Japanese TV Rings In The New Year With Blackface

Japanese TV Rings In The New Year With Blackface

[Image via Baye McNeil]

On New Year’s Eve, one member of Japan’s most famous comedy duo donned blackface for nationwide television.

Masatoshi Hamada, who is one part of the comedy team Downtown, did blackface while in Beverly Hills Cop duds for his variety show‘s New Year’s Eve special. While the others laughed and clapped, he showed that make up was even put inside his ears.

Writer and long-time Japan resident Baye McNeil wrote on Twitter, “I love Japan My home of 13 years. I want the best for her. The nightmare scenario is: Opening Ceremony #2020TokyoOlympics, Japan naively sends a #Blackface doowop group out to pay homage to black athletes. What a fiasco that will be! So I implore you please #stopblackfaceJapan now.”

[Image via Baye McNeil]

Full disclosure: Both McNeil and I write for The Japan Times.

Moreover, McNeil added, “Note to Japanese performing in #BlackFace: #Blackness is not a punchline nor a prop. Need jokes? Get better writers. Need a black character, get a black actor that speaks Japanese. There are several!”

Online in Japan, some got why Hamada’s blackface was offensive, while as YouTuber Hikosaemon noted, others didn’t see any issue with it whatsoever — that it was simply an “impersonation.”

Those defending Hamada’s blackface often point out that Japan doesn’t have the same racial history as the United States. That is true, but that does not make blackface any less toxic or hurtful.

Japan, however, does have a long history of blackface, which is almost as long as the U.S. history of blackface minstrelsy. As early as the 1860s, Japanese performers were doing blackface after the Americans introduced it a decade earlier. And on the eve of 2018, it continues.

One Twitter user asked McNeil if Hamada’s blackface was “for real” to which he replied, “Define ‘for real’? If you mean, as in ‘not anime’ yes they are real. If you mean, are they on some real ‘we wanna be like white people in 1930s Hollywood and use ‘blackness’ to amuse ourselves and make a profit then yes, real. If you mean are real hateful and malicious, then no.”

Even if this is being done without malice, it does have deep and far-reaching effects.

“Blackness is being treated as a tool for comedy, for laughs, and that impacts how I’m perceived and treated on a daily basis here,” explains McNeil. “Do you think these comedians care about that? I doubt it. They should. The quality of my life is affected by them.”

The Huffington Post‘s Japanese edition features with an interview with McNeil and an excellent explanation of blackface’s history and context for Japanese readers to better understand why this is inappropriate.


  • With kids dying in the third world, Kim and Trump spouting about their big nuke buttons and rise of global terrorism you’d think there could be bigger issues than a guy in Japan doing comedy.

        • Japan is far more xenophobic than most countries. More than any part of Europe. More than any English speaking country I can think of.
          More racist? eh… hard to tell, but I’d generally say no. But Japan is xenophobic as fuck.

          • As I said man, outside looking in.
            I saw the same stuff there that I see everyday here.

            You ask people in Australia if they are racist and xenophobic…..now ask immigrants, tourists and foreign students.

            I know your not saying that they are all like that, neither are Australians or any other country, but we all share elements of being afraid of strange and different.

          • Fair enough. From an outsider’s perspective, it could go one way or the other and every country has those elements. But I genuinely, honestly know from the inside that Japan is very scared of outsiders on both a social and a governmental level. Not necessarily racist (thought there’s plenty of that in certain places), but the unwillingness to engage with people or concepts that are new and different pervades every part of their legal system and shows up in a million different ways.

      • The more monocultured a place is, the more likely this is. From my travels, Japan is the most monocultured place I have seen.

        It doesn’t necessarily mean they are hateful towards other cultures, they are just ignorant of the cultural issues.

        I remember seeing blackface on Hey Hey it’s Saturday and didn’t know what the issue was at the time. As an adult, I have a better grasp of the historic and cultural significance through the consumption of mostly American media over the sebsequent decades. I doubt Japanese people consume as much American media as Australians do, so it’s hard for me to condemn them so off-handedly.

        • This is what I really disagree with. The “grasp” of historical and cultural forces. And it comes back also to the paragraph in the article. “Those defending Hamada’s blackface often point out that Japan doesn’t have the same racial history as the United States. That is true, but that does not make blackface any less toxic or hurtful.”

          Blackface is only toxic and hurtful if you overlay it with your own values. Blackface is historically significant mostly because of America. The majority of black and white people elsewhere have no issue with blackface or whiteface unless they are subsuming American values. At worst they might think it gross and stupid, but not toxic and hurtful. Unless of course the person WAS using the face paint to obviously slander. Should the entire world adopt a set of values because of one place? Maybe yes, maybe no, it really comes down to the significance of the events in question. Some events are of obvious global significance. Others it becomes arguable. Black/whiteface is one I definitely think is arguable.

