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June 2020, a month of #BLM in Japan

black lives tokyo 2020

“Black Lives Matter Tokyo March live stream”, June 14 2020. Screencap from The Black Experience Japan YouTube channel.

Black Lives Matter rallies and marches were held in cities across Japan throughout June, as part of a global display of solidarity with demonstrators in the United States and other countries. They also highlighted the importance of Black lives in Japan, and the problem of police brutality in the country.

As in the United States, Japan's Black Lives Matter marches were preceded by an incident of police brutality that happened to be recorded on video. On May 30, several days after Americans began protesting the killing of George Floyd, video emerged of police in Shibuya, Tokyo, assaulting a Kurdish man.

The video was shared thousands of times as part of a social media campaign on Twitter and other social media platforms, and on May 30, 200 people attended a protest in front of the local police station.

While not directly related, the Shibuya protest kicked off a month of nationwide demonstrations opposing police brutality and voicing support for Black lives. These included a nighttime march in Tokyo on June 5; a Black Lives Matter protest organized by high school students in Nagoya, in central Japan; and a well-attended demonstration in Kyoto.

As the momentum continued to grow, a march in Osaka on June 7 attracted ten times as many attendees than had been expected:

A second Black Lives Matter march, held in Tokyo on June 14, drew 3,500 people, highlighting the organizing power of Black Lives Matter Tokyo and a network of similar grassroots organizations across Japan:

Anti-Black racism is a problem

While Japan has long been home to many Black residents, anti-Black racism is not unusual. The use of blackface tropes in the media and in Japanese advertising is still so common that in early June, a major television network invited well-known American white supremacist, Jared Taylor, to provide “context” about the Black Lives Matter movement.

One example of the deep-rooted anti-Black racism displayed by the Japanese media is an “explainer” of the Black Lives Matter movement that national public broadcaster NHK aired in June. NHK was later forced to apologize for the animation, which portrayed Black Americans as violent looters:

As Krissy, a game designer, attested in a widely shared tweet, the danger of such racist coverage is that it has the power to misinform and influence:

Prominent biracial and mixed-heritage Japanese personalities have also been on the receiving end of abuse. Ariana Miyamoto, who was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015, endured criticism for “not being Japanese enough“.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is Black and Japanese, has long been outspoken about racism in Japan, and recently said she is “in no mood to back down on support for Black Lives Matter”.

Meanwhile, Jay Jackson, a Black American pitcher in Japanese professional baseball, thought the simplest way to foster understanding is to have conversations:

Explaining the significance of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing crisis of police brutality in an essay for prominent business magazine Toyo Keizai, commentator, activist and longtime resident of Japan, Baye McNeil, suggested:

もし日本のメディアが本当に注意を払っていて、もし日本でも「ブラック・ライブス(黒人たちの命)」が本当に「マター(大切)」なら、そういう努力をするでしょう。しかしメディアが白人の考えしか取り上げないのを見ていると、メディアは真実を知りレポートしたいのではなくて、単に状況を理解しようとしているように見られたいだけなんじゃないか、と感じてしまいます。

One might say, if the media here really cared, if black lives really mattered in Japan, they would. The fact that the media has been soliciting white thought exclusively leaves me feeling that perhaps they merely want to appear to be trying to understand what’s going on as opposed to wanting to know and report the truth.

Not all Japanese media got it wrong, however: Toku, Da Ne, a weekday morning television talk show that is popular with retirees, received praise for its fledgling attempts to explain the issue of Black Lives Matter, and brands like Sanrio, the creator of Hello Kitty and other cute, kitschy characters, voiced support for Black lives:

The Black Lives Matter movement appears to be just getting started in Japan, with demonstrations scheduled to continue throughout the summer, including a march on July 5 in Nagoya.

Note: The exerpt from Baye McNeil's Toyo Keizai article has been updated with the original English.

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