On June 7, I participated in a Black Lives Matter Peace March in Osaka. The event was boosted by a retweet from tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, for which she took a lot of heat. But despite the polarizing nature of the event, I learned a lot, although the lesson I walked away with was not what I was expecting.
I became aware of the peace march through the tweet from the multiracial tennis icon, who is of both African and Japanese descent. I had been thinking of ways to support racial equality ever since watching the video of George Floyd getting killed, and I thought this might be a good chance.
However, looking at the comments in response to her tweet, I saw a lot of backlash. Many tweets were from Japanese people saying either one of two things: 1) It’s too dangerous to have a protest now while COVID-19 is still a threat, or 2) Why have a demonstration in Japan? George Floyd has nothing to do with Japan, and “racism is not a problem here.”
Scrolling through post after post, I felt my resolve start to waiver. What if I am photographed and the parents of my students see my face in the news?
They will surely be angry, saying it is irresponsible of me to engage in high-risk activity and then possibly bringing the coronavirus into the classroom where I teach children. Or what if counter-protestors or Japanese nationalists show up? I don’t know the people going to the march, what if there’s a loose canon, or someone looking to pick a fight? I might end up in the middle of a bad situation. And the organizer’s page had information from lawyers, your rights if the police detain you, etc. With a family in Japan, I can’t afford to get deported.
But in the end, I decided to go. The George Floyd video shook me, and I felt like I had to do something, anything, to protest such a grave injustice. And also, I’ve been preaching on Facebook that people need to feel uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable. And so I felt that I had to get out of my own comfort zone. I can’t expect things to change unless I’m willing to change myself.
With that decided, I had to make my protest sign. I chose to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because he is well-known, even in Japan, so the words would carry more weight: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This is in line with the Buddhist philosophy of interconnectedness, and also the Japanese philosophy of “en,” or connection to others. Not only that, but it also addresses the complaint of “why bother protesting in Japan” by bringing to the forefront that this is not just an American problem, or a Black problem; it affects everyone. Then, on the bottom I put discrimination is wrong. This is also indisputable. So my goal was to connect these two ideas to George Floyd to explain why we are marching.
So with that out of the way, I packed my bag with hand sanitizer, extra masks and my sign and headed to Osaka.
The gathering spot was by the Osaka city hall, and we were to march in the bike lane in a route that takes us past the U.S. embassy and into the heart of the city. The event was labeled as a “peace march” and not a protest or demonstration, to help differentiate the movement from what was going on in America.
We were working in tandem with the police; they were to direct traffic and protect us from anti-protestors if need be. In the end, it was kind of like a parade with strict rules. (As you can probably imagine, knowing Japan’s love for order).
Since there were around 1,000-2,000 participants we had to break into groups of 200 for traffic purposes, as well as to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In those groups, we had to walk in four columns, and we were not allowed to walk facing backwards, zig-zag, or walk in “French demonstration” — which apparently means to link arms. There was a specific route and we had to finish it within our allotted time. Nothing that could be used as a weapon was allowed, so our signage could not be mounted on pointed stakes, or bamboo canes. No political messages were allowed either. It wasn’t a political demonstration, it was about equal rights.
But other then that, we could walk, hold up our signs and chant. And so that’s what we did. Those who were OK being photographed or put on the news were to go to the front and people who didn’t want to be identified were to hang out in the back. In the end, I took a position somewhere in the middle. I didn’t feel the need to be up front, but at the same time, I felt that hiding in the back would be antithetical to my stand of going outside my comfort zone.
The walk itself was actually rather uneventful. Curious drivers would look our way to see what was going on, and people walking on the street would stop and read the signs we were carrying. But there wasn’t much of a reaction other than mild curiosity. There was one foreigner that just happened to be walking down the street and he clapped for us to show his approval, but that was about it.
At the end of the march, everybody gathered together in a large area under a bypass. There were speeches, and a moment of silence that lasted eight minutes and forty-six seconds — the time that George Floyd had a knee to his neck.
What I learned
I learned a valuable lesson through this experience, but it is not what I thought it would be.
During the march, I mainly talked with two other gentlemen in my row. One was a middle-aged white Los Angeles native living in Osaka. The other was a young Black man from Burkina Faso. When I gave a blank look, he elaborated: a country in West Africa. Ah. He was working on his doctorate in electronics at a Japanese university. During the two-hour walk we chatted about the COVID-19 situation in Africa, Naomi Osaka, the Olympics, race relations and politics. But here’s the part where I look back and cringe.
After the march ended we had a kind of awkward exchange of: “Hey, we should keep in touch.” But our social media platforms were different and neither of us was like: “Oh, I’ll sign up for an account so I can chat with you.” It was just kind of like, “Well then, it was nice meeting you.” And I accept the blame for that, because I kind of shut the whole thing down, and I could’ve done more.
Here’s the thing. I’m not very sociable. I don’t really like talking with people online, or responding to e-mails. If I’m being terribly truthful, I don’t really like making new friends because they’ll invite me out, and I’ll have to make excuses as to why I can’t go and it ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. This is the horrible attitude I’ve adopted towards all new people since I turned 30 and it’s something I need to work on.
But as I was on the train going home, I took a look at my own behavior. I spent the afternoon chanting “Black lives matter,” but when I had a chance to get to know a Black person better, I squandered the opportunity. I felt like a fake. Because the movement isn’t about just chanting and then going home and feeling better about yourself. It’s also about making those connections with other people. How on Earth am I going to get to know Black people more if I can’t even make friends at a Black Lives Matter rally?! How can we exchange cultures and ideas when I’m too lazy to send an e-mail? So while at first I had patted myself on the back for simply attending, it made me realize that I still have a long way to go.
You can read the literature and talk about privilege. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the human connection. A library of information doesn’t mean anything if you don’t extend your hand, and open your heart. It was a valuable lesson that I realized too late. So, to the one day, Dr. Alex of Burkina Faso, I hope you didn’t come away thinking that your fellow protestors are fake. I hope you didn’t think that I don’t care. And if there was one thing I learned, it’s that I need to love people more. It’s not about being righteous. It’s not about being woke. It is and always has been about love.
Jeff Asai, a Yonsei who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.