It’s no secret that there are very few foreigners in Japan. Japan’s population is 99% Japanese. Out of the 1% that isn’t Japanese, 40% of that are Korean nationals, many of whom speak Japanese. I don’t know how much of the remaining .6% are Chinese nationals, but even if we were to assume zero that’s still only .6% of the population that is foreign and obviously so.
So foreigners are already rare, and as you can imagine, black folks are the rarest of the rare. As a black male, I am often asked about racism – does it exist in Japan? Have I ever had to deal with it? It’s kind of a hard question to answer, especially as an American, coming from a background where my parents had to go to segregated schools and couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountain. The simple answer, however, is – yes.
It’s nothing blatantly hateful. You won’t see the Japanese version of the KKK, wearing white hoods and swastikas and going around lynching the first darkie they can find. But there is racism here. Call it ignorance, unawareness, whatever you like, but they do have a tendency to lump people together by race and then assume the worst about them.
When I came to Japan, there was an American making the rounds on Japanese TV by the name of Bob Sapp. Sapp was a former NFL player who burned out after a year or something. He found his way to the K-1 Fighting circuit, which is very popular in Japan. He did decently in K-1, and for whatever reason he became very popular in Japan.
Bob Sapp is a big black guy.
He would go on TV only wearing a pair of Speedos, growl and rant like an animal and toss some Japanese people around. The Japanese ate it up – Sapp at his peak was just always on TV, no matter what channel or time of day. Most Americans, regardless of their own racial background, hated Sapp for going on TV and playing the part of the raving fool for a handful of yen. For me, Sapp was particularly frustrating because whenever I was out in public, I was sure to hear some Japanese person exclaim – “Hey look, it’s Bob Sapp!” the moment they spotted me. Keep in mind that although we’re both black males, that’s exactly where the resemblance ends. Sapp has several inches and several hundred pounds on me – his head is shaved (I keep my hair close but never shaved), and our facial features aren’t even that similar.
There was just no escaping the Sapp comparison. It was especially bad at work – students calling me Bob Sapp and then eventually just Bob – or the Japanese version of “Bo-bu”. One principal actually, my first day at the school, he introduced me to the student body as “A new American teacher who looks a lot like Bob Sapp.” At another school, a completely different principal had used the Sapp comparison to describe me to the faculty. One English teacher mistook that to mean my name was actually Bob, and called me “Bob-sensei” several times throughout the course of one class.
It wasn’t exactly fun to be compared to a guy who became famous for fighting, and going on TV wearing spandex and acting like a raving beast. …Who would find that fun? I blew it off the best I could though. “They just don’t know better,” I told myself. “There are so few foreigners here, and even fewer black people. It’s not intentional. They just don’t know.” Nevertheless, I waited for the day that Sapp’s popularity would die down and I could go back to just being “foreigner”, “black foreigner”, and sometimes “huge black foreigner”.
Little did I know, it was going to get much, much worse.
At almost precisely the same time Bob Sapp’s 15 minutes of fame expired, he was replaced by someone even worse, Bobby Ologun. Bobby had been on Japanese TV before. Perhaps inspired by Sapp, Bobby took part in a New Year’s K-1 fight, which he won despite not actually being a fighter (the fight was more than likely fixed). From there, Bobby’s popularity exploded. Bobby was on TV far more than Bob Sapp ever was. Unlike Sapp, Bobby knew Japanese. However, instead of using his abilities to speak correct Japanese, he made word puns and other intentional mistakes (such as speaking rudely to someone he should be speaking politely to) which only seemed to reinforce the notion that foreigners can’t speak Japanese. His act also included a lot of bucking his eyes out, overreacting, and in general acting like a bumbling, hapless fool.
He played the part.
Japanese television revolves around their celebrity circle (revoltingly so), and much of the humor is derived from ridicule. There are acts such as the girl with the big, scary face (Sayaka Aoki), the three girls who are chubby and unattractive (Morisanchu), and the two guys who are scrawny and awkward (Un-girls). So, Bobby’s act was really nothing new or extraordinary. However, when you factor in that there are so few foreigners and even fewer black foreigners in Japan, and that Japanese people tend to take one impression of a group of people and run with it, well…things get ugly.
During Bobby’s popularity, I couldn’t leave my house without hearing someone say “Hey, it’s Bobby!” at least 5-10 times a day. There’s a park I usually have to pass by on my way home from work – every day upon seeing me the children would stop playing, exclaim “It’s Bobby!” and then proceed to mock his foolish mannerisms. I was on the train once, and as a group of high school boys spotted me, they nearly screamed out “Look, it’s Bobby!”, roaring in laughter as they too made fun of his TV behavior. They wanted to ask me to imitate his act, but figured I didn’t understand Japanese and couldn’t work up the courage to ask me in English. This went on for ten minutes before I had to change train cars, lest I turn around and start administering Jean Claude Van Damme spin-kicks to whomever wasn’t smart enough to face my wrath. While children were the primary purpetrators of the Bobby chant, there were also some grown men and women who’d let a “Look, it’s Bobby!” slip from their lips upon seeing me.
