J-pop-cum-doo-wop group Rats & Star have been active for decades in Japan singing soul tunes and doing the occasional electric slide. It’s a style of music that they have embraced whole-heartedly. In fact they are so into the sound that they paint themselves black during shows to look the part.

Their act had continued without major incident for quite some time until one of their singers Yoshio Sato posted a promotional image of them with idol unit Momoiro Clover Z on Twitter for an upcoming TV appearance, nearly all with faces painted black.

As you might expect, many Americans are up in arms over the image, but what do Japanese people have to say about this?

The incident started when Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times picked up Sato’s tweet.

[tweet https://twitter.com/HirokoTabuchi/status/565699599810445312 align=center]

Once presented overseas, this has led to several others tweeting comments to Sato such as:

[tweet https://twitter.com/etherealspirits/status/566868067968225281 align=center] [tweet https://twitter.com/schumers/status/566850485571694592 align=center] [tweet https://twitter.com/MSalt69/status/566860904319295489 align=center] [tweet https://twitter.com/MNiesha/status/566305325067026432 align=center]

One of those really makes me wonder what exactly was going on in the UK in the mid-70s, but let’s stay on track. Sato quickly removed his tweet, but the damage had already been done. A few days later the complaints echoed back to Japan where many were confused over the controversy. Here’s a selection of the comments made by Japanese net users:

“Where exactly is the racism in this?”
“Aren’t they copying black people because they think they’re cool?”
“They don’t have any contempt for black people. This is stupid.”
“Painting your face black is terribly rude and discrimination.”
“I think it’s not discrimination if they’re not intending it. Racism comes from your thoughts not your actions.”
“Rats & Star paint their faces out of respect.”
“The New York Times cares about Rats & Star?”

Based on most people’s comments on either side, Momoiro Clover Z has been removed from the equation. It’s probably for the best as idols aren’t exactly known for their independent thoughts and behavior. So let’s focus on Rats & Star’s long history of performing in blackface.

Probably most people can agree that the group’s choice of make-up wasn’t done maliciously as Japan doesn’t share the USA’s history of slavery, oppression and minstrel shows. Still, does that make it excusable for them to paint their faces in this way?

On one hand, it’s not fair to hold one country to another’s standards of racial sensitivity. America’s hatred of blackface is certainly justified but there are also differences between the exaggerated features and actions of a jumping Jim Crow and what Rats & Stars have been doing. That’s a judgment call, though, so you can watch this video as decide for yourself.

Tabuchi and other critics also have a valid beef in this instance, though, simply for the fact of who Rats & Star are: a group who tries to emulate an aspect of African-American culture and sound. If Rats & Star were as into it as they’d have you believe, it would seem reasonable that they had become aware of the widely known negative connotations of blackface in the USA at some point in the past 35 years.

Otherwise, the group’s love of black music comes across as superficial as the paint their skin. What they’re doing isn’t insidious or even insensitive, but there is still something that seems to ring hollow and wrong about it.

That being said, I showed the promotional photo around to a few Japanese people to get their thoughts. Most responded with comments along the lines of “Rats & Star? They’re old;” “That show doesn’t look interesting;” and, “I like the green Momokuro girl.,” all completely ignoring the fact that the singers had painted their faces black.

It’s unrealistic to expect any time soon, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could all have those kinds of reactions to the disputed photo without all the baggage of racism and oppression that comes along with it?

Source: Twitter, @HirokoTabuchi (English), Tantei Watch, Itai News (Japanese)
Video: YouTube – The FLAVAS & The DISHYS Official Tube!!