Black and White in Japan: pt.2

I was the only black person at the school where I taught initially. Most of the Japanese students had never experienced being in close vicinity to someone of African descent so I was something of a celebrity to some of them and, to put it nicely, a curiosity to others. Even to some of the teachers (mostly Australian, British and Canadian) I was a novelty, as much for my race as my place of birth. Most had never met a genuine New Yorker before, either. One Canadian girl told me she had friends she often visited in Niagara Falls, NY, which for some reason was about the cutest thing I’d ever heard in my entire life til that point. Even her name, Jesse, was cute.

I can’t say I’d never experienced this phenomenon before. I had. Even in NY, at some of the companies I’d worked for, I was the first and only black person to ever hold a particular position or work in a certain department. If you can’t imagine what it feels like to represent an entire race and know that, however unfairly, due to the prevailing ignorance, whatever you do will impact higher-ups decisions to hire people of your ilk in the future, let me help you. Just imagine you’re at a crowded beach taking a swim when someone suddenly grabs your feet and pulls you under…and keeps you there while you flail and kick trying to free yourself. But instead of drowning you just stay in that pre-drowning state of panic, while everyone watches safely from the shore- some with pity, some just curious, others completely indifferent- from 8:30am til 6pm every day.

Of course, working for this franchise English school was not as bad as all that. It had that McDonald’s vibe about it that informed you that fuck-ups came through there all the time, so no matter how badly you fuck up, you wouldn’t be the first and you wouldn’t be the last. But I would still have flashbacks from time to time like a Vietnam vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. For example, any question that began with “Do all black people…” could trigger it. And, this question would fly from the mouths of students and teachers alike, on a daily basis. It’s a benign form of ostracization to be sure, but like a benign tumor, it still stings like a fuck. Answering such a question with a mouthful of bile is a feat in itself. I’d cut the Japanese some slack because at that time I kind of thought of all of them like ignorant children or like that Japanese soldier that they found living in a hole in Guam who didn’t know that WWII was over.  This was my first introduction to Japanese  benign ostracization so at the time I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

However, when this banality came from the teachers…I was a little less lenient. Jesse was my only respite. For some reason she never asked questions like that. She satisfied her curiosity about me by observing me…her green eyes adored me.

It was easier to roll with it back home in NY because at the end of each day I would return to the bosom and reality check of the community that produced me, surrounded by family and friends; the people who embrace me and kept me grounded.

Needless to say, that’s not the case here in Japan. Quite the opposite.

I went home to two loud-talking, heavy drinking, guitar playing, Vegemite-sandwich eating roommates. (If you don’t know Vegemite, it’s the Australian spread that pretty much disqualifies them from EVER saying anything untoward about the Japanese affinity for eating rotten beans for breakfast / Natto.) And, this would have been alright probably if we had been living in a Gaijin House, but we were living in a mansion (which is what the Japanese call their apartment complexes) where we were one of three apartments rented by foreigners while the remaining complex was all-Japanese.

And they weren’t happy…

How do I know? Well, you’d think I know this because of the dirty looks I received, or the knocks on the door and walls in the night, or letters / hate mail slipped under the door or painted in graffiti on the door, or any number of  NY-style heads-up like that. Nope. This is Japan. If I happened into one of our Japanese neighbors, and upon seeing me if they didn’t manage to scurry back into their apartments in time or in any direction aside from mine, they would show the brand of kindness that would make me think they were going to submit my name for president of the Tenant’s Association…

Nope, the letters and complaints went to the landlord and the landlord’s letters went to our employer. And our employer in turn would alert us.  My cellphone rang one day and on the other line was some bureaucrat from the main office with an Aussie accent  telling me unkindly that I had better follow the rules, as laid down in my rental agreement (basically some legalese instructing me to behave as if I were among the silent dead every night – all night cuz the walls may not be made of paper like in ancient Japan but they weren’t much thicker), or face eviction. Rules I had been following for the most part.

