Are Black folks in Japan weird?

Please nod yes or no, but you'd better make sure to acknowledge me dammit!

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Many times when black folk see other black folk, especially in places where there aren’t many of us, an almost obligatory reverse head nod and a casual “sup?” takes place. This unwritten rule of Black communication is what YouTube user Sakura Sakkyokuka aka Devin Morrison, in Japan for the first time, expected… What he observed instead led him to make the video above asking the question, “Why are black people in Japan so weird?”

Now I myself have experienced the nod in all of the states I’ve been to and in other countries as well. To some degree it happens if you are in a foreign country and see or hear another American speaking English. With brothers though, it’s kind of our thing. However, I’ve definitely seen that face and gesture that Devin talks about. It can make you question what just happened when you expect that common yet humble Black salutation and receive back a sheepish almost fearful looking nod.

I asked a few brothers that have been in Japan for many years what their thoughts were about the video. Most agreed with his experience. Like I said, I’ve gotten that response before but is it just applicable to Black people alone though?

Let me honest and make a few very general…generalizations on how most Afro-American males wind up here in the Land of the Rising Sun.

  • Anime (includes games, manga, and anything else J-pop-culture)
  • Women (meeting them or a girl they met dragged them here)
  • Military (got stationed here)
Sure the English teaching foreigner is ubiquitous, but I would say one of the three above reasons is why they came to Japan — the teaching is the how. The same goes for Black students in Japan. Again this is generally speaking.

 

English: An animation depicting a nodding gesture.

Military brothers will comply with the Black AT&T rules for the most part. They spend more time around other brothers and Americans so they still encounter that situation on a regular basis. So you’ll most likely get the reverse head nod at least. You might even get dap on a good day. The other two categories will yield varying degrees of results depending upon how much time they spend around Japanese people and immersed in Japanese culture.

Even back home the reverse head nod isn’t used with everybody. If you see an older black man you, at least I, give a respectful nod and maybe a greeting. The same goes for other men regardless of background unless they appear like they’re “down” with the culture.

The Japanese have their own acknowledgment gesture that is derived from the bow. It’s similar to the nod but there is more neck movement as if you were going to fully bow. It’s usually not used just as a greeting to strangers but for a reason, like you walked in front of them or they thought they were being discreet with their mouth wide open when you caught them staring at your foreignness and now they are uncomfortably nodding an intention of “Excuse me.” I would say Japan is less sociable with strangers, even with other Japanese, than the west. They usually mind their own business, it’s part of the culture. That’s not to say that the Japanese aren’t social, far from it, they “wild out,” talk loud, and literally drink until they pass out on the sidewalk after a nijikai or sanjikai but they tend to do so only with their friends and in groups.

But specifically speaking, Are only Black people in Japan weird for that painful looking head movement that Morrison is talking about? Well first I think this can apply to other ethnic groups that happen to be here too. I think it’s a mix between the reverse head nod, normal head nod, and the Japanese faux bow and comes about from adjusting to a culture where you don’t really acknowledge strangers walking past you. Since it doesn’t happen regularly, I think it catches some off guard and their signals get crossed. Also you may have run into someone who came to Japan due to an extreme interest in Anime and who basically fell into the otaku sub-culture which has its own social norms that others sometimes perceive as socially awkward.

Incidentally, I wrote this article while on the Shinkansen just after a weird incident. After getting off the train at my destination I saw a foreign man. Not a Black man but a brown-skinned dude. We made eye contact at a distance still too far away for the head nod so I was waiting until the point we pass each other to spring into action. As soon as he got close enough to me, he averted his eyes and put his head down ignoring me as he passed. He didn’t even give me any acknowledgment at all.

And so I ask again; are my people bonkers after coming to this place?

I don’t think so. One thing about coming to another country and culture is the different social rules. Back home you may have a certain social expectation placed on you but in another place the same rules don’t always apply. That new reality can be liberating to some and strange to others. Black folks come in all varieties and not being what others expect doesn’t make you any less Black. I accept that I could be off base here or that maybe I missed something but for the record I still try to throw my head back and give a “wassup”, so if you see me, expect it.