Blackface Continues In Japan. In 2015. 

Blackface Continues in Japan. In 2015.

Above, you can see a photo the members of Momoiro Clover Z, one of Japan's most famous idol acts and long-time pop group Rats & Star. And this is apparently how they will appear on Japanese television next month.

The above photo teases an upcoming television collaboration between the groups and was tweeted out by New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi and Wired writer Daniel Feit. Japanese forum 2ch has since picked up the image and spawned the inevitable comment thread.

Blackface, of course, refers to people who are not black painting their faces. In the United States, there is a long history of blackface being used in minstrel shows during the 19th and 20th century to mock black people and perpetuate racial stereotypes.

But this isn't the US, right? It's Japan. There aren't many black people. (Hell, there aren't many white people.) There are lots and lots of Japanese people. This is a country that is 98.5 per cent Japanese (that doesn't mean there are not Japanese of mixed descent, as there are). Among the minorities, 0.5 per cent are Korean, 0.4 per cent are Chinese, and 0.6 per cent are "other".

Blackface Continues in Japan. In 2015.

Picture: Minkara

This appropriation speaks to a larger series of issues with how non-Japanese are depicted by the Japanese mass media, whether that's black people, white people, brown people, or any of the non-Japanese Asians living in the country — groups that rarely factor into the national discourse because their numbers are so small.

Feigning ignorance is a convenient excuse. It's one that Japan seems to have the privilege of using over and over again. But the excuse also makes the incorrect assumption that people in Japan are unable to see why this imagery can cause offence. Even on Japan's largest net forum 2ch, which tends to be right-wing, people can see why this isn't a good look.

"Aren't the gloves a no-no, too? Well, whichever, I don't think this sort of look is necessary nowadays," wrote one 2ch commenter. "The hell are they doing?" asked another.

"Even in the 21st century, it looks there's a backwards group of people doing a minstrel show," wrote one 2ch commenter.

Blackface Continues in Japan. In 2015.

Then, of course, there were loads of commenters who didn't think this was a big deal. You might agree. You might not. "Isn't this freedom of speech?" asked one.

Others pointed out that Rats & Star have been doing this for a very, very long time. Signed to Sony Records, Rats & Star has been around for decades — dressing in blackface for as long as anyone can remember. Momoiro Clover Z, a hugely successful girl group, does not usually dress like this. So, you have the visual clusterf**k of Momoiro Clover Z dressing up as Rats & Star, who are doing blackface. What. A. Mess.

Rats & Star debuted during the 1980s. "These complaints are a quarter of a century late," wrote one 2ch commenter. Just because something has existed for a long time, that doesn't make it right. That was a different time in Japan. Things that were then acceptable in Japanese culture no longer are. Times change.

An argument you see online excusing the blackface is that Rats & Star respect black American music — that this isn't done out of spite. The group's sound is heavily influenced by Motown, but plenty of Japanese musicians have been influenced by African-American music. How many of them decided to parlay that into a blackface act? Like the minstrel musicians before them, Rats & Star absorbed black music and repackaged it for their own audience. Unintentional or not, that makes this even more insidious.

Blackface Continues in Japan. In 2015.

Picture: Colorist

Whether you are offended or not, the problem is that it becomes very convenient — disingenuous, even — to say, hey, we'll take this part of American culture, but ignore this other part. This imagery is loaded with all sorts of painful meanings. It's toxic. You borrow American culture, you borrow American cultural baggage. Rats & Star have had 25 years to figure that one out.

OK. Maybe, these pop stars didn't know. Maybe nobody's said anything to them — not once in a quarter of a century. Maybe since they're making music for Japanese people, they have the privilege of ignorance. In 2015, they shouldn't.

On March 7, Momoiro Clover Z and Rats & Star will appear together in blackface on Music Fair.


    It's only racist because you take offense. It's not like they have black people on their knee working the fields.

      Oh look.. it's Hey Hey it's Saturday all over again :D

      I always found people calling racism to be hypocitical.

      "it's only racist if you take offence" you what!? are you suggesting the only way something can be racist is if you actually have slaves? fucking hell....

