OSAKA, JAPAN -- In the midst of a bitter racial controversy here, the sweet sound of gospel music won the hearts of an overflow audience this weekend as a D.C. chorus launched a concert tour in the heart of industrial Japan.
The Roberts Revival, singers from St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, received a romping, stomping, hand-waving reception in a downtown concert hall Friday night at their first benefit performance for an Osaka group battling against the overt anti-black prejudice that is still widely visible in Japan.
"What a response we got!" declared Leon Roberts, music director at St. Augustine and leader of the group that bears his name. "We were told that gospel music was something completely new to Japan, but you know, these people seemed to understand what we were doing."
Despite the evident warm feeling that flowed between the black Americans on the stage and the appreciative Japanese in the audience, there was continued rancor this weekend between the U.S. and Japanese governments over recent remarks by Seiroku Kajiyama, Japan's newly appointed minister of justice.
Kajiyama, whose position is roughly equivalent to that of attorney general in the United States, sparked a furor last month when he publicly compared American blacks to prostitutes. Complaining about prostitution that has overrun some of downtown Tokyo, the 64-year-old cabinet member said, "It's like in America when neighborhoods become mixed because blacks move in, and whites are forced out."
Kajiyama has since apologized, and he has been formally censured by fellow members of the Japanese cabinet.
Still, criticism is mounting. Last week about 100 American residents of Japan, black and white, staged an old-fashioned civil rights rally in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo's version of the Federal Triangle, to protest Kajiyama's comment. The U.S. ambassador in Tokyo rebuked Kajiyama face-to-face, and ambassadors from six African nations formally demanded the justice minister's ouster.
Kajiyama's remark about blacks in the United States reflects an attitude that appears to be common in Japan, a nation that takes pride in its racial homogenity. It is widely believed here that racial diversity leads to social tension and instability.
The members of the Roberts Revival group -- Roberts, Derek Campbell, Ernest Harrison, Thomascena Nelson and Daphane Satterwhite -- had no idea they would be walking into a seething controversy when they scheduled a weeklong concert tour of central Japan.
The visit came about through the efforts of D.C. businessman Albert Nellum, president of the Black Business Council, a national small-business group, and a small Japanese anti-racism group founded by the Arita family of Sakai City, an Osaka suburb.
Nellum had read about the efforts of Toshiji Arita, his wife, Kimiko, and their 11-year-old son, Hajime, to stop the production of books and toys in Japan that depict blacks derogatorily. In the summer of 1989, the Black Business Council was the Arita family's host for a tour of the United States.
Nellum took the Aritas to his church, St. Augustine, on 15th Street NW. As Hajime Arita recalled later, "We just couldn't forget the music. We thought we ought to bring this gospel music to Japan."
The first Roberts Revival concert was sold out. Although fewer than 1 percent of the Japanese people are Christians, the audience responded enthusiastically to songs such as "This Little Light of Mine" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." By the end of the night, the entire audience was joining in on choruses.
Some of those in the crowd said they came because of an interest in the Arita family's work against racism. But most seemed to be drawn by the music.
Posters advertising the tour here describe gospel as the "root of modern American rock and blues." That caught the attention of Keiko Tanigaki, a 27-year-old Osaka teacher.
"I like contemporary rock," Tanigaki said, "so I thought I would like gospel. But I didn't know this music would have such tremendous power. I don't understand the words, but I can feel the power."
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.