Black Sambo in Japan
Over at Debito.org, there is a post today containing an e-mail from a foreigner in Japan who was shocked to find that a Rainforest Cafe in Chiba Prefecture was selling “Little Black Sambo” dolls. After explaining to the staff of the store that “sambo” was racial slur for black people and that the book “Little Black Sambo” was offensive, he succeeded in getting the dolls removed from the store’s shelves.
I found the fact that the store removed the dolls to be rather surprising, given the popularity of “Little Black Sambo” in Japan. I would guess that Sambo goods are being sold at hundreds of stores throughout Japan, and the children’s picture book is available at almost any bookstore of significant size. Here are a few examples of Sambo merchandise that can be found on major online stores such as Rakuten and in shops such as Village Vanguard:
Grow your own palm tree, just like the ones Sambo likes to sit under!
Demonstrate your love for Sambo with a cell phone strap!
Shield your cell phone screen with this reflective Sambo cover (the person sitting next to you on the train won’t be able to read your mails, but they will know you’re a Sambo fan).
Put Sambo’s black face on your back with one of these buttons!
If one were to tell the average Japanese person that “sambo” was a racial slur similar to “nigger” and that the book “Little Black Sambo” was an offensive book full of racially insensitive imagery, one would probably be met with a response of surprise or confusion. To many Sambo is just a cute little character in a cute children’s book, and it is hard to understand what could be so offensive about it. When a new edition of the book was printed several years ago, Metropolis had an article mentioning Japanese views of the book:
In the June edition of Bungei Shunju, Zuiunsha’s Tomio Inoue takes the whole “racist vs. insensitive” discussion to a new level, saying that it’s OK to reprint the story since “in the world today, there aren’t feelings of discrimination toward black people because we see them active in many areas and having a positive impact on many people… I think we need to have more faith in the children of Japan.”
Inoue claims that Sambo was a common name in northern India meaning “excellent,” and he describes Dobias’ golliwog-like depictions of the supposedly Indian child as a “bold use of color.” In the US, where the book is also in print and has been a regular bestseller, illustrator Fred Marcellino apparently solved the debate with The Story of Little Babaji, in which he changed the names of the characters to Babaji, Mamaji and Papaji. But the Japanese version keeps the original names and illustrations. And while an online petition protesting the Japanese reprint has sprung up, it has only garnered a few hundred signatures, many from abroad.
In a country where the black population remains small, it seems that many Japanese don’t care that sambo is considered to be as offensive as “darky” or “pickaninny.” In the two months since it was published, Chibikuro Sambo has already reportedly sold over 100,000 copies.
Time Magazine also ran a story back in 2001 about the Sambo/Japan issue:
Americans, of course, have produced their own unflattering images of the Japanese over the years — from the malevolent figures depicted on World War II posters to more benign, but not necessarily inoffensive, postwar depictions. “If there were yellow dolls in the U.S. with buck teeth, narrow slanted eyes and called Jap, of course the Japanese would be angry,” says Kaname Saruya, who teaches American history at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. “They’re doing the same thing here with Sambo, but they don’t realize it. Japanese are obtuse.” Obtuse or not, that is little consolation for American blacks: having made progress, however limited, against bigotry at home, they are appalled to find a troubling reflection abroad.
The Time Magazine article raised an interesting point about how Japanese would probably be offended by racist “Jap” cartoons, and Debito.org has been trying to test this theory with a parody version of “Little Black Sambo” called “Little Yellow Jap”:
The full parody book, which is full of racist images of Japanese similar to the images of blacks in the Sambo book, can be viewed here. On it’s last page it explains that it is a parody and has a message for Japanese readers:
“The words ‘JAP’ and ‘SAMBO’ are comparable words, and discriminatory langauge. Let’s refrain from words which encourage this kind of discrimination. ‘Chibi Kuro Sanbo’ as a book is unsuitable for a multiculturalizing Japanese society.
The message is a good one, but I’m not sure if those who see the parody comic will fully understand how many foreigners see the images and content of “Little Black Sambo” as similarly offensive. As much as I dislike “Little Black Sambo” and want to see it disappear, I doubt that it will any time soon.