Words cannot describe how infuriating it was. To automatically be likened to someone simply because of your gender and race. To have that someone play the part of the fool on national television. Because the transistion from Bob Sapp to Bobby happened almost overnight. And, aside from the three of us being black and male, we looked nothing alike (furthermore, Bobby isn’t even American – he’s African). I was angry – perhaps most of all at Bobby. He lived here – he knew Japanese. Bob Sapp, maybe, could have been excused – he had no idea what he was doing, but Bobby…Bobby should have known better. It made me retroactively angrier at Bob Sapp. And I was angry at the situation – there was nothing I could do to stop it. I couldn’t stop random people on the street and tell them to knock it off. And yet, I literally could not leave my apartment without, at the very least, 5-10 people calling me Bobby, with a significant percentage of that proceeding to mock his idiotic behavior. I told friends in Japan about it, who had a hard time believing me at first, until they actually went somewhere in public with me and saw it for themselves. The only thing I could do was throw on some headphones and pray for the day when Bobby’s popularity died down.
There was nothing I could do about the Bobby label in public. But one place where I refused to let it fly was at school. It was a special kind of frustrating to hear my students call me Bobby – they knew my real name. They knew I wasn’t a bumbling idiot. They knew I could speak and understand Japanese. They knew, yet that all got overrided by Bobby’s television antics. Any student who called me Bobby got a harsh re-buff where possible, and when not possible, at least a disapproving glare. Most teachers were quick to notice the pained look on my face whenever “Bobby” echoed through the hallways, and after explaining to them how much I hated the label the majority of them took it upon themselves to pull aside any kid who used it and have a short talk with them.
I did my part as well. The more level-headed students never even thought to call me Bobby, but for your average student who just didn’t think about it, I tried to do what I could. It wasn’t an easy battle though. Of course, there were kids who, if they found out how much I hated it, would only do it more just to push my buttons. Then there was your average kid who just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept…
Me: Hi there!
Boy: Hey Bobby!
Me: …Why did you do that?
Boy: Do what?
Me: Call me Bobby.
Boy: Because. You look like him.
Me: No I don’t. I don’t look anything like him.
Boy: Sure you do.
Me: Allright, fine. Well, see you later Ichiro.
Boy: …Huh? Ichiro?
Me: You know. Ichiro Suzuki, the baseball player.
Boy: Why’d you call me Ichiro?
Me: Because. You look like him.
Boy: But, I don’t look anything like Ichiro.
Me: Well, you’re both Japanese.
Boy: …I don’t get it.
…They never do.
Some of you may think that I overreacted to the whole Bobby thing. I’d just like to say, that I’m a pretty laid back guy. It usually takes a whole lot to get me worked up. And, growing up in and around military bases across California, I’ve been fortunate enough to never really experience racism first-hand. Or, if I did, it wasn’t significant enough to matter. When I go to a restaurant with my parents, they always flinch a little bit if the waiter/waitress happened to sit us in the back, and while I could understand the reaction, I could never truly empathize with it. I’m not a person who wants to play the victim or cry foul at whatever chance I get.
That the whole Bobby issue even became an issue with me shows how big of a problem it was. When I said I’d hear it 5-10 times a day at the very least, that is in no way an exaggeration. If anything, an understatement. I fear though that the only people who will understand the scope of it are black men who happened to be in Japan during that time, and the people around them. Japanese people who hung around me long enough noticed it enough for it to start bothering them. Just last week, I was walking down a shopping arcade in Kyoto with my girlfriend, when she heard a young woman (probably in her 20’s) say “Look, it’s Bobby.” My girlfriend stopped dead in her tracks and said out loud “Goddamnit, that pisses me off!” She tried to say it to the purpetrator, but apparently she’d already walked by and didn’t notice. The gf swears that if she hears “Bobby” again, she’s gonna tell the person off to their face next time.
I’m not writing this article to say that all Japanese people are racist and evil, free the black man. No. It is what it is. It is a sign of Japan’s massive and staggering ignorance when it comes to foreigners and many things outside of their borders. I knew that the people who called me Bobby, in general, meant no harm or foul by it, and probably never stopped to think about it. But, ignorance is not an excuse. If a child runs out into a busy street, you recognize that his ignorance is what made him do so, but you still tell him not to run into anymore streets.
Nor is this something exclusive to blacks. Foreigners are often likened to, and sometimes flat-out confused with celebrities they look nothing like. In those cases, at least the celebrity (probably) isn’t making a fool of themselves on Japanese television. I’ve also heard that there are quite a few Asians in America who have been hit with something like “Hey, it’s Jackie Chan/Lucy Liu!” at one point. Honestly, that’s just as bad, so we can’t say that this is something exclusive to the Japanese. For me though, at the moment I’m here in Japan and can only tackle one problem at a time.
JET is a program for teaching English, but more than that it brings a much-needed foreign presense to Japan. Japan needs foreigners who can come here and break their stereotypes and closed way of thinking, not perpetuate them. It’s not going to be an easy job, and changes won’t happen overnight, but maybe someday, we’ll get to a Japan where being foreign isn’t so damned pigeonholed. Even if none of the kids I taught ever speak a word of English again, if even a small fraction of the Japanese population will no longer freak out upon seeing a Gaijin, then I’ll feel as if I have accomplished something here.
As for my dear friend Bobby, his popularity was cut short when he had a run-in with his manager. I don’t know the details (nor do I care), but whatever happened lead to Bobby being suspended from appearing on Japanese TV for 6 months. After his suspension ended, many networks have become reluctant to feature him because of the incident. Bobby still occasionally appears every now and then, but nowhere near the complete and total exposure he had last year. As a result, I no longer have to hear the Bobby label everytime I leave my house. It still gets thrown around from time to time, but now the incidents are few and far between. I’ve finally gone back to being just “Gaijin” or “large black man”. If nothing else, at least I no longer have to wear my headphones outside.