Japan Prejudice and Black Sambo

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- First came reports that Little Black Sambo dolls and black mannequins with grotesquely large lips were on display in Tokyo department stores. Then Michio Watanabe, a senior strategist in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, publicly suggested that U.S. blacks were irresponsible: in a speech he noted that Japanese would "escape into the night or commit family suicide" rather than fail to pay their debts. But in the U.S., Watanabe said, "where credit cards are much in use, a lot of blacks, and so on, think, 'We're bankrupt. We don't have to pay anything starting tomorrow.' "

Watanabe apologized, and the stores removed the dolls and mannequins. But the incidents raised questions in the U.S. about Japanese racial attitudes, questions that mirrored concerns raised two years ago, after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone suggested that black and Hispanic Americans were lowering U.S. literacy and intelligence rates. In Washington the Congressional Black Caucus, which represents 23 lawmakers, last week urged Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita to convene a meeting of Japanese executives to end "the negative stereotypic representations of black Americans once and for all." Declared Congressman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat: "We're talking about a general racist attitude. They are now world leaders. They are going to have to learn that the whole world is not Japanese."

Scholars from Japan suggest that their countrymen are not intentionally racist but are insensitive toward other peoples because of centuries of homogeneous and isolated development. "They have little social experience in dealing with different races," explains Nagayo Homma, a professor of American studies at the University of Tokyo. "They know about Martin Luther King and civil rights, but it's in an abstract context." If that is the situation, it is not surprising that stereotypes abound -- and not just about blacks: while whites generally are considered by Japanese to be advanced and "civilized," fellow Asians and others are sometimes seen as backward, even inferior.

For many Japanese, the first exposure to blacks came during the post-World War II occupation, when they saw U.S. soldiers housed in segregated barracks. Others picked up racial attitudes and stereotypes -- such as Little Black Sambo -- from U.S. television, movies and books, or American acquaintances. "I experience racism daily," says Robert Jefferson, a black radio correspondent for ABC News in Tokyo. Jefferson says Japanese avoid sitting next to him on trains or taking the same elevator.

While such experiences are commonly shared by white foreigners, Jefferson also recalls stereotyped remarks -- not unheard of in the U.S., of course -- such as "You must be able to sing very good" because all blacks do. Jefferson adds that a landlord refused to show him housing because the rules prohibited rentals to models, TV personalities, bar girls -- and blacks. When Jefferson asked why blacks were excluded, he was told, "Because when two or three of them get together, they don't know how to act."

At the same time, blacks are prominently displayed in Japanese commercials. Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson and Singer Michael Jackson push Japanese products, and Suntory brewery features a black doo-wop group called 14 Karat Soul in television spots for its Suntory White whisky. Japanese marketing experts say viewers respond favorably to blacks because they seem more full of energy than whites. Says an advertising expert: "Blacks appear to have a wild side that seems beyond normal human strength."

The image, however distorted, apparently has wide appeal. Kazuhiro Nakajima, a spokesman for Yamato Mannequin, says his company began manufacturing black mannequins and arranged them in dancing poses after a study found that the design expressed "new sexiness, kawaii ((cuteness)) and fresh energy." Yamato made 100 of the figures before the Foreign Ministry called the firm's attention to a critical article about the mannequins in the Washington Post. The company stopped production. Sanrio Co., the manufacturer of a well-selling line of toys and gift items, followed suit. Its products included large-eyed dolls called Sambo and Hannah, and towels, bags and stationery goods decorated with pictures of the pair. Along with a big-lipped black doll named Bibinba, the line brought Sanrio more than $11 million in sales last year. "We were making a summer item, and we designed it to be kawaii," says Kazuo Tomatsu, a company spokesman. "We deeply regret that we lacked consideration in regard to minorities in the U.S."

Americans, of course, have produced their own unflattering images of the Japanese over the years -- from the malevolent figures depicted on World War II posters to more benign, but not necessarily inoffensive, postwar depictions. "If there were yellow dolls in the U.S. with buck teeth, narrow slanted eyes and called Jap, of course the Japanese would be angry," says Kaname Saruya, who teaches American history at Tokyo Woman's Christian University. "They're doing the same thing here with Sambo, but they don't realize it. Japanese are obtuse." Obtuse or not, that is little consolation for American blacks: having made progress, however limited, against bigotry at home, they are appalled to find a troubling reflection abroad.