African Americans In Japan Find Some Freedom From Race

To live in Japan as a foreigner means being a square in a roomful of rectangles. It means spending years as an outsider in a society that values likeness and living through daily reminders that this is only a visit, not home.

When you're an African American living in Japan, where an insular society learns of you through media portrayals rather than direct contact, such feelings can be magnified. Yet many of the 5,000 African Americans living and working in that Far Eastern country have found success, despite the obstacles of race. They have experienced prejudice - and tolerance. Stereotypes - and success.

A one-hour documentary, "Struggle and Success: The African American Experience In Japan," presented by Seattle's KTCS (Channel 9) and narrated by actor Ossie Davis, vividly brings these contradictions to life, weaving the story of several African Americans living and working in Japan. The program airs Tuesday on many Public Broadcasting System stations nationwide, including at 10 p.m. Tuesday and at 2 a.m. Wednesday on KCTS.

"The piece does not answer all of the questions and stories that happen, but it does showcase the African-American experience in a place other than America, and allows African Americans to demonstrate to themselves, and to a larger audience, their potential," said producer Regge Life. "It's sort of like if you put somebody in a place where not all, but some obstacles, are removed, look at how their lives can bear fruit."

We meet Bill Whitaker, who spent three years in Japan working as a correspondent for CBS News. Upon being transferred to Los Angeles and covering the O.J. Simpson trial, he and his family spoke of the difficulty of leaving Japan. The Japanese respect job titles more than color, he said, offering a "psychic freedom" from race impossible to feel in his native country.

His young son, watching the Olympics, saw a black skater representing France, followed by a Japanese skater. When his son talked about the black skater, the elder Whitaker wrongly assumed the boy meant the French skater. Rather, he meant the Japanese skater dressed in black.

"It dawned on us, in the American experience we don't even think in those terms," Whitaker said. "Of course, the black skater was going to be the black woman from France, but in his mind he was looking at their clothes. For him, she was the black skater."

As soon as color seemingly faded from sight, however, it reappeared again. Homes for rent were suddenly taken by the time a black renter shows up, even for the Whitaker family. The burning stares from strangers, when riding on subways, when shopping, slapped them again with the reminder they were still outsiders, black outsiders.

Glenn Boggs, the only African American working for a Japanese securities company, arrived there eight years ago. The Japanese were hospitable and generous at first, he said, but as time passed they wondered why he was still in their country.

The longer he stayed and learned about the country, the more acceptance he expected to feel. But the opposite was true. He faced a glass ceiling at work not because of his blackness, he said, but because of his foreignness.

"I won't be here for the rest of my life," Boggs said. "It's not home. It makes me very uneasy. It makes me feel uncomfortable and very sad. The fervor I came here with is basically exhausted now."

Clay West, a Seattle attorney shown in the program playing a Japanese wind instrument, lived there for a decade. "In Japan," he said, "the biggest distinction is whether you are Japanese or not. And if not, you were a foreigner. When I traveled around, I was viewed more as a foreigner than a black foreigner."

The documentary also features Ronnie Rucker, who describes his rise as a popular children's television personality and how he overcame his Japanese in-laws' opposition to marriage; Karen Hill Anton, a writer who raises her American child in a Japanese culture; and Rodney Johnson, a former breakdancer who has turned into a successful businessman.

But Japan's borders are opening up, and no longer can the country remain as insular as it once was. As a result, the documentary shows stereotypes changing, especially among young people. Japanese teens, for example, wear "X" baseball caps representing Malcolm X, so popular among African-American youths. Teens buy T-shirts of hip-hop groups, wear fade haircuts and pay $35 per hour for tanning sessions.

The message for African Americans is that they must look beyond this country for opportunity and experience, said producer Life.

"In the international arena, you may find that you can compete the same way anybody else can compete. That's the benefit of many people, living in Japan. That's an experience they have for the first time in their lives, a self-worth that goes beyond the color of their skin. Boundaries are not drawn for them."