April 14th, 2010 10:10 EST
Little Black Sambo Comes to A Japanese Kindergarten
The end of the last year of kindergarten and/or nursery school in Japan usually features a school play. My elder daughter played Toto in a very loosely arranged "Wizard of Oz" (there were two other Toto`s and all the boys were flying monkeys, meaning there was no scarecrow or tin man) while my younger one recently took a shot at "Alice in Wonderland" in a form probably unrecognizable to Lewis Carroll.
So when a nursery school in Saitama ran a school play, it was nothing out of the ordinary. There were songs, cute costumes, dancing, and kids who cried when the couldn`t remember their lines. Pretty much par for the course. Except that the school play was "Little Black Sambo".
The Midori (Green) Nursery School of Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture (about an hour northwest of Tokyo) might have escaped notice if one concerned parent of a biracial child who attended the school, had not posted the play`s contents to Facebook. On questioning, a teacher at the school admitted reading the controversial book to the kids in her charge and arranging the school play based on the book. She said the kids "all" loved the book and found it very "cute". The children even sang a ditty sh wrote that was translated as "Little Black Sambo, Sambo, Sambo. His face and hands are completely black. Even his butt is completely black."
This is not the first time that the racial insenstivity of Japan has gotten them in trouble. A few years back, a toothpaste brand called "Darkey" featured a grotesque picture of a person of color with hugely oversized lips and glowing teeth, the implication apparently being that this toothpaste would make your teeth as shiny as those of a "darkey". It was ultimately pulled from the shelves but not without much consternation. Many Japanese friends asked me what all the fuss was about.
Another involved the drink Calpis which is sold as Calpico is the states. The carton of the drink featured a "minstrel Al Jolson-style" black faced person with a top hat and the proverbial oversized lips. It was also eventually withdrawn.
Some, recently, have pointed to a series of McDonald`s commercials in Japan that featured a caucasian American speaking horribly mangled Japanese and showing no knowledge of Japanese culture while desperately seeking another hamburger, as being "racist" as well. Whether they are or not, they have disappeared from the TV rather suddenly.
I am especially concerned that "Little Black Sambo" was performed in a school where a biracial child was in attendance. How was he/she expected to feel? Did the teacher even consider that? I rather doubt it.
Still, the problem in my view ultimately stems from the lack of exposure and contact (deep, not superficial) that Japanese people have with the outside world. Traveling to and shopping in Guam and Hawaii does not equal "cultural sensitivity." Especially in rural areas like Saitama, the idea that some might find "Sambo" offensive has never sunk in. But then again, when we have a governor of Tokyo like Shintaro Ishihara who constantly blames the rise of crime on foreigners and especially the Chinese, despite reams of data to the contrary, what can be expected?
Now, as for homphobia, ageism, sexism and glorification of the abuse of women in Japanese media....OK, don`t get me started already!