Raising a Black Baby in Japan


By Didan Ashanta

Each year, on the 3rd Monday of October, Jamaica celebrates it’s national heroes. The first of these great leaders and liberators was Marcus Garvey, and while he was alive, he felt it necessary to point out his people that they should be proud of their melanated skins:

“The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.” (Marcus Mosiah Garvey)

Today, we live with the reality that someone somewhere launched an extensive and consistent marketing campaign against dark skin – irrespective of one’s ethnicity. In Jamaica, skin colour (and it’s various beautiful tones) is an issue to be considered, explained and edified everyday – even though we are a 90% black population. So, it goes without saying that my baby’s skin colour is going to be a feature that will receive constant attention – especially living in the land of homogeneity: Japan.

Some of the other black people I know that have lived or are currently living in Japan, have had some unpleasant experiences which they say were either directly or indirectly related to their skin colour. In some of these cases, it was simply a matter that the offending parties had never seen nor interacted with a person of African descent before and as such, reacted in a defensive manner. But, black skin aside, Japan has a serious obsession with sameness and the people strive for uniformity in so many ways. So, being different is often not a good thing in this country – even if you are Japanese.

So, enter day one: my family gets on a train in Tokyo and we suddenly become the centre of attention. I guess they were thinking, “It’s not just a foreigner. It’s not just a foreign family – they’re black! Wait – that’s a black baby! I’ve never seen a black baby before.” It seemed like everyone was breaking their necks to catch a glimpse and trying to study us from all angles. But, what happened next, still shocks us to this very day. An older lady (maybe in her 60s) approached us. She told us how cute our daughter was, complimented her eyes and then asked us permission to use her cellphone to take pictures of our daughter. LOL. We agreed. We thought, “She’s just an excited little, grandma.” But, pictures secured, our cheerful visitor proceeded to compliment and play with Mwalimu’s tiny hands and soon had her own mini-playdate with our daughter – on the train, under the wide eyes of all the other passengers. That excited little grandma engaged Mwalimu for quite a journey – we were convinced she missed her stop! My husband and I didn’t know what to think. We had never had such an experience before and never imagined that a baby could attract so much attention.

It’s been almost 4 months now, but things haven’t changed much since that first train ride. Whether it’s a stroll down the supermarket aisle or we’re out having a meal with friends, our little baby stops people in their tracks. The fact that her skin is dark-complexioned, seems to enlighten many. It causes them to realise that her black skin is not the result of too much hard labour in the sun nor a sign that she doesn’t take enough baths. (Don’t laugh. People actually believe those myths.) We’ve had so many persons – who would otherwise walk by – stop just to say, “She’s so cute!” But, the highlights are the moments when the onlookers are convinced that she is a doll. One mother circled the supermarket aisle twice with her little girl, to wonder aloud, “Is it a doll? She looks like a doll, doesn’t she?!”

Having a black baby in Japan, has taught me a lot about human nature. I’ve come to realise that dark-skinned or not, a cute baby breaks down all sorts of barriers, builds new and precious relationships and gently educates the ignorant. I know that the days will come when she’ll need to be reminded why she looks different from her playmates and we’ll need to shower her with all the messages about our glorious heritage. There’ll also be many summers when we’ll let her bask in the warm sunlight and tell her about the powerful melanin that makes her chocolatey skin so great. But, for now she’s just fine being a cute, little Afrikan ambassador: wearing her black skin like beautiful gown.

Didan Ashanta is a natural living enthusiast who blogs at DidanAshanta.com. She currently lives in Tokyo with her husband and 9-month-old daughter.