represented.
It’s not criticism for criticism’s sake, I pay attention because media representations have both direct and indirect effects on the quality of life for many in the minority, something the majority doesn’t usually need to worry about. When faced with a despicable character from the majority, the audience only needs to look to family members, teachers and others in the community to have that representation rebuffed. When that character is part of a minority group, real-life comparisons can become a bit more difficult.
On top of that dynamic, many of those creating media are people at the top of their game, skilled at embedding brands, images and ideas in susceptible minds, and we, the consumers, eat it up whether we’re conscious of it or not.
The situation in Japan is no exception.
An advertisement done well
Having said all that, late last year I was riding the subway when I caught a commercial for Gaba language school that featured a black woman instructing a Japanese student. It wasn’t the first commercial for an eikaiwa (English conversation) school I’ve seen featuring a black person, but it was the first time I can recall seeing it done well.
What impressed me most about the ad was how it humanized blackness in general. The teacher wasn’t presented as part of some fanciful rainbow connection to a preposterous post-racial world none of us live in, but by showcasing the ordinary: People of African descent are capable of slinging and peddling fast-food English, and delivering it with all the charm and appeal of their white counterparts — the ones whom these ads generally feature. What my “black eye” saw was some of the gratuitous (or maybe extraneous) exoticism being removed from us, which makes this “ordinary” rather “extraordinary.”
In Japan, where I’ve seen the differences between people pointed out and exaggerated constantly, the exquisite normality this ad displays is almost revolutionary — and definitely needed.
I first realized this need for better representation back in 2004, when I first arrived in Japan to work at the Nova eikaiwa franchise. One afternoon, I arrived at the school, proceeded to the teachers’ room and, as was my practice, checked the schedule on the wall to see what classes and ability levels I would be teaching that evening. I made a note of them and sat to prepare my lessons. A member of the Japanese staff came in to the teachers’ room a little before classes were to begin and made some changes to the schedule. This happened occasionally and was always accompanied by profuse apologies.
I saw that one of my classes had been switched from a high-level class that I liked to a low-level class, which, sorry to say, tended to make minutes feel like hours. I asked the member of staff why the change had been made and she started to turn red, indicating that it was for a reason she didn’t feel comfortable talking about. However, she carefully chose her words and revealed that it was at the request of the student.
I smelled a rat, so I pushed for further explanation. The staff member informed a head teacher of my concerns. The two huddled up and discussed the situation in Japanese, which I couldn’t comprehend at all at the time. The head teacher would glance over at me occasionally, also looking uncomfortable. Finally, he came over to and said, “The student requested a different teacher. It’s not a reflection on you. She wants to go to England so she would like to study with a teacher from England. That’s all.”
There were several British teachers, all of them white and all of them busy that period. The teacher that was to replace me was Australian, also white (with a decidedly different accent from the British). I pointed this out. The head teacher had screwed up, otherwise I’m sure he would have said the student wanted to go to Australia, not England.
I wasn’t angry at the head teacher, though. He was just trying to smooth over a crappy situation. I wasn’t mad at the Japanese member of staff, either. She too was just doing her job: “O-kyaku-sama wa kami-sama” (“The customer is God”) was the golden rule at our school. I wasn’t even particularly upset with the student; she was just expressing a preference based on the criteria in her head.
It would take several more of these types of incidents, and similar stories from my nonwhite coworkers, before I got it through my thick skull and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving heart that something was amiss; something that was not aimed scattershot at “foreigners” as many here tenaciously insist, but with sniper precision at those of us who weren’t white. On top of that, these incidents informed me that I was dealing with a de facto company policy that tolerated the racialized mindset of its customers.
And that mindset is influenced by images broadcast in this country’s media. The student likely chose that eikaiwa school, known for exorbitant fees, because she’d seen an advertising campaign featuring white teachers and whose only nod to diversity was a pink rabbit. Imagine her disappointment when she found herself in an overpriced one-to-one lesson with “The Beast.”
Beast in the machine
Which reminds me of another commercial I currently can’t avoid that features Bob Sapp, one of a handful of black celebrities here that the Japanese have embraced (for lack of a better word).
I’ve hung out with the man in public and can still hear the shrieks of joy from every Japanese person we encountered. Sapp is famous for kickboxing and mixed martial artistry, and for a while he was the go-to guy for Japanese advertisers looking to juxtapose his ring persona, where he was known as “The Beast,” with something more akin to a lovable, overgrown teddy bear. And this current ad campaign does the same.
I have no problem with advertisers appropriating — and Sapp cashing in on — his “Beast” persona. Well, actually, I do, but it is what it is. I’ve told the man to his face (more like to his pecs) that, due to Japan’s limited exposure to blackness, his “Beast” act and any other goofing around he engages in for various ads, impacts how the country sees the rest of us, which is generally not in the best light. I’ve been associated with Sapp’s persona numerous times by Japanese students and co-workers — some people get Brad Pitt, some get Emma Watson, I get “The Beast.”
I left it there, though. It’s not an easy fix and, ultimately, I think Sapp is free to self-identify and make a living as he sees fit.
In this latest campaign by software providers b-dash, though, the advertisers have thrown in a dynamic I find rather problematic: When Sapp starts to get angry, his Japanese co-workers don police riot gear to fend him off. As someone who gets “Beast” comparisons, when my black eye saw this ad I thought it was poorly conceived considering the relationship between the police and black people in the West.
As opposed to the more human representation with the Gaba ad, the b-dash ad relies on a caricature, and I believe the notion at the root of this comes from the fact that the actual definition of “black” and the Japanese interpretation of “black” are far from being in alignment. Also, the Japanese interpretation conveniently lends itself to commodification, as it did for the racist and/or enterprising white people who, to facilitate slavery and other profitable exploits, coined it originally. Regrettably, Japan takes its cues from racist countries where black is a race of easily identifiable people due to their skin color, who, regardless of place of origin, culture, language or any other distinguishing traits, have predictable characters and leanings — and, as this advertiser seems to suggest, the periodic need to be quelled by police in riot gear.
As my favorite YouTuber always says, “Can you hear me shaking my head?”
A shift in thinking
Blackness is extraordinarily profitable, and many the world over are cashing in on it in a variety of ways, even black people themselves. Content creators here in Japan, however, need to be mindful that, in this day and age, most nonblack efforts to commodify blackness or to perpetuate ill-informed, distorted or denigrating images and ideas of it, intentionally or otherwise, tend to be troubling (at best) and racist (at worst). You may, rightfully, get taken to task for it.
The Gaba ad, though, signifies a possible shift in thinking here, one that suggests we are able to head in a more positive direction. The creators of that commercial seemed to recognize that blackness is no more out of the ordinary than whiteness, Japanese-ness or any other “ness” — just ordinary people who are trying to make a living and some meaningful connections.
We have endured and overcome many challenges throughout history to simply be treated as ordinary human beings. Whenever my black eye sees that achieved, well that’s an extraordinary thing indeed.
Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. For more information, visit www.bayemcneil.com.