Unfortunately, blackface has a long history in Japan, mapping out a very similar path to that of the USA.
The first performance was said to be “Ethiopian Entertainment” performed by Commodore Perry’s all white crew in 1854, to entertain the Japanese crowd and celebrate his subtle diplomacy of offering either a trade deal or a bombardment of cannonballs; Japan chose the former and opened itself up to the world, not only for trade, but also cultural influences from fashion to food, music to architecture, and even comedy and popular entertainment.
Fast-forward to 1927 and The Jazz Singer was a ground breaking Hollywood movie that blew people away with its integrated sound, the film followed the son of a rabbi who wanted to pursue a career in show-business, much to the chagrin of his father. The film ends with a triumphant performance of our lead in full minstrel blackface, wowing the contemporary crowd with a performance that would make most modern audiences cringe with embarrassment. With the rising popularity of jazz music, Japan also had its fair share of inappropriate acts, perhaps most famously, the revered comic and actor Kenichi Enomoto, who toured a variety show in the 1920s, a section of which was called “Negro Comic Dance” and was as heavy handed and misguided as the title would suggest. He also starred in a comedy musical in 1936 called Enoken’s 10 Millions 2 (続エノケンの千万長者) , where again he donned his signature look.
Unfortunately, the trend did not end or even slow down, since the 1980s, the band Rats & Star have been dressed in blackface and garish clothes, facing petitions from some, but indifference from most, as they have waned in popularity and probably rely on their ill-informed gimmick just to stay in the Japanese zeitgeist. More on them later!
In the 1990s, Pokemon exploded in popularity around the world, and it was probably due to this global success (and potential lack of income) that one pokemon, the alluring Jynx, who had full red lips and black skin, was hastily altered after complaints that it exploited racial stereotypes, and author, Carole Boston Weatherford came right out and said that it was plain racist and needed to change, in an article she wrote in 2000 she stated:
“Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo, a racist stereotype from a children’s book long ago purged from libraries.”
This article was a point of contention for many Nintendo fan, and Weatherford received a huge backlash. It is not clear if her call to change was a tipping point that forced a redesign of Jynx, but change she did, her jet-black skin being altered to purple. The makers of the game all along pleaded they were just mimicking the ganguro style popular at the time, of women wearing thick fake-tan and bleached blonde hair, but this did little to quell any complaints, so they hastily acquiesced.
In 2015, the aforementioned Rats & Star were set to appear on Fuji-TV alongside Momoiro Clover Z, a popular idol group of the time. Everyone involved was set to appear in full make-up, and there was an instant kick-back when promotional images found their way to surprised viewers. A petition was started, that gained around 2000 signatures, which led to the cancelling of the feature and knocking Rats & Star even further into obscurity. The petition was a master class in perfectly balancing a nuanced explanation as to why black face is not appropriate, whilst giving everyone the benefit of the doubt:
“We’d like to think Rats & Star and the other perpetrators of this form of entertainment are unaware of that distressing history, and are simply appropriating and profiting from black music and culture. Nevertheless, just as Japanese do not want other countries, intentionally or otherwise, mocking Japanese culture and sensibilities, such are the desires of all people, whether living here in Japan or abroad. ” (link)
But with a 150-year history, contention along the way and huge properties actually buckling to public outcry, it seems strange that Japanese firms still cry ignorance when they use blackface to this day and face (no pun intended) criticism. Perhaps they might state they respect black culture and are honoring it, but this seems disingenuous as they are often little more than heightened stereotypes. Another excuse might be that as they did not intend to be racist, they are not racist, but surely it is not up to them to decide whether or not another party should take offense to what they have put out there.
The latest idiot falling into this trap is a shampoo firm with the catchy slogan “Make your day withマーロ,” a shampoo that promises extreme volume. In the ad Takayuki Yamada is dressed in what can only be described as a fever dream MC Hammer had in 1991. Whilst they might be trying to mimic the cool of Uptown Funk, they merely achieve “What the funk are you doing?”
I’ve posted the ad below to show how terrible it is…but am I giving them free promotion in doing so? Is this the diabolical scheme they planned all along, to fan the flames of public displeasure to increase their reach? Or are they just f#cking idiots? I guess we’ll never know…although we can have a pretty good guess!