Earlier this month, Japanese Minister of Justice Seiroku Kajima, in commenting on the breakup of a prostitution ring in his country, sought an analogy to dramatize the effects that sort of crime has on a community. This is what he came up with: "It is like in America when blacks move into a neighborhood,and whites are forced to leave."
Not surprisingly, his statement triggered an international firestorm of protest, including calls for a protest march on the Japanese Embassy here. In an attempt to quell the furor, the minister issued an apology that may have provided more insight into his thinking about blacks:
"During my last press conference, I referred to the deterioration of the atmosphere in certain parts of Shinjuku Ward. At that time, my reference to racial issues in America was completely inappropriate; in addition to withdrawing those remarks, I deeply apologize to all concerned." Thus he appeared to be apologizing only for his "inappropriate" reference to racial issues in America, not for his insulting comparison of American blacks to prostitutes in Japan.
The remarks were merely the latest incident in a recurring pattern of derogatory racial stereotyping by high Japanese officials. In 1986 then-prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone attributed low U.S. literacy rates to the presence of "a considerable number of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans." In 1988 Michio Watanabe, the policy chief of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, implied that black Americans are cavalier about repaying their debts. In both cases a flood of protests prompted an apology of sorts.
No doubt we will hear about more of such incidents as Americans learn more about Japanese culture and pay more attention to what is communicated in Japanese media and publications. Many of us are just becoming aware of the extent of the derogatory racial stereotyping that has pervaded Japanese society for many decades through schoolbooks, toys, comic books, clothing and some commercial products. Like some toxic sludge from America's own racist history, two years ago crude caricatures of Little Black Sambo and his sister Hanna appeared on Japanese beaches adorning towels and swimwear. Meanwhile, outlandish black mannequins appeared in department store windows, and stereotypes insulting to black people the world over appeared in Japanese cartoons.
These signs of racism are deeply troubling not only to blacks but to many Japanese people as well. On a recent visit to Japan, I was shocked to discover the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes. At the same time, I was heartened by the fact that some Japanese individuals and groups are actively seeking to end this sort of thing.
Ending racial stereotyping and the racism that spawns it will not be easy; both are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Japan. But as Japanese economic interests expand significantly beyond their own borders, their perceptions of other peoples will be severely challenged, and they will be pressed to conform to the laws and standards of conduct of their host countries.
Demands by black Americans that Japanese behavior toward them become much more respectful are an example of the challenges the Japanese will face. It is not an idle demand. Blacks are daily increasing their influence in the political arena through more than 7,000 elected positions and thousands more of appointed positions. They are also amassing consumer power through the $250 billion that they control. This influence notwithstanding, the Japanese may be far more impressed by the fact that blacks are often able to influence American public opinion on matters pertaining to racial justice.
There is another factor to consider, though, and it is that blacks also are motivated by enlightened self-interest in this area. They covet Japanese franchises, jobs, investments, contracts and philanthropy. Just as it is right and essential that Japanese respect black Americans, it is also important for blacks to become more responsive to Japanese interests here. Rather than shouting at each other across the Pacific, the two peoples should be seeking to build better bridges of communication and cooperation and to do away with the the distasteful distraction of racial stereotyping.
Black Americans are seasoned veterans when it comes to dealing with bigotry and racial stereotyping. That experience should serve them well in seizing this opportunity for two peoples of color to work with one another in an environment that is sometimes inhospitable to both.
The writer is president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a public policy research institution concerned primarily with issues affecting black Americans.