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An American Black Woman Artist in a Japanese Garden

My first June day in Tokyo, I wandered confused, dazed by the 12 1/2-hour flight, the 13-hours-ahead time change, and the blitz of words I could not read. My previous trip to Japan in 1979, courtesy of a Japanese newspaper, had been an Eastern Cinderella story complete with adoring prince, (the semi-honorary white male status bestowed on a Black woman represented, to the Japanese, a formidable institution). Reentry as the artist, without the protection of “benevolent” corporate sponsors, was what one might imagine it would be like for a non-white person granted temporary white status in South Africa only to find herself stranded unannounced in the wrong restroom.

The pointing at close range, the stares and the laughter, took courage to face daily. Central Tokyo, around the Ginza, was one of the few places where non-Japanese faces did not produce unexpected responses. Wandering out of a small radius of the tourist mecca revealed another Japan—not the polite one of the package tour propaganda, but a sometimes harsh, fragile, and unhappy, brittle reality. (My short afro often brought crisis to the public bath. Before I could undress, women would run screaming, thinking a foreign male had strayed into the wrong place.)

On the long wooden stairs of a small shrine near Taiyuin Mausoleum, Nikko, was a sign that read in English: “Please take off your shoes.” I removed my shoes and ascended. A young woman sitting in a glassed-in room, left of the entrance, waved violently to me to go away. At first I thought there was a private ceremony in progress, but the shrine was small and open enough for me to see that it was absolutely empty. I decided to ignore her and proceed, seeing no activity. The attendant became extremely agitated and relayed to me as best she could that it was absolutely forbidden for me to enter. I felt angry and puzzled. Why have a sign in English, if foreigners are not allowed to enter? Several experiences later it struck me that she perceived me as defiling her precious shrine as I was a non-white foreigner—hence “impure.” I later read in Mikiso Hane’s Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes (New York: Pantheon, 1982) that the burakumin (Japan’s “untouchable class”) are not permitted to enter temples and shrines as they are considered “unclean.” They are relegated to earning their living in professions the Japanese consider dirty, such as a butcher or tanner. The burakumin are Japan’s scapegoat group, along with the Koreans and all non-Japanese Asians. For them, it has been a seemingly endless history of discrimination and segregation in education, housing, and jobs. Some say, according to Hane, that it is because “they” are descendants of vanquished clans like the Tiara (Heike) who were defeated by the Minamoto, or that it is because “they” are descendants of the Koreans or Ainu (Japan’s original “native” people, who are referred to as Caucasian because they have more body hair than the “Japanese”), or that it is because “they” eat meat in a vegetarian, Buddhist, fish-eating nation. (Several people I met during the course of my seven months—in some odd attempt to reassure me—stated point blank with pride, “I am racially pure Japanese!”)

I stumbled constantly over taboos and codes of behavior deeply embedded in a rigidly hierarchical society. Rich was superior to poor, old superior to young, men superior to women, with few questions asked in passive obedience to the demands of conformity. One moment, I felt I had grasped the system—the next, I was thrown into confusion by some new pattern of behavior that did not fit what I thought were their rules. I learned to carry the conspicuous signs of the temporary tourist, the camera and the map. People would scurry to my aid, taking me by the hand to my destination, or would lash out at me, the intruder, in ridicule. (One male child on a country road in Nara tried to kick me as hard as he could. Fortunately, he missed and lost his shoe in mid-air.)

The person in charge of my grant arrangements, a man in his late twenties, told me soon after I arrived that it was forbidden for me to speak directly to an older man in authority, that I could speak only to the women in the room, and that it was forbidden for me to visit certain places because I was a woman. I was the first Black woman and the first single woman to have participated in the program. The married women who preceded me were white. They were never told these things. I often felt I was faced with a Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma in which the same person would act in a diametrically opposite way depending on who he was dealing with. Grant money would be withheld from me for long periods of time, whereas the other grantees received their money unhindered—except for one, a young puppeteer who encountered questions about whether or not his puppets, “because of their big noses,” were Jewish. When I showed my videotape Free, White and 21 privately (I was not offered a public screening, although other grantees were invited to show their tapes), the remarks were always accompanied by laughter at how Jewish I looked in white-face.

Women, along with “non-Japanese,” were used as a target for all the rage that had not been deposited elsewhere. Late evening TV burst with images of women being raped, mutilated, stabbed, hanged. It seemed as if all classes of Japanese men devoured comics filled with sadomasochistic pop images of the rape and torture of Japanese and foreign women. White women, in an odd contradiction in terms of the preferential treatment I saw them receive, were used in very much the same way that non-white women are used in the American media—as stereotypes of the reckless wanton, the prostitute, the mistress. The Black woman was portrayed as the cold, aloof high-fashion model.

After World War II, children of a Japanese mother and Black father were deported to Brazil. In fact, to this day, children of Japanese mothers and non-Japanese fathers are not born with Japanese citizenship. This is a “gift” which may only be bestowed by a Japanese father. The Koreans, although they were made citizens during the war to add to the cannon fodder, are denied citizenship today unless they are willing to give up their Korean heritage and adopt a Japanese name. An article last summer in the Japan Times revealed that during the war, the Japanese planned to build death camps modeled on the Germans’ extermination camps for Jewish people in order to rid the world of “impure” races, starting with the Korean people.

I think often about the Japanese and their frantic attempts to emulate the white man’s more negative aspects—magnified by their own singular history of repression and harsh, discriminatory feudal laws. Their franticness to emulate seems to root itself in an unconscious realization that they too are the targets of racism—an “if you can’t beat them, join them” game. They cannot forget that twice they received the bomb that whites at the time would never have dropped on their own race.

The first few days home I was struck by superficial differences—the cleanliness of Japan versus the filth of New York; the raw emotions displayed by Americans as opposed to the ritualized repression by the Japanese of thoughts and feelings, punctuated by outbursts of rage at scapegoats or the internalization of anger turning into suicide. The elation at being home gave way to a feeling of despair over the changes which seemed to have taken place during the seven months I was away. I read about immigration authorities raiding Spanish, East Indian, and Asian communities for illegal aliens; about the detention of Haitian refugees in prisons while Polish refugees were detained in churches. I heard on national public radio about a white fraternity at the University of Cincinnati that held a Martin Luther King trash party—a costume ball where white students were invited to wear KKK sheets or a costume parodying Blacks. And I see the antics of the “art world,” tribal as ever in their tall huts in Soho and on Tiffany Run—still whiter than white—tucking their hooded designer silk sheets behind slick, insincere, “sympathetic” nods.

What drew me home was the relative freedom to protest and to work toward positive alternatives, a freedom I have rarely witnessed elsewhere. I have been asked why I stayed in Japan if, after the first two months, my hair had begun to fall out—why I didn’t come back sooner. What kept me alive and alert in the midst of intense stress was a determination not to cave in to other peoples’ unfortunate behavior—what nourished me and gave me energy was the extraordinary beauty I found in the traditional Japanese way of organizing space, images, and color and the brief refuge of peace I found in the Japanese gardens resplendent with the change of the seasons.

Howardena Pindell lived and traveled widely in Japan from June 1981 to February 1982 on a US-Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Fellowship.

Excerpted from Heresies no. 15, vol. 4 (February 1983): 54–55.