Okay, I’m getting sick of everyone emailing me this article. If you haven’t read it, it’s a piece in VICE called ‘B-Stylers are Japanese Teens Who Want to be Black’. You can read it if you want, but if not, then here’s the summary:
‘omg look, Japan is racist (but we’re not. lol)’
That’s what these articles always boil down to. And I’m tired of them. My main issue with these pieces is that they let white people focus away from actual problems they have at home, and instead laugh about how Japan is ‘late’ or ‘weird’ because they are ‘still’ doing racist stuff.
Like seriously, Japanese people dressing up in rap gear is only interesting if you are willing to ignore the fact that it happens on a much larger scale in, say, the U.S.
Trust me. Give me ten minutes in any mall in middle America, and I will find you a pasty white kid that wishes to god he was black.
But instead, articles like this help us forget about that. We laugh at Japan’s backwardness, and feel better about ourselves. We forget that we’re still shooting and imprisoning black children, we forget that we’ve still got a bunch of people out there that think Obama is a terrorist, we forget that we’re still about a million miles off from whatever dream that Martin Lester King dude was talking about in 1860 or whenever.
So before we go any further, let me throw out a couple of disclaimers: I’m not mad at Vice. I’m a little annoyed at Desiré van den Berg, the informant in the Vice piece. But I’m mainly sick of the Euro-American narcissism that creates the demand for this sort of article.
First, let’s talk about Vice. Vice is actually a pretty cool publication, for what it does. It’s generally pretty entertaining, and occasionally does great documentary work. But it is not a news outlet. While the NYT or Fox News, say, seem to genuinely expect that smart people will believe everything they say, Vice doesn’t. Vice is not going to hold your hand. Vice is irresponsible on purpose. It’s a little like The Onion in that if you’re going to read anything on their site, you need to come prepared. If you want to avoid looking like an idiot in the comments section somewhere, you need to have, say, at least middle-school level critical thinking skills.
Here’s what I mean: if you are reading something about a phenomenon in a certain country, and the author admits in the first paragraph that she does not even speak the language, then you should know that whatever comes next is going to be suspect.
Seriously, everyone. It’s 2014. Are we still believing everything that white people write on the internet about coloreds? Have we forgotten how they did hip-hop when it first came out? Haven’t any of you been to school?
Like, look. Here’s the embedded photographer, Desiré van den Berg, explaining her information-gathering process:
It was all a bit of a hassle, though, because Hina and the other B-stylers didn’t speak a single word of English. We needed a translator both to make an appointment and at the actual first meeting, too.
No, Desiré. Your presence is a hassle. You’re annoyed because somebody doesn’t speak English? Yo, you’re in Japan. People here speak — guess what — Japanese. If you don’t speak it, then you’re officially annoying to everyone that has to accommodate you. Also, you should probably refrain from making any public statements about anything, because odds are that you do not know what you are talking about.
B-Style is not a thing
Case in point: this word that keeps coming up in the article, B-Style?
…what the Japanese call “B-style”—a contraction of the words “Black” and “Lifestyle” that refers to a subculture of young Japanese people who love American hip-hop culture so much that they do everything in their power to look as African American as possible.
Yeah, that doesn’t exist.
Maybe you don’t believe me. An easy way to check for this is to just do a google search for the word ‘b-style’ (or ‘bスタイル’). And the first hit that comes up is … an employment support site. ‘B-Style’, this portmanteau of ‘Black’ and ‘Lifestyle’, is not a thing. Trust me, this is Japan. If it exists, it is on the internet.
‘B-Style’ is probably something that Hina said because she knew the person talking to her didn’t understand what she was saying, so she tried to make an English-sounding word that would be easier for her to digest.
Maybe, maybe Hina is talking about B系, b-kei, which would translate out to B-style in English. People do identify with this. The trouble is that the ‘b’ there can mean black, but really, it can mean anything. Hina seems to interpret it as ‘black’, but most Japanese people I know that actually wear this stuff would say it’s about hip-hop, and the ‘b’ is from ‘b-boy’ or ‘b-girl’.
And really, the rest of the article doesn’t make any sense. These ‘special African salons’ that people supposedly go to to get their hair done? No. There are plenty of Japanese-run salons that cater to people that want their hair permed or braided. That’s where most people go. Granted, it can cost upwards of $300 to get it done, but they exist, and they’re popular.
And Africans do not all run salons in ‘Tokyo’s ghettos’. I know that it’s fun to assume that black people = ghetto, all over the world, but that’s not really how it works. I used to get my hair cut by a dude from Ghana named Lee (does great work by the way, if you need a cut hit me up and I’ll give you his cell number) who runs a shop in Roppongi, which is about as far from the ‘ghetto’ as you can get. Also, his employees seem to be mainly Japanese.
