Visual Anthropologists Take on Japanese Visual Culture
—Richard Chalfen and Lindsey Powell, Temple University Japan, Tokyo
Ganguro by Nina Koch (2007)
Like Naoko, Nina was also an undergraduate Anthropology major at Temple when she participated in this summer’s program. She explored the complicated issue of “blackface” in Japan with a video she placed on YouTube. The video begins with a short archival clip of two white men mocking black men utilizing charcoal and exaggerated expressions.
Then there is blackface in Japan—called Ganguro—the title of Nina’s film. What does it mean in such a different context? This is the primary issue the film explores. Nina uses narration, video clips from the web, written text, and her own journal photographs and videos to place black face in Japan into its social context.
We learn that blackface is an important fashion and lifestyle statement popular among youth (especially girls) and that Tokyo is the Mecca of a world-wide interest in the “Look” (returning to the foundational theme of the course). The practice, stripped of its historical context, takes on oppositional meaning in Japan. This is an unexpected twist. But, how does the “Look” affect those still tied to the historical context?
Nina turns her attention to the owner of the type of face being mimicked in the practice of blackface, an African youth living in Japan. Nina asks what his views are on blackface. He responds that he is not sure they know exactly what they are doing. In the end, however, he can find no real harm in it. In fact he says, “I like their ways.” Maybe he feels it is homage, not ridicule in the Japanese context. Nina leaves it ambiguous, yet there is tension in how she responds to the practice. Something still bugs her about it.
Tan Japanese Girl
But now the origins of the practice seem to have been blurred. It is claimed that any resemblance between Ganguro and American minstrelsy is entirely coincidental. The local discourse claims that it emerged out of Southern California surfer culture where a tan was a mark of a happiness; the deeper the tan, the deeper the happiness, hence, blackface (pure happiness). Nina’s video ends appropriately with the ambiguity surrounding the practice of blackface in Japan.