Between Brisbane and Japan, some whimsy and Dan (All contents © Dan Ryan, unless noted)

A Gift From Commodore Perry—A small disgust

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.

TokyoDay26-World Kaikan 127

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?

5 Responses

  1. @Crank_Dub

    Personally I miss this innocent part of my childhood:

    May 13, 2012 at 7:55 am

  2. Dan Ryan

    Apparently, Oriental Curry is still in business and you can buy merchandise featuring the black caricature chef. Behold:

    May 13, 2012 at 10:44 am

  3. I’m not sure how to react to this. Certainly, if this sort of thing was in America, outrage would be a perfectly acceptable reaction. I try to understand that different cultures have different standards when it comes to these sorts of things, but, considering Japan had American servicemen stationed there since the end of WWII, there would be a little more sensitivity on this issue.

    I guess that was hoping for too much.

    May 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm

  4. Dan Ryan

    I don’t know what to tell you. Perhaps this: We Americans ended slavery in the 1860s. On paper, at least, we enacted full civil rights for all races in the 1960s. Yet we still live in a discriminatory culture. The current battle over the deserved right of homosexual Americans to marry is merely the latest example. It’s ongoing. We’re not free of hatred and bigotry ourselves. Personally, I can’t condemn (nor endorse, in this particular case) the Japanese or their cultural insensitivities over a racist advertising display. I don’t know if that makes me naive or seemingly ignorant, but I figure I have to put this into perspective.

    May 15, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  5. Well, you’re correct on all counts. It’s a conundrum, to be sure. Condemn it, and it can smack a little of pot, kettle, black effect. I doubt there is any one good response to it.

    May 16, 2012 at 8:08 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *