Yoko Akashi says a small group of people in her native Japan are beginning to make some progress in getting Japanese publishers to stop distributing materials with negative images of blacks.
Akashi, a junior at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, also said yesterday that the 80-member Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks also has had some small success in pressuring Japanese firms to stop using racial stereotypes in their advertising.
"Little by little, we're making a difference," Akashi, 21, said during a visit to the Baltimore Community Relations Commission.
She said some publishers are beginning to fear the group and have branded it a troublemaker.
The association was founded three years ago by a 9-year-old Japanese student, Hajiome Arita, and his parents, who became offended at negative portrayals of blacks in a publication.
The group has written letters of protest to Japanese publishers and companies, asking them to end the practice. While most refuse, saying the portrayals aren't racist, a few have stopped, realizing their insensitivity, Akashi said.
"Everybody in Japan has to be aware of the problem," Akashi said.
The problem has strained relations between Japanese and black Americans.
In 1986, Yasuhiro Nakasone, then prime minister of Japan, suggested that minorities had lowered the national intelligence level of the United States. Two years later, a senior Japanese politician said that blacks have no qualms about going bankrupt.
Because of an outcry from black members of Congress, both apologized.
Akashi said that, like other Japanese, she has been affected subconsciously by the caricatures, which ridicule and offend blacks.
"All the pictures of blacks had huge, white balled-eyes, thick lips and the skin was very black," she said. But when she first encountered her English instructor in Osawa, Japan, "He did not look like this" to her surprise.
Many of the stereotypes of blacks that are popular in Japan sprung from works by the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, who was influenced by Western culture and attitudes of 45 years ago, Akashi said.
Because the Japanese were the subjects of offensive cartoons in the United States, especially during World War II, John B. Ferron, director of the community relations commission, said he couldn't understand why they would ridicule blacks, who purchase significant amounts of Japanese products.
"It's an absolute insult," Ferron said. "We're not learning from history."
Still, he said, "It's refreshing and encouraging to know that Yoko has the courage and foresight to speak out against this racism."
In the coming months, the commission plans to work with Akashi to develop strategies to address the issue, such as getting the state's congressional delegation involved and pressing the State Department or Commerce Department.
"This affects the entire nation of the United States. It goes beyond African-Americans," Ferron said.