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".
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.
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.
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.