        • Japan is probably the closest thing to an actual monoculture you’ll ever see in the modern world.
          I’m a bit fuzzy on the numbers, but from memory, the Japanese population is 98% “Japanese” (as in native to Japan for several generations). Of the remaining 2%, about 2/3 are Korean, Chinese, or Philippina. From the remaining third, most are Brazilian. Whatever is left makes up every other foreign person in the country.

          • Thats a rather brilliant way of over simplifying jp ethnicity.. im fairly sure the folks from Kansai have a completely different mindset compared to people in the Kanto region. And then we have the much more chill people in Hokkaido and the folks down at Okinawa

            And dont even get started with the situation of the Ainu. For someone incredibly concerned about negative stereotyping it doesnt help if you’re also using the same tactics with over simplified statistics for a complex situation to make a point

          • There are multiple levels of Otherness to Japanese social structure. Geographical differences, social status, they even have something of a caste system, to boot. But they are all considered “Japanese” on a legal level, despite what Okinawans personally think about their “Japanese-ness.”
            However, if you were born in Japan to parents who immigrated at age 2, you are forever a second class citizen.

      • Racist? No. Extremely nationalistic and would rather foreigners not settle there? Absolutely. Everybody treats you like a visitor, even if you live there, but they’re hardly racist. (some are, of course, racism is a worldwide phenomenon, but for the large part, no).

        • Are you missing the point on purpose, or just trying to live up to your username?

          I was using a ridiculous example on purpose. Because the initial post was ridiculous. Saying that we shouldn’t care about one problem because another, unrelated problem exists essentially means that the entire world is only allowed to care about a single thing at any one time. That’s silly.

  • My favourite awkward culture moment was that Australia KFC ad for the cricket against the West Indies.

    The theme was sharing and rival fans coming together for chicken so there wasn’t anything really wrong, but when I heard the clip had popped up in America the ball dropped and I couldn’t stop laughing.

    • Exactly! I mean, if people can paint themselves orange to impersonate Trump, a Japanese dude can paint himself brown to impersonate Eddie Murphy 😀

      It’s not like the guy is making fun of black people. The internet needs to un-clench its collective sphincters a touch.

  • Really, those with their knickers in a twist should go watch some of the movies about the life of Al Jolson, a white guy who was doing blackface in the first talkie, and was famous for his Minstrel routines, and is a hero of the black community.

  • Kotaku you don’t seem to explain any events of any racist jokes, I mean its not really racist unless there were racist jokes then its just Asian washing kinda what they did in the fullmetal alchemist

  • He’s dressing up as Eddie Murphy the black actor. It’s not like he’s pantomiming a black man to mock or slander. It’s a popular film character who is black. Should he have been orange to avoid offense?
    Actual racism is when you are are being derogatory or discriminatory, as far as I can tell he’s not.

    • Traditionally people affected by racism get to determine whether or not something is racist, as has happened here. Racism is racism whether it’s jokes veiled in irony or some shithead going off on a bus; whether it’s something you care about, try to understand, or don’t give a fuck about; whether you personally can tell or not.

      Every single time blackface is reported in the news there is an explanation for why it is racist and unacceptable, like the one in this article. What do you not understand about the historical context of or contemporary subjugation of race by blackface?

      • What do you not understand about the historical context of or contemporary subjugation of race by blackface?

        What do you not understand about the fact that other countries have different histories than the US and therefore historical context is exactly that, contextual, and therefore applying it where it doesn’t belong is folly? You’re seeing this entirely through an American/Australian lens and seem unable to grasp the concept of Theory of Mind in that other people can have backgrounds that don’t match yours and maybe if they do blackface like this it’s purely done in fun without the historical racial overtones that you personally attribute to this.

        Let’s put it another way: what if I told you that we discovered another country and in that country it was considered racially insensitive to wear white t-shirts if you’re white/black/whatever race you are. Would you stop wearing white t-shirts? Or would you say “I’m not wearing a white t-shirt in any way that’s meant to offend – my intent is not the issue here and anyone offended by this is taking offence based on their history, not mine”?

        • Blackface can’t be purely fun without racial overtones, it carries inherently racist qualities regardless of where it’s done, and you’re conflation of unalterable physical characteristics with elective cultural clothing is some seriously asinine bullshit.

          The largest folly made here is the presumption that race relations are solely restricted to the USA and Australia; not only is historical context open-ended and applicable to a global frame but Japan has its own long history of anti-black racism.

      • And if they’re incorrect in their assessment no one else can tell them so? I don’t think anyone is trying to say that there’s nothing racist about blackface, it’s more that people are immediately equating facepaint to racism when blackface is about more than just changing the colour of your skin.

