Blackface is back. What’s more, it’s big in Japan. I’ve mentioned before how the Obama craze has reached across the Pacific, and it’s spawned some unusual trends — apparently, Japanese comedians have started painting their faces in order to mimic the new president. W. David Marx has a peevish, cathartic rant about it in the meta-branch of the fantastic web-log Néojaponisme — “Does no one know this is not okay outside of Japan?” he demands, in shrill italics.
Marx should know that blackface is not at all new to Japan. In fact, it was one of the first American cultural traditions that the Japanese were exposed to. When Matthew Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships, he decided to entertain his hosts with a blackface minstrel show (“Colored Genmen of the North”) on board the Powhatan. It left a sharp impression on the Japanese — one of Perry’s officers wrote in his diary that the soot-faced actors sent “murmurs of astonishment” rippling among the “simple guests”.
“Telegraph: Dance on Ship, Music and Singing on Ship”, 1853 (color on paper, Chrysler Museum of Art).
Eric Love, from CU-Boulder, theorized in a 2003 lecture that the blackface — and the racial supremacy it implied, of whites over blacks, and through extension, over Asians — was meant to impress American power upon Japan. Inventing trains, shooting guns, owning slaves — in 1853, these were all great American achievements that belittled the Japanese.
And even today, when Japanese comedians re-appropriate blackface, it is still an acknowledgment of American achievement, albeit of an absolute different kind. That the United States was able to triumph over its past and elect an African-American president demonstrates once again the greatness of the nation. A black face in the White House is something to be proud of, and to get offended when a Japanese comedian paints it on is to remind us that it wasn’t, once. Time to move on?
P.S. Marx — a former Harvard Lampoon president now living in Japan — is a little too amped-up in his commentary, but not in his music. As his singer-songwriter alter-ego Marxy, he’s all about elegant under-statement.
Work Cited: Preble, George Henry. The Opening of Japan: A Diary of Discovery in the Far East, 1853-1856. Ed. Boleslaw Szczesniak. Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1962.