“Being aware of my foreign-nature typically causes me to behave in a manner that forces me to acknowledge and be a representative of my nationality, not my skin color.”
As nomads we often find ourselves in places very different than where we used to. Our world is very diverse, home to countless cultures, creeds, ethnicities, and more. For most of history nations were separated, interacting with their neighbors mainly through trade and war. In our modern age however, we are more connected than ever before. Our phones allow us to talk to people on the opposite end of the planet, but we can almost as easily hop on a plane and fly there instead. This new age of globalization has brought with it many changes, but above all it allows people who would almost never come into contact a chance to meet and learn from one another. People from anywhere can go anywhere – for example, an African-American man can take up residence in Japan. But what is it like to be fully immersed in a foreign culture that’s not your own. To go to back to our example, what would it like to be African or African-American in Japan? The answer may not be what you expect.
It goes without saying that Japanese culture has had a large influence on global culture. Cultural exports include everything from film and animation to video games, fashion, music and more. The current popularity of anime and manga among much of my generation – including my own circle of friends back home – is but one example of how far Japanese culture has spread. With it however has come a rather warped idea of Japan, one that I’ve noticed among many of my peers. There is far more to Japan than what we see in America, and despite being a highly developed nation the country (like the United States) still struggles with several social issues. Among these is an undercurrent of nationalism and xenophobia, one that stems from both centuries of isolationist policy and actions undertaken during World War II. In America racial strife emerges along racial lines, but in Japan it is different. There is no concept of black or white. There are only natives and foreigners – but even then it’s not that simple.
While preparing for this piece I spoke to Toure Grantham, an African-American expat, artist, and teacher who currently resides in Tokyo. He lived in San Francisco before moving to Japan in 2016 to find work. Today he teaches English while also working as a freelance artist and design consultant. Having lived in both the United States and Japan, he is well aware of the differences between the two countries. He also greatly admires the country he works in. “I would say I’m most fascinated by the sense of community here in Japan,” he says. “The society here really emphasizes how one’s actions really affect the community at large… while I think this has its positives in creating a relatively safe country with considerate/polite people, it unfortunately can be unbearable if an individual has a strong sense of self that does not congeal to social norms.”
Japanese culture values conformity, and anyone who stands out is often subtly discriminated against. Foreigners bear the brunt of such discrimination. Grantham recalls that there are some bars in Shinjuku that refuse foreigners, and there are real estate listings that do the same. But despite this, he notes that the vast majority of people he’s met are very accepting. Some of the children he teaches make light of his race (he states that a lot of them simply think he is sunburned), but other than that no one pays any mind to the color of his skin.
In an interview for The Black Experience Japan on YouTube, Grantham states that in Japan he’s “not aware of his blackness,” at least in a social or communal way. He is however, aware of his status as a foreigner, or gaikokujin. “Being aware of my foreign-nature typically causes me to behave in a manner that forces me to acknowledge and be a representative of my nationality, not my skin color,” Grantham states. “I think it’s important to think on a macro-scale when visiting Japan, or any country. Even though we are all individuals with our own unique personalities and characteristics, at face-value you are still a representative of whatever nation you have immigrated from.”
Grantham, like many other foreigners currently living in Japan, takes care to be as respectful and accommodating toward the culture as possible. In many respects, he has already assimilated. He speaks fluent Japanese, and some of his students even mistake him for being Japanese. Despite the underlying current of nationalism, Grantham noticed that due to the large number of foreign nationals, travelers and expats, the city of Tokyo is quite open and accepting of foreigners. And of course, there were times in Japanese history when the country was at least as accommodating as it is now. One rather interesting story from the Sengoku Period concerns a samurai by the name of Yasuke, who served as a retainer to Oda Nobunaga. Despite his high rank, he was a foreigner—an African man who was born in Mozambique and came to Japan in 1579 along with the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano.
In America, it can be tempting to take current events and extrapolate what things outside the country must be like. But we must understand that other countries operate under different rules. In both the United States and Europe, race can be a flashpoint. However there are many countries that don’t see color. They may see other things, but even then these barriers are far from insurmountable. And as our world grows smaller they will grow ever weaker. We may travel to see new places, live new experiences, and learn more about the world we live in, but in doing so we also indirectly teach those we meet about our own lives. No matter our race, sex, orientation or beliefs, in the end we are all nomads.