A jump back to the colored nineties from today’s new colors of Japan
I just watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-air, season 1 ep. 6 “Mistaken identity”. This episode was first aired in October 1990. I recommend you to watch it thoroughly, especially if you are into the Black lives Matter movement. It gives you clear evidence of how things did not change much in thirty years.
Although I doubt many people do not know it, the show is about a young black teenager from West Philadelphia (Will Smith) being hosted by his aunt’s wealthy family. It is a sit-com on a black family often surrounded by other black characters, with very few white actors on stage.
As Italians, we do have seen and loved shows of this kind on our national channels: from Wayans’ hilarious My wife and kids to the newest Black•ish, we are used to the Afro-american culture without being really exposed to it. Dubbing, along with the need to adapt jokes or allusions from the original product that would never make sense in Italian, contributed to let us enjoy these shows without thinking too much about the cultural background and hidden messages behind a gag.
In this episode, Will and Carlton are pulled over by the police, and get into jail for allegedly stealing a car. Which is, of course, not true at all, and only the intervention of uncle Phil himself with his white colleague Mr. Furth helps the two teenagers be released.
Uncle Phil (left) warns the cop about arresting two underage kids without following the legal procedure. On the right, his partner, Mr. Furth.
Later on, Carlton comments: <<It was awfully nice of Mr. Furth to help us out. I’ll have to write him a thank-you note>>. As to imply that their release was possible thanks to the white lawyer, who basically just walked in to save the day.
At the end of the episode, Carlton speaks the voice of the American (white or whitewashed) middle class, arguing with Will that the police was doing their job.
<<You just don’t get it, do you?
No map is going to save you, and neither is your Glee Club, or your fancy Bel Air dress or who your dad is, coz when you’re driving in a nice car in a strange neighborhood, none of that matters!>>
<<They only see one thing!>>
After fighting with Will, Carlton then asks his dad:
<<If you were a policeman, and you saw a car driving two miles an hour, wouldn’t you stop it?>>
His dad gave a quite self-explanatory answer:
<<I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped>>.
He leaves the room. Carlton sits sad and confused, alone.
He then says: <<I would stop it>>.
The camera draws back taking him silent in the living room.
This is a deep message to review these days; those last lines probably best represented the inner fight within Americans, which also reflects a bigger fight in each of us.
But this also reminded me of something else.
A couple days after I moved back to Japan in 2015, I was chilling with friends in a cafe after the Kanamara matsuri (you are kindly invited to google it and you’re welcome), when my Italian friend and I decided it was about time to go home. My Japanese friend at the time wanted to stay, but he begged us to pick up his bike from Tobitakyū station’s parking lot and to take it back to campus.
He gave us the key to unlock it, we found the bike and collected it smoothly.
Or so we thought, because, as soon as we got out of the underground parking lot, two Japanese policemen standing right on the other side of the road stopped us and started interrogating us.
They asked us who was the owner of the bike, and called to cross-reference the name we gave with the vehicle’s registration number (in Japan bicycles are registered and you also need to pay insurance for them).
The label with the registration number, which must be attached on all bycicles.
They felt the need to justify their action, saying that they found it strange of two foreigners pushing one bike. They even added: <<Sorry, but we’re having many bicycle thefts recently>>.
We’re having many bicycle thefts.
Sounds so similar to the cops’ recurring excuse in the sitcom: <<we’re having many car thefts>>.
The policemen checked the bike, gave a look at our university badges and eventually let us go.
Yet, walking back to the dorm, I could not help but think: you’re having many bike thefts, so you assumed two white girls could be suspicious.
Let’s point out that in Japan a white is a foreigner as much as a black, and only Japanese facial features can save you from first judgement.
I was then randomly stopped by police at least a couple more times.
Once I was riding my bike to my new apartment in Mitaka when I got caught by a typhoon. I ended up around Mitaka station completely soaked. I was looking for a way to go to the other side of the station where my apartment was, when a policeman rang his bell at me and thought to check my status. In that moment, I was actually glad because I could ask him for directions.
But in Japan, you couldn’t not expect a random bike check. I was once stopped again while I was rushing to university. I was late and in a big hurry like usual. When police pulled me over, my mind was so prepared that I got down immediately and briskly told them: <<bike check, right? Lemme get my ID>>.
I must have looked so confident that the policemen interrupted me and quickly replied:
<<it’s ok, we believe you, you can go>>.
I got back on my bike and left. I was even angry for the time they made me waste for no reason. That question keeps tickling in the back of your mind: Would they have pulled me over if I had had a Japanese face?
Other foreigners/biracial kids had unpleasant experiences that do not necessary involve a bike.
This biracial girl I used to hang out with had caucasian features making her stand out. She was once stopped by a man who claimed to be a policeman and asked insistently that she showed her visa. She told him that she was a Japanese national and therefore could not have a visa, but he seemed not to believe her. The story of the visa to show is, anyways, no exceptional event.
In 2017 I was rushing to the station for an interview. This middle-aged man was standing in front of me on the escalator and would not let me through. When I reached the 2nd floor I barely suffocated a swear word in Italian, but he was quick to yell: <<baka gaijin!>> (“stupid foreigner”, a common insult). He did not know me, but he used my gaijin face – my foreign face – to insult me. What was the connection with my race?
There are many stories like this one. Like the half-Italian child, born and raised in Japan, who was bullied in school getting a sheet of paper reading hakujin (White) attached to his back. Or even Ariana Miyamoto, the half-black girl born and raised in Japan, who was crowned Miss Universe Japan 2015 amidst protests.
What do all these stories have in common? The Youtube video But we’re speaking Japanese! gives a satisfactory answer to this question.
A bunch of guys are sitting at a table in an izakaya (a typical Japanese tavern): all of them are clearly not Asian but one. The waitress leans down to the only Asian person in the group asking for everybody else’s orders. No matter how hard this Asian customer tries to tell her that she is the only foreigner in there, the waitress would never understand.
Probably because, in spite of the verbally given information, there is a nonverbal voice that speaks louder.
Like Italy, Japan is an ethnically homogeneous country, and it has only recently started to question itself about racial discrimination, which remains taboo – especially because more biracial kids are around now. It is a country where being “pure” Japanese is still very important, and where acts of discrimination have been (and might still be) overlooked. While the United States is in the midst of a racial fight, Japan is slowly coloring itself, and race-related issues are starting to come to the surface.
Back to the show, I can relate both to Will and to Carlton: I do understand Carlton’s inability to fully grasp the reality of discrimination; on the other hand, I can empathize with Will’s frustration for being considered a second-class citizen.
Is police to blame? Police is the mirror of people’s fears and misconceptions. Work on the people and you will work on their defence forces, and this is probably today’s biggest challenge for Us citizens.
But for now, the similarity between the sit-com and my life experience made me think.
And Will’s little slap has never hit so hard.
No matter how hard you try to mingle in, your face and your body speak before you.