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Zwarte Piet meets Burapan: Blackface

Peter Breedveld


Japanese broadcasting company Fuji TV plans to air a show on March 7 featuring two bands performing in blackface. This is nothing new in Japan, where musicians have been painting their face black since jazz music was introduced there by, I guess, the American GI’s and there are no bigger jazz fanatics in the world than in Japan.

That is how fans of the two bands involved in Fuji TV’s blackface show, girl band Momoiro Clover Z and doo-wop band Rats & Star, try to sell it: painting your face black is in honor of black people, it is an ode to black music. This is not, however, how black people in Japan see it. Intention is irrelevant, they say. The act is a reminder of the old American minstrel shows which depicted black people as ‘dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky slaves.’ Just stop it, says Baye McNeil, a New York born, black writer who lives and works in Yokohama.

Modern-day minstrel show

McNeil started a petition to urge Fuji TV not to air the blackface act, which has been signed by more than 2000 people at the time of my writing. ‘Time to shut down this modern-day minstrel show’, he writes in the English-language paper The Japan Times. Having lived in Japan for many years now, McNeil has learned to shut up about racism in order to be seen as an ‘evenhanded, fair-minded guy’ instead of a trouble maker who sees a racist behind every tree.

McNeil experiences incomprehension whenever he tries to convince Japanese of the error of their blackface ways. He is backed by Hiroko Tabuchi though, a Japanese-born journalist living in New York and working for The New York Times. Not all Japanese tweeps appreciate her efforts. Some accuse her of Japan-bashing, many protest that Japanese painting their face black has nothing to do with blackface, since it’s all in good humor.

Racist tradition

This will strike a familiar chord with the Dutch reading this. Holland has its own cherished blackface tradition every December, when the country is visited by a Catholic bishop from Spain, Sinterklaas (he is the inspiration for the American Santa Claus) accompanied by his jolly black side-kick, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet is a white guy with his face painted black, invented about a 150 years ago to scare children into submission, but nowadays he is a frolicking, happy-go-lucky, silly, old-fashioned caricature of a black man.

But saying to a Dutchman (or -woman) that Zwarte Piet is an obsolete, racist tradition will invoke his flaming fury, even if he is the most cultivated of men, the most learned professor, even if he has joined rallies against racism all his life. You cannot take from him his cherished Zwarte Piet. Three years ago a black Dutch guy named Quinsy Gario decided not to put up with this shit any longer. He donned a T-shirt saying ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’, went to a Sinterklaas procession and was brutally and violently arrested by the police, just for wearing that T-shirt.

Ode to black people

The genie was out of the bottle though and Holland has been (and you will now think I am exaggerating but I am not) on the verge of a civil war since. Quinsy Gario is the most hated man in Holland (last year he was elected ‘Asshole of the year’ by a national broadcasting company). The same arguments in the blackface controversy in Japan are used here: that Zwarte Piet is not intended to be racist, that Zwarte Piet is an ode to black people they should be flattered by, that outsiders shouldn’t meddle in Dutch traditions they don’t understand, and so on.

The Dutch being Dutch, they express their sentiments regarding white women voicing their objections against Zwarte Piet (’traitors’) a little harsher than the Japanese accusing Hiroko Tabuchi of ‘Japan-bashing’. A Dutch singer called Anouk, who dared to state publicly that Holland should do away with Zwarte Piet, is threatened and harassed. On social media Dutch people, using their own names and carrying avatars with photos of themselves with their sweet children, write Anouk has ‘nigger-seed dripping from her ass’ and call for the burning and hanging of black people. Other white women, like top model Doutzen Kroes and journalist Sunny Bergman, who made a documentary about racism in Holland, get a similar treatment.

Rape and violence

This is not an exceptional thing to do in Holland, which clings to it’s racism like a mother to her baby and will defend it like the Alamo, taking no prisoners. Journalists from main-stream media join in on the fun, politicians of the Christian democratic party don’t have any qualms about it either, uttering racist slurs like they’re psalms or law proposals.

In many ways Japan and Holland are alike (both are very collectivist societies, for example) and in this particular case the resemblances are striking. For instance, a few weeks ago a former adviser of conservative Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Ayako Sono, wrote a column in a conservative newspaper in which she made a case for South African Apartheid as a model for treating immigrants in Japan. The abolishment of Apartheid is openly regretted by representatives of the largest political party in Holland, the conservative PVV, and on Dutch national radio you can hear writers argue that people with dark skin color are more prone to rape and violence than white people. Highly respected professors will tell you on television, radio and in the papers that the majority of Muslims consists of potential terrorists with no respect for democratic values.

Black planet

I think what’s happening in Japan and Holland and elsewhere is a direct consequence of globalisation. For so many years – decades in the case of Japan, centuries in Holland – people have been able to disregard the feelings of people of color, who were always a minority in their relatively isolated communities. Now that the world has become a village, it’s the Westerners (including the Japanese) that are a small minority on a largely black planet.

High time, as I said before, for everyone to get their head out of their own ass.

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English, Japan, Peter Breedveld, 28.02.2015 @ 17:03


15 Reacties

op 01 03 2015 at 03:43 schreef Murat:

Let me start by saying that I love Japan. Since I was a kid.
I lived in Osaka for a couple of years because my fiance of that time is Japanese.
Those were good times, and especially the young generation of Japan impressed me.
Dark skin was hot, and black guys were really popular.
I remember my ex fiance saying during one of the first days we met “I don’t like people who say black guys are bad” — It was a warning and I didn’t understand why she said that to me on one of our first dates.

It became clear to me later on. Japanese (especially the older generation) can be obscenely racist. It’s an incredibly self-centered, racist society. Deep below all the polite social etiquettes there is a dark, sexually perverted, racist, fascist world within the Japanese mind. Indeed, I am generalizing a bit now but there is a trend….

