World News

Japanese Comedian Who Used Blackface Comes Under Fire Online

Posted January 4, 2018 6:52 p.m. EST

A Japanese comedian is facing criticism for performing in blackface in a widely viewed television show, a move that has outraged many and highlighted the regular appearance of performers in similar makeup on mainstream media outlets in Japan.

In a show that aired on New Year’s Eve, comedian Masatoshi Hamada appeared in a Detroit Lions football jacket, a curly wig and dark makeup, an attempt at imitating actor Eddie Murphy’s character from the 1984 movie “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Hamada is half of the comedy duo Downtown that hosts the popular comedy show “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” — “Downtown’s This Ain’t a Kid’s Errand” — that many Japanese watched to ring in the New Year.

A Twitter user shared a clip from the show, calling the depiction “unacceptable and racist.”

Baye McNeil, a black columnist who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Japan for 13 years, shared pictures of Hamada’s performance on New Year’s Eve and denounced it as offensive.

He sent a series of tweets, in English and Japanese, encouraging performers to #StopBlackfaceJapan.

McNeil’s tweets kicked off a conversation about the use of blackface in Japanese entertainment, which he said was a persistent issue in the country.

After his initial post, hundreds of Twitter users weighed in, using the English and Japanese versions of the hashtag.

Not all were critical, with some defending the comic’s depiction of Murphy. Unlike the United States, they said, Japan does not have a history of systematic discrimination against black people, and a Japanese performer painting his face black does not come with the same cultural stigma.

However, a 2015 article by the historian John G. Russell in The Japan Times noted that the history of blackface in Japan dated to at least the 1850s and was associated with negative stereotyping.

Many social media users were dismayed by normalizing a practice widely considered offensive. Darren Alvarez, who recently moved to Japan’s Hiroshima Prefecture from Florida, tweeted that he had seen blackface on television twice since moving to the country a month ago.

This is far from the first time Japanese performers and networks have come under fire for using blackface. In 2015, the pop groups Momoiro Clover Z and Rats & Star raised ire after a picture of them donning blackface and wearing brightly colored suits and gloves was released before a performance.

At the time, thousands signed a petition demanding the network not air the stunt, and the clip was cut from the broadcast. McNeil, who was involved in that petition effort, said in a phone interview that even though the segment was removed, the network never weighed in on the blackface issue.

“If there isn’t any response from the stations this time, I think it will continue to occur,” McNeil said of the use of blackface. He said the Japanese media should work with people from diverse backgrounds to prevent offensive content from surfacing.

“The media has such a great influence on how people respond to foreigners,” he said, adding that taking basic steps could help. “Something as simple as consulting with foreigners before they decided to mimic or mock foreigners on television, even comedy shows.”