Rules my room”Mates” were not.

After the call I got a little vexed, as you might imagine, and caught both of them in the living room living it up as usual and called a meeting for the following night. They’d said cool, that they had been meaning to speak to me, too.

They? they said, which implied that they had already huddled about me. Mind you the two of them didn’t know one another either when we moved in.

And about what? What issues could they have with me? Hell, I’d been more or less a model roommate. I was still in a kind of representin’ the race mode that  first month in Japan. I hadn’t said or done anything to show I was anything other than a fun-loving, slightly prejudiced against Eminem, kind to trees and animals and Japanese, mildly womanizing New Yorker. I cleaned kitchens and shower rooms…I never used the refrigerator (cuz it smelled like Vegemite and various other things people Down Under dine on that don’t smell so hot.) We all smoked so that couldn’t be the issue. I hadn’t even given Gregg an earful about his anachronistic vulgarities…yet, so it couldn’t be about that.

I would find out the what the following day…and this thing would be just what I needed to finally stop representin’ the race with my new friends and simply represent Loco.

to be continued…



35 Responses to “Black and White in Japan: pt.2”

  1. January 22, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    “Do all black people…”

    And the thing is, whereas elsewhere you could turn that question around on someone and illustrate how ridiculous a question it is, that doesn’t work so well in Japan where a shockingly large number of people really believe they CAN speak for all Japanese people.

    • January 22, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      You said it, Overoften-san

  2. 3 fudgepudge
    January 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    some examples of “anachronistic vulgarities”?

    • January 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm

      I gave one in part 1:
      He called black men “Colored guys”

  3. January 22, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    can’t wait to hear what’s next. this should be good! 😎

  4. January 22, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    I’m amazed that things are still like this in the world’s largest city. Every week I notice some child staring at me like I just alighted from a flying saucer. I’m the only hakujin parent at my son’s day care, and I’ve found that to even crack the ice I’ve had to go around greeting every child every morning, attending incomprehensible parent-teacher meetings, and constantly grinning like the Cheshire Cat. And still every week some kid will mistake me for the British fellow who moved to Barcelona in October. They confuse our sons, too, though mine is not yet two and the other boy was four.

    I don’t really mind having to be ‘on’, it’s a nice change of pace from dour Toronto. This country’s been pretty good to me, I want to give back. The least I can do is be friendly even if I have to dial it up.

    Of course, I could see my attitude faltering if I had your level of competency with the language! 8^)

    P.S. Coming from Southern Ontario I can tell you that a lot of us are like your friend Jesse and think of Niagara Falls or Buffalo when someone mentions New York.

  5. 7 Jeff
    January 22, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    Thats messed up, how does apartment management have any right to send other’s complaints – that may or may not be true – to your employer? Thats a huge breach in privacy. And I thought Washington was a nanny state. I can’t imagine this being the norm in Japan. It must be due to the fact that your employer and apartment arrangements are connected to help you out financially. I hope thats the reason 😉

    • January 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm

      Jeff-san, you are indeed right. It was because of the arrangement my company had with my employer. I agree it would have been unacceptable otherwise! thanks for the shout (-:

  6. January 23, 2010 at 12:43 am

    I can`t speak of race but I can speak of nationality. Being an American will bring a lot of questions and suspicious thoughts I never experienced before. I come in contact with so many different nationalities in Japan. Being a white American from the south I have dealt with plenty of fucked-up questions. I have heard everything from, `Do people really marry their sister?` to `Is there really a KKK in the south these days` or the real kicker `Have you ever drank or sold moonshine?` It can be hard to deal with at times but I try to explain to people that not every American from the south is a stump jumping hillbilly.

    • January 24, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      Freedom-san, that’s way fucked up!
      You can totally identify apparently…
      We are Here

  7. January 23, 2010 at 4:05 am

    Now I’m dying to know what possible beef these two could of had with you.

  8. January 23, 2010 at 8:03 am

    “Do black people”

    Jai ho! Tell it, Loco.