        To play devil's advocate, in what way black face paint racist? It doesn't imply any race is more or less superior, it doesn't make any comment on black people at all. If these guys go on TV and act like monkeys or something, that would be clear-cut, but right now all we have is a photo of some people wearing black makeup. It's insensitive, absolutely, and it will make some people uncomfortable, but is it racist?

          well, ignoring the obvious cultural insensitivity - if someone adapts another artist's work, and feels the need to superficially alter the colour of their skin in order to do that, they're implying that the colour of the their skin is somehow connected to the work's artistic merit, or to the artistic ability/uniqueness of the original artist in general. which to me seems fundamentally racist. the real question should be, why do they need to change the colour of their skin in order to adapt the initial work? it's either racist, or spectacularly naive

    Is this any different to guys and girls cross-dressing?

      The only reason this is an issue is because 19th century Americans used blackface for extremely racist depictions of African Americans.

      So in the US it's reasonably been conflated with racism.

      However with issues like that white singer dressing up as a character off OITNB I think people go too far. Dressing up as a specific character or person of another race is not blackface, despite some surface similarities.

      Similarly most countries don't have the cultural link to blackface as a racist performance, so why is it racist to use make up to change your appearance when you aren't portraying any negative stereotypes?

      Of course usually the Internet can't quite realise it isn't America.

      For similar topics please see gollywogs.

        I had a gollywog when I was young; I was freaking terrified of the thing!

          Mmmm... gollywogs...

            Woah! I didn't know they came in an edible form.

              They did, and they were delicious.

              Wait, what were you talking about then?

              Last edited 16/02/15 10:54 am

                Google image search 'golliwog doll'... it is a stuffed toy like a little black teddy bear!

                I mentioned this discussion to my wife who reminded me that when our child was born soemone gave them a gollywog which I threw out; not because I thought it was racist but because I was still freaked out by them!

                I think I'm over that now; maybe I'll buy a gollywog for the next newborn in our family!

              Oh yeah man, they tasted so good. I think they are called Scalliwags now or something.
              Anyone remember the boxes of lolly-cigarettes that were just calld FAGS?

                I remember walking to the corner store and buying some fags.

                I feel old :S

      I imagine it's more the equivalence of going around with a swastika on your back. Whilst the symbol in itself has other meanings and in of itself is not offensive, there's the historical connotations it has.

        The Nazi swastika is internationally recognised, racist blackface minstrels were an entertainment staple of North America. King Billy Coke Bottle is a great example of how it's not racist in Australia, as are the Jackson 5 from Hey Hey It's Saturday.

          No, because nobody in Australia said anything about racism when those two "great examples" performed.

            rubbish, the hey hey thing in particular got (quite rightly) pilloried in the media's fucking racist.

              The recent one did. But did the original?

                why is that relevant? surely the more contemporaneous reaction is more important

                  Well, I'd presume that TUALMASOK was talking about the original (also that namiwakiru was being sarcastic), thus being relevant because that's the example he was referring to.

                  It was only "relevant" because there was an American judge for it.

                  As "blackfaces" had no overtly racist context in AU. It only became "relevant" when our friendly american judge decided to show "outrage" over the skit. Never mind it was basically rehash of an old skit that wasn't even that old to begin with...

                  hahaha, nah.....blackface is racist. if you don't understand why i really can't help you

                  And if you cannot grasp the concept of cultural context then I cannot help you either!

                  good day to you sir! :D

                  cultural context? errrm, even if you ignore any 'society and globalisation' context, pretty sure it's not just the US where blackface is frowned upon - golliwogs were racist as fuck too

                  also i think it's a bit childish to think that these things don't have a global relevance today. sticking with the old, 'we've got no history of it so it should be OK', is either spectacularly or deliberately naive, considering that anyone that suggests that argument is clearly aware of the intense hurt that it could cause to other people

                It did, it just got no coverage. Just because some people didn't see it as racist it didn't make it any less for those who felt it.

                I still remember an old Hey Hey where somebody went brown face and pretended to be Kamal when Kamal himself was the judge. The guy changed the words for "Take the pressure down" and sung, Turn the cooker down, take the curry and stir it around". Everybody laughed and laughed, but not Kamal obviously and this just made it funnier for all involved. Kamal took it like a champ and it garnered no coverage, but it was still fucking racist, intended or not

              Yeah we really need a Sarcastica font, I had hoped the quotation marks got that across.
              They were God awful examples that kinda showed the opposite of his point.

