Ayana Wyse is a thirty-one-year-old content creator who is dedicated to developing community and raising awareness of diversity in a lesser known Japanese town. She was kind enough to break from planning and brainstorming to speak with The Black Expat about the lessons she’s learned about friendship and business in Kansai.
Could you share a little bit about your background; where you are from and what was your earliest exposure to travel?
I’m from the suburbs of New York State (Westchester County area). I grew up in a white suburban area and my family’s West Indian. My dad came from Grenada when he was in his teens. My mom’s side is Bajan. My first experience of travel was when I was a kid going back and forth to Grenada — the earliest memory was maybe seven or eight. I’ve never visited Barbados because my mom is first-generation, so she didn’t really know her history and her family didn’t really share. My dad wanted to make sure we didn’t have that experience [with his side of the family].
Where do you currently reside and what prompted you to move there?
Right now I’m in Osaka, Japan. I’ve been here over six-and-a-half years. I decided to move to Japan because I wanted to change up my life. I was living in Brooklyn and I just wasn’t really satisfied with my boring desk job. And when my brother decided to learn Brazilian Portuguese, I thought “Well, I want to learn another language too.” I’ve always liked Japanese culture as a kid (anime, manga and stuff like that) and one of my friends went to Japan for six months. She told me her experience and I figured, if she can do it, so can I.
So I decided to go the teaching route and I found an English conversation school that was doing interviews in New York. I applied, passed both interviews, and three months later, I was in Osaka. It happened really fast. It was the same year as the big earthquake in 2011. I was there for a week before it happened, so when it did happen, my dad said, “Come back, come back!” I told him, “Dad, it’s okay. Osaka’s okay.” But it’s frightening because in the States you see all this news and you think it’s everywhere [in Japan].
What has your experience been like as a black woman in Japan, and in Osaka?
Well, I would say the first three years were a bit rough for me. I didn’t have a lot of Japanese or foreign friends. During the second year I tried to make more Japanese friends. But then in the third year I realized that the culture’s really different. As a foreigner, I’m not really in their ‘in’ circle. It takes a long time to make that bond compared to someone who’s of my culture. Even if they’re just Black and [from] a different culture, we can probably connect quicker than I can with the Japanese. I found out [my Japanese friends] weren’t really my friends — in retrospect, it seemed more like show. The friends I had loved reggae and I thought, “Okay, that’s part of my culture.” So I would go to reggae parties with them.
It was kind of cool at first, but then I felt like their token “Black friend that has dreads.” At the time I had dreadlocks, so I fit that “reggae image” for them. Once I really figured that out, I decided to slowly stop hanging out with them and try to find true friends. It ended up those truer friends were also fellow Black foreigners. I do have some non-Black foreign friends, but when it comes to that bond I was yearning for, it’s the Black women I know here in Osaka.
What is it specifically that you are doing career wise, in Japan?
I make educational English videos for an online program for Juku schools, which are [what] they call cram schools, or after school programs, in English. There are activities on the video for the kids to do; after that they do a Skype lesson, which I also write the script for. My salary is pretty decent compared to teaching English at a school, so I decided to take it.
Would you share a bit about what you do in the creative space?
At the end of 2015 I made a Facebook group called Black Creatives Japan. I was involved in a different group called Create Osaka and had been to a couple of meetups. I just felt like there was a lack of brown faces and I think even if they knew about it they probably wouldn’t join the meetup. So I felt like, if I had a group of my own and I bring people together, we can help each other out, collaborate, or get inspired when we see each other’s work.
In the Facebook group, I started doing weekly things like “Work in Progress (WIP) Wednesdays.” Previously I had done posts like “Oldies But Goodies Thursdays” and “Shameless Sunday.” They didn’t last but WIP Wednesdays seems to be going strong. I decided to post more frequently in hopes that people could work with each other. There was a friend of mine who is a graphic designer and another friend of mine who’s making a children’s book. I was happy to find out that they started to work together.
Now I’m working on my podcast, Kurly in Kansai, which I started in March of 2017. We have over eighteen episodes right now. So I consider myself a content creator but not necessarily an artist in the traditional sense.
Do you have any plans to take the Facebook group to the streets, so to speak, with live meetups?
