Sunday, 15 November 2009

"Race" in global Japan pt. 2

Color me impressed, I'm glad I dragged myself out of bed on what was a truly miserable Saturday morning.

I liked the idea of looking at transnational constructions of categorical identities, as well as the meanings assigned to the category of mixed-race/ethnicity in Japanese society. The representation and consumption  of people with mixed backgrounds, commonly called haafu, through magazines and advertising is limited to a very narrow set of people of mixed heritage. Japanese and Caucasian in the vast majority of cases.

According to Sato Kozue's research, this can be explained by evidence that these people are situated between the Japanese world (local world) and the white western world (global world). They represent a "white dreamy fantasy world" that is reachable from the Japanese world. Even as their existence in Japanese society challenges ideas of Japaneseness and Whiteness*. Mixed race models, she says, can become "us" (Japanese) and "them" (foreigners) at the same time.

*As Jane Yamashiro went on to say in her own presentation, there are mixed heritage celebrities in Japan who pretty much can only speak Japanese.

Another thing from the symposium that stuck with me was part of the keynote speech given by Millie Creighton of the University of British Columbia. I've always been skeptical about the idea that Obama's ascent to the presidency, and reactions to it around the world represent any sort of fundamental change in any cultural/global zeitgeist with regards to black people. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there hasn't been any change. I think compared to merely 20-30 years earlier there's been a lot of progress.

What I liked was that Creighton came at it from a more nuanced position. Sharing her thoughts she said maybe reaction to Obama is sign of a change because of the difference in reaction to Jesse Jackson, who ordinary people she'd conversed with couldn't understand why he was being considered an acceptable candidate. He wasn't an American they said. (Even though African Americans are amongst the oldest American ethnic groups. Christ on the cross, weeping!)  This time around however Obama was popular in Japan, his candidacy for presidency was embraced. Which really only told me that people had become slightly less morbidly ignorant.

She grabbed me though when she went on to talk about the activities of the residents of a city in Fukui prefecture called Obama. Obama city supported and capitalised on Barack Obama's ascendance early on. Their campaign according to Creighton, represented  a shift in Japan, not of attitudes towards black people per se, but more as representing the reality that marginalized people are less willing to accept their place, largely overlooked by the Japanese elite. Linking the residents of Obama with a nascent movement for disablity rights, she says that the city leaders tapped into the hype/hope surrounding Obama to call attention to the Japanese periphery.

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