The Insensitive Japanese

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

October 04, 1990|By Garland L. Thompson

A STREAM of silly statements by high Japanese officials has many black Americans wondering whether success has drained the color from the Nippon soul. Have they forgotten in Tokyo what happened when the world decided Americans were ugly, imperialistic and arrogant? Has commercial success blinded Japan's leaders to the notion that economic power depends on people's willingness to buy and not on the existential glories of Japanese culture?

Before World War II, Japan's leaders thought differently. Robert Hill, a professor at the University of California, has retraced the steps the Japanese undertook to find common cause with American blacks against white subjugation during the years 1919-1943. He found that ''an amazing array of black spokesmen and Japanese agents'' tried to convince blacks Japan was the champion of the darker races and sought to build a black Fifth Column here.

By 1986, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone had forgotten all that, and forgotten as well the sterling performance of Dory Miller at Pearl Harbor and of the thousands of black soldiers, sailors and Marines who helped smash the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, beachhead by beachhead. Japan has no black population of its own, but Mr. Nakasone, a sudden expert on America's minorities, decided that ''On the average, the United States is lower [in academic skills] because of a considerable number of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.''

If anyone thought that was an aberration, a 1988 Washington Post article revealed that Japanese firms were making ''Little Black Sambo'' dolls. ''Little Black Sambo,'' a racist book about a little boy chased by tigers, was a best-seller in Japan, and merchandisers there had found that mannekins with grossly distorted lips and eyes and curly hair were ''sexy'' and energetic to Japanese customers.

Advertising campaigns routinely featured black athletes and entertainers, but many also featured Sambo and his exaggerated-featured sister Hanna in pitches to potential customers. Popular beach towels, shorts and tee-shirts carried Sambo prominently displayed, with the legend, ''When I'm hungry there's no stoppin' me. I'll be up a tree pickin' coconuts before you can count to three (an' I can count way past three, too!).''

A Japanese student wearing such garb was forced off a bus in Washington by two black women who demanded she change her clothes. Something like 6 million Japanese travel abroad every year, but the young lady was astonished that the blacks would mind such mindless racism. Japanese officials say their people have no exposure to different peoples, living in their homogeneous society, but observers noted that stereotypical Japanese characters on an American's shorts would have provoked outrage in Osaka.

Right after the Post story broke, Michio Watanabe, a leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told a conference in Tokyo, ''[Americans] use credit cards a lot. They have no savings, so they go bankrupt . . . But among those guys over there are so many blacks and so on, who would think nonchalantly: 'We're bankrupt, but from tomorrow on we don't have to pay anything back. We just can't use credit cards any more.' '' Nice timing.

Now comes Japan's Justice Minister, Serioku Kajiyama, joining a raid in Tokyo's red-light district, observing that ''It's like in America when neighborhoods become mixed because blacks move in and whites are forced out. Prostitutes ruin the atmosphere of neighborhoods in the same way.'' Any surprise here that the Congressioal Black Caucus found that obnoxious?

In the U.S., Japanese carmakers and other manufacturers invested $14.7 billion in plants in 1987, much of it gained from American markets, but Robert Cole, a University of Michigan researcher, studied 100 U.S. sites of Japanese automakers and found a systematic attempt to avoid minority populations.

Coincidence? Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced Honda to pay $6 million to 377 blacks and women for discriminatory hiring. Suits had to be used against other Japanese carmakers as well. And according to the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, Nissan last year had one, count it, one, minority dealership, a tenth of a percent of its total. Toyota had three, three-tenths percent, and blacks owned only eight of the nearly 5,000 Japanese car dealerships in the U.S. By contrast, Ford had 170 minority dealerships. GM had 204.

Are these the people who protested the racism of the decision to use the atomic bomb?

''We really don't pay that much attention to blacks,'' Tokyo packaging manager Seiichi Miyake told a reporter two years ago. ''They are not that important to us. They are not our major customers.''

If he doesn't need the money flowing in a $300-billion consumer market, that's fine by me. I'll be happy not to be his customer at all.

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