On July 27th I had the pleasure of interviewing a man from Ivory Coast, west Africa who has been living in Tokyo for seven and a half years. His name is Guy-Perol Mandoumou and he works in Tokyo as an accountant. In his own words, Guy is a part of the third wave of Africans who are living and working in Tokyo. The first wave came over in the early 1980’s. These people often got involved in construction and manual labor jobs. Many Africans who come to Japan today do jobs like this and related to the construction industry. This has a lot to do with the stigma attached to African people, in the minds of many Japanese. To be Black and from Africa, you probably have super strength. The second wave, who came over in the early 1990’s gravitated toward the entertainment industry. Many of these people were performers. Their business ventures included things like bars and night clubs. Finally, the third wave who came over in the early 2000’s, came to Japan to study. They are recently coming out of school with degrees in various areas and with a firm knowledge of Japanese language and culture. They are now joining Japan’s workforce as educated professionals.
In talking to Guy, his persona presents an interesting dichotomy. He is obviously a sharp thinker but he acts in muted tones. He is very steady with everything he does. He is also very personable. He seems very reserved in his demeanor but he is always very acutely aware of everything in his surroundings. I asked Guy to promote his Africa festival which is coming up in a little less than one week. He and his team are working around the clock to handle last-minute preparations. This is its third year in existence. It will be held in Yoyogi park where Tokyo holds most of its cultural events. It will feature music, arts, food, performances and various other forms of culture from all over the African continent. This link gives more info about the Africa Festival. We also spoke briefly about the African Business Seminar and business cooperation between Africa and Japan.
Over the course of the interview, there were two questions that I asked Guy and his answers still stick out in my mind. First I asked him what brought him to Japan. He told me he wanted to try something different as opposed to going to France or the U.S. as his peers were doing. That kind of raw adventurism is something I find remarkable. Second, I asked him to tell me something he really enjoyed about the life in Japan. When he answered this question, I could hear that he was speaking from the heart; from his inner voice. I was talking to the real him. Anyone who has visited Japan would agree that Japan is at the pinnacle of modernization for countries in the industrialized world. As modern and technologically advanced as they are, they are equally Japanese. They cling fiercely to their own culture and traditions, their values and ways of looking at life and the world. Guy expressed a deep admiration for this trait in the Japanese; for the affinity they have for their own culture. This is an ideal that needs to be adopted by, not just people in Cote d’Ivoire, but nations all over the world. We all need to, as he put it “hold on to our roots as we move forward.”
On July 5, 2017 I interviewed Francesca Conate. Conate may be a bit of an unusual name in San Mateo, California, where Francesca grew up. However, in Mali, where her grandfather is from, this name is quite common. When you talk to Francesca, the two words that popped into my head were infectious joy. Francesca puts out a positive energy that tickles people who talk to her. Whether you have known her for 5 years or 5 minutes she has a way of making you feel like she is one of your oldest friends. Francesca wears her emotions outwardly. She is very opinionated, from what I saw and she expresses her opinions through facts.
Francesca was a person of interest for Black Asia Magazine because she lived in Japan for over 13 years. When she was not working, she spent most of her time among the various African communities in and around Tokyo. Francesca is the kind of person who likes to connect with other people. This was the main reason that her time living in Japan was so rewarding. She made herself open to all the new people and all the new experiences. She stressed to me the importance of leaving one’s comfort zone. As far away as another person may be from you, ethnically or culturally or in a myriad of other ways, you can always appreciate their humanity. “From that humanity (we strive to) find the similarity.” The Facebook page she created, Africa in Japan, is there to showcase the diverse projects and endeavors of people from Africa, living in Japan. She was kind enough to share her wisdom with us.
