It’s been a while since my last blog post, but I just couldn’t rush this one. I have struggled with this for the past couple of weeks: working through my feelings, researching, talking to others about it…it’s been a hell of a process. But I finally feel that I’ve written something that accurately sums up my thoughts. It’s made me think more deeply, and I hope I can help those who read this think more deeply, too.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a Takarazuka Revue performance for the first time in about a year. I was extremely excited. It was an original musical about Oda Nobunaga, a shogun who wanted to unite all of Japan during the Warring States period; after two intermissions, they did a short musical revue. The start to the show was great: a big number with fancy costumes and an overly dramatic flair that was quintessential “Takarazuka.” Then, as the show progressed, I noticed one actress using makeup that was almost…black. I’m familiar with Takarazuka’s fondness for an almost Donald Trump-like orangey, tan-ness on their otokoyaku (male role actresses). But this wasn’t orange: it was mimicking the skin of a black person. Sure enough, when I listened to how the character was described, they said he had “been a slave brought on a foreign ship and Nobunaga saved him, so he’s indebted to Nobunaga.”
What the definition doesn't say is that minstrel shows were primarily for white audiences and ridiculed blacks. Once blacks were freed from slavery, minstrelsy continued, and black people who wanted to be actors were sometimes forced to portray "themselves" in the minstrel show form- an exaggerated, racist, portrayal.
Blackface. In Japan. In 2016. It happened. Now I’ve tried to make sense of it: there aren’t many actors of color in Japan; there sure as hell aren’t any in the Takarazuka Revue Theatre. For those not familiar, Takarazuka has extremely strict guidelines for auditioning: you only get three chances from ages 15-18, and after that it’s impossible. Those who pass the audition must go through two years of “study” at the Takarazuka Music School. After that, you’re “hired” as an actress automatically. So think about the odds of a black woman in Japan, who speaks fluent Japanese and is interested in acting in musicals, auditioning for Takarazuka between 15-18 years old. Those are some slim to nil chances. However, the blackface still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. So instead of trying to dismiss it, or quell my uneasiness, I questioned, “Why write that character in the show?” Apparently, historically there was an actual black slave who Nobunaga saved. He gave the slave a Japanese name and everything; the two were very close. I think it’s wonderful that the playwright wanted to shed light on such a historical figure. But, the playwright’s choice to willingly write such a character- fully knowing that he only has Japanese actresses to play the part- is just irresponsible.
I had a Japanese friend ask, “Well, would it have been OK if the black character was the hero?” I thought about it quickly and said no. He asked why, and I explained that historically it was used as something racist, so it will now and forevermore be considered a racist act. He still didn’t get it. He chalked up my reaction to the fact that the acting just wasn’t good enough. “You obviously weren’t drawn into the world of the show, that’s why you got held up by the color of her makeup.” Um, no. I left the conversation feeling upset that I couldn’t effectively communicate the wrongness of blackface.
So let me be clear now: “Dressing up” in someone else’s skin ignores that group of people’s culture/history/hardships. You’re essentially picking and choosing which part of that group you want to “try on.” Those people have to live every day of their lives in that skin, so being able to choose only the “good” parts, instead of dealing with the whole package, is considered a “privilege.” It doesn’t matter if your intentions were good; it doesn’t matter if you consider it flattery or not. Ignoring the whole person, and the experiences that go along with what it means to be black, is what makes blackface so offensive.
An Eye-Opening Conversation
As I was struggling with this article and its subject, I thought I would seek out some input from a prominent writer in Japan named Baye McNeil. Mr. McNeil is a funny, intelligent columnist for the Japan Times. He has also published witty books on his experiences as a black man in Japan. He is a huge inspiration to many, myself included. (Check out his website here!)
I was lucky enough to receive a response from him. I thought I was thinking critically about the subject, but he made me realize that I wasn’t being as critical as I thought I was. Mr. McNeil made it clear that his opinions don’t represent those of all black people, obviously. He brought to my attention the need to “pick and choose” our battles, or run the risk of turning into someone who flips at every “little” thing.
He explained that blackface (and yellowface, and redface…) is a complex issue that doesn’t have clear lines of right or wrong. He is of the opinion that satire and cleverness “gets a pass.” He referenced Robert Downey, Jr. in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” as an example of satirical blackface. To be honest, I hadn’t thought of that- my initial reaction was “Blackface! Bad!” Now other people may differ with Mr. McNeil, but I tend to agree that satire and cleverness can be considered “acceptable.” I realized it truly is more nuanced than it seems.
So after thinking about what Mr. McNeil had said, I thought even more deeply on my reaction to Takarazuka’s use of blackface and why it made me so uncomfortable. I came to this conclusion:
I think the reason I was so upset with the Takarazuka was because it was the first time I had seen it on stage. Of course I had seen videos of blackface and minstrelsy in theatre classes in college, but seeing it live and in person was a wholly different and shocking experience. I don't think they were coming from a bad place at all- if anything, the blackface character was a "good guy." However, I still find myself doubting the necessity of the blackface. Maybe if they had adapted the musical from a foreign language into Japanese, and there happened to be a black character in the show, I could've let it slide. I guess I just want them to think about that why that character is necessary before they write them into the show- if it's just as a shallow, "prop" then they shouldn't do it...I guess that's where my "line" stands.
So in Takarazuka’s case, the character was minor and not deeply thought out. I was upset that a theater troupe that I love very much did such a thing. However, it doesn’t seem like the problem is going to be solved any time in the near future.
As Mr. McNeil wrote to me, “Follow your heart and respond accordingly.” I guess that’s the best we can do in these complex situations.
Thank you, Mr. McNeil, for your invaluable input! And to my theatre teachers in college who opened the door to critically thinking about the world around me, thank you. I’ve still got a ways to go, but the journey is nowhere near over.
For more on blackface in Japan, here are some reference articles I used: