How Black Culture Inspired a Japanese Kid and the Internet Generation
|Jun 5|| 1|
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. During an arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kept his knee on the side of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down. (BBC News)
As this news spreads all over the internet, we see a saturation of social media posts with the public’s response to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to address racial injustice and systemic racism.
During the middle of all of this, I had no wifi for 4 days and was MIA on a lot of content. As I gradually caught up with the world and learned about the conversations that are happening and actions being taken, it has been frustrating to see the same content posted by everybody I follow. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that this is all done with good intentions and these ways of showing support has been incredible to see for the Black community, but I believe there’s a lack of awareness in the way we’re approaching our so-called privilege as non-Black individuals. I see groups of people protesting with another agenda, whether that’s just to rage and get their loaded quarantine energy out, or to gain clout, or drowning their friends’ feeds with an aggressive tone to support the topic, which could detract the initial value and intent of the entire BLM movement due to the lack of critical discourse.
As I observe and digest everything that’s happening in this dystopian year, I began to ponder whether these actions are really the way to show support for someone like myself — an Asian living in Vancouver, Canada who was heavily influenced by the values of black culture. What is the most effective way to contribute as an individual with a similar background as myself? What could I do to make a real contribution? Join the sea of ephemeral Instagram stories and vomit out an archive of posts? Donate to a relevant organization? (this, I did). My response to these questions, as you already know, was to make a donation. My logic was that even if I shared posts on social media, someone like me with no voice would only reach my immediate circle and there are tons of people already doing this within my circle in high efficiency, so I didn’t see myself making a greater difference to what is already happening in this form.
Though in addition to donating, I felt compelled to share my story of how I was inspired by Black role models as a teenager and express my deep appreciation for Black culture. And those who know me might know that this is rare coming from me as I’m usually not very outspoken online due to my fear of saying the wrong thing (it’s a sensitive topic after all). I write this with the hope that those reading this will ask themselves what is really the best way for them to make a contribution, instead of sharing posts in a performative, bandwagon-like way (though one could argue that performative allyship is better than silence). Again, I’d like to explicitly state that I understand some people genuinely believe by sharing they are helping. Some may do so because they won’t put in the effort to learn and so they share to show their followers, rather than anything meaningful on their personal behalf to educate themselves. My point is, let’s be conscious of this and push ourselves to collectively educate ourselves about the issue.
Ever since the birth of the internet, we’ve been exposed to different cultures and even if it might be hard to be conscious of our prejudices at times, I think it’s worth spending the time to consider the impact one culture could have on a foreign kid’s life.
A bit about me, I was born in Japan and moved between places like Toronto, Arizona, and a couple of cities in the Kantou region due to my dad’s occupation. Throughout my adolescence, I was never sure of my own identity within the context I lived in — I‘m a product of multiple environments. I was Japanese by blood and look, but North American on the inside (I used to refer to myself as a ‘Twinkie’).
I grew up being told by my parents that “you’re Japanese so you shouldn’t think like that” or “you’re different from the other Japanese kids so stop doing the same thing everyone else does’’. As a kid, this contradiction confused the hell out of me and my exposure to Black culture became an essential remedy for an Asian teenager living in Arizona.
I spent 7th to 12th grade in Gilbert, Arizona. My high school consisted of ~3,500 people, predominantly White and Latinos. I was often the only Asian kid in the classroom and received racial slurs on a daily basis, whether that’s “Ching-Chong”, kids bowing to me, being told to cook rice, or kids talking to me while squinting their eyes. Of course, they were all framed as “jokes” and it’s nothing compared to what a black individual would experience, but it was tough to see that type of reality coming from Japan and full of ignorance. Throughout my time in Arizona, Black culture became a form of escape — something I could connect with and learn values that weren’t embraced in the household. I gradually learned the stories of Black oppression by watching countless interviews of Black athletes, artists, comedians, and this helped me realize that the position I’m in is nothing compared to how the Black community is being treated in America. Black culture helped me become aware of my own ignorance; I didn’t even know that I was ignorant.
My Introduction to Black Culture
SLAMDUNK was my introduction to black culture, as it was expressed through a Japanese medium: Manga, which is basically Japanese comic books. SLAMDUNK generated an entirely new wave of basketball culture in Japan by translating NBA basketball into a National Japanese high school basketball tournament which is one of the biggest moments for a Japanese high school basketball player. At this time I was just getting into basketball and was fascinated by the energy being delivered through words and illustrations. Later on, I learned that the author, Inoue Takehiko, based the characters on real NBA players and how he too was inspired by black culture. He wanted to share the excitement he experienced from NBA basketball with the Japanese audience. It definitely worked on me.