Another one: these ‘special B-style events’ that she mentions? Yeah, they’re called hip-hop concerts. They exist all over the world. I’ve been to several, and nobody has ever referred to them as a ‘B-Style event’. Desiré makes it sound like there is some kind of cult where people get together in a dark room and just meditate quietly about how much they like black people until it is time to go home.
So we’ve come all this way, and maybe you think that I’m trying to cover something up, that I’m trying to say that there are no people in Japan that have a probably unhealthy obsession with black people. After all, how could I do that, especially when there is video evidence:
So look, I’ll answer the question. Does the phenomenon of Japanese people wanting to be black exist? In short, yes. And it’s an interesting one. But it’s also extremely complicated. I don’t really have space to talk about it here, but at the very least, we’ve got to recognize that it’s difficult to seperate someone that just likes baggy jeans and rap music from someone who genuinely ‘wants to be black’ just by looking at them.
Also, for those people that express a desire to actually be black, or even just to identify with black people, it’s not only for visual or style reasons. It can also be for very specific political reasons. And this has been happening for decades, at least since the 1950s.
If you want more than that, you’ll have to wait for an article I’m working on right now to come out (sorry, the academic publishing game is horrible). Or in the meantime, you can check out a book called Babylon East by Marvin Sterling. There are some other books out there that touch on the subject, but they’re mostly disappointing.
Let me be clear though: I’m not defending Japan against any charges of racism. Japan is has a very deep race problem, and I’ll never argue that it doesn’t. Hell, I’m writing a book that is partially about racism in Japan — if all of the racism in Japan were to disappear tomorrow, I’d be out of a job. But there’s no worry of that, because I get stopped by the police in Tokyo more often than I do in New York, and right-wing terrorist groups are still attacking Korean people in the streets of Shin-Okubo.
But America also has a very deep race problem — and this brings us back to the Euro-American narcissism I mentioned a second ago. What is it that makes white people so excited about pointing out other people’s race problems? And why is there such a demand for stuff like this?
An example: apparently the photographer that put this piece together is Dutch. For some reason, she had to come all the way to Tokyo to find kids imitating black people. This makes zero sense, because if she wanted to write about weird people imitating black people, she could hop on a plane right back to Amsterdam and write about the Zwarte Piet phenomenon, where people have been dressing up in blackface, curly wigs, red lipstick, and gold hoop earrings every December 5th for the past hundred or so years. If we’re going for offensiveness, that’s way heavier than a few clueless Japanese kids getting tans and braiding their hair. Especially because the Dutch know exactly what they are doing.
Wouldn’t a piece on Dutch blackfacers make more sense, and be more reliable, since the photographer actually speaks the language? Or is that just too close to home for us, because those people are white? Does it really make us feel that much better to see Asians doing stuff like this?
But, really: I shouldn’t be going that hard on Desiré, because she never calls herself a reporter. She’s a photographer. She takes pictures. And she did just that — the photos in the article were pretty cool, and she even provided some interesting color commentary. So, she did her job.
But I’m worried that we, the people that read these things and then share them and get all worked up in the comments — we aren’t doing our job. Shouldn’t we know better than to immediately assume that any white person that spends fifteen minutes in Tokyo is a reliable informant?
There’s a word for this kind of assumption — racism. Or, if you want to be really specific, you can call it Orientalism. A dude named Edward Said wrote a book about it once, but it’s pretty long. Maybe you can just check this summary here.
One final thing. One of the common reactions to articles like this by some people, many of them black, is to get angry that the people copying them don’t know black history. As if studying black history would change anything.
Trust me, there are a lot of fascists out there, all over the world, who have a very good grasp of black history. There’s a politician in Japan right now named Tamogami Toshio, who used to be the head of Japan’s Air Force, until he put out a paper saying that the Nanking Massacre, the mass murder of over 300,000 Chinese at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army, was a hoax, or a setup by Chinese people. That is, he blames Chinese people for the extermination of their families.
And he’s well versed in black American history. I’ve seen him call out America on its racism, and quote facts on things like when blacks were first given the right to vote. Can you tell me the exact year off the top of your head? Probably not.
So don’t get up in arms about people not ‘knowing black history’. For all you know, some of these kids may have a better grasp of it than you do. Matter of fact, I can guarantee that at the very least, 90% of Japanese students have studied the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, including the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in the original English, by their fifteenth birthday. They teach it at school.
Knowledge about black people does not fix anything. As a matter of fact, depending on how it is used, it can actually make things worse.
But that’s a topic for another day.