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KS Cover no. 72 2006 May

MAY 2006 :: 072


One love (Japan mix)

Mention the name of literary great Junichiro Tanizaki to any young Japanese person and the chances are they will have only the vaguest notion of who you are talking about. Mention Beyonce or Bob Marley and they are right with you.

Take a walk down pretty well any street in the Kansai and you see the local kids are dressed in the latest hip hop gear or in shirts display-ing Jamaican great Bob Marley, all the while listening to the latest hip hop music from America and Jamaica. Japan has its own vibrant culture but there has also a very big interest in the music and fashion of America and Jamaica, which is displayed everyday on the streets of America-Mura and beyond. It is always interesting to see people, on the same street, wearing kimonos, business suits, or looking like the latest rap star, with baggy jeans or Beyonce look-alikes with a wardrobe to match. Talking to Americans in Japan and Japanese people themselves, it is clear to see that there is mutual respect and hopefully with more and more artists coming to Japan on tour (just recently Erykah Badu, Sean Paul and Damian Marley have graced various Osaka stages) the cultural exchange will continue for years to come. Although there is this hope, it perhaps comes from a past that was a tad bleak.

The Afro-ken doll, the Little Sambo, Bobby

Although Japan is a country known for polite-ness and respect, there are some incidents in the past and even recently that have been questioned heavily by foreigners.

For one, there is a doll that is currently out called 'Afro-ken' which, it seems to some, sounds awfully similar to 'African', and what with the doll consisting of nothing more than a small dog wearing an afro, the implications of it being not the greatest and most respectful of toys is clear.

Also, there is the Little Black Sambo book. While the initial story (written by Scottish author Helen Bannerman, who was living in India at the time and published in1899) featured an Indian boy when it eventually was printed in Japan in 1953, problems arose. The US edition featured drawing of a little African boy and for whatever reason, when it was published in Japan, Chibikuro Sambo contained the African boy drawings. The Japanese version was very popular, as it sold a million copies, helped by the fact that the book was heavily pirated. It was pulled off of the shelf in 1988 thanks to an anti-racism campaign although it recently has become popular again due to a repressing by Tokyo publisher Zuiun- sha, who took a gamble, figuring the book would become a hit again, thanks to now-nostalgic parents that want it to read it to their kids.

Then there is Bobby Ologun. A very popu-lar TV personality in Japan, he repeatedly botches his attempts to speak Japanese, which is very funny to the TV audience here and has made him very famous. Talk to vari-ous African descendent males around Kansai, it is very evident that it is common for Japan-ese people to yell out “Bobby!” when they walk past, and this is particularly unsettling to some because they have no resemblance to Bobby at all.

One African American female, Onika Willi-ams, has this to say “Although, it may be a matter of perception on how 'coonish' he behaves, I have never met a black person in Japan that appreciates his antics.” As for other racist things she has encountered, Williams says “I have seen a restaurant named Uncle Tom's Cabin and it was actually my White American friend that I was with that astonishingly pointed it out. She couldn't believe her eyes. She was absolutely shocked. She even attempted to take a picture of the establishment.”

Life in Japan

Although Japan has produced questionable imagery over the years, many of course have had a very interesting experience here. Chantal Ricketts, an African American living in Kobe says “Sometimes I have the moments of eu-phoria in which I am delighted to be living in Japan and enthralled by every little aspect of Japanese society and culture. At other times, I feel homesick and yearn for a return to nor-malcy” and that “I think that Japanese people are primarily concerned with the fact that I'm a foreigner from America.”

Williams chimes in that, “Life in Japan so far has been different to say the least. Some-one can always tell you how it will be or you may read about others' experiences here, but actually living and working here is a different story. It can be amazing at times, discoura-ging at others ... but overall it is just plain different.”

Imitation is a form of flattery?

In terms of Japan's fascination with hip hop music and Jamaican music (and corresponding fashion statements) some foreigners welcome this cultural exchanging, others think differently. Ricketts also says, “It appears as if American popular culture as a whole has a major influe-nce on the styles, fashion, music, and trends in Japan. Since hip hop, r&b, and reggae music are very popular in America right now, I see many Japanese people imitating the styles of artists in musicians from these genres who are typically of African descent.” She noted that around the streets of Kobe and Osaka, she's seen many Japanese men and women with “dreadlocks, cornrows, afros, and elabo-rate hair extensions”, which are definitely all the rage back in America.

Ricketts noted that “The imitation of certain elements of Black culture is present in Japan because it is popular in the American media at the current time.” While this is definitely the case, and it is very logical that people in one foreign country use the media of another country to get up-to-date fashion clues, she also says, “However, I am not sure if the Japan- ese have a true understanding of what these images represent and their impact and role in Western society as a dominant subculture.”

Celeste Lee, another African American living in Japan says, “Definitely in the music, as j-rap one of many genres of Japanese music. I think the imitations of rap music are amusing, as most of the 'rap' here is based on love, whereas a lot of American rap is born out of strife, discrimination, etc.”

Counter thoughts

In asking around to various Japanese people and their thoughts regarding an apparent love of Jamaican culture and American hip hop and fashion, it was found that in some respects, fashion is a symbol of love for music, a love of a particular music artist, or even an admi-ration of a nicely formed figure.

Tak Shirashi says that, "I think it's because Japanese men are into something else they actually think its cool.” Shirashi explained that while a symbol of being white would be blue eye contacts, a symbol of being Black is Jamaica. “We love having something to show, like having Louis Vuitton.” This is a particularly interesting explanation as all one has to do is walk down one street in Osaka and you can see all sorts of name brand bags along side Bob Marley shirts and Rasta wear.

Speaking of Jamaica, Nobuyaki Kitahata of Today's Special in America-Mura says that it is the love of reggae makes the Japanese interested in all things Jamaican, whether it be wearing the Jamaican flag colors on their shirts, to listening to Bob Marley to even Osaka hosting Springroove, which featured Damian Marley.

However, sometimes its not as deep as wanting to reflect a love of a culture, some-times its just about looks. Erika Omori of Brown Sugar, a store in America-Mura, says that Erykah Badu (“because she has nice hair and nice body”), Beyonce (“she is a pretty girl who everyone sees”) and Ciara are the most imita-ted by Japanese women in terms of fashion choices. Usher (“because of his stomach”), “Jay-Z (“because he is Beyonce's boyfriend) round it out for the guys.

In the end, it is clear to see that Japan is enamored with all things foreign and that more and more Westerners are coming to regard Japan as a very stimulating place, and a great learning experience in all regards. It can be said that with time, hopefully more and more culture will be exchanged and this will continue for years to come.

Text: Mica Powers • Photos: KS

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