‘Racism is here and it hurts’: Inside Tokyo’s Black Lives Matter Movement

By Kohei Usuda

Last month, thousands of marchers took to the streets of Tokyo to join a peaceful march called for by the Tokyo chapter of Black Lives Matter. What does it mean to demand justice for George Floyd in Japan? Voice Up Japan was on the ground to find out.

On Sunday, June 14, a column of upwards of 3,500 demonstrators poured into Shibuya’s trendy Koen Dori, a major thoroughfare in downtown Tokyo, to the vociferous refrains of “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace!”

The peaceful march, organized under the banner of Black Lives Matter Tokyo, was aimed at showing solidarity with protestors across the United States, where a nationwide protest movement sprang up in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a white police officer.

The racially diverse crowd braved out sporadic downpours as well as the threat of a pandemic still underway. The participants walked in unison with the aim of driving out another form of epidemic: systemic racism.

Black Lives Matter Tokyo

One of the hallmarks of the worldwide George Floyd protests is the prominence of a new generation of activists stepping up to assume leadership roles. As digital natives, their strength springs from their innate ability to swiftly coordinate large-scale demonstrations by amplifying their voices on social media.

The first-ever Black Lives Matter rally in the Japanese capital was organized, mainly on Facebook, by a group of young activists led by Sierra Todd, a soft-spoken 19-year-old African-American student at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

Black Lives Matter activists, including Sierra Todd (right), addressing the marchers in Yoyogi Park. (Credit: Kohei Usuda)

“It’s been amazing to see this come together in less than two weeks,” Todd spoke proudly as she surveyed a sea of masked-up marchers assembled around her. (Mask-wearing was made mandatory to minimize the risk posed by Covid-19.)

The unexpectedly high turnout was a pleasant surprise to Jaime Smith, who, alongside Todd, is one of half a dozen core members that make up the Tokyo chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“We expected about a thousand and 3,500 showed up, so we are beyond amazed,” Smith, 25, said in an interview following last month’s march.

Smith’s sentiment was echoed by Rinaco Aoki, a fashion model who was among scores of marchers filing into a park plaza as protestors completed their march route. Aoki, 31, who decided to participate because “it’s about time” people in Japan get serious about tackling racial issues, said that the size of the crowd made her “happy” because she was unsure whether “many people will turn up” due to the rain forecasted for the day.

For Teren, an African-American expat also at the solidarity march, taking part in a Black Lives Matter gathering had an added personal relevance. The 30-year-old, who declined to give his last name, is a native of Minneapolis – a city rocked by several days of sometimes violent civil unrest after Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis officer who knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes.

Though Teren shared his frustration in being thousands of miles away from his home city, he said he was nonetheless buoyed up “to be able to voice my opinion and exercise my rights” by peacefully taking to the streets. He added by expressing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which he hopes “would bring attention to racial issues that are not only in American culture but in Japanese culture as well.”

‘I couldn’t remain silent’

For Smith, the Black Lives Matter activist, the painful impact of the death of Floyd was in no way lessened by the physical distance from her home country.

“I was devastated,” Smith remarked with visible emotion. “Those last words – ‘I can’t breathe!’ – they haunt me,” she said, alluding to Floyd’s desperate last words as he suffocated under the knee of the police officer, Derek Chauvin.

What exacerbated her sense of helplessness was the fact that Floyd’s repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” were “the same words said by Eric Garner six years ago,” Smith added, referring to another high-profile fatal victim of police brutality targeting the Black community. The Los Angeles Times cited an alarming statistic last year, according to which about “1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police”.

Smith explained that the complicity of inaction was no longer an option after overcoming the initial grief. “I was saddened, I was angry, and I couldn’t remain silent,” she elaborated on her decision to throw her full weight behind the Black Lives Matter cause.

‘It sticks with me’

“Black people – when we leave our home countries, we’re not leaving our hurt and our pain and our problems behind,” Smith continued, who moved to Japan three years ago and now works part-time as a teacher, model, and artist. “In many ways, we carry that pain with us, and it’s compounded by any discrimination that we face within the country we decided to move to.”

