I live in Tokyo, in a homogenous society where 98.5 percent of the population is Japanese. My wife Haruki is Japanese, and my 4-year-old daughter Kantra is the only black girl in her preschool class. I remember when the Japanese delivery nurse called her Halle Berry immediately after my wife gave birth to her.
They were the first words my daughter ever heard. When the nurse sensed my confusion, she tried to improve her comment: “Naomi Campbell?”
Kantra was born in the summer of 2013. As a stay-at-home dad, I used online compilations of Sesame Street to teach her the alphabet, colors, shapes and numbers in English. I thought about getting a TV, but my wife explained to me that Japanese television programs regularly use blackface. Minus watching Japanese TV when visiting my in-laws, I never paid it much attention.
I moved to Japan in 2011 and for the first two years, I couldn’t figure out if I was insane or if Japan was like America where, as a black person, I was accustomed to sensing white fear and the possible danger of it harming my body.
On subways in Tokyo, commuters wouldn’t sit or stand near me. I didn’t know if I was imagining a strange rush of anxiety or making them uncomfortable. People would keep their distance, but they’d stare at me curiously. When I’d make eye contact with them, it’d take them a minute to be jolted into the realization that there’s life behind the eyes that stared back at them. Taking escalators, waiting in line at grocery stores or bus stops, fidgeting women would clutch their purses or turn around to face me, as if to protect themselves.
Working as an English teacher, kids at school would tell me that I looked like Bob Sapp. He’s a former American mixed martial artist who bugs his eyes out and pretends to be an overgrown brute on variety shows. When I told Haruki about my students comparing me to Sapp, she said, “That’s why I’m glad we don’t have a TV. They’re just saying that cuz you’re black.”
On subways and train stations, seeing ads with Japanese people in blackface has been like getting spooked by the boogeyman. “Imagine if Kantra was watching TV every day and she saw that? She’d be terrified,” Haruki said.
But safeguarding Kantra from the box hasn’t kept her from seeing blackface.
“Daddy, what is that?” my 4-year-old asked me last November. We were standing in a subway tunnel, staring at an ad of a blacked-up Japanese man. “Sorry,” Haruki said to her, pulling Kantra away, “It’s bullying,” my wife said. “That’s scary,” Kantra replied.
The billboard was promoting the Japanese TV show “Chikyu Seifuku Surunante” (陸海空地球征服するなんて), which means “Taking Over The World.”
It was about a man in blackface that goes to the Amazon, joins a tribe and gnaws meat off a bone. For a lot of Japanese kids, those images shape their view of actual black people.
Blackface teaches Kantra that she’s an ugly black joke. She’s “scary” and her curly hair is “funny.” I try to raise her to be proud of her beautiful bronze skin and brown afro, but the act in and of itself challenges Japan’s monoculture.
Kids who are half Japanese and half other, or non-Japanese, run the risk of being conditioned to hate themselves and those who reflect them. If one doesn’t fit within the collectivist Japanese framework, even if they are Japanese, they are forcibly hardened to conform.
It parallels my childhood of growing up in white America, conflicted by having Southern black parents. With the backdrop of white classmates telling me that they’re better because they’re white, my family still ingrained in me a sense of black pride.
I talk to Kantra similarly, but everything outside of our home commands a drastically altered conversation. Even though she was born and is being raised in Japan, she’s not considered Japanese because she doesn’t look it. At first, she didn’t understand why children wouldn’t play with her. Unable to explain racism to my toddler, I’d get frustrated. “Forget those kids. You’re not like them,” I’d say. I could’ve easily been talking to my childhood self. “Daddy’s not mad at you. Daddy loves you. You’re so fearless. Don’t ever lose that.”
When I go to pick up and drop off my daughter at school, the Japanese housewives remind me that I don’t belong here. Glaring at me, they seldom acknowledge my presence. I’m either invisible or a nuisance. For them, I’m a foreigner who’s supposed to be at work. To call myself a stay-at-home father is a euphemism for “I’m doing it wrong.” My presence highlights my child’s different features and upbringing.
The mothers’ kids are their avatars, playing out a children’s version of excluding a foreigner, who is my child. The playground mothers are the same as the housewives; they are nice to Kantra to save face for their children, who would otherwise bully her. Here, children are taught the Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in.”