              My favourite was the KFC cricket ad where the camera zooms out from two Aussie guys eating chicken to reveal a crowd of black people staring at them. I know they hadn't intended it but holy shit, I near died from laughing at the massively awkward oversight

              The Jackson 5 were black, so they painted their skin black to look the part.
              It's in the same vein as wearing a blonde wig and fake boobs and pretending to be Dolly Parton.

              It's not racist unless they are denigrating a race (which they weren't).

          I'm sure Hindu object to Jewish and Christian attempts to destroy their religious symbols.

            Where exactly does this fit into the current discussion?

              The swastika is based off a Hindu symbol, which can be seen quite commonly throughout India.

              Add one more for cultural context.

    Slow news day.

    Just not sure why this isn't okay but the movie (while getting a bit older now) "White Chicks" was perfectly fine - double standards...

      By their logic, wouldn't that mean White Chicks was both racist and sexist?

      Because there's no historical racist link with dressing up as a Caucasian.

      I'd actually argue that film is a good example why dressing up as another race is fine, but as I mentioned elsewhere that isn't blackface.

      RDJ in Tropic Thunder for example, not blackface.

      It's actually closer to dressing up like a KKK member and expecting nobody to get offended. Sure there's nothing wrong with wearing a sheet... But contextually it gives off a racist message.

    Just because residents of the United States find something insulting doesn't mean the rest of the world (the majority, in other words) has to. America is a pretty unique place, I'd hate to take something away from them.

    Man it must be tiring to maintain that mock rage.

    Fucking racists. The two most insular countries, America and Japan. Everywhere else the people are somewhat knowledgeable of other cultures, American and Japanese people are just ignorant.

      I was in France over Xmas at the museum of carnival arts, we started watching this ragtime kinda act that ended in a blackface routine. I look over at the only African in the audience and she was clapping. So it probably happens in more countries than you think...

      Yeah like Australia, where the people are so enlightened that they ask my girlfriend what Chinese restaurant her mum works at... She's asian if you couldn't guess.

      complains about racism...then says something massively racist. nice one champ

    So because a bunch of white racists dressed up as Africans over 100 years ago, a bunch of Asians dressing up as Africans is racist in the 21st century. Would it be racist if they dressed up as white people?

    Also, cultural appropriation is not racist.

    I've always found this collective "outrage" from Americans for every perceived "racist" comment quite bemusing at times... specially since they tend to apply context to terms that anyone outside NA would have no idea about. Because you know if it's racist in NA then it must be racist to the rest of the world!

    Like two run-ins I've had online when using the term "Jap" as a contraction for Japanese. Was apparently very offensive in US because of WWII time propaganda over there.... never mind it had no context here OR in Japan. Or the fact myself, the whole uni class I was in and the Japanese lecturer herself used the the word as a contraction and the fact in both occasions both people who "called me out" where neither of Japanese descent. But hey I was racist and therefore must apologise!!

    Whilst clearly racist, I can't help but notice the article basically dismisses the Japanese perspective and just says "WRONG!!!" with finger outstretched. It's becoming increasingly common to dismiss inherent cultural bias as a potential factor because this means less finger waving and more thinking. How do we stop racial ignorance? Yell at the whole country and ask them to remove something without people understanding the cultural significance whilst telling them how horrible they are. Tone is pretty sickening again, painting ignorance as evil and inferring motivations are also evil; way to simplifiy and patronise an entire country and culture for everyone. Surely you've gone to school and been taught how to engage in discourse right?

      Fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in actual discourse these days. There's a mentality of 'you agree with me or you're the enemy', apparently you can't even ask some people questions about their rationale without them getting upset. It makes me sad, because friendly, rational debate is one of the best ways to learn new things and put your own beliefs and preconceptions to the test.

    I do think Black face has no place in society today but I always thought the Family guy sketch was an interesting with the "Go back and put that inidian chief outfit on". Where is the line drawn and why is one offensive but not the other?

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