Is Loco sensei a nee-gah, too?

There’s a cute little Hafu, all of 13 years old, among  my 1st year students, half-African-American, half-Japanese. She speaks both English and Japanese fluently. After having lived in Mississippi for the past couple of years, her family has recently returned to Japan. She transferred to my school in August and seemed to be adjusting to life back in Japan and at our school fairly well…

That is, until yesterday.

There’s another Returnee in the same class, 100% Japanese this one, but his family lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and he attended an international school there, so his English is fairly fluent as well.

I learned yesterday that, beneath my radar, a bit of a rivalry had sprung up between the two.

I had noticed from our first meeting that the girl was a bit outspoken, compared to her Japanese classmates, and not shy about her English ability whatsoever. This is remarkable because generally the English-speaking students at my schools have only spoken to me in English when their friends were not around or totally buried the ability for fear of becoming outstanding or even ostracized (it’s been known to happen). But Risa (not her real name) seems to be unaware of these possible outcomes and displays conspicuous pride in her own bilingual-ness. The boy, Hideki (not his real name) is not as shy as most of his classmates but not as outspoken as Risa. Recently, according to Risa, he has taken to teasing and criticizing her and apparently it had gotten to a point where she felt compelled to bring it to my attention. Thursday, in the rest period just before English class was to begin, we had the following conversation:

Risa: Mr. Loco, Mr. Suzuki (Hideki) says I have an accent.

Me: Really? Speak, let me hear you talk.

Risa: What do you want me to say?  I don’t…”

Me: What does your father do?

Risa: He’s ah Petty Officer in the Navy. He’s been in the Navy since befo’ I was born. He’s from Mississippi and you kinda remind me uh him…

Me: Suzuki-kun is right, you do have an accent…it’s a southern accent, kinda like my mother’s. It’s only a slight one, though. But, big deal! He’s got an accent too. His sounds British…I have an accent too, though I might be losing it living here. Everyone has some kind of accent.

Risa: He said my accent was a black accent.

Me: How would he know? What does that mean anyway?

Risa: I don’t know, but he said it was black and the way he said it made it sound like a bad thing. Is a black accent bad?

Me: There’s no such thing. And if there were it wouldn’t be a bad thing, so don’t pay him any mind.

I should mention that whenever her and I have a conversation, all the Japanese eyes are riveted and ears are glued. It’s so rare for them to see two native English speakers go at it live, especially if one just also happens to be their classmate as well. I worry about how this might impact her school life- her being able to communicate with the teacher better than anyone in the school that isn’t an adult (trying to be nice here…she’s actually better than all the Japanese English teachers put together), so I try to keep our interactions to a minimum. Risa jumps at every opportunity to flash her skill, though.

As she reported her conversation with Hideki to me, I picked up on something in the tone of her voice. Though she presented all of this with a nonchalance and a giddiness that I can only attribute to her youth, I knew that what Hideki had said had upset her.

So, now Hideki was on my radar.

And, from my vantage before the class, I could see what was happening. I’d ask a question and, if it weren’t too difficult, several hands would rise but if it were difficult only two would: Hideki’s and Risa’s. All the answers were simple for both of them so I avoided calling on them as often as possible. It felt fair, but as far as they were concerned they had as much right to answer the questions as their uni-lingual’d classmates. Hideki seemed to grasp what I was up to though and refrained from raising his hand every time. But, Risa was oblivious. She continued to raise her hand every time (forcing me to call on her from time to time.) Moreover, she’d even raise her hand to ask questions or volunteer remarks (which she’d happily translate into Japanese for her linguistically-challenged classmates)- something that other bi-lingual students would rarely do.

Yep, I could see what was going on. It was older than the club. It was probably what prompted the use of the club as a murder weapon rather than for protection from beast in the first place: jealousy.

I decided I had better do something to dial it down but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I decided I’d speak with the staff at my company at the next monthly meeting to see if they had any suggestions because I suspected my Japanese co-workers would be just as clueless as to how to resolve this equitably as I was. I mean, it is such a rare thing. In the three years I’ve been working there, there have been a half-dozen or so English-speaking Returnees but,  by and large, somehow, whether through experience or intuition, they knew to downplay their ability as much as possible because that which might be cool and impress friends can also be intimidating for those lacking the ability. Not to mention it might provoke my personal nemesis: the ever-present Japanese Iwakan.