When Kantra was 2 years old, she ran up to a boy on the playground and asked him to play. The boy squared up to her like a boxer and swung, stopping his fist inches away from her smiling face. Children would flee from her as if she were King Kong. “Kowai (scary),” a girl said, gripping her mother like one would a life preserver to keep from drowning. “Come on, let’s go,” Kantra said, pulling the girl’s arm. It’s heartbreaking to witness her innocence denied.
Nearly every day, the message Kantra got was the same: Stay away. Through the years, Kantra learned to befriend mothers as a conduit to playing with their children. Now, she’s about to finish her first year of preschool. She can’t sit still and she constantly sings. Life pulses out of her. It’s exhausting for me, but I don’t want her to lose that. At school, she had to find her own way. She already knows that she’s different. “I’m brown girl,” she says. “I’m the same as Daddy, but different from Mommy.”
If one doesn’t fit within the collectivist Japanese framework, even if they’re Japanese, they are forcibly hardened to do so.
Besides me, Kantra’s teacher is the only other black person that Kantra interacts with. Though we chose Kantra’s school because she would be fortunate enough to be taught by a black African woman, it still proved difficult. At our first parent-teacher conference, my wife and I expressed our deep concern for Kantra being the only black child in her class. Pausing to unnervingly look at us, the teacher said, “We treat all the kids the same.”
During a second meeting with Kantra’s teacher and the school’s head teacher, I tried explaining that touching my daughter’s hair was a way of telling her that she was different. This was after the school ignored our specific request that we didn’t want people touching Kantra’s hair (including the teachers). “But what’s wrong with touching her hair? It’s so cute,” the head teacher said to me. She then proceeded to reach over and touch the hair of Kantra’s teacher. Embarassed, the teacher ducked and said, “Don’t.” I cringed and turned away.
Watching Kantra develop has further complicated my relationship with this country. As of late, Kantra’s been saying, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school. I want to stay home with you and Mommy.” Oftentimes on rides home, she doesn’t want to tell me about her day. I can’t figure out if she’s just tired or reeling from a troubling experience.
In the morning, I make her look in the mirror and say, “I love myself. I am smart. I am beautiful. I am strong.” To confront an opposing environment, Kantra mimics my behavior. My awareness of influencing her turns my rage into an elastic band of patience.
After almost seven years, I have gotten used to Japan. Uncomfortable spaces have become familiar. I love Japan for giving me my family. We have a good life, and this country is beautiful. But for Kantra’s sake, we’re moving back to the U.S. after my wife gets a visa. She needs to be around more people who look like her. She has so much to be proud of, and she’ll never know it living here, where black people are seen exclusively through a Japanese filter.
For me, growing up in white America, I at least had black parents, older brothers, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. Because we lived in a predominantly white zip code, my folks used my aunt’s address to send me to a predominantly black preschool in a struggling black area with well-kept, colorful homes, and everybody was the same. After school, I’d walk to my aunt’s house, and it became part of some of my earliest memories, contrasting with my predominantly white neighborhood. Kantra’s experience has yet to vary.
I worry about how to raise Kantra to be a strong black woman while embracing the country that she and her mother come from. In Japan, Kantra will always be treated like an outsider. It doesn’t matter how well she speaks Japanese. Here, the closest thing to my daughter’s narrative is that of Ariana Miyamoto, a biracial young woman who was 2015’s Miss Universe Japan. Her win was controversial; most locals didn’t want her to represent them. Miyamoto “didn’t look Japanese.” It might’ve been acceptable if Miyamoto were a ganguro girl, one of the young Japanese girls who tan their skin to mimic black women.
These days, before storming the playground, Kantra stands on its edge, looking for kids that either look multiracial or non-Japanese. Upon spotting them, she dashes off and they play. Though Kantra looks different from almost all of her peers, Japan is her home, too. Scattered across this island, there’s a small population of kids like Kantra.
My wife and I are in awe of Kantra’s persistence. If she learns anything from us, we hope it’s empathy. We don’t teach her that she’s above anyone else. But when she comes home from school and says, “Daddy, black is different,” I tell her, “No baby, white is different.”
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