Over two decades ago, Eric Robinson could not have imagined how much his worldview would expand when he left the Motor City for the Far East. Aisha Adkins spoke with the owner of Black Tokyo about his experiences with the armed forces, international business ventures and managing an online cultural hub.
Please tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to Japan.
I’m a native of Detroit, Michigan. I left Detroit at seventeen when I enlisted in the US Marine Corps and I have never returned to live there. My first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan. I wanted to become a Marine but I also wanted to travel abroad, particularly to Japan, after I watched the movie Shogun with James Clavell. That was my first foray into seeing Japan via an American lens.
I was in the Marine Corps for twelve years; I spent four of those years in Okinawa during various periods (at seventeen years old, twenty-one, twenty-nine). I saw how Okinawa progressed and how the US-Japan relationship evolved. When I joined the Marine Corps there were still guys from the Vietnam era so their perspective of being in Japan had a lasting impact on me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Black people in Japan and in Asia. I earned my Master of Arts in Security Studies – Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
While I was in Japan I had the opportunity to travel to other parts of Asia: Republic of Korea, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, and later, after I got out of the Marine Corps, I had the opportunity to go to Pakistan. During my time in the Marine Corps I served as an interrogator translator [for Korean and Japanese translation]. So I was able to use the language, learn more about the people, the country, the culture and the political aspect, the economics, the military side and the US-Japan relationship from a governmental standpoint. I left the Marines Corps in 1992 and went to Hawaii where I utilized my Japanese and Korean languages.
You speak about Okinawans. Apart from there being a regional difference, what makes them distinct from other groups of Japanese?
It’s much like Hawaii; how the Hawaiians see themselves versus someone born and raised on the mainland. Hawaiians are Americans, yet they would tell you “I’m Hawaiian.” Okinawans are very proud people. Their lands were used for battles. A lot of Okinawans were killed in battles. The US military occupies a lot of land that Okinawans had used for other things. So there’s a lot of animosities and there’s peace between the two groups. I think, looking at it from a political level, there are issues with the government of Japan because the Okinawans want certain things to happen and they haven’t happened. Promises have been made and promises have been broken. But the Okinawans have been able to navigate all of the issues; they are resilient. I don’t say ‘Okinawans’ and ‘Japanese’ to separate the two groups, but specifically to point out that lifestyle and interactions are just different. The Okinawans have a rich and separate history from the folks in mainland Japan.
As a Black American man, what have your interactions been like with the Japanese? Did you observe any cultural or historical connections; if yes, did those observations have any effect on the way you experienced life in Japan over time?
My interactions with the Okinawans were very positive. It was more of a curiosity on both sides. I think I was fortunate to have them figure me out as a Black American living in their locale, not just as a US Marine. One of the first things I did was get on the bus and get lost. I didn’t speak Japanese: I had a phrase book and a map. I had enough money to get back to the base if I needed to take a taxi. But it’s Okinawa and it’s really impossible not to find a US military installation. I started my tour immersing myself in the language and culture and I think they were more receptive to me as a Black American, which I mention because as a person of color in Japan, one of the first things you notice is that it’s very ‘white’. Whether it’s in advertisements and what preferences are, what languages are pushed, European was the standard; if it’s white it’s right. And that bothered me, especially coming from Detroit, being a child of the sixties, having parents and relatives who were involved in the Black Panther movement, going through the riots of Detroit, the Civil Rights struggle – all of that. So that was very eye-opening. It showed me that everything I had previously learned about Japan was through the lens of an older, white male. Whether that was publications I had read or movies I had seen. So I had to unlearn a lot of things, much like being a person of color – particularly if you’re Black in America – you have to unlearn what you’ve been taught to get back to the truth.
I initially started in the supply field and then I moved to intelligence, which allowed me to qualify as an intelligence analyst. My specialty was Far East Asia: specifically Japan, Korea, China, and Russia because of the Cold War era. With that, I looked at the interactions between Blacks in uniforms and those countries. The people we dealt with from a business standpoint would treat Black and white enlisted officers differently because of who they considered top of the food chain.