Then, Friday, Risa, with a girlfriend in tow, runs up on me in the hallway, still her giddy and ostentatious self, and says:

Risa: Hi Mr, Loco.

Me: Hi Risa-chan, what’s up?

Risa: Well…it’s kind of funny, but not.

Me: What is?

Risa: Hideki called me a Nee-gu-ro.


Risa: It’s bad, right? I thought so…

Me: Well…uh…what…what did he say?

Risa: He said I was nee-gu-ro…

Me: Is that all he said?

Risa: He also said neee-gah, but I know that’s bad. I wasn’t sure about Nee-gu-ro, though.

Me: Ummm…Ah…did you tell your home room teacher?

Risa: No, I just wanted to tell you because I knew you’d understand.

Me: Actually, I…

Risa: I said to him…. I said, “Is Mr. Loco a nee-gah, too?

Me: What???

Risa: But he didn’t say anything…he just…

Me: Wait a minute…Let me get this straight. Hideki called you a negro and a nigger?

Risa: Yes.

Me: Thank you for telling me Risa. And, don’t worry, I’ll get to the bottom of this.

I walked away, a little bewildered and aghast. I mean, every time I hear things like this I’m shocked. One time one of my third year students, a girl, was caught on the roof giving some of the guys blow jobs…I couldn’t imagine any of my kids doing this, on either end of the blow job. If you knew my kids, their innocence, their naiveté, their utter openness and friendliness, you would be shocked, too…But, I had to remind myself that 1- these are teenagers. Experiment, raise hell and  break rules is what they do. It sure as hell is what I did when I was their age, and 2-As far as Hideki was concerned, he was not raised in the same environment as the other students. Who knows what he learned in British international schools in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Whereas the non-Returnee might think the same thoughts as Hideki they are probably less inclined to voice them to Risa’s face (or at least I’d like to think so).

But, I might be wrong about that, too.

I went to the office and immediately reported this to The Japanese English teacher, who was appropriately angry and, in turn, reported it to Risa’s home room teacher, who was appropriately furious and threatened to send the kid home permanently…in due course he brought it to the vice principal’s attention and a huddle was held in the center of the office where the three of them, along with a fourth teacher, the head teacher of the first year students, decided what shall be Hideki’s fate.

The huddle resulted in a clarification session with Risa confirming the story thoroughly followed by Hideki’s being harshly scolded by his home room teacher, during which (I was told later) Hideki explained his racist remarks as being provoked by Risa’s character. The way she is always showing off her English ability made him feel like he was being ignored by the teachers. He explained that at one point he and Risa had had their hands up at the same time to answer a question and though I had called on him to answer it, following his answer, Risa had made some kind of remark in English regarding his response that he couldn’t catch, and that made him upset because he felt as if she were trying to best him.

I tried to recall the particular moment and it came back to me in living color. I was telling the class about my Junior High School life and explaining the differences between Junior High schools in NY and the ones here in Yokohama. For example, I told them that in NY on graduation day we wear a suit, cap and gown (and passed the pic on the left around to illustrate–they got a real kick outta seeing Loco at their age) while the Japanese tend to wear their same uniform and no cap and gown to speak of.

I also mentioned that we had to be at school by 8:25am but if you wanted to have breakfast, you needed to arrived by 8am and breakfast would be made available for you. Also, I told them that classes began at 8:45 after home room.

Hideki had raised his hand and mentioned that in Dubai he had to be to school by 7:30. His voice barely audible but his pride in having a different experience than his entire class was evident on his face. And, at that point, Risa’s hand had shot up and she, once I had looked her way(but I hadn’t called on her) added that at her school in Mississippi, classes started at 8am and there was also breakfast available…and she had some other remarks, related to something I had discussed previously in the lesson, about graduation, which the Japanese teacher had found more remarkable than I had. Risa picked up on that curious energy from the Japanese teacher and expounded, translating it into Japanese for her classmates, and they responded appropriately with oohs and aahs.

If I had been tuned into Hideki at that moment I might have seen the emotions playing on his face, the jealousy seething within, the decision being made to exact revenge on little resplendent Risa … And I might have even caught a glimpse of what the thought (or God forbid feeling) Negro or Nigger does to a child of 13 who understands what he’s saying, knows it’s something that he shouldn’t say, and says it regardless, intent on inflicting pain on another.