    You know what else I find quite chagrining is when people combine ignorance and arrogance to make assertions about you based on whatever it is they “know” of you and “your kind”.

  9. January 23, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I want you to know I am faithfully representin’
    Until recently I was about the only American around here. Sometimes a Kanji studying manga loving freak would slide through but they had already been told to avoid me.
    I am not allowed in the Japanese bars because of my past events and the only foreigner bar started calling the cops as soon as I stepped in the door. Because.. I once told a buncha Aussie/English/Canadian scumfaces that I would gladly put a bat to their head if they were up for it. If they could take me ( and combined and if they had had balls they coulda ) I would then find them and give them blasts from behind.
    Spare me any “that’s cowardly” comments please. Once you’ve been struck from behind you lose the hesitation to ever return that favor. I would rather break a head on my bat than break my hand on a head or mouth. Getting an infection because someone’s saliva got into your knuckle is really painful.

    I look forward to the continuation of this story Loco.
    I hope it ends with one or both receiving a “character adjustment” but I’ll have to wait for the next post:)

    • 14 Rune
      January 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm

      I’ll spare you the “that’s cowardly” comment, but instead point out that you have serious anger issues you need to work out and that your propensity to sort to threats and violence as presented in your comments is a sign of weakness and not strength. And yes, I would say that to your face and take the beating that ensued, though I would do my best to defend myself. I don’t initiate violence, but I’m not that much of a pacifist.

    • January 23, 2010 at 8:17 pm

      If your ever anywhere near Yanai Japan (45Km south of Hiroshima) I would love for you to say that to my face. I’ll break yours soon after and then you can go recover somewhere.
      If violence works for me..and it has…why does it matter to you?
      You wanna know what it feels like to smash your face on steel you dumb ___er?


      Please don’t block me bro 🙂 I never harass or clown on anyone. I just do my thing and try to add my own flavor to your great cooking. He implied some kind of event so I was just closing it down. Sorry to offend anyone, particularly you.

    • January 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

      Perish the thought Chris -san…You have earned the right to speak your mind here. as has my man Rune-san, and if you gentleman want to engage one another go for it. I know it’ll go no further than a heated discourse so i aint mad at yall LOL I love heated discourses, especially if in the end everyone can learn something from it. I hope that’s the case here.

    • 17 Rune
      January 23, 2010 at 11:55 pm

      So, you say violence works for you? Well,I know it got you to flee Hawaii and go to Japan. I also know that you on some level have regrets towards your mother, which comes as a consequence of violence. I know you have been banned from the bars in your locale. All by your own admission.

      It matters to me whenever someone throws their physicality around to get their way towards other people, especially if these people, like you, works with kids. It matters to me. Newsflash, most people find violence abhorrent. Using violence to get your way does not make you right, it makes you a bully. Arguing from a standpoint of ‘others have done this to me, so it’s all right I do this to others is facile. I do honestly believe you have anger issues you need to work out. If you say it doesn’t matter to you what you have lost because of violence you have initiated makes up for the satisfaction of ‘protecting your honour’ or whatever, you are deluding yourself or plain lying.

      I’m nine time zones away, so no meet-up. I’m sorry if this is a disappointment and you can feel free to brush this of as bluster from behind a screen if that makes you feel better, but you would do yourself a disservice not to listen. I bet I’m not the first person to point this out to you and probably won’t be the last. I’ll stop it here, because chances are that my getting through to you are slim to none, much more the pity.

  10. January 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Not much to say except that, despite being an extremely racially diverse country, you’d be surprised at how rare it is to run into someone of African race or descent in Australia (although just recently the refugee intake from African countries has been quite high). So, like anytime you meet someone in person who looks totally different from anyone you’ve ever met before you will probably have some kind of reaction. Hopefully it’s usually a positive one but not always as I gather from your blog. I would have assumed your former room mates would have at least seen a lot of American TV, although that can sometimes give the wrong impression also.

