Fuji picture credit: TOKAIPRO on Instagram
A chance encounter led Ranzo and his family from Toronto to Tokyo where they pursued their dreams. After years of live streaming, in 2017 Ranzo created 'The Black Experience Japan', a YouTube channel where through conducting interviews, he tries to answer the important question: 'what's it like being black in Japan'. The channel has grown since then and now shares stories of black people in other parts of Asia! We talked to Ranzo about his experiences and learned why Japan made him fall in love with nature.
Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Laranzo Dacres, but on and off the interwebs, I go by Ranzo. I am a Jamaican living in Japan with my wife and daughter. A little over five years ago, myself and my family were living in Canada. Back then I had a growing small business that I ran with my wife, but a chance encounter, or some might call it fate, had us relocating from the Greater Toronto area to the Greater Tokyo area. That chance encounter was a conversation with one of my managers at a part time job I had at a university in Toronto. I don’t remember what triggered the conversation, but we ended up talking about Japan. She told me that she had spent two years living and working in Japan as an English teacher.
That one conversation brought back all the dreams I had growing up about visiting Japan. It was like she opened a faucet and all the Japan related memories from my youth came rushing in. I went home that day, spoke with my wife and we decided to apply to the same programme that my manager did. As fate would have it, the end of the application period for the programme was only two weeks away. We had just enough time for a miracle. The application submission period usually spanned several months, but we got everything ready within the two weeks we had and applied. After miraculously making the deadline, a few months later, my wife, daughter and I were in Japan. All I had going on for me in Canada at the time, couldn’t have kept me away from realizing one of my childhood dreams.
What were your first experiences in Japan like? What was the biggest culture shock for you?
I understand that this may sound cheesy, but it’s the truth. So here comes some cheesy truth. After that 13 hour flight – well 12 hours and 51 minutes if I’m being precise; we landed in Japan. It was so surreal to me. Like something out of a dream. I warned you that this would sound cheesy. But we were in the heart of Shinjuku and I had walked downstairs to visit the famed Seven Eleven convenience store and it was like I was daydreaming. Shinjuku was a different world. The sight, the sounds, and the Seven Eleven food. Lol. I loved it. Taking it all in was euphoric. I don’t think I experienced much culture shock, if any. If I did, it probably took place at a subconscious level. What was hard for me those first few months was missing the work I did when I was back in Canada.
How did the The Black Experience project come about?
I have a history and passion for hearing and telling stories. Though this wasn’t the impetus for starting BEJ, I think this inner passion was so strong that it gave birth to BEJ, whether I was conscious of being in labour or not. So, I think it was fate that brought BEJ into this world the way that it did. However, my relationship with social media and video really began back in Canada where I did nightly livestreams with the goal of uplifting the souls of people through messages of faith.
After I moved to Japan, I started sharing Japan as I experienced it, with the people who would tune in to my livestreams. As I livestreamed on that now defunct app, someone suggested that I start a YouTube channel. So, I did. I started out vlogging and people kept asking me, “What’s it like being black in Japan?” So, in 2017 roughly a year after starting my first YouTube channel, I decided to start BEJ to answer that question. Since then, we have produced multiple documentaries on the subject, along with our series The Melanated Files (MFiles) where we share the stories of black people living in Japan. We have grown over the years to a few hundred thousand subscribers and have expanded to sharing the stories of black people within Asia. So far, we’ve expanded beyond Japan to China, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Our work is upheld by our mission to repair the image of black people that mainstream media has lambasted since slavery to this very day. Based on the results of the world being inundated by negative images and ideas of black people, one can only infer that the effort was concerted, strategic and intentional. So, at BEJ in our own unique way, we show black people as we are. Not an over emphasis on any one attribute, but the reality of who we are. Just people like everybody else. We’re humans just like you. We laugh, we cry, we aspire, and all the rest.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
We are currently working on something, but I think it’s best experienced as a surprise.
What’s your favourite spot in Japan?
Though I grew up in a city, I always had an appreciation for the wonders of nature. You could say that moving to Japan has turned me into a full-blown nature nut. I love the outdoors here. Last year, I went on a road trip across a few prefectures in Japan and I have fallen even deeper in love with nature. Alas, anywhere outdoors where there is natural flowing water, fresh air, some beautiful trees, a few rice paddies, and a mountain range as the backdrop, to me that’s かんぺき*！ Just head out beyond the borders of the cities in Japan to the countryside and you’ll see what I mean.
*かんぺき (kanpeki) meaning 'perfect'
Do you have any advice for people coming to Japan for the first time?
Come with an open mind that’s ready to receive and to give. Japan is a different planet. Did I say planet? I meant country. I’m not sure who put that there. Lol. Seriously though. Come with an open mind. The experience you will receive here, no matter how long or short your stay will be rich. The human experience is meant to be colourful. We can’t experience much colour inside of a box. There isn’t much light there. You must open that box and allow the full spectrum of light to come in. You do this by interacting with different cultures and people and that’s how you build a beautiful mosaic of human experiences. Japan is a piece of that mosaic.
A bit of practical advice? Study as much Japanese as you can. Before and even after coming to Japan. Be friendly and make friends - Japanese and foreigners alike. Explore the country. And finally, cast off fear and follow your dreams. I know I just said finally, but one last thing, grow. Allow yourself to grow. Japan is perfect for that. Thanks for having me. This was fun!