I’m almost glad I didn’t notice. Who wants to see that?



32 Responses to “Is Loco sensei a nee-gah, too?”

  1. 1 T.Holms
    November 29, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    wow.. well you cant say your life in japan is uneventful at least… haha. I’m actually glad that they took it seriously i expected them to play it down like it wasn’t that big a deal or anything. Rivalry can either be a great or horrible thing. It can drive a person to better themselves to gain recognition of their rivals OR it can drive people to do horrible things out of jealousy of their rival. I’m just glad you got it under control, good for you!

    • November 30, 2009 at 10:05 am

      Thanks for the shout Holms-san. Yeah, definitely uneventful is not the word for my life here (-;

  2. 3 janet
    November 29, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    “appropriately angry” – you’re suggestin they’re faking it?

    • November 30, 2009 at 10:08 am

      Hey Janet, thanks for the shout…
      Ya think? I mean, like Holms said, I too expected them to play it down. I was surprised that the japanese English teacher even knew what the word Nigger meant. I mean, i never hear it used in japan (unless it’s by other foreigners). But she’d travelled and lived abroad so I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

  3. 5 WC
    November 29, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    I just want to say that I think you are a little too hard on yourself for the little things you don’t pick up on. From reading your stories, I’m always amazed at all things you -do- pick up on that I think I’d have missed completely, and then you remark on things you missed that I’m sure I’d miss.

    • November 30, 2009 at 10:11 am

      WC-san, you might be right at that. I am especially sensitive and may be holding myself up to unattainable standards here in Japan
      thanks fior the shout (-:

  4. 7 Jim McDonald
    November 30, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Lot of food for thought there, Loco, a whole banquet in fact.

  5. 8 Eddie
    November 30, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Man, I can only imagine the look on your face when she told you that… I would have had the dumbest look ever…. How do you go about a situation like that? After the scolding does everything return to normal?

  6. November 30, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Wow! A friend on twitter recommended this blog and all I can say is it is subarashii!!! I must have read about 30 entries in a row. Your writing is excellent and your experiences really detail what its like to be a “gaijin”, especially a black one, in Japan. I am an African American female and I lived there for 8 months in 2008 and my experiences were very interesting to say the least. I would love to go back to Japan and live for awhile but I definitely appreciated the USA a lot more when I returned from Nippon. Your blog is bookmarked and I will be looking out for updates often. Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu! Do you use twitter?

    • November 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks Stacie,  I appreciate the shout. (-:
      I’m tweeting…just checkout locohama. or i should say I’m trying to get my tweet on…I jsut can’t find anything to tweet about more than once a day or so

      Anyway, thanks for the accolades

  7. November 30, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Nice post Loco. Definitely very readable and very interesting 🙂 I think you handled the situation well and its good to see your school taking it seriously too. And I like this more ‘family-friendly’ form of writing from you 😉

    • December 1, 2009 at 9:57 am

      Thanks for the shout Mike and for the praise and socs as well. I really appreciate it. “Family Friendly” is in repertoir and i go there from time to time. Unfortuantely (and of course fortuantely as well) life here in Kawaiiland is not all family friendly desu ne 😉

  8. 13 gaijinass
    November 30, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I think that girl being hyper ready with the hand might have something to do with her being interested in communicating with and impressing you in particularly. Seems, based on what you wrote, that she feels the two of you have things in common and she is new at the school. I have had students before that were like that and it had little to do with them strutting their English stuff but it was more about needing a connection. Often times, in fact every time, said individual was not fitting in just right. Just a thought.

    Oh and come on…blow jobs on the roof…OF COURSE! My highschool back in S.C….insanity, a sexual carnival.

    Keep em coming Loco.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:02 am

      You know Gainjinass-san, i think you might be right at that. Her mention of my reminding her of her father…that wasn’t first time she’d said that. But I have heard she shines and excels in other classes, as well, not just English.
      btw, this Junior HS, not HS. If this was a HS nothing would surprise me whatsoever. However, whereas my JHS ended at 13-14 years old, here they are until 15-16 years old. 2 teenage years can make a HUGE difference!
      thanks for the shout!