      • It is one of those things that mean different things in different cultures.
        What do you not understand about the historical context of or contemporary subjugation of race by blackface?
        This is a culture that did not subject Africans to slavery and is not shown it in the news every time it happens in the West they are largely ignorant to it. So no they don’t get it.

      • People affected by racism get to determine it’s racist by whether it IS or not. They don’t get to choose behaviours or ideas and say they are racist without some sort of argument as to why.
        I understand blackface and I don’t think this was blackface in the “hysterical” context you seem to be pushing.

        • There are arguments as to why blackface is racist apart from its history; if you’d read about the history of blackface and minstrelsy in Japan – there’s a link to one source in the article if you’d like to make a start – you’d possibly see why looking at historical context in addition to theories of contemporary subjugation is salient.

          Also, we shouldn’t need to have a conversation about why limiting the agency of a minority to what a hegemony allows is a bit shit.

  • was it racist that robert downey jr, a white actor portrayed a black soldier in the movie tropic thunder? no, there was no malice in the performance and it was very well acted.. as far as i can see here there was no malice and none intended..

    calm your tits people..

  • Blackness is being treated as a tool for comedy, for laughs, and that impacts how I’m perceived and treated on a daily basis here,” explains McNeil. “Do you think these comedians care about that? I doubt it. They should. The quality of my life is affected by them

    Dude. Like 90% of black comedians use their own “blackness” for laughs or as the reason that their story is funny. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Japanese humour is not humorous. Their jokes are terrible, often juvenile, overly repeated, and not very mentally profound. I’ve not once actually seen humour that I would define as either original or even clever in any media from there, be it anime or video games.
    And I feel this is similar to how Japanese sex scenes aren’t sexy. Womem sounding like they are being raped are what accounts for sexy sounds there. In fact most he tai anime seems preoccupied with rape. Which is also not funny.
    We may all have a soft spot and appreciation for Japan, but there is a lot of things they are behind with.

    • Blackface got it’s bad name in minstrel shows and other stuff in America with a large black population. We didn’t have that stuff here but we’ve adopted so much American culture that it’s now not appropriate here. Japan does not have that issue at all. Totally fine in their culture, they don’t have that history.

      • Nah man. Ignorance and being mindfully racially insensitive doesn’t make it totally fine there.
        Go draw a Mohammad and share it on Instagram. That should be okay herein Australia, right?

    • Japanese humour isn’t funny TO YOU.

      At the end of the day, all comedy (just like any artform) is purely subjective. I find a few comedians today unfunny (and I’m a huge comedy nerd) but to someone else they might be the best thing since sliced bread.

      And yes, I’m of the thought that there are no boundaries in comedy, as long as it’s done tastefully.

  • I watched this, it was fine, not as funny as othe previous years I think.
    I KNEW that part would cause outrage.
    But I love that Japan is so separate from western politics that they can do this stuff. There’s no feminism there either.
    I hope I die before they are inevitably pressured by the international community to completely assimilate to western ideals.

  • I imagine they’d find it just as funny if a white comedian was dressed in yellow face and and made jokes about japanese people.

  • If their own history has no historical context for blackface & the offensive minstrel performances that blackface is known for, why should it be considered offensive? It’s not that a lack of the same “racial history” makes them unaware, it’s that it isn’t a part of their culture at all. After all, painting one’s skin isn’t inherently offensive; it’s situations where it is done in mockery towards a group of people, or in a way that invokes historical events where it was used in such a way, that makes it offensive.

    For people to act like they’re somehow backwards or ignorant for not following a specific, contextual cultural trend that has nothing to do with them is ignorant in of itself. I’d feel the same way if a Japanese person had a whine about some random guy in Australia doing something that would be offensive in Japan for Japanese reasons.

    That’s not to say that xenophobia/racism isn’t a thing in Japan. I’m sure it is, and by some accounts, it’s significantly worse in Japan than in many other countries. But that’s not what this is.

  • I’m just sick of the perpetually offended crying foul to every insignificant issue they come across. This is Australia – why should you give a damn what people in Japan think is comedy? Don’t like it? Don’t travel there. Problem solved.

    • Australia had a model and her mates go blackface to “pay homage” to the Williams’ sisters and Kobe Bryant within the past week. The conversation about why blackface is bullshit and people should just stop doing it is as pertinent here as it is in Japan.

      Keep in mind that what you think of as insignificant – racism – is a significant stressor and can have huge negative impacts on the people affected.

  • Blackface is really only a big issue because racism towards black people in AMERICA is still a huge issue, somehow, backward living white people raising their kids to be backward thinking… a societal problem that shouldn’t exist in 2018 but because humans are terrible it does…

  • I find it funny that Americans get to dictate what’s offensive and what isn’t considering their penchant for making fun of the entire world. Kat Williams making fun of Steve Irwin after his death is ok but a Japanese dude in face paint is going to destroy their culture? What’s worse? This or what Logan Paul did? And discuss…

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