For someone who has a romanticized view of Japan as a near-perfect country/society, this is quite disappointing. It’s not the first I’ve heard of Japanese insensitivity to stereotypes of African-Americans, and I hope that’s all it is. Insensitivity. Oh, Japan.
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 she 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 It was also eventually withdrawn.
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!
The facts that the story is read at the school and that this “play” was performed are disheartening, but it gets worse! The parents of the biracial child complained. Big time. And yet the school refuses to remove the book from the classroom, or to stop the children from singing the offensive ditty. I found this letter detailing the fallout after the performance on BlackTokyo.com.
Dear Black Tokyo,
I would like to bring the following matter to your attention.
A daycare center named Midori Hoikuen (みどり保育園), or Green Daycare Center, in Tokorozawa City in Saitama Prefecture, located just 30 minutes by train from Ikebukuro station in Tokyo, has been teaching hate speech to three-year old children daily, despite the protests of the parents of at least one biracial child in the class.
Although technically a private institution, the parents were originally instructed by the city of Tokorozawa that their child would have attend daycare there.
During the two years that the child has attended the daycare center, the parents had never once voiced a single concern about the operation of the daycare center until much to the their shock, the daycare center based a play / musical to be performed on Saturday, February 27th, 2010, on the book Little Black Sambo:
This is the very same book that several Japanese publishing companies had stopped printing due to public outrage in 1988. When the book was reprinted by one rogue publisher in 2005, many residents of Japan–foreign and Japanese–signed a petition encouraging the publishing company to use a different title and illustrations for the book due to their offensive nature:
Unfortunately, now that the book Little Black Sambo has been republished and widely distributed in Japan, it is apparent that the book is now being taught at Japanese daycare centers and quite possibly preschools and elementary schools across the country as well. At least two additional volumes of the book have also been printed by the same rogue Japanese publishing company.
…Here is a quick translation of some of the frightening lyrics from the song the children are being taught to enjoy singing daily at the daycare center in Tokorozawa:
“Little Black Sambo, sambo, sambo
His face and hands are completely black
Even his butt is completely black”
Obviously, that kind of speech should never be taught to children by teachers at a daycare center. Those words are more akin to what might be taught by a white supremacist group.
Apparently, the book they daycare center is using even comes complete with demeaning pickaninny images.
Now every time the 3-year old biracial child sees a black person he starts using the racial slur and mentions their black skin. The parents now fear taking their own child out in public or overseas. As the child is of such a young age, it also is not effective for the parents to tell the child not to use those derogatory words outside of daycare, as the child will only use them more.
In an attempt to be as understanding of cultural differences, as it was possible that perhaps the daycare center teachers were just not aware of the problems with the book, the parents of the biracial child both wrote letters in Japanese explaining the history of the book, why the title was discriminatory, and mentioning that they thought that illustrations showing demeaning racial stereotypes were not appropriate for young children.
The parents even showed the teachers that the term “sambo” was offensive and derogatory, both in English and in Japanese.
Beside being used as a disparaging reference to black people, the English dictionary makes it clear that the word is also used to refer to people of “mulatto ancestry,” in other words, the offspring of parents of different racial origin.
After doing a little research, the parents soon found that the term had been in use and deemed derogatory as far back as 1748, 150 years before the book Little Black Sambo was even written. In addition, the derogatory word “sambo” has been prohibited from being broadcasted on TV or radio in Japan, which was also explained to the daycare center.
This fact that the book contains offensive slurs shouldn’t even be considered news to anyone in Japan, when when Little Black Sambo was republished in Japan in 2005, the website of the Asahi News reported that the book was said to “discriminate against black people” and the article can still be found online:
In an attempt to help the daycare center out of a sticky situation, the parents of the biracial child even had the two following books sent by express mail and took them to the daycare center:
The Japanese translations of “Sam and the Tigers” and “The Story of Little Babaji.”
Both books above are modern, politically-correct retellings of Little Black Sambo that would not cause offense.
However, the daycare center said that they were not only already aware of the politically correct versions of the book, but has also refused to use them.
The daycare center’s excuse is that since all of the children have already learned the title Little Black Sambo, there will be no change in the title whatsoever. The staff have continued to teach the use of the discriminatory word “sambo” and encourage the children to enjoy using it.
In addition, at a meeting with one of the parents of the biracial child, the daycare center said that although they could not make any promises, they would “try” to change the lyrics of the song. However, it seems that additional lyrics were never actually taught and the biracial child and others in the school continue to use the hate speech filled one.
It appears that nothing has been done at all and that the daycare center is just trying to avoid the problem. Despite the parents’ protests, the daycare center still continues to use the racial slur in the presence of their biracial child and encourages the child’s classmates to enjoy singing the song which clearly contains hate speech.
Despite the daycare center’s claims, the fact is that there is no good excuse for racial discrimination.
It is shocking that a daycare center of all places, located just 30 minutes by train from downtown Tokyo, where the population includes a fair number of black people and numerous African Embassies, is teaching hate speech to small children.
As can be imagined, this has caused quite a lot of stress for the family with the biracial child. While understanding that this matter needs to be brought to the attention of the public, one of the parents of the biracial child has expressed concern for their family’s safety, and so wishes that the family not be further identified publicly.
Japanese society is based on shame and often slow to change. As a culture is appears that may Japanese people prefer to try to ignore problems and just hope they go away. Only by shaming organizations that discriminate and drawing the public’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in Japan, will real change eventually come about.
Please take the time to contact the daycare center yourself, either in English or Japanese, and raise your concerns about the daycare center’s teaching of hate speech to young children. It will only take a minute of your time and contact information is provided below.
Midori Hoikuen (みどり保育園)
Tel: 04-2948-2613 (Monday to Saturday, 9 AM – 5 PM)
Tokorozawa, Saitama 359-1161
Please also make your voice heard, by sending a carbon copy to Tokorozawa City Hall, Department of Daycare Services, which has been informed of this issue:
Thank you very much for your time. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.
This message can be freely copied, distributed or published online. Please help raise awareness of racial discrimination.