How My Race Defined My Gender When I Lived In Japan

by Adele Jackson-Gibson

It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?

Those were my thoughts as I strolled the sidewalk to my new home in Japan, and a woman swerved her minivan upon seeing me. I remember how her shock made me smile. I remember her fixed stare, the way she fixed her hair, then adjusted the wheel. And I continued to saunter along, knowing my blackness had power. Here it drew attention and brought wonder, and I learned that sometimes it paid to be a token in this country.

I had learned about this back in America when I was preparing for my job as an English teacher for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I already had a good grasp of the language from my three years of college study, and I pretended my ten years of anime geekdom would ready me for the culture shock. But my family was still worried about me moving to a place that was so racially homogenous. My friends told me that Japanese people were racist. My program directors in New York City recommended that I attend their seminar called “Being African-American in Japan.”

Our seminar teacher, a thin brotha in square glasses, greeted us mentees at a round table. He told us how he had “been there, done that” and knew the ins-and-outs of the land. According to him, some Japanese people might be afraid of us black folk at first. But many would assume that we:

1) Loved hip-hop and rap music

2) Excelled at sports, particularly running

3) Could dance like Beyoncé or Usher

Our teacher also told us we would get free booze at dinner parties, that people would ask us to perform Michael Jackson songs at karaoke. Strangers would take pictures as if they were the paparazzi, and women would ask us to pose with their babies as if we were the President himself. I started to picture my life as a local celebrity — a person who could throw a van off its tracks with a sudden glance.

Weeks later, I was shipped off to teach kindergarten and elementary school in a small farming community called Asagiri. I arrived in the summer when the humidity sucked the oxygen out of the air and made my curls stand on end. My airport taxi drove me through rice fields so green they glowed bright, all radioactive-like beneath the sweltering sun. The stone buildings paled in comparison, pastel blues and greens washed out by years of heavy rain and hurricanes. The lush mountains surrounded the town like guardians of a precious gate.

My coworkers welcomed me at City Hall and they took me to an all-you-can-eat buffet. We sat on tatami mats and drank sochu and plum wine. When we moved on to karaoke, they had me sing “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (no Michael Jackson that night). Finally, my coworkers called a taxi to take me to my new house and I plopped on my bed all rosy and excited to start teaching classes.

On my first day of teaching kindergarten, the kids started crying the moment I walked though the door. The little three-year-olds sat petrified like porcelain dolls, and I could see the fear welling up in their big brown eyes. One by one each child went off like an alarm clock, rolling around, their faces all red and wet from tears. The homeroom teachers tried to shush them and removed the more hysterical ones out of the classroom. I laughed nervously and introduced myself.

“Good morning! My name’s Adele and in today’s lesson, we are going to learn colors.” I took a deep breath and in my head I fought my anxiety with reason. That’s what I would do if I had never seen a big brown person before. My first week was long and exhausting, and by Friday, I was dying to find a place to relax.

Luckily, there was a natural hot spring a couple of blocks from my home. The bathhouse was a quiet community space for healing and neighborhood gossip. After work, I paid 5 yen for a towel and walked into the ladies locker room. As was customary for Japanese hot springs, I had to go in naked. So I stripped off my clothes and slid open the door to the baths.

The air was heavy from the steam but it failed to muffle the hiss of whispers. As I walked towards the shower stalls, a group of bathing women flocked together like a flight of scared ducks. Fear rippled in their eyes and they stared at me over their shoulders. I ignored it. I assumed it was “the blackness.”

Two women standing by my stall looked particularly worried. I froze as they scanned me from top to bottom. They eyed the crevice between my legs. One lady gasped.

“Oh! You’re a woman,” she said. My heart dropped. I nodded to make up for a loss of words. This woman continued to talk to me as explained that everyone thought I was a man. They didn’t know what to do.

“Do we push her out or call for help?” she laughed. “Oh, but you’re pretty, though.”

“Thanks…” I splashed my face with water.

To my surprise, my students were also confused.

Once they got comfortable with me, the kids asked the same question over and over again:

“Adele Sensei, are you a man?”

And no matter how many times I answered, they would forget the next week.

“Adele Sensei, are you a man?” Little Hiro asked as we colored together.

“No, Hiro-chan, I’m a woman.”

“Really?” He swallowed his spit, then grabbed another purple crayon.

What was happening here? No one had prepared me to deal with this, but I had my own theories as to why people were so confused. Physically speaking, I was so outside their standard definition of femininity. Most of the Japanese women I met had fair skin and spent a fair amount of time trying to keep it that way.

Fairness suggested beauty, aristocracy and grace. Darkness suggested peasantry, hours of toiling in the fields and blue collared farmers — most of whom were male. Since I was tall and liked doing pushups in my living room every day, I realized I had the build and the complexion of a man who tilled soil all of his life. But these theories would not help me in the classroom. The kids continued to question.

After months of living in Asagiri, I grew tired of trying to explain myself. I wanted so badly to bare my chest, if only the principle could spare my job. Surely, I would have been deported for sexual harassment. It wasn’t worth it. But Little Hiro still thought I had a penis and my words were never going to be enough. It seemed like there was no solution — nothing short of inappropriate, anyway.

In Japan, there’s this prank that little boys do. It’s called “kancho” and in English the word means “enema.” Sometimes when I prepared the classroom, the boys would clasp their hands like little guns and sneak up behind their friends. Soon their fingers found their way right up their buddy’s bum. “Kancho!” the naughty boy would yell. Their friend would scream, and soon, the homeroom teacher would find the pervert and smack him.

I had heard about “kancho” in one of my pre-departure seminars. I learned the best form of defense was to keep seated. If I stood up and walked around, I always face the kids. You never knew when attack would come from behind.

One day at kindergarten, I set up a game of musical chairs with the five-year-olds. The homeroom teacher sat by the boom box and pressed the buttons to make the music start and stop. I joined the kids and danced around the circle. One by one, kids started to drop out of the game and the losers sat on the sidelines. Some of the boys began to play kancho, and the teacher moved to scold them.

At one point, Little Hiro and I were the only one’s left in the game. Hiro noticed the other boys playing kancho, and when the music started, he started to bounce around the circle with his pistol hands. I saw it coming, and for a second I jogged backward to protect my bum. But Hiro was quick to attack. I never thought to guard the front, but it was too late.

“Kancho!” he yelled, satisfied that he had found another hole.

If my face could turn red, it would have been scarlet in that moment. I was embarrassed and slightly disgusted to have been touched by a five-year-old that way. And yet, somehow I walked away feeling lighter because Hiro had finally found his answer. Finally, somebody could see me.

Photo courtesy Adele Jackson-Gibson

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