Since starting this group, my intentions have always been to have meetups outside of the Internet. I have had quite a few meetups for coffee, working on your projects, and more. The most attended meetups I had were Hanami gatherings. Hanami is a part of Japanese culture where you have a picnic under the blooming cherry blossoms in spring. The second biggest one I had was a discussion-based dinner meetup that was combined with another group called Black Women in Japan. In January, I planned an open mic/art showcase event called Showcase & Chill with a small team from my group. It was a surprising success. I was expecting about twenty people to come but over fifty people showed up and packed the house. It was such a mixed crowd, too. I’m truly happy about the turn out.
With your content creation and even with the work you’re doing with the English learning videos, what impact does your identity as a Black woman living in Osaka have on your daily work, whether it’s your nine-to-five or your podcast?
With my formal job now, I believe I help Japanese kids see something that’s a little different. ‘Cause in the world, brown people aren’t really seen in a positive light as we should be. And in Japan […] they like being pale. Especially for the women; they don’t want the sun to touch your skin. And a lot of models are white. They are just now getting more brown models but it’s usually for ads that are H&M and Uniqlo, Forever 21, those types of stores, which are very Western. But with my new work, I was able to choose a brown kid to be in the video. I said I wanted an Asian-looking kid and somebody who wasn’t white. Just so the kids can see that “only white people speak English” is not right. And then if you see a kid who looks like you, then you can say, “Oh, I can speak English because she can speak English.” So I wanted them to identify with themselves.
As for my podcast, it is called Kurly in Kansai. My area is called Kansai. I feel like a lot of people who think about Japan think about Tokyo, mainly. And then maybe Kyoto, which is in Kansai. So I wanted online stuff to focus more on a different area, especially on YouTube. When you look up “What is it like being Black in Japan,” it’s a lot of people in Tokyo. Even non-black people pop up on that list as well. So, with my presence on YouTube for a long time I figured, let’s do video with my podcast. I have followers already; let them see what we’re doing. And if they want to hear just audio, they can follow the Soundcloud and Apple Podcast. I wanted to start it off with just me and my partner, us two Black women just talking about our experiences and later add a couple of female guests who reside in Kansai as well.
Eventually I added men, but I intended to focus more on women because we seem to be invisible. And then there’s the whole thing where we have a lot of issues different than Black men, especially when it comes to how Japanese people see us. It’s issues like getting propositioned because we’re Black. Or Japanese people thinking we’re scary, because our faces are just different, especially if you’re teaching kids and you give a mean face or a stern face and they think “Oh, you’re scary!” I actually had a situation where I pretty much got let go because my coworkers thought I was scary. I wanted to make a podcast to share these experiences so people know if they want to come live in Japan, it is possible you might have some situations like that.
You touched on this earlier when describing your experiences making Japanese friends; what advice do you have for Black folks looking to move to Japan?
With the Japanese people, it can be harder to be true friends than with people of your own culture. As in, for Americans, if you click with someone you can most likely hang out with them right away and consider them friends quickly. With Japanese, it takes a lot longer and the acquaintance status can stay for over a year. Basically, it feels like you can’t be close with a Japanese friend unless they speak English and/or have lived abroad for some time and know how it is to be friends with a foreigner.
Also, learn Japanese to better understand their nuances and how they do things. A lot of Japanese people in the city will just talk to you in English. For me it was hard to practice [Japanese] because of that. If you live in inaka (the countryside) you’ll get full fledged Japanese. Lastly, if this is your first time moving abroad, expect culture shock or a period of WTF Japan!?. It may be delayed or come right away, but it comes nonetheless. Be patient. Japan taught me a lot about patience. Also, find a close knit group of foreigners you can click with and vent to when needed, but don’t vent too much. A good support group helps get over the craziness that you might not understand about Japan. My friends have helped me stay sane.
Lastly, what is one quintessential Osakan experience every visitor must have to make their journey complete?
If you are a foodie, try takoyaki (which are small pieces of octopus fried in balls of flour then drizzled with brown sauce and Japanese mayo. It’s good I swear. Just really hot so eat carefully). If you’re not a foodie then I recommend checking out the Tsutenkaku tower. The area there, Shinsekai, shows a bit of old Osaka. After that if you are curious of the fashion and the youthfulness of Osaka there is Amemura (“America Village”).