As I got myself into NBA basketball, I became a fan of players like Dwyane Wade and Jamal Crawford and looked up to figures like Kobe Bryant. I would obsess over these players and dive deeper into their backgrounds to learn what they had to go through in order to become who they are today. I was genuinely curious and wanted to learn from these role models to apply their principles to my own life.
From Inoue Takehiko and basketball, I’ve learned to believe in all the clichés related to sports, like Shoot your shots or Practice makes perfect. Basketball was my gateway to black culture and subconsciously instilled Black values in me. In hindsight, making the 8th-grade basketball team and showing people I can play basketball helped me break certain racial boundaries and develop a sense of comradery.
Hip-hop naturally followed basketball. It was a huge aspect of my adolescence. My friends introduced me to Hip-Hop, from Nas and Biggie to Big L and Gang Starr, but also pioneers like Yung Lean and Chief Keef. Hip-hop is what really got me in love with Black culture. I was fascinated by the raw expression and how they embrace their family and community. I envied their brotherhood and their bravery. Growing up in a Japanese family, I was hardly ever exposed to this form of expression. Hip-hop was a form of escape for me, and a way to learn how to express myself. It literally changed my attitude as a teenager. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if it wasn’t for Hip-Hop.
I still remember the first time listening to Nas. My friend was always playing Illmatic off of his cracked iPhone 4, and even though I didn’t know what the lyrics meant, there was an instinctual connection. I was moved and wanted more. Over the years, my friends gave me a crash course on Hip-Hop by playing all kinds of albums and showing me films like The Art of Rap.
There are too many things for me to tell you what Hip-Hop has taught me, but the most important thing for me would be to take care of my mom. This is something that’s perceived as corny among Japanese teenagers (they even have a word for it!), so I’m glad I was able to get out of that mental model.
Naturally, I would dive deeper and deeper into the culture via the Internet and my friends’ influence. We would watch films like Boyz in the Hood, Paid in Full, Friday, City of God, and learn the triumph of a Black man in America. Through these films, we learned their lifestyle — that there are people who are actually hustling like this, and that they have no choice but to hustle due to the caste system that has been established through history. We’re all in our own bubbles being a product of our own environment, and cultural films like these helped me become aware of my own privilege — how fortunate I am to be given the opportunities to chase my goals. In recent years, 12 Years a Slave, BlacKkKlansman, and Django Unchained are films that have helped me learn different aspects of Black history.
Black Appreciation vs. Black Oppression
I’m sure this appreciation can be relatable to many, and there are many of us who don’t intend to approach Black culture purely for entertainment. I think a lot of us could proudly share how much of an impact Black culture has had in our lives, but how many of us actually know about Jim Crow Laws, Willie Lynch syndrome, segregation, and the deep history of how and why systemic racism has always existed behind the scenes in Modern America?
I’m definitely guilty of this myself. I learned the history of Black America over the years through different forms of media, but I’ve never actively educated myself regarding Black oppression. It was always easy for me to watch hours of Kanye interviews but it’s disheartening to come to realize how unwilling I am to learn more about topics relating to Black oppression.
Maybe we could push ourselves to learn about the topics relating to Black oppression? The internet has generated stars like Rich Brian, who learned English online from Indonesia. Or Billie Eilish who was inspired by Tyler, the Creator. Nick Colletti, who came up in the Vine comedy era recently shared a list of Black role models who he identifies as “personal heroes”. The resources are out there, so there’s really no excuse not to educate ourselves (at least for me). My personal goal moving forward is to educate myself on how the political system operates and vote with my own will once I attain my Canadian citizenship.
What were you influenced or inspired by? How has black culture affected your life? And what does this say about the impact of Black people in our society? If anything, it has done nothing but Good for my perception of reality. It goes without saying how much of a positive impact Black culture has had globally.
This is a very complex topic and I am in no way shape or form speaking on behalf of the Black community, and there’s only so much we could do from the outside. But I think there’s more to this than hitting the Share button and relying on our followers to tap into each post. As non-black individuals who appreciate black people, let’s all think about ways to contribute to the solution that is actionable. I want to be clear that I’m not against sharing content on social media, I just think we could take one step further and educate each other by having a conversation around it. For me, it was sharing my deep appreciation for my black role-models, the culture they embraced, and all the seeds they planted in our minds, with the hope to deliver relatable content to those like me and instill a sense of awareness of our contributions.