“I wasted half my life trying to make other people happy. My family and relatives were totally against me moving to Japan. My stepdad is from the Caribbean and the traditional culture there is you’re not supposed to go against what your parents said. But I didn’t really want to study Spanish or something else in college. And I couldn’t tell my parents because of my upbringing. So I taught myself Japanese, instead. I’d even bring a memo pad to bookstores and copy phrases from books I couldn’t afford. I also made a deal with my parents. I got them to pay for my trip to Japan and either China or Taiwan if I got into law school, which I did. Then when I came to Japan, I realized being an attorney wasn’t for me. I ended up dropping out of law school and pursuing other things while working tech support jobs. The money I saved I used for trips to Japan. Then I finally gave it a shot and moved to Japan. I taught English here for several years and got used to living in Japan so when I tried to move back to Los Angeles, it didn’t work out. Things had changed too much in LA for me. Right now I work as an English teacher in Japan but I see the writing on the wall—this industry is slowly dying. Salaries are going down. No matter how good you are, it’s hard to stay working for the same place long term. So now I’m trying to retool and plan for what I’m going to do next. I taught myself Chinese and have been going to Taiwan a lot lately. I think we should all focus on what drives us, what gives us energy, or what feeds our soul.”
“I work for the Embassy of Botswana in Japan. I came here in 2017. Life here is good. No complaints. The food is great, I eat everything. Only problem is I don’t speak much Japanese and it’s hard to make friends. Irasshaimase is all I know. Good thing I have fellow African friends in Tokyo. We have a small group and we go out. I’m also being a good ambassador of Botswana, trying to help promote our products. Here, have a look at our brochure. We have so many healthy foods.”
“I had to go through a lot of disappointment, a lot “no’s”, before getting to where I am in my music career in Japan. I came here after college and it was a total culture shock (even though I used to stay here as a kid since my dad was in the military). I got stared at all the time, I got lost all the time, and I couldn’t speak the language well. On top of that, I was dead broke—no savings, no money. I was relying on my mom, who let me sleep on the floor of her tiny apartment till I was able to get on my feet (my parents are separated). And I hate to say this about myself, but I’m kind of a quitter. If I’m not good at something, I quit. I quit running track, I quit dancing, I even quit girl scouts. But music is the one thing I never quit. I eat, sleep, and breathe music. Plus, I didn’t have many friends growing up so singing was like my best friend. So my mom took me to her gigs (my parents were heavily involved in the music scene in Japan), introduced me to people, and said, ‘Wherever we go, no matter what, you have to be ready. You have to sing on the spot.’ Some people embraced me, some didn’t. It took a while to finally start getting regular gigs. But once I was in there, I was in there pretty much. So now I’ve been touring, singing backup vocals for Japanese artists. I recently did the soundtrack of a video game that blew up and became popular. I also regularly sing at lounges, night clubs, weddings, special events, grand openings…I’m all over the place pretty much. Thankfully, mom and dad were very supportive. They’d always say, ‘You have what it takes’ or ‘You got this.’”
“I’m surrounded by successful people in my family and it’s tough because there’s this expectation to be great. Then I come to Japan, put on a suit, and I’m trying my best, but I don’t know, the pressure to be something is a lot (especially being African American). I came here with no expectations, but I thought it would be a little different. Not that it isn’t—Japan is great, there’s a lot more opportunities than being back in the States—but I guess I’m associated with a certain type, which might put me at a disadvantage. I remember one time, I met a girl at a restaurant. She thought I was cute, I thought she was cute. When I actually approached her, she immediately assumed that I was one of those African touts who try to persuade you to come to their bars. Nothing against them. I’m sure they have families to feed, but they definitely have a stigma against them. It’s just not a good look, especially for a person of color. So to be associated with that, right off the bat, makes it hard for someone who’s trying to make it here. If she’s thinking that, what chances do I have in succeeding when other people think that?”
Even though I’ve never faced any problems in Japan, you know it’s there. To ignore that, that’s just something else. You’re turning a blind eye and that’s crazy. So I know it’s going on but then it’s also hard because I’ve never experienced any specific incident like that. The cops even like me. I mean, I’ve never been stopped here before. But we’re kind of looked down upon and the guys in Roppongi probably don’t really help much with that. Japanese people just don’t tell it to your face. At least it’s so much better than back home, where it’s a real problem. We’re not only treated unfairly, but it almost feels like a crime being black in America.
“I want to help my own people because I’m noticing there’s two systems at play in America, where I’m from. It’s set up to reward those who have connections. It’s not what you know, but who you know. So, you can be the best of whatever field but they’re always going to go with someone familiar. How can I change this? Right now, I’m working for a game company in Japan. My goal is to get into a high enough position so that I can help people. If they need a position or a recommendation, I can vouch for them. That’s what the black community’s lacking right now. We need to get into places in order to help one another. I want to help my brothers and sisters back home who probably would never, in their wildest dreams, believe it’s possible to get into the game industry in Japan, or get a job here and live a comfortable life. I just want a better life for everyone.”
“I like being an African woman so much, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I like being in Japan but for the first year I had culture shock. My first year, I couldn’t eat Japanese food, but after all that, my life in Japan began to have meaning.
Being an African woman, sometimes people don’t know what to think about me. I got a lot of questions like ‘do you have school in Africa?’ or ‘do you ride elephants to school?’ or ‘do you go to school and meet lions on the way?’ I always told them ‘I saw lions in the zoo just like you’. Japanese people don’t know much about Africa, except East Africa. They assume that East African culture is how the whole of Africa is, which is not true. Africa is so big and they have so many different cultures and cities and villages.
“Living in Japan, I got very used to answering questions about Africa and I’m always happy to answer and give them whatever information I have about it. One day, I was talking with a long time Japanese friend of mine at church, I talked about my job and my students. She said ‘what? Are you a teacher? I thought you were a refugee’. I said ‘well, I’m a teacher, I also studied in Japan that’s why I can speak with you’, she said ‘oh, you studied in Japan, wow’. I was uncomfortable about being an African woman in Japan at first, but now I have totally embraced it and I don’t mind the questions.”
Interviewer: Tac Aquino and Mark Horbury
“Before coming to Japan and Korea for an internship, I wasn’t sure how people would see a black guy like me in public places, like onsen (hot spring or public bath), or in the streets. That stressed me out a bit. Also, I noticed a lack of information on the web about life here as a foreigner (at least in French). So I started my own YouTube channel to show my experiences in Asia, because there aren’t so many foreigners here and a lot of people in France, where I’m from, are quite curious. I thought, why not make the path easier for other people to come here?
“When people ask me why I’m vlogging, I tell them that the Internet is a very powerful tool and we can change people’s minds about a lot of things. I want to use this platform to change people’s minds about black people. That’s my main goal. My girlfriend, who’s Korean, also has the same goal.
She told me, even though it’s not so obvious in Korea, some people do look down on foreigners, especially black people. I think it’s because of skin color—the more you’re tanned means the harder you study and work.
“I want to change that perception. By interviewing different foreigners, not just black people, I hope to raise awareness on this matter. Even though me and my guests laugh a lot in my videos, it’s my hope to show something deeper and make people understand that we have to effect change. Today, after a year of doing this, I realize there’s a huge demand for this kind of content based on the reactions of French people on my YouTube channel. They always ask for more. They’re hungry to know what it’s like out here.”
(To watch Pape San’s YouTube videos, click here.)
【翻訳：Loving Life in Tokyo】