I started understanding a lot more of this at twenty, because I was better read, I had three years in the Marines Corps and I’d had enough eye-opening experiences by then. There was an incident, for example, where a taxi driver had raped a Korean woman. He drove her back to the Marine Corps tent city. She got to the gate and some of the guards were trying to communicate with her. I grabbed some of my military policemen and she told us she was raped. At this point, the taxi driver and the woman didn’t know I spoke Korean. So I went and got a medical officer and legal officer, and we drove to the police station. I rode in the taxi in the front seat with the woman, who had accused a Black Marine of raping her. The taxi driver is telling her what to say. We pull up to the police station and – I still remember – Master Sergeant Kim gets out, he does a salute, I salute back. Pilseung, or ‘victory’, is what the Korean Marines say. I started to tell him what happened and I still remember the eyes of the taxi driver. Then the woman turned and said, “Yes, he did it!” It was very specific in that he was telling her to say a Black Marine raped her. So for me that was very, very eye-opening.
What went through your mind after that incident took place? Did you go through a period of disenchantment with Japan, where you wondered, “How is this different from back home?”
It didn’t jade me as far as life in Okinawa. If anything, I think it brought me closer to other people in uniform like me. I still had a mini-afro in the Marine Corps at that time (it didn’t last long – I got marched to the barber shop). The soul brothers who were in uniform, still doing dap; that whole pride and that sense of Black Power, and this is ‘81. It made me feel good. There were still guys who sat me down, smacked me upside my head and all the stuff that brothers were doing back in Detroit. I found that in the Marine Corps and it made me a lot closer to them. The Marines are typically close anyway, but that gave me an even bigger sense of pride.
Once I got out in town I saw how the Okinawans treated us and embraced us: they liked Black culture – not just the music and things like that, but the struggle. They felt that what was going on in the sixties was much like what they were going through with the US government in Japan.
When I was first in Okinawa, I was stationed at Futenma, which was the Marine Corps air station there. That is one of the big issues when it comes to the US-Japan relationship. The Okinawans want that land back, they want the base gone. Initially, I didn’t understand a lot because I was just too new, I was too green. I was still trying to understand myself at seventeen, eighteen, brand new to the Marine Corps. So going back in my late twenties, I had a better understanding and I saw that a lot hasn’t changed.
Japan still has issues with dealing with non-Japanese people. There is racism here, there’s racism everywhere. I’m not excusing what goes on here, but there are ways to deal with it and there are people here to deal with it. I see progression on that point. As long as people keep fighting the media and putting out papers and publications where we can speak and give a different perspective to counter those negative images, I see things getting better.
You speak about Okinawans. Apart from there being a regional difference, what makes them distinct from other groups of Japanese?
It’s much like Hawaii; how the Hawaiians see themselves versus someone born and raised on the mainland. Hawaiians are Americans, yet they would tell you “I’m Hawaiian.” Okinawans are very proud people. Their lands were used for battles. A lot of Okinawans were killed in battles. The US military occupies a lot of land that Okinawans had used for other things. So there’s a lot of animosities and there’s peace between the two groups. I think, looking at it from a political level, there are issues with the government of Japan because the Okinawans want certain things to happen and they haven’t happened. Promises have been made and promises have been broken. But the Okinawans have been able to navigate all of the issues; they are resilient. I don’t say ‘Okinawans’ and ‘Japanese’ to separate the two groups, but specifically to point out that the lifestyle and interactions are just different. The Okinawans have a rich and separate history from the folks in mainland Japan.
What led you to join Black Tokyo and what are the plans for Black Tokyo moving forward?
