After a night of fun watching fireworks near the port, I headed home trying to catch the last train. As I walked up the stairs to my connecting densha, I passed a group of young Japanese men and women. “ABUNAI”, I heard one of them loudly exclaim, as I passed. I looked in the group’s general direction but kept walking.
“Typical”, I thought. I chose to ignore their snickers trying not to take them personally.
I am a black man living in Nagoya, Japan. I hear this type of comment often. ABUNAI means dangerous. In the United States, Black men have been racially stereotyped as dangerous for centuries. The ubiquity of American movies and television has spread this stereotype around the world—so this insult didn’t surprise me much. However, the next 30 minutes DID.
One of the male members of the group followed me down the platform. I purposely stood behind a pillar as I waited for my train—where I could not be seen. Irritated and tired, I tried to just ignore the whole issue and get home. In America we call it, “Out of sight, out of mind”. However, as I stood there presumably hiding, he found me and approached.
Now, in America, if I walk by a group of people and someone yells “dangerous”, the last thing I’d do is have a conversation with them.
“Hi. Do you speak English?” He cautiously asked as he crept forward. “ Yes, I do.” I responded, hiding my irritation. He asked where I was from. I responded, “America”. Then he asked what I did for a living. I told him I taught English. He asked if I could speak Japanese. I responded, “Yeah a little”. “私は少し日本語を話す”
Now, in America, if I walk by a group of people and someone yells “dangerous”, the last thing I’d do is have a conversation with them; I tried to get away from this guy too. However, he was not giving up. He insisted I come over and meet his friends. He put his arm around me—urging me to join them. This was the group that had twenty minutes earlier labeled me as ABUNAI; so they were as surprised to see me, as I was to be engaged in conversation with them. But this was Japan, not the United States. Everything I’ve experienced here is different – including the racism.
They struggled to speak English and I struggled to speak Japanese. They asked me to dance. I declined. They asked me to sing. Again, I declined. Their requests reminded me of how little exposure most Japanese have to black culture yet how much they think they know based on what they’ve learned from stereotypes in American media.
Unfortunately, being informed by stereotypes is not something that is unique to Japan. A recent article in EducationPost.org discusses how students in the United States think of black men. Writer and public school principal Robert Croston talks about how the lack of Black men teaching students sends the unintended message to all students that “we don’t do school.” You can read his piece here:
">I chose to have a conversation with this group partly out of curiosity and partly because I hoped that our interaction might open their minds beyond the limited view offered in the media—maybe they’d see that black people are not dangerous or that there are Black people who speak Japanese.
Since living in Japan, I have learned that racism in Japan is different from racism in America. American racists often hurt or exploit other races whether they do it consciously or unconsciously. Whereas in Japan, my experience of racism stems from a general lack of knowledge about other races.
Turns out, the group of Japanese I spent that Friday night with didn't REALLY think I was dangerous. They just didn't know what else to think besides what they saw on TV.
They thought I could rap, dance and sing. They didn't know I have a Master’s degree in Education or that I have taught 1st grade and Kindergarten for over 15 years. Our conversation resulted in a lot of laughs.
When our trains arrived, we stopped laughing and joking. “Sayonara,” I said, hoping it was the correct phrase. “Bye. Bye,” they yelled, as they jumped onto the train. What started off as a night of racial stereotyping actually ended in a very positive cultural exchange.