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What it’s like to be black in Japan

“All they do is paper here,” says Ryan DeVon, a black American graduate student at Soko University in Tokyo, Japan. “You want to change your address? New phone number? New parking sticker? Whatever it is. Everything is paper.”

We laugh together about the bureaucracy that Japan is particularly famous for. Though I am aware of it, DeVon has become intimate with it: Between navigating his visa, opening a bank account, starting a new job, and more, he’s definitely done his fair share of paperwork in Tokyo.

In a city that both depends on and so widely celebrates technology, it can seem strange that so many applications for jobs or services, financial documents, and petitions to the government require paperwork that must be filled out by hand. In a place where robots are commonly utilized for everything from room service to public safety, it’s an odd disconnect that so many Tokyoites are buried in paperwork.

Japan is a staunchly collectivist nation. Culturally, the whims of the individual are nearly always trumped by the needs of the nation, and collectively, these needs are frequently informed by traditions that span generations. When you’re talking about something as inane as paperwork, this may seem like just a funny idiosyncrasy, but with so much of Japan’s national identity rooted in tradition, it can be hard to change the status quo even when that zeitgeist becomes harmful.

Isolated under the Tokugawa shogunate for nearly 300 years leading up to the 20th century, Japan began to craft its unique mores of culture, government, and social etiquette in a largely ethnically homogenous society. Many of these ideas persist today: Countless numbers of the touchstones of their contemporary culture that even foreigners associate with Japan — like the Japanese poetry style haiku and Japanese traditional theater, kabuki, for example — were invented during this time. While this sense of cultural tradition is lauded, and even sometimes emulated, this focus on tradition is just one signal of Japan’s reluctance to change. But as the birth rate plummets and its population of retirees skyrockets, Japan’s economy is becoming increasingly dependent on immigration. Yet many foreigners arrive to find that some of what the Japanese see as storied tradition feels to them like outright racism.

“I knew that it would be difficult for me to rent an apartment as a non-citizen,” DeVon says on his recent search for an apartment in Tokyo with a local agent. “But after we called five, six different apartments, and they’re all the same. Call, call, call, and they say no foreigners allowed. Meanwhile, no one even looked at my passport or checked my credit. No one knows what type of visa I’m on nor how much money I have. And I’m like, ‘Wow.’ This might be a little bit of what our ancestors felt like, getting denied from certain spaces. Right in front of us. It’s a weird feeling.”

DeVon has been looking for a new apartment for a couple of months, a process that involved weeding out entire agencies that refused to work with foreigners.

“I’ve even asked if I could just meet some of the landlords. I figured, ‘Hey. If they’ll meet me, they’ll like me.’ But no, these agencies kept telling me that they don’t ever meet the tenants.”

“Ever?” I asked, thinking maybe I had misunderstood.

“Literally — there are some cases in which you will never meet them, even if you move in. So really, it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Chinese — if you’re from outer space. They’ve never had foreign people living in their building, and it’s not illegal, so that’s just the way it stays.”

DeVon describes one of his largest challenges upon moving to Tokyo as one that hadn’t occurred to him before he arrived: finding a barber. In a nation of people who notoriously have stick-straight hair, getting a haircut, for DeVon, was much more difficult than for your average Japanese citizen.

Only taking bookings from a Facebook page, the Shibuya barbershop Brooklyn Tokyo has a clientele almost exclusively composed of black residents and now regularly lines-up DeVon as well. Jamaican-American owner and barber Tamru Grant opened the shop to give black people in Tokyo the perfect cut, as well as that perfect black barber experience. DeVon swears the atmosphere in the shop is exactly what one would expect from someone who had made such a pledge, divulging that it “feels exactly like my barbershop in Los Angeles or Atlanta. It’s exactly right.”

These types of experiences inform his work a great deal. Along with his studies, DeVon’s visa allows him to work 28 hours a week, a privilege he utilizes by working at a brand new hostel, UNPLAN Shinjuku. His role there offers him the position to act as an unofficial black ambassador, and he enjoys the times he finds himself in the position to recommend his favorite Afro-Caribbean party, run by The Black Experience Japan, or even his own barber to black nomads who stay there. Already knowing how foreigners can sometimes be treated, he tries to make his interactions with guests as welcoming and informative as possible. But it can be taxing — between work and school, DeVon works hard to improve and contribute to the Japanese economy but sometimes feels that sentiment isn’t returned in kind.

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