With incidents and heinous crimes that happened between US military personnel – specifically with Black personnel – it’s all over the news and it gives a stigma that we are not the ambassadors of America that we are purported to be. So my big thing was to counter that [assumption]. Yes, there are bad seeds in uniform. Yes, there are bad seeds in society. However, the majority of us are not. So what can I do to help shed light on this? When I got out of uniform and I learned about Black Tokyo, I felt “Boom! There’s an avenue for me to show a different face of Japan.” Now, Black Tokyo is not written in Japanese. The Japanese are not my target audience. My target audience is young men and women who have an interest in Japan. What can I do to help them have a better understanding of Japan from a different angle than folks who had written books and [described] Japan from their vision. What can I do to provide them with better information, or the rest of the story and then let them […] jump in and learn about Japan from their perspective.
Black Tokyo was founded in 1999 by Craig Hankerson. I took ownership of the website a few years after that but he’s still doing great things over here in Japan. At that time Black Tokyo was the go-to source for information about being Black in Japan. Then we started a dating site; I’ve actually met a couple of guys who said, “I met my wife through your dating site!” or “I was able to meet a Japanese person because of your dating site.” From there we focused on the website, which put out what I call the ‘bubble gum news’ of what’s going on in Japan.
Then I [realized], that’s not me, that’s not what we discussed in the bulletin board. We were talking about issues that truly impacted us. So, there was a strong shift to start talking about crime, how to get an apartment, visa issues, us in the news media. I wanted folks to understand certain things that will impact their stay here in Japan: what the government is doing, what the local city offices are going to do, this is how it will impact you, there’s a new way to get permanent residency in Japan, how to change jobs while in Japan and so on. That became the new focus for Black Tokyo.
Now I want to move Black Tokyo to more of an online magazine type format, much like what The Black Expat does. We’re trying to get it off the ground, but it’s not there yet. In the meantime, since I did TV here in Japan and I’m not shy in front of a camera, I felt maybe YouTube was the way to go. I decided that for Black Tokyo I would make short YouTube videos that could help you navigate Japan: what do I need to hit the ground running? What do I need to survive? My marriage is falling apart with my Japanese other, or I’m having custody issues because I’m going through a divorce. How can I get a credit card? That’s my focus right now, so I started the podcast again. The podcast will feed back into the Black Tokyo website and YouTube channel because I have a lot of information to share. I have been over here for a very long time and I got paid to get information as a profession in uniform, I got paid to do it out of uniform. I worked for Japanese companies, I’ve worked for my own company, I’ve created my own corporation here in Japan. I have seen Japan through so many different lenses; that is what I’m sharing.
Photo Credit: Black Tokyo Media
What is one quintessential experience a first-time visitor or newcomer must have in Japan?
I’m not so much the tourist type, so I would say going to the onsen – the hotsprings, the baths. If you’ve never partaken in communal bathing, that is the experience. When they talk about difference as far as looks, skin color, hair, exposing yourself, getting in a bath with five to fifteen people – that sort of jolts a lot of people who come over here. Specifically, us, because it’s like going with three or four of your homies to the spa, everyone’s butt-naked. But imagine this with people not like you, and there are about fifteen-twenty other folks. But it’s a good experience. During the wintertime, I especially like going to the onsen, which is basically the outside tubs – there’s snow all around you, you can drink hot sake. I would go out there and chill.null
When I taught English for Specific Purposes for one of the major corporations here, they would take us to these resorts and I would sit out there with those I’m teaching and we would just chill. There’s snow, you’re drinking and conversing – learning real English and I’m learning real Japanese. But I’m also building relationships and learning to navigate not only corporate Japan but being in Japan in general. So I would recommend for folks to do that. It will open up other avenues for vocabulary and seeing a different type of culture.
What other resources would you recommend to Black folks living in or interested in relocating to Japan?
Facebook groups like Black Tokyo, Black Creatives Japan, Black in Japan, Black American Living Abroad, and Tokyo Black Professionals; and podcasts like Kurly in Kansai and Raw Urban Mobile.