By Tiffany Nakamitsu
For The North American Post
Every February in the US and in Japan is Black History Month. Not relevant to you, you say? We all need to acknowledge that Black history is a part of everyone’s history. Japan has a Black history just as America does.
Many people are surprised when they learn about Yasuke. He was a real-life Black samurai who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of the most important feudal lords in Japanese history and a national unifier. Yasuke inspired many, including LeSean Thomas, producer of the Netflix anime series of that name. Thomas is a South Bronx NYC native and television animation creator operating out of Meguro, Tokyo.
Yet even with a Netflix series in his name, this Black warrior is still not well-known.
Throughout my schooling in Japan, Black history hardly surfaced. The only blip of Black History we read about was a short section about the American Civil Rights Movement in our history textbooks. It gave some quick information about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but didn’t expand on much else. There was absolutely nothing about domestic Japanese Black history.
Back then, I took the subway to school every morning at the same time every day with my friend. There was a Black man who would always ride the same train from the same platform every day as well, and not knowing its implications, we called him “chocolate man.”
He was kind and selfless enough to respond to this and would always smile, wave, and say hi back to us. In retrospect, I regret to this day that I never even asked him his name.
We Japanese are an undereducated group when it comes to Black history and blackness and it is important to be self-aware of how we are falling short. The Japanese community is often ignorant of the racial disparities and stereotypes of Black people that show in subtle ways. I hear it, especially when talking with people from older generations who often demonstrate racism in surprisingly casual ways.
For example, not long ago, my friend’s mom told her “you can date anyone but a Black man.”
Unfortunately, subtle racist comments are prevalent in the Japanese community in the US. It hurts to hear racism from someone you know and trust. It hurts even more when you are on the receiving end. Call out the wrong, educate people, and never be silent about human and racial justice.
Understanding Black history is not just about learning about historical figures like Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin. It’s about understanding the ways that Black people have been part of world history, including that of Japan.
-YouTube, JJ Walters channel, “NHK Makes Racist Video Trying to Explain the Difference Between Whites and Blacks in America,” (~1 min.)
-YouTube, NPR channel, “Living While Black, in Japan” (15 min).
-Thomas Lockley & Geoffrey Girard, 2019, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warried in Feudal Japan. Hanover Square Press, NY, 480 pp.
Tiffany Nakamitsu is a bilingual marketer at SeekOut, an IT startup that helps companies recruit hard-to-find diverse talent. She is also the founder of a marketing agency that uplifts Japanese small businesses in Greater Seattle and serves on the Board of Directors of Seattle Pride. Previously, Tiffany earned a degree in International Studies from the University of Washington and an International Political Economy certificate from King’s College London’s one-year program in the UK.