Many Japanese look down on the same minorities as in the West. Yet, they do not realize that they are discriminated as non-Whites in the West as well. It would be “good” for them to experience that or even better, dive into American history and see what happened to the Japanese. The camps that were build for innocent Japanese American citizens, because they were potential terrorists or war criminals. Or Ching-eyed bastards as they were called.

Moreover, Japanese seem to look down and even hate people that have done nothing to them in the past. Yet, the United States has nuked them as the only country in history. Somehow this has formed some kind of complex in the Japanese mind. Because when you look at video games (e.g., Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Final Fantasy), the hero’s are almost exclusively American (whites) or at least highly pale Euro-white characters.

Moreover, the whole idea of Japan as being a “western” society is western arrogance.
I have never ever lived in a society that is as non-Western as Japan.
I always say Japan is a modern-industrial society, yes. But it is the most Eastern modern society I have ever seen. It’s one of the clearest examples of a non-Western modern industrialized society.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:09 schreef Rob:

” …the whole idea of Japan as being a ‘western’ society is western arrogance.” No it’s not Murat. It’s money. A country is “western” when a) the population is predominantly white or b) the standard of living is comparable to the richest white countries.
Culture doesn’t enter into it. They could eat raw babies for lunch and still be considered “western”.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:31 schreef Michael Willems:

Interesting—but wrong.

As a Dutchman who has lived in North America for decades, I have my thoughts about Zwarte Piet. But I am open to debate. The writer is not, it seems: his characterisation of the Dutch as a racist people who, on national radio, argue that blacks are rapists, is skewing the facts to say the least: this writer clearly has an agenda.

He is right about globalisation. But should globalisation mean “we now all bow to American sensititvities”? For that is what he is advocating: we all do things the way America wants them done. Or should we perhaps look at the intentions behind cultural phenomena rather than the superficial view — and the intention of Zwarte Piet, certainly today, is not in the least racist.

One society run by American norms is probably a bad thing. There are many way sin which the USA is an outlier (prison population, attitudes to nudity, gun deaths) and we surely do not want to wantonly carbon copy those worldwide?

If we are to avoid such a homogenized world society, I say that looking at intentions is the way to go. If intentions are good, leave traditions alone.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:42 schreef Peter:

his characterisation of the Dutch as a racist people who, on national radio, argue that blacks are rapists, is skewing the facts to say the least

No it’s not. I am presenting facts. Stone cold facts. In the papers, on news radio, on television, you can hear and see and read Dutch intellectuals arguing that blacks are inferior to whites, prone to crime, rape, violence.

should globalisation mean “we now all bow to American sensititvities”?

Quinsy Gario is not American. The black and white people protesting against Zwarte Piet are no Americans. They are Dutch. Protesting racism is not ‘bowing to American sensitivities’. What a ridiculous notion.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:48 schreef Michael Willems:

The resistance to blackface is VERY much an American phenomenon: not a ridiculous notion at all.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:51 schreef Michael Willems:

..and not surprisingly, the protesters quoted (such as McNeil, Hiroko Tabushi) are mainly American or American-based also.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:52 schreef Peter:

Apparently it is not an American notion, since the resistance against Zwarte Piet is in Holland, by Dutch people.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:53 schreef Michael Willems:

…so again, we need to separate intention from superficial appearance. American black and white minstrel shows were racist in inception and intention; the English Black and White minstrel show I remember from my youth, in contrast, was not intended to be racist. All I am arguing for is that we look at intention rather than, as US sensitivities would have it, at appearance.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:54 schreef Michael Willems:

And hang on, it seems to me that we are discussing two things: blackface as in Japan, and Zwarte Piet. Surely they are completely different in intention (as well as in appearance)?

op 01 03 2015 at 13:56 schreef Michael Willems:

We will perhaps have to agree to disagree on the intentions behind Zwarte Piet, Peter; but at least we can have a civilized discourse about it.

op 01 03 2015 at 13:59 schreef Michael Willems:

As for the notion that criticizing blackface is bowing to US sensitivities, we clearly come from different backgrounds, here in Canada I see US media around me all day every day, and from that perspective, resistance to blackface is *very much* a US phenomenon.

op 01 03 2015 at 14:06 schreef Peter:

Michael, first this house rule: you post one reaction and then only after someone else has posted a reaction may you post another.

What you are doing now is flooding and it makes any discussion hard to follow.

Concerning blackface: from the fact that Americans protest it does not follow that protesting it in Holland or Japan is ‘bowing to American sensitivities’.

That Zwarte Piet is similar to the Japanese practice of blackface I argued in my article. You may or may not agree with it but asking me if I don’t feel that ‘surely’ they are different in intention seems redundant.

op 01 03 2015 at 20:59 schreef Boe! Ik ben een moslim:

No no no no no… a country is Western after it gets liberated by America.

op 01 03 2015 at 21:43 schreef Eddy:

“Many Japanese look down on the same minorities as in the West. Yet, they do not realize that they are discriminated as non-Whites in the West as well.”
Barely… Japanese citizens are officially registered as ‘Westerse allochtonen’ and I can’t think of any recent structural examples of racism towards the Japanese.
Prejudices? Most definitely, but the biggest prejudice towards the Japanese at the moment is that they are potential racists and oppressors who are not to be trusted. Let’s say you just proved this point.

op 02 03 2015 at 00:05 schreef Murat:


You’re talking about intentions right?

The intentions behind Black Pete have become painfully clear when we witnessed a huge proportion of the Dutch population going mayhem against anyone that was opposed to Black Pete.
I have seldom seen such an inherently racist outburst in regards to something that was meant with good intention.

Moreover, to what extent do intentions matter if they hurt people that are confronted with your “good intentions”.

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