  9. November 30, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I love the smart ones. Risa would fit nice over here so long as she backed the attitude up with some 100’s! I’m talkin BJ’s!! Benjamin Franklins!! If a student of mine gets 98% on a test Ima drill down till i found out why they slept on the other 2pts. That’s the difference between being great or bein’ just good…those 2pts. One of my Elementary classes told me last month “Chris we will do our best” (RE: Eiken). I said…I’m not your Mom. Don’t give me that ..”our best” stuff. You WILL do. (N)ever (I)gnorant (G)etting (G)oals (A)ccomplished 😉

    • November 30, 2009 at 9:23 pm

      Chris, you so craaazy
      thanks for the shout yo!

  10. November 30, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Great article. I’ve been researching somewhat on futoko this semester at college and this example above was the perfect beginning to a student wanting to stop going to school. The outspoken, often highly intelligent and independent, children are ostracized by their peers for their ability to succeed. It’s really a pity to see the most bright of the students sometimes drop out of school due to them not, “going with the flow.” I am really happy to see that you managed to actually deal with this situation unlike most native Japanese teachers, who seem to just ignore it the majority of the time. Good for you.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:04 am

      andrew san, thanks for the shout!
      i don’t know about most japanese teachers but the ones here were all over this thing. Guess the students at my school are really lucky 🙂

  11. 19 Robert W
    December 1, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Came to this post through http://www.japansoc.com and it looks like it’s a keeper.

    At first “Is Loco sensei a nee-gah, too?” didn’t click until I got half way through the post. Now days racial slurs have become know around the world thanks to the popularity in movies (especially American racial slurs).

    I’m a Mex-American living in a border town and spend a lot of time in Mexico and get to see many people use English slurs often, I’m also usually on the receiving end on both sides of the border since I’m not Mexican Enough in Mexico or American enough in the US that I look like a foreigner in both countries.

    Looking forward to new posts/tweets

    Kind Regards,

    Robert W.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:10 am

      Hi Robert-san. thanks for the shout!
      Yeah, music videos and movies are partially culpable.
      But, it’s mostly used in a different connotation in recent movies and videos, i think. It’s not used so much as a bad word as it is a badge of honor. Hideki used it like a racist white person would back home in the US…as opposed to an Eminem who somehow manages to make songs “N” word-free (at least i think he has). Ah, this is too deep a discussion and I don’t really want to get into it to tell you the truth. Mendokusai na
      But thanks for the shout and thanks for staying tuned.

  12. December 1, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Sometimes I forget what mean little bastards teenagers can be sometimes.
    I remember getting into fights and making trouble but I never pulled the race card on anyone.
    Although, some kids did and I always found it to be a lazy and messed up way of getting back at someone.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:13 am

      Thanks for the shout Freedom
      yeah, that they are / I was a mean bastard.
      I can’t picture black folks in WV. Never met a single one…Lots of Va and other surrounding states but never from WV. Were there many? Which part of WV do you hail from?

  13. December 1, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Hey Loco,

    Putting my conflict resolution hat on,

    Glad your colleagues are taking this seriously. “Hideki” needs to face serious consequences for his actions. Though I can understand his feelings, his response when confronted was particularly odious, and he needs to know that. I would be so disappointed if it were one of my students, “so you thought you’d bring her down a peg or two by clubbing her over the head with the history, and legacy, of one of the worst things human beings have done to each other? Is that right?”

    I’m also thinking that after delivering an unequivocated, written apology to “Risa”, he needs to work with teachers, and Risa to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. I would suggest talking to Risa about how Hideki feels (you might find out that she actually likes making him feel outshone), work out some things she might be able to do to avoid making him feel bad. Also Hideki needs to realise that it’s likely Risa isn’t trying to hurt him on purpose (I hope). Teachers might need to hustle and think of what they might be doing that fuels the conflict. Finally, follow up yourself, and get home room teachers to follow up on how the two are getting on. If things don’t improve, you might need to have them sit down (with a teacher they both trust as mediator) to talk it out.

    p.s. In order to avoid the possibilty that getting reamed for racist behaviour confirms his perception that teachers ingore him (and his feelings) in favour of “Risa” it needs to be made clear that he is facing censure for unacceptable behaviour, regardless of how “Risa” feels.

