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Third eye opened

Posted Jul 18 2007

Ron Young and I hung out a few times while in Japan and had several conversations and adventures. I thought it would be good to capture some impressions from a Black male in Japan as that’s a perspective I’ve not come across too often. Ron wasn’t one to bite his tongue and he was very open about his thoughts. He’s an artist and teacher currently based in St. Louis, MO and spent three weeks in Japan as part of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Foundation teacher program. At the end of this interview check for responses by students at Oakland Unity High School.

Was this your first time to Japan and overseas?

Yes it was. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s opened my eyes and I gained an international perspective on life. I’ve been in Saint Louis the past 20 years. Sometimes in the Midwest things can be black and white, which isn’t always good. I’ve met so many good people.

What have been some of the highlights?

The artwork I’ve seen everywhere, the culture in terms of the nightlife, going to the different parts of Tokyo and Japan, seeing the history, the goth scene, the punk scene, everything. The diversity of the place has been great. After talking to locals, it’s reinforced differing perspectives on living versus visiting here.

Any surprises?

I’m surprised by how much of a western influence there is, particularly from the U.S. There’s so much admiration for the U.S. I’m like, why don’t they respect their own culture more? I mean, it’s everywhere, 7-11, McDonalds, KFC. I know they’re icons, but do they need so much? I did get to see a lot of traditional culture, yet still surprised by how dominant western culture was.

Did you run into any different treatment because you were African American?

There was only one incident when I got treated differently because of skin color. That was the one night that I was out taking pictures and the police followed me and then stopped me. Once they realized that I didn’t speak Japanese and that I was a tourist they let me go. I understood that one since I was familiar with the Nigerian situation (more info below). Even in Nasushiobara, which is more rural, there were a few looks, but I’m very happy with how I was treated. I e-mailed my mother about how I felt safer here than in some of my neighborhoods in St. Louis, with my own people.

Any challenges while you were there?

In terms of program, I had to adjust to constant moving around.

What are your overall impressions of Tokyo?

It’s huge, dense, very fast paced, and there’s always plenty to do. I never really got into the club life since I only went out one night. I couldn’t really give other suggestions in that area. It’s different when you’re going out in groups. Even in U.S. I usually go out on my own. You make different choices. That night was cool though, but didn’t get a good feel.

Is there anything you wish you knew before you came?

I wish I knew more Japanese. My whole movement would’ve been different. Not knowing the language made things more challenging. It’s just a barrier. I couldn’t do my thing. I’m not used to not having access to a car. It’s not hard, just awkward. But it’s nice not having to worry about paying for gas.

I really like the art scene. I would like to come back here and do an exhibit. I really liked connections I made in Japan. They will turn into something in the future. I gathered the necessary e-mails to contact people which will be very beneficial in the long run.

What kinds of things will you take home from this trip?

All the positives serve as a visual documentation of what I’ve seen and done. I’m visual and it will help as these experiences serve as a visual reference to help inspire me when I paint. Also, I’m working on my house, studying architecture and interior design. I saw things here that will be incorporated into my house.

As far as students are concerned, once I get back and reflect on what I’ve learned I’ll talk about the history of Japanese art, affecting manga, which affects anime.

What are your thoughts on the Nigerians we encountered?

I hate to stereotype, but opinions are shaped by perceptions, perceptions are often shaped by reality. You have a group of people here hustling and pimping due to whatever circumstances. Not to pass judgment, but Japan hasn’t had a lot of contact with outsiders so they’re vulnerable to first impressions. What these Black men are doing makes all of us look bad. It hurts all of us. I had to down play the way I dress so I wouldn’t get associated with them. I don’t down them because we’re all Black, but I don’t agree with it and how it affects us. Even for Americans, I don’t know how many professional Black men the average Japanese person has interacted with. Their perception gets shaped by the media-sports, rappers, etc. There are bigger issues here. They’re at the lower levels in the broader crime structure.

Hearing about places we were told not to go, I know what that’s about. They had a harder feel to them and there were more people like us, with an urban background. Honestly, about half of the people in the program shouldn’t go to those places. If you’re not used to the big city and not used to the game, you will get got.

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