TOKYO -- Little Black Sambo, the racist caricature that most Americans thought had died a well-deserved death years ago, has been resurrected across the Pacific as the mascot of a hot-selling line of Japanese toys and beachwear.
Sambo and other stereotypical depictions of blacks -- some with grotesquely fat lips and ethnic dialect -- have become something of a fad here this summer in what appears to be an attempt at internationalization gone gravely awry.
The marketers of the products say that no affront to blacks is intended. "Nobody in Japan regards this as racist," said Kenichiro Ide, spokesman for Sanrio Co., which puts out the Sambo line. Instead, he said, it should be seen as "humorous" and "friendly." Japanese consumers, he said, "enjoy it with good will."
Among the items put out by Sanrio is a beach cloth featuring Sambo and his sister, Hanna, both with very black faces and round, white eyes. Under Sambo is written: "When I'm hungry there's no stoppin' me. I'll be up a palm pickin' coconuts before you can count to three. (An' I can count way past three, too!)"
Despite the recent trend toward global travel and overseas investment, the Japanese remain a strongly insular people, with little understanding of or empathy for foreign cultures. As a result, many Japanese embrace timeworn, often offensive images of people who are not like them. For instance, anti-Semitic books continue to be bestsellers, and people here often explain the books' appeal by saying that Japanese are merely interested in the fact that Jews are good at making money.
In the case of blacks, many Japanese appear to assume they are all good athletes and dancers. They tend to agree with former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who once suggested that blacks were partly responsible for pulling down the intelligence level of the United States.
"Some of us who are ignorant still have a wrong idea" about blacks, said Mitsuya Goto, managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange, which attempts to improve contacts between people in Japan and other countries.
He said that "the man on the street in Japan may still have certain prejudices" and pointed out that it is only recently that Japanese companies in the United States have started hiring blacks and begun advertising job openings in publications aimed at black readers.
Other Japanese said that blacks, so rare in Japan, seem exotic to many people and therefore very interesting.
Sanrio clearly thinks so: in addition to the Sambo line, the company markets a black character called Bibinba, with fat, pink lips and rings in its ears. Spokesman Ide said both lines are popular with children, who "enjoy it with good will. They will not grow up to become racists."
Sanrio is not the only Japanese company marketing a black caricature. Recently, black mannequins with grossly distorted lips and greased hair have appeared in department stores in Japan, modeling suits and other clothing.
At Sogo department store in Tokyo, two of those mannequins, clad in suits, are frozen in dance poses at the entrance to the men's clothing department. Nearby, clusters of white male mannequins pose sedately in business suits.
Masaaki Honjo, a spokesman for Sogo, said the department store has been using the black mannequins since June to model clothing in "high action. They wear a suit, but this suit is very good for action," he said, adding that no one at the store thought the mannequins might portray blacks in a less-than-flattering manner. "We never thought about this point. We have no intention of discriminating," he said.
Kauhiro Nakajima, an official with Yamato Mannequin Co., which makes the black models, said the company has 600 of them circulating around Japan for use in trendy displays. "They show strong personality, energy and charm." He said an employee once raised concerns that the mannequins might be racist depictions of blacks, but "our conclusion is it wasn't."