    Anyway, I gather your ex-roommates are going to turn out to be complete dicks so I’ll apologise in advance on the behalf of Australians everywhere.

    • January 24, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      ChrisDsan, what makes you think that???
      They are not Dicks at all!!!
      i love the two of them madly and miss the great times we had living together. In fact some of my best times in this country! this post is simply about the getting to know you period where things were a little shaky.
      Thanks for the shout!!!

    • January 24, 2010 at 4:57 pm

      Sorry, might have misunderstood somewhere along the way. It might have been more in the previous post but it sounded like they were a bit racially insensitive and had given you a poor impression of Australians overall (although maybe that was another Australian you mentioned?). Also, the end of this blog post, where they’d “huddled together” about you, well sounded like they were getting ready to stab you in the back or something. If that’s not what happened then I’m glad!


    • January 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      Hey Chris D!
      Well, one of them did use “colored people” and “Abos” as I mentioned in Part 1 but hell nobody’s perfect. We were very tight!!!

  11. 22 Frank
    January 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    I know what you mean about some of the Japanese being nice to your face and treating you like crap behind your back. I also think it is funny when they act like it never happened when you confront them about it.

  12. January 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    “Have you ever drank or sold moonshine”

    Oh shit that had me rollin’ 🙂

    You sholda kept a straight face Freedom and said:

    “Nah, I aintz done none of thats but um…mu uncle, he makez it..for the family and such. So thenz like when we..I mean mu cousin and me visit with the baby..he tries to give us sum but I’m like “Cleatus, I gotz promoted to supervisor at the White castle andz …”

    Just in case anyone was wondering what “typical” white people sound like…
    I introduce…”Mr. White” 🙂

    Awesome album. And we all sound just like that 😉

    • January 24, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      Damn, no you didn’t bring up the Cube. he put West Coast on the map as far as I’m concerned. Fuck Ice T and Too Short and all that pimp rhyming. Ice Cube had style, lyrics, a believable persona and a cool-ass voice. I can still get off on that first solo album AmriKKKa’s Most wanted! Gangster Fairy Tale was my shit!
      Cinderella hoeing for the fellas
      And Mister Rogers is gettin mighty jealous
      Of the cash that the pigs were makin
      Time for the pigs to get turned to bacon

      That was my shit!

      thanks for the memoories Chris-san!

  13. January 24, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Yeah, we as foreigners here always have to be representing something to the Japanese. Without fail, everywhere I go, there’s always someone who’s shocked to find out I’m an American. When I ask why, the reply is often, “Well, you’re polite and well-mannered.”

    Me? Well-mannered? Fuck you! I’m as bold and brash as the next Yankee!

    How’s that? Got my Americanese down, yet?

    • January 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm

      Your Americanese is tight Billy-san! Yeah, there’s are several dimensions to representin’ over here and it’s hard to keep up with them, so I don’t bother so much anymore…but sometimes…
      Thanks for the shout dude!

  14. 27 Billy Watson
    January 24, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Do black people always complain….

    Maybe its because you are a baka american, and not black.

    If you dont like the way japan is or how you are treated then leave, or stop whining and blaming. You were not born here you have no right to expect anything from anybody.

    • January 24, 2010 at 3:18 pm

      Billy Watson,
      Maybe I’m baka at that, but no ones perfect, except you and the people that can simplify life into stay or go. I envy you. Clearly you know how to compromise and accept the unacceptible and live with yourself….you know when to hold them and when to fold them, when to walk away and when to run…LOL

      Meanwhile baka me and the other baka people of the world who try to change things for the better have to endure cowardly people like yourself that would rather run than face a challenge or sit quietly with their noses in the air (or wherever it might be) casting aspersions on the baka people. Hope you’re enjoying yourself! I am!