On December 16, 2016 I interviewed Asia. Asia was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a musician in Tokyo and she is also a relative newcomer compared to the other people I have interviewed thus far. I asked her the usual questions. She told me some of the basic differences between Tokyo, as she has experienced it and the place where she is from. Asia is very articulate. She has a scholarly demeanor and her consciousness runs deep. That’s the best way I can describe her and I guess this comes from her educational background. The first thing she expressed to me was the deep divisions she witnessed among Black people in Atlanta. These divisions come from modes of behavior and thinking that have been handed down to us over the centuries but that are really to our detriment. These modes of thinking need to be discarded but so many Black Americans see certain ways of thinking or eating or how we view people as central to our identity. To discard these attitudes would be to disregard who we are even if these attitudes are hurting us. After that, she explained to me her perception of Tokyo and Japan in general. She tried to make me aware of the difference between culture and aesthetics as they play out here in Japan. In Japan/Tokyo it would sometimes appear as though people have a deep respect or even an infatuation for one culture or another; let’s look at the hip-hop scene for example. If you walk into a hip-hop club or go to a hip-hop show in Tokyo they have mastered the aesthetic. The scene looks completely authentic down to the last, minute detail. To the eye, it looks like any hip-hop club in New York or maybe London. Beyond that, these patrons have absolutely no understanding of the culture itself, in any aspect, even on a superficial level. They look the part but when you go into this place there is no energy and no life in there. It doesn’t feel the way a live show should feel. They haven’t understood the life-force behind the music. The silver lining is that people her are genuinely open-minded and receptive, in a respectful way, to learning about other kinds of people and ways of life. This creates an opportunity to explain to local people in Japan, what different cultures are really about because people here will actually listen.
On November 21, 2016, I conducted an interview with Jay McGee. Jay was born in Ghana. He has lived in New York and South Africa and he has lived in Tokyo, on and off, since he was 14. He is now in his late 30’s. Among other things, Jay works at a Turkish restaurant in the Ueno District in Tokyo. He has experienced a lot living and working here in Japan. What I took away from talking with him is that Jay helps people a lot. During the interview, we were sitting in an Indian restaurant. The owner of the restaurant came out to attend to our needs personally. It was obvious that the owner felt in some way indebted to Jay. As Jay told me, when the owner had first arrived in Japan, he had some visa troubles (as foreign residents usually do). Whatever the trouble was, Jay helped him straighten out the issue and the two men have been friends ever since. Jay is a good man to know. I got the sense, from talking to Jay, that he had been in similar scrapes in the past. As a foreign person, living and working in this environment, he felt he had a duty to help new comers who may be in difficult positions. When he talked about his experience in Japan, he seemed conflicted. He has had to face a lot of discrimination living here. The discrimination includes (but is not limited to): job discrimination; not being able to find adequate work; housing discrimination; and being asked to have a second co-signer (native Japanese person) for homes he wanted to buy in the past. They only asked for a co-signer because he is from Africa. While being a Black man in Tokyo -especially being a Black man from Africa- has its negative points, there are still great opportunities available to Black men here . With those things said, it seems there was a silver lining to his story. After you cut through all the red tape, the bureaucracy and the attitudes of the local people (which tend to lean toward the negative), Japan is a place for ambitious people to earn a lot of money.
On November 21, 2016, I interviewed Mr. Samuel Freeman at his office in Urayasu in the Chiba prefecture of Japan, just outside Tokyo. We talked for about 10 minutes because, as you could imagine, Mr. Freeman is extremely busy. Mr. Freeman is originally from Liberia and has lived in Japan for over 20 years. He runs a local recruitment agency among other businesses. Most of the guys he places at jobs throughout Japan are from Africa, but he welcomes all nationalities who are looking for work here in Japan. He was kind enough to share with me some of the insight he has gained as an expat living and working here in Japan. What I was able to take away from talking with him is as follows: Mr Freeman admonishes people, who are going abroad, to be open-minded. He urges people to be mindful of the fact that they are not in the country in which they were raised, so strange looks from the locals will more than likely be frequent; it’s not something to get upset about. He even shared a few stories with me from his own personal experiences. The single most impactful piece of advice he shared with me was the importance of reaching back. What he meant is that there is money to be made when anyone travels abroad. It is most important that we do not spend all of what we have made, but that we use what we earn abroad to build up the places where we were born.