Thanks to anime and Japanese pop culture, the Land of the Rising Sun has always held a high spot on my “places I'd love to visit” list.
I decided Japan would be my first international trip, but I was too afraid to go by myself. My main concerns were getting lost (I have a horrible sense of direction) and not speaking Japanese. Traveling with a tour group was an ideal solution for me: the itinerary is already planned, there's a tour guide to translate since I don't speak the language, and I'm not completely alone. All I have to do is show up and enjoy. Perfect!
One of the events I attended during the tour was the Nipponbashi Street Festa in Osaka. It's one of the biggest cosplay events in Japan. If you're not familiar, cosplay means “costume play” and it's when you dress up as anime, manga and video game characters. Oftentimes, the costumes are handmade.
The streets of Den Den Town were closed down for the Festa and overflowing with people. A colorful mix of cosplayers, photographers and people watchers. It was a glorious sight. Cosplayers as far as the eye can see.
People were taking pictures left and right, including myself. But – some were *really* taking pictures. These photographers had huge, very expensive professional cameras with specialty lenses. They we're taking all kinds of unusual angles, getting really up close and personal with the cosplayers. It was fascinating to watch.
At one point, I'm standing next to one of the ladies in my tour group. She's dressed in cosplay (she's also black). Some photographers come up and ask to take her picture. I'm like, "Oh, let me get out of the way." I'm completely awkward in front of the camera. I never know what to do with my hands. Plus, I'm thinking they want her picture because of her cosplay. As I begin to step aside, they motion me not to move, telling me to “Stay! Stay!”
CLICK! SNAP! FLASH!
I'm standing there frozen like a deer in headlights. What started off as a few photographers quickly grows into a paparazzi-esque feeding frenzy. They encircle us.
Remember when I said some photographers were taking unusual shots of the cosplayers? Well, a few were taking pictures of our feet, hands, and I think even our hair. This one guy was an inch away from my face with his camera. Is he taking pictures of... my ears?
Just as quickly as they appeared – POOF – they were gone.
“What just happened?!”
I'm sure I repeated this question to myself several times in my head before I turned to my tour companion and finally muttered it out loud. “What just happened?!”
As my bewilderment starts to fade, I'm pretty sure I know the reason why they were taking pictures of me – it's because I'm black.
I wasn't dressed in cosplay, or even wearing anything special to warrant that type of attention. Jeans, a regular shirt, no makeup and hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Now you've come to the part where you find out my reaction to the situation. It's simple. There wasn't one.
I'm literally on the other side of the world in a country where the population is roughly 98% Japanese. Only about 2% of the population consists of foreigners. Now, imagine how much of that percentage is black people? Let's be real. There ain't a lot of black folk in Japan.
With that being said, it was clear to me that the photographers had no ill will or malicious intent. It seemed more like genuine curiosity on their part, and the nature of the Festa gave them an opportunity to engage us. My tour companion felt the same way. We looked at each other, laughed it off, and kept it moving.
Was it weird? Definitely, but mostly because I wasn't expecting it and I'm not comfortable being in front of the camera (something that I'm working to fix). I've chalked it up to just one of those bizarre, awkward moments. It didn't ruin my trip in any way and it gave me an interesting story to tell.
I think when traveling abroad, one should expect to have cultural encounters. When you travel, you learn about the differences in the cultures that you visit as well as the things that make us all the same. You're also sharing your culture with others.
My tour to Japan was in 2009. To this day, it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. That's exactly what travel should be. An experience that broadens your horizons and helps you grow beyond your limits to become a better human being.
I highly encourage more black people to travel internationally. I know it can be a scary thing to venture out into the unfamiliar, not knowing if you'll be treated properly or with respect.
DON'T. LET. FEAR. STOP. YOU.
Traveling while black is a unique and wonderful adventure. The more visible we are all over the world, in all of our beautiful shades, the more we defy the myopic depictions of black people. Your mere presence is a victory against negative stereotypes. GOOD representation matters.
Now grab your passport and sprinkle your magic everywhere!