      And, I beg your pardon, but since i have a vested interest here I believe I do have a right to expect certain things. Not the impossible of course. I don’t want this country to become anymore America-like than it is. Just a little courtesy and humanitarian acknowledgement, you know…and I’ll have it by god! LOL

      And is there a difference between sharing my experiences good and bad in this country and complaining?
      I certainly hope so…

  15. 29 Cfs
    January 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    The issue is clearly the Vegemite. It’s a food for uncivilised cretins. Marmite, on the other hand, is nectar, the repast of gentlemen. I’m not surprised that the Australian would have enjoyed Vegemite, but the New Zealander? That’s more concerning than anything I’ve read on your blog so far.

    • January 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm

      Actually, Cfs, I can’t remember if he ate it or not. But, he did eat Marmite. and if memory serves it wasn’t much different in taste or smell than the Vegemite.
      Guess i’m no gentleman LOL
      thanks for the shout kind sir!

  16. 31 dwayne2d3d
    January 24, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    hmmm…well i relate with you on alot of level..
    I’m the only black person where i work in Manhattan..
    but from a “nearly” all black community…..melting pot my ass!!
    it’s like i live in 2 worlds…..

    I don’t even want to go into my experience of going to college in pittsburgh P.A.
    I was born in Jamaica, but grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
    questions went as followed….
    you from Jamaica but you don’t “puff puff pass”
    how come you don’t talk like you from brooklyn “sup wit dat B”
    how come you don’t act like you from New York “no comment”

    I did volunteer tutoring at a catholic school when i graduated,
    in manhattan by the museum of natural history and that was another case..haha!!

    I don’t even tell people anymore that i have plans on living in japan
    or that i’ve been studying kanji’s for the past 1 1/2 years…

    and yes you become a “race ambassador” whether you like it or not,
    i believe this is the case for people of any-race,
    if you’re the minority it’s the fact of life
    so you don’t have to get use to it but it’ll never change, unless th world becomes homogeneous

  17. February 4, 2010 at 7:22 am


    Wow, I read the first two posts in this series, and they are outstanding.

    These posts also brought back a lot of memories — of my own first stay in Japan. I was an exchange student in Oita, a tiny (by Japanese standards) city on Kyushu. There, I was, for nearly every local I met, the very first non-Japanese they had ever met, so every time I met someone for the first time, I had to go through the whole “Oh my God you speak Japanese … and you haven’t killed me yet!” thing all over again.

    (Of course, I didn’t have to deal with the added factor of being of African descent.)

    Some folks were cool, though, and they ended up being the ones I hung out with.

    You mentioned the inevitable “Do all black people…”-type question. I got that question a lot about Americans in general, and sometimes even about foreigners in general, as if I’d been elected representative of the world’s non-Japanese population.

    (The cake-taker was the guy who asked if American kids went to school. “Nah,” I wanted to say, “they just grow up naturally knowing how to, say, build weaponry to defeat aggressive island nations with dreams of world conquest.”)

    For years, these questions annoyed me no end. I finally realized, however, that this phenomenon flowed from the assumption, widespread among the Japanese, that each of them is representative of Japanese society. They will say things like, “We Japanese do this” or “We Japanese do that,” as if it never occurred that the Japan outside their own little world might be a very different place.

    But then Japan is a very heterogeneous society, so it’s easy to see how this thinking arises.

    Anyway, my point is that before the Japanese can realize that not all foreigners are the same, they have to realize that not all Japanese are the same. Maybe a good place to start is with their own young people, who according to most Japanese over the age of 30, are either crazy or lazy or from another planet or some combination thereof.

    At any rate, keep up the good work! I look forward to your next installment.

    • February 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

      Hey Paul, thinks for the healthy dose of encouragemnt and empathy. The next installment IS up. In fact the next 4 installemnts are up Black & White 1-6 are complete.SOrry my archives are so shoddy but I’m in the process of making Loco in Yokohama much more easily accesible and organized. Yes, an upgrade is underway and there are going to be some enhancements! So, if you can find them, please enjoy them and let me know what you think!


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