December 7th, 2005


The black ships

[Edit the next day: the Timothy-Ayumi part of this story turns out to be of debateable veracity on several counts. The general points made later still stand, though.]

Marxy reports that J-pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki has got engaged to her boyfriend Timothy, a Tokyo-based gaijin designer who's the son of graffiti artist Futura 2000. She's 25 and he's 20. She's Japanese and he's African-American. Marxy, who's always going on about Japanese racism, finds this news "fantastical" and stranger than fiction, but I don't think it's strange at all. The fact is, insofar as Japan is still a nation under American influence these days, it's black American influence.

The evidence that black cultural memes in Japan are stronger than white ones is everywhere. You just have to visit fashion districts like Harajuku (Takeshita Street throngs with black merchants) or Aoyama (where the youths sport rasta style), or take a trip to Osaka's Amerika-Mura (clue: this "American Village" contains America, but it's not white America). You just have to look at style leaders like Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara (both proclaimed by Timothy "totally next level" in his interview), or Japan's coolest and most attractive man, Eye Yamataka of Voordoms. Look at their style, and ask where their cultural capital is coming from. It's coming from black American glitz-and-ghetto culture, or Jamaica.

During my Hokkaido residency earlier this year I was staying in a house belonging to some "Japafarians". The place was stuffed with music and videos, all by black artists. Most of it was reggae, but there was some Sly Stone too. I never met my hosts (it was a sublet, they were wintering in Okinawa — co-incidentally the Japanese island with the most black people living on it, thanks to the military base), but I imagine them slyly stoned on ganja, watching for the umpteenth time the brilliant Jamaican reggae movie "Rockers" (I watched it several times myself).

When Zest Records in Shibuya closed down, Marxy commented that the death of this white indie outlet (a great place for finding music by Swedish indie bands) indicated that Japan was closing down its interest in eclecticism, in other cultures. "As Japan veers further towards neo-Nationalistic navel-gazing," he wrote, "that collective impulse to explore diverse historical sounds from abroad has faded." Yet he also mentioned (in passing) how well DMR, the hip hop record store just across the road from Zest, was doing. The only difference is that the "sounds from abroad" on offer at DMR are black ones. For those interested in cultural capital, the ambassadors for Western culture in Japan are now, increasingly, black. (We could argue that this is becoming the case for the bling-bling West too, but that's for another day.)

When I blogged about J-porn the other day, and someone joked that I should appear in one, I replied that the only foreigners I've seen in Japanese porn are blacks, and it's true. There are no flinty, blond John Leslie types to be seen anywhere. Of course, putting black men in your porn doesn't mean you're not racist. We're all racist, and will be as long as race continues to be a "difference that makes a difference". But this is a racism of admiration and emulation. To put it quite simply, there's something about black culture that many Japanese people want to buy into. If you ask me to hazard a guess as to why this is, I'd quote the black man who's just walked off with Japan's most eligible female: "If I had one complaint it would be that [Japanese] people are afraid, afraid to express their true feelings and thoughts. They hold back too much, You live once...make the best of it."

I also blogged this week about John Lennon. In his interview with Jann Wenner, Lennon reveals a perspective on America that's surprisingly similar, I think, to Japan's. Describing the first Beatles tour of the US, Lennon says: "When we got here you were all walking round in bermuda shorts with Boston crew-cuts and stuff on your teeth. And the chicks looked like 1940s horses, you know. There was no conception of dress, or any of that jazz, you know. We just thought "What an olde race! What an olde race!" It looked just disgusting! And we thought how hip we were, you know. You tend to get really nationalistic, but we used to really laugh at America. Except for its music. And it's the black music we dug. You know, we thought we'd come to the land of its origin."

Japan was famously opened to international trade in 1853 by a fleet of American warships under the command of Commodore Perry. They were known as "the black ships". Because they had guns, the Japanese had no choice but to accept their advances. But now they have more choice, the ships they're choosing to admit into their ports are black ships in quite another sense.