On Wednesday, October 27th, the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative (21JPSI*) hosted Professor Marvin Sterling (Indiana University) for a virtual seminar based on his ongoing research on Black Japanese experiences and multiculturalism in contemporary Japan. The event was co-sponsored by Indiana University’s East Asian Studies Center, Anthropology Department, and Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Sterling introduced tennis superstar Naomi Osaka as a point of entry to studying Black Japanese experiences. Highlighting other famous Black Japanese individuals such as 2015 Miss Universe Japan winner, Ariana Miyamoto, and Japanese 100-meter sprinter, Abdul Hakim Sunny Brown, he argued that it is important to research the experiences of Black and mixed-race individuals in Japan to better understand the evolving meanings of Japanese identity and global Blackness.
Dr. Sterling outlined several themes from his interviews with Black Japanese interlocutors during field research in Japan. The first concerned the use of the term “hafu,” which connotes individuals with of a mixed-race identity. A majority of Dr. Sterling’s interviewees disliked the term due to its connotation that mixed-race individuals are less than “fully” Japanese. Second, most Black Japanese participants who grew up in Japan more strongly identify as Japanese, while those who grew up abroad are continuously crafting their Japanese identity through language and culture. Third, he described bullying most of his interviewees experienced as children of mixed race in Japan. Not all bullying was seen as overtly hostile, however. According to one participant, some comments that might be interpreted as offensive in other contexts were “not necessarily mean-spirited, but rather an innocent expression of the curiosity of young children.” Fourth, Dr. Sterling noted that many Black Japanese are not recognized as Japanese, despite having been born in Japan and speaking Japanese fluently. For example, some interviewees noted that they had been stopped by Japanese police officers because the officers assumed they were foreigners, rather than Japanese citizens. Finally, he discussed his interviewees’ reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement in Japan, and the impact it had giving higher visibility to the issues Black Japanese individuals face in Japan.
After concluding his remarks, Dr. Sterling engaged in a brief exchange with 21JPSI Faculty Affiliate Hilary Holbrow, followed by an open Q&A with the global audience of at least 81 faculty, students, and community members from Indiana, Japan, and around the world.
*The 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative (21JPSI) was launched at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies in 2018. Under the leadership of Founding Director and HLS faculty member Adam Liff, 21JPSI aims to invigorate and expand research, teaching, and programming on contemporary Japanese politics, society, and international (esp. U.S.-Japan) relations, and to educate, raise awareness, and debate policy responses to the various political, social, and foreign policy challenges that Japan faces in this extremely dynamic era of 21st-century change. Supported by a generous $900,000 grant from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, in its first five years 21JPSI has enabled a new tenure-track faculty line contemporary Japanese politics and society; launched four new courses on contemporary Japan and a multidisciplinary speaker series on Japanese Politics and Society; hosted national conferences and webinars on U.S.-Japan relations; and funded graduate fellowships and faculty travel grants to support research in Japan. For more information, please see https://jpsi.indiana.edu/ or write to firstname.lastname@example.org