Asked whether there is sufficient awareness of racism among the Japanese public, Smith replied that “the issues of racism” are often regarded in Japan as “an uncomfortable topic that a lot of people don’t want to think about.”

Jaime Smith, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Tokyo. (Credit: Kohei Usuda)

Some in Japan deny the existence of racial discrimination, Smith claimed, while others dismiss racism as “an American problem.” While acknowledging that racial prejudice in Japan “may not be as violent as they see in America,” Smith nonetheless stressed that “it’s here and it hurts.”

When Smith was prodded to provide examples of discrimination she personally experienced while in Japan, Smith vouched that such experiences are, sadly, a “day-to-day” occurrence for a person of color, from the frequent rude “staring” in public to occasional “comments” made about her Afro hair.

Smith became visibly upset as she recounted some of the more vicious remarks hurled at her, such as when students at a school she taught in Saitama compared the color of her skin to excrement. Even though that episode occurred nearly three years ago when she first started working in the country, such an offensive remark, she noted, still “sticks with me.”

Japan’s endemic racism

These implicit as well as overt manifestations of xenophobia are hardly isolated incidents in the country. 

Japan has yet to come to terms with its brutal colonial past. A large population of ethnic Koreans known as Zainichi – the descendants of those forcibly brought to Japan as menial laborers generations ago during its decades-long rule over the Korean Peninsula – still face open hostility and ostracization within Japanese society.

Nor is Japan immune to police brutality either. In a recent encounter recorded on a cellphone, a 33-year-old Kurdish man of Turkish nationality was pulled over by a pair of Tokyo police officers, who allegedly roughed him up before letting him go with a warning. The incident, which left the man injured and sparked outrage among left-wing activists, occurred a mere few days before the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.

For Rene Gordon, 25, another protestor at the Tokyo march, it was imperative, she emphasized, that she stand in solidarity with Black people.

Gordon, who was born in the United States but relocated to Japan as a 13-year-old, divulged her own traumatic memories of being severely bullied on account of her pale complexion. “I’m half-Japanese but my face is very, very white. Because of that, I was bullied all the time,” Gordon, a kindergarten teacher, recounted the bitter experience of attending Japanese high school.

“I don’t think much is done, actually, for Black lives,” Gordon commented. “Not just for Black lives, but for all gaikokujin,” she added, using the Japanese word for foreigners.

Rene Gordon, originally from the United States, participated in the Tokyo march. (Credit: Kohei Usuda)

Gordon believes that entrenched racial bias goes much deeper in Japanese culture.

“Even though it’s not voiced out, or people don’t see they are being racist, they see people in a different light” depending on the color of their skin, Gordon said. “So in that sense, I feel like there should be more education, and more things taught to make people realize that everyone is the same.”

Smith, too, was adamant that Japanese people should be better educated on the subject of the systemic oppression historically inflicted on African-Americans. 

“A lot of the issue in Japan specifically is the narrative that has been painted about Black Lives Matter,” Smith interpolated in reference to a recent news segment aired on NHK. Japan’s public broadcaster depicted offensive caricatures of African-Americans in its coverage of racial strife currently gripping the United States, without any mention of Floyd or police brutality. The segment prompted the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to issue a rare rebuke, denouncing it as “offensive and insensitive.”

In this regard, Smith affirmed that hosting a Black Lives Matter rally in Tokyo “makes a difference” in terms of remedying whatever misconceptions the Japanese public may harbor about Black people.

“I mean, if people don’t know the reasoning behind our anger and our sadness, they might just attribute it to us – like we can’t help it,” she expounded. “It’s not [because of] some angering nature that we are pre-dispositioned to be violent, or destroy our homes, or anything like that. No, we’ve been dealing with this since the 1600s,” Smith said, speaking of the legacy of slavery. “We’ve definitely made great strides, but still there is so much that can be done.”

Shameful apathy

Back in the park plaza, Aoki, the fashion model, stuck to a more measured appraisal of the peaceful march. 

Aoki, who is half-Korean and counts many Black people among her friends, observed with caution that about “80 percent” of demonstrators were foreign nationals living in Tokyo. In her view, the fact that more Japanese did not share the same sense of urgency to be out there protesting to eradicate racism, Aoki lamented, “is a bit of a shame, really.”