    I might also suggest that Hideki do some studying up on the awful human cost, and immeasurable damage to the whole of U.S society that White supremacy has wrought (e.g. the purposeful “ghettoization” of welfare, and government assistance that scuttled the War on Poverty, causes politicians to refuse federal funds for education, and unemployment benefits, and has prvevented real moves on providing a basic level of health coverage for all Americans.)

    • December 1, 2009 at 7:36 pm

      ummm, yeah, that’s gonna happen…


      thanks Rubi-san, and when Japan becomes another country or arrives on the planet earth I’m sure these kinds of things will happen, but until then…Risa’s half-human and female and Hideki is a future master of their universe (if they can can erase some of that western pollution in his ideas he acquired in the middle east). I won’t be surprised if Risa gets “transferred” to another homeroom. But, I’ll continue to follow up as best I can. Unfortunately my influence is limited to suggestions, that are usually met with something to the effect of “that’s just not how we get down on our island planet.”

      Anyway, not to be a negative killjoy, but after reading your recommendations I felt it necessary to remind you that this is not nor does it aspire to be a western nation with European-ized ideas of conflict resolution. It only aspires to appear to be one and to be respected as one


      ps: just kiddin’ kinda

  14. December 2, 2009 at 6:48 am


    Well, Loco. My tongue in cheek response is, if you’re* going to act like racism is a Western problem, then you won’t mind me stepping in with a “Western” solution, will you?

    *General “you”

    More seriously, I think the criticism that conflict resolution is a European thing, certainly has some merit. The problem is that the pioneers of this research were Westerners, mainly because the resources for this sort of thing are concentrated in the big academic institutions of Europe and America. As a result conflict resolution data from non-Western contexts, and most importantly non-Western/non-Western educated practitioners, has been hard to come by.

    That being said, there is sometimes utility in using outsider-sourced frameworks. As outsiders are able to “make the familiar unfamiliar” (to paraphrase Spindler… I think). Moreover there is evidence that these conflict resolution approaches are achieving good results in a wide variety of contexts.

    Heh, after reading that little uni lecture I’m sure you’ll want me to stay tongue in cheek all the time.

    Anyway, I’m glad that there’s at least one teacher who sees “Risa” as a whole human.

  15. December 3, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Whoa, intense. Luckily I’ve never had to deal with anything like that. From the way you described it, I wonder if “Hideki”‘s behavior is really motivated by racism or if, as you seem to have wondered, he is just an angry teenager lashing out with whatever ammunition he has. Either way, bullying can be a real problem, and not just in Japan.

  16. 27 deanS
    December 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Cool blog I’m a Yonsei in Southern California and oddly enough the “black accent” question reminded me of an experience a friend of mine had. He’s Black (well a quarter Chinese but that’s another story) and his cousin from Texas who calls and wants to talk to his mother ,so he passes the phone to her. Later she tells him the cousin asked her who the white guy that answered the phone was? He didn’t think it was as funny at the time as I did ,guess he was just too well spoken lol.

    Btw I think that Rubi comes on a little too intense and Blue Shoe sums it up better for me.
    “More seriously, I think the criticism that conflict resolution is a European thing, certainly has some merit. The problem is that the pioneers of this research were Westerners, mainly because the resources for this sort of thing are concentrated in the big academic institutions of Europe and America. As a result conflict resolution data from non-Western contexts, and most importantly non-Western/non-Western educated practitioners, has been hard to come by.” I hate to say comes across reminding me of the expression “The White Man’s Burden” more than anything else. Also “European conflict resolution” is looking a bit shaggy lately especially in relation to immigrants and Muslims.
    Ah well so much for keeping it light.
    Like the curse says “May you live in interesting times” we all certainly seem to.

  17. December 3, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    excellent, well written post. From just reading you writing of the incident I can see why you get along so well with your students.

  18. December 4, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    That must have been shocking – I am speechless – and you know that never happens. 😎 In a weird way though – he was really complimenting her (even though that clearly wasn’t his intent) and I think he was complimenting you – if he really associated those words with blackness and then attached them to her (and probably via you) because of how quick to answer/competitive she was – he obviously was trying to hurt her feelings and bring her down a notch or ten – but really he is jealous of her skills – maybe the meaning of the word is blurred a little in his understanding – or maybe I have just lost my mind – I am going back to being speechless – another great post – as always!

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