I lived in Japan before, in Tokyo in the late ‘80s. In the special vault in my brain where I keep the memories compiled by my younger self, I remembered that the Japanese sometimes used exaggerated images of black people when promoting products or in advertising artwork.
So when I encountered this statue one Thursday afternoon in Nakano Broadway, it didn’t shock me so much as it disgusted and surprised me. In the 24 years since I lived in Tokyo, I would have guessed that iconography like this had been thrown away or destroyed.
I realize this is a naive way of thinking. People collect this stuff in America, so why not in Japan? In my country, for archivists and scholars at least, collecting “pickaninny” artwork and objects is a legitimate but painful way of taking measure of the history and treatment of black people in America over the last 400 years. (Cross-burning crackers probably collect this stuff too, for their own perverse reasons. I don’t know.)
In Japan, I have no idea who collects this stuff or what the hell the cultural significance of it might be to them. Who would want to display this in their home?
I found this displayed in front of the Mandarake (Man-da-ra-kay) high-end vintage toy boutique on the fourth floor of Nakano Broadway. I was able to read the red katakana, which says “Oriental Curry”. I had to research the black kanji, which reads “sokuseki”. This apparently means ‘instant’. So what you have here is the caricature of a black chef hawking Oriental Instant Curry. It looks like he’s holding the cross section of a hard-boiled egg to me.
I don’t know what the red-lipped depiction of a black man has to do with instant Japanese curry. To me, there is no connection. If you know of one, please clue me in. As for the actual use of saucer-eyed black caricature, my attitude now is the same as it was in the late ‘80s: I can’t completely blame the Japanese for this because I strongly suspect they copied the use of racist Negro images for advertising purposes from us Americans.
I mean, didn’t Commodore Perry bring black-face minstrels with him to entertain the shogunate in 1854?