One of the things you learn early on when you’re living in Japan and studying Japanese is that Japan’s got two different words for the concept of “thing”: mono and koto.
Mono refers to physical, tangible things, like bikes and cameras, and koto is generally for things without material form, like ideas and feelings.
Unpacking mono is fairly straightforward: Open suitcase, remove the items inside of it, place them where they belong, move on to the next bag and repeat as necessary. But unpacking that koto is another story entirely, and has proven to be the challenge of a lifetime.
One of the first koto I had to unpack in Japan involved my taking offense at being told I have an uncanny resemblance to every single black celebrity that has ever graced the idiot box here.
On one of my first days in-country, as I was walking through the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes of most passers-by, whether on foot or in vehicles, were locked on me in various degrees of shock, fear, amazement or amusement. I waved sometimes. Other times I just smiled, and told myself:
“I am probably the first black person they’ve ever seen in the flesh.”
I was unaware that these words would eventually become a sort of mantra absolving this Japanese tendency and most of their other transgressions in advance. I would find this amnesty quite necessary for surviving here with my sanity and tolerance intact.
A car stopped at a light where I stood and the kids in the back seat pointed in my direction and hollered something, but all I could make out was what sounded like “Bobsap.”
Later, I’d see a commercial on TV with a huge black guy clowning around and dancing with some Japanese girls, trying to look cute in an effort to peddle pizza. A friend informed me that this gentleman was Bob Sapp.
Needless to say, I looked nothing like him.
Over the course of my life, mostly from white people back in the States, I’ve been told I look like a number of black people, from Eddie Murphy to Martin Luther King, so I was aware that other races’ perception of my appearance had a tendency to be warped. Often the people making these observations were unaware they were picking at the scabs of festering wounds of dehumanization. Nor did they seem aware that their ideas could veer into stereotyping very easily. So, at least for me, this “name-calling” became a sort of indicator of a person’s ignorance or insensitivity level.
As the years wore on, I got less tolerant of these often unintentional digs, and on the increasingly rare occasion — at least in New York — that I came across a person so unsophisticated as to make such a remark, I would make it plain to that person that she should refrain from doing so in the future.
After I’d started my teaching gig here in Japan, I found myself one day seated opposite a quartet of Japanese students. One student said to another, in Japanese, “Blah blah blah Bob Sapp blah blah blah desu ne.” The other nodded in agreement, both covering their mouths to perhaps conceal their inappropriate amusement.
I kept my customer-service smile glued to my face, open and obvious, per the school’s standing directive — and to conceal my annoyance — but something inside of me had been dislodged. It was yet another cache of koto rattling around in a valise labeled “racial sensitivity.”
“Bob Sapp?”, I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “You look like him!”
The others at the table joined in, giggling in accord. “Kakkooii!” (“Cool!”)
“Do I really look like him? How so?” I asked, through straining facial muscles and with a subtle shift in pitch that even Inspector Clouseau could have detected meant that I found the comparison objectionable…at least in the West it would’ve been easily detected. Here? Not so much.
Obliviously — or perhaps thinking that, having added that they considered Bob Sapp to be cool, all was well — the speaker giggled again and said, “He’s a black guy!” Another added, “A biiiiiig black guy.”
They all giggled some more. I was finding it increasingly hard to believe that none of them found this conversation or their amusement the least bit troubling. In the days and weeks and years that followed, and as my likeness seemed to morph, in Japan’s eyes, from Bob Sapp to Billy Blanks to Bobby Ologun or whomever happened to be the vernacular media’s darker-hued darling du jour, I learned that this kind of nonsense was the norm.
So, if I intended to stay here, the option was mine: to make the necessary sensibility adjustments or spend way too much energy reproaching Japanese people.
But that wasn’t the only koto I had to unpack.
There was also a cache containing a secret I’d kept from myself for my whole life. That secret being: I love America.
It wasn’t a love of the image of America. Not that blind worship of what Ronald Reagan had the audacity to call a “shining city on a hill” amid the crack epidemic that was decimating black families and communities across the country. That kind of love always seemed to me to be ridiculously credulous, and evidence of an indifference that’s damn near criminal.
Rather, I learned that the love I had for America was more complex and grisly. It was a love a parent might have for his bad seed — a criminal-minded and notorious bully of a child, the one the parent habitually abuses and condemns yet would fiercely protect if that abuse came from an outside source: “Yeah, my child is piece of work but he’s mine! Disparage him in any way at your own risk!”
This love was a bit of koto that had found its way into a Samsonite suitcase in my soul, and I likely would have never known of its existence if it weren’t for the Japanese tendency to — often and without intending to offend — subtly and casually make denigrating comments about my wayward country. On any given day, and generally in comparison to Japan, I’d hear an off-the-cuff remark about the unhealthy, overweight, generally dangerous and violent, unclean, sexually debauched and wanton nature of America or Americans.
And even if it were true, even if I agreed — even if at the moment the insinuation was made I was in the midst of a grievance with America that made such chiding pale in comparison — I’d have to somehow conceal a rage so intense it would put any jingoistic flag-waving FOX watching so-called patriot to shame.
Thus, one of the keys to succeeding as a black man in Japan, I suspected, was in managing both of these koto and the others that would emerge over time. Locating and recognizing your koto is an exercise in self-discovery of the “no pain, no gain” variety. But once it’s found and has taken a definable shape, the process is almost as straightforward as it is with mono: Unpack it, and evaluate whether it’s in your best interest to retain or discard it.
And repeat as necessary.