Black in Japan: My Experience

What is it to be black? What is it to be a black ex-pat in Japan? Recently, I have had cause to mull over these questions and I was asked to opine on the latter. Things being as they are, I’d like to notice that there are many different “black” experiences in Japan for various reasons and that not everyone goes into moving to Japan with the same background as me. Though, I’d wager that most had some interest in Japanese culture before taking the plunge. So, let’s get to it, shall we?

First, a bit of background information: I was actually born in Tokyo, but I remember nothing from that time as I left for America when I was around 3 years of age. However, both of my parents are black Americans. I’m just an average military brat. My parents don’t speak any Japanese though they tried to learn a bit. Usually, we lived on the Air Force base, so there was little reason for them to become fluent at the time.

However, Japan, being my birthplace, always stuck with me and for a few years I was convinced that I was ‘Blackanese’ due to the circumstances of my birth location. I’m fairly sure I told old Pastor Lee that when I was around 6 or 7. I thought that was how citizenship and ethnicity worked. I outgrew it though; I promise.

In any case, I always had a fondness for Japan and Japanese culture as a result of all of this. I tried to teach myself Japanese when I was 8 using materials that my parents happened to still have from our time there. It’s still a fact that I love bringing up and now that I’ve married a Japanese woman, it’s fun to pretend that I am a Toyko-jin, a person from Tokyo in a more solid fashion.

I was not able to learn Japanese much until I went off to college at Baylor University. Sadly, I never got a chance to do a study abroad thing like my friends though in my last year, my sensei was keen on me doing the speech contest. I couldn’t do it because I was graduating, but I’m still pretty proud of it. My pronunciation was pretty good and I could write fairly well—curse this baby face.

I never thought that I would end up actually moving to Japan and had a few trips out here cancelled because it’s quite expensive. However, after a difficult 2017-2018 school year, I looked into trying to find new surroundings while still being able to teach. At the time, I was feeling pretty done with America. I wanted something quite new but also a place where I felt I could feel fairly comfortable. I also really wished I had solid Japan memories, and this was one way to make them. I ended up taking a position as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), took a pay cut, and found a way to scrape together money for a plane ticket to Japan. I got here in 2019 and have been here since.

Coming to my ALT position as a former classroom teacher has likely meant some aspects of my job going more smoothly than the mostly fresh college graduates that they usually hire. I’ve largely had a good time with less of the unnecessary pressure that I found in American schools. I get on with students and colleagues pretty well and there haven’t really been any issues. I’ve heard wild stories from former ALTs and current ones in terms of their experiences. I’ve come to the conclusion that it depends on where you’re living and the people that you interact with.

So, what has been my experience? Honestly, it’s not been all that different from living in America except for some of the highway robbery they charge for certain goods and services and the fact that my language skills need a lot of work here as spoken Japanese is quite different from what you learn in a classroom. Certain grammatical rules seem like suggestions and the vocabulary can be quite different depending on the region. Japan is a much larger place than you think.

Here I have largely lived my life as normal, though the COVID pandemic has kept me inside more often than not outside of work and dinner or excursions with my now wife. Part of this is because I was already the gamer nerd type before I left and part of this is because, as a military brat, I was used to being the new kid. As such, I developed a friendliness that has served me well wherever I have gone. I have a sense of humor that translates fairly well, though I may do it with less expression out here and I’ve never felt unwanted or unsafe for being a foreigner.

The idea of being a foreigner brings up several other thoughts, the first being that everyone’s experience can be quite different. Actually, there’s a whole YouTube sub-genre of black folk describing their experiences. I’ve watched many such videos and note that most of the more wild stuff that can be mentioned never happened to me.

Second, as a foreigner, I am thought of as being from my home nation, the United States. Out here, I’m not a “black” guy for the most part. People, of course, will note my beautiful shade of melanin, but in the end I’m a foreigner and an American one at that. The blackness is incidental and has not been a hindrance. Like in America, I’ve heard of people being harassed by police officers out here, but it seems like it is more due to foreign status than skin color.

My very white foreign friend, whom I took Japanese with in college before he eventually moved out here 10 years ago, has had lots of issues with finding lodging and whatnot due to being a foreigner. Lenders tend to warm up to him more when they realize that his wife is Japanese—and he’s fluent in Japanese. Once the worst in our class, he now talks circles around me. Even so, he’s still a foreigner and that may always be.

As they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch and the Japanese take this idea to heart: various foreigners have gamed the Japanese system and left without giving anything back. For example, groups of foreigners used to get Japanese credit cards in the late 90s and then dip once they bought what they wanted, never paying off their debt. Stuff like this makes some Japanese people wary of foreigners. However, most of the Japanese folk that I interact with don’t seem to hold this prejudice, and they have been quite friendly and accommodating. In the end, the darker out of two friends has had fewer issues in my early adjustment period as an ex-pat.

Z.K. and his wife

The last thing that comes into my mind is my experience with my in-laws. Through my wife, I have inherited an extra set of grandparents, parents, a brother, a couple of nephews, and some other extended family members. They’ve also largely been accommodating and kind, with the only real hiccup being their complete surprise that I was a foreigner. My wife’s father definitely made a clear double take on the day that we all met up for the first time. My wife had neglected to tell them her new man was a foreigner. As a person who only says, “Is it ‘cause I’m black?” in a jocular manner, I imagine the reaction would have been the same if I had been a 6’7’’ blonde Nordic person.

Since then, my now father-in-law has attempted to better his English and we visit them fairly often since we are only a ferry ride away. My nephews have fun with video games with me and they are adorable. One is in middle school and the other in late elementary school. Good kids. Their father likes to drink with me and he’s in the Japanese Defense Force. My mother-in-law is very supportive of my wife and I and is a dab hand in the kitchen, as they say. Both she and my father-in-law have insisted that I call them Okaa-san and Otou-san respectively. It’s Japanese for mother and father.

Last, my grandparent-in-laws are also very kind and enjoy our visits. Usually, Ojii-san (grandfather) wants to drink sake with him. He’s really funny about it too. Obaa-san (grandmother) is strict about how much he imbibes and he always tries to sneak more. It’s adorable really.

All of this is to say that my family life is like any other healthy family. There are some misunderstandings due to culture, but we get on famously. They seem genuinely happy for my wife and I and if we can have kids, I’m sure they will care for them.

Here is a final story of my experiences:

Sadly, because of being in my feelings and feeling like a shit writer, I was not paying attention while I was riding home on my bike this summer. I ended up having an accident with a rather fast moving mini-van. I kept myself from being hit head on, but I only mention this to mention that my first few interactions with police out here went fine. I couldn’t completely understand everything said to me, but the beat officer and the traffic officers were professional and kind.

They got both of our stories, and I was warned to be more careful. I was not suddenly under arrest and, just as in America, I have no real reason to have expected such things. I’m fairly agreeable and even in America, I’ve only been yelled at once by a cop. I continued my streak in completely different digs. It makes you think.

To conclude, my experience as a black person in Japan has largely been the same as my experience as a black person in America, just in Japanese. In America too, I’ve largely got on with my girlfriends’ parents and family members. My interactions with police officers have largely been my fault and gone fine without me feeling any sense of peril. I’ve met jerks and great people in both nations. People are people wherever you go.

The lesson here, if any, is: if you don’t approach everything expecting it to go wrong, you might be pleasantly surprised when it generally goes quite well. I hope this essay gives someone some hope.

Peace be with you all.

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