Postcards from Japan: PhD in Tokyo and uncovering Afro-Japanese interactions with Warren Stanislaus

Warren A. Stanislaus from South East London set off on a gap year to volunteer in Japan with plans to return. Fast forward to over a decade later and now he's done it all: studied, worked, and even delved beneath Japan's surface as a researcher! Based in central Tokyo, he's an experienced city dweller, DJing at bars and singing his heart out at karaoke, but he's also an expert in the little known history of Afro-Japanese interactions! Warren shared with us why Japan is a "safe space" and why nothing beats a Japanese convenience store. 


Hi, could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am originally from South East London, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in Japan – over 11 years now – as both a student and professional. Based in Tokyo, I am currently a PhD candidate in modern Japanese history at the University of Oxford and an Associate Lecturer at Rikkyo University where I teach undergraduate courses in transnational history and cultural studies. Previously I worked at the Asia Pacific Initiative think tank in Tokyo where I was a researcher in Japanese foreign policy and cultural diplomacy. My hobbies are learning Mandarin Chinese, reading, hosting events, cooking, and DJing at bars in Tokyo (a mix of UK hip hop and afrobeats).

How did you end up studying and living in Japan? 

As a teenager, my unusual and enthusiastic interest in the J-pop/rock music genre of visual kei inspired me to pursue a degree in Japanese Studies. I secured an offer to study at a university in the UK, but I just couldn’t wait until the year abroad to get to Japan. After finishing school, I eagerly went straight out to Japan at 18 years old on a gap year programme. I was placed in Nishio City, Aichi Prefecture, as a volunteer in both a kindergarten and a care home for the elderly. By really putting myself out there, not only did my language skills rapidly improve, but I also gained an insider’s view of Japanese life and culture. This experience became the first major turning point in my life. I turned down my offer to go to a university in the UK and instead took the path less travelled. At 19, I enrolled in a full 4-year Bachelor’s degree programme at ICU, a university in Tokyo that promotes a bilingual and liberal arts education.  

What are you currently doing in Japan?

My PhD research explores political satire in 19th century Japanese newspapers, literature and woodblock prints. The libraries, archives and galleries that I need to access are all here and so research is a big part of my life in Japan. I also teach at Rikkyo University’s Global Liberal Arts Program. Usually that would mean trips to the university’s Ikebukuro campus and face-to-face lectures with my Japanese and international students, but for the 2020 fall semester everything is online. This challenge has opened up new opportunities for me to explore the potential of digital education. For example, I produced a video introduction to showcase my course that examines the past, present and future of Afro-Japanese encounters that you can view online

Has your research taken you to any interesting places in Japan?

As part of my research on Afro-Japanese interactions, recently I have been thinking about what a Black “tourist gaze” on Japan could look like. In other words, what are the sites, locations and experiences that reflect the past and present of black cultural exchanges with Japan? For historical connections, I visited temples in Kyoto such as Honnō-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. Yasuke the 16th century “African Samurai,” was originally brought to Japan with the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, but after being noticed by the influential daimyo lord Oda Nobunaga, he was selected to join this powerful warrior clan. As a trusted retainer he was present at the infamous Honnō-ji incident of 1582 and fought to preserve the honour of his lord, when Nobunaga was ultimately defeated and forced to commit ritual suicide. Nearby, climbing the steps of Kiyomizu-dera I visited the Tamura-dō Hall that holds the statue of one of Japan’s first Shōgun generals from the Heian period (794-1185), Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. At various moments during the 20th century, Black writers have suggested that in fact Tamuramaro may too be of African descent. While the accuracy of this seductive claim is highly doubtful, what’s far more interesting is that this site represents a rich history of an imagined transitional racial solidarity between Black folk and Japan.

Looking to the present day, the backstreets of the Harajuku shopping district in Tokyo and underground DJ bars in Shibuya reveal countless instances of Afro-Japanese cultural exchange. Gradually overtaking EDM, hip hop is beginning to dominate the nightclub scene in Japan. The lifestyle dimension is a key driver of this trend. For example, hip hop’s association with street fashion means that on any given day in central Tokyo you can catch a glimpse of young Japanese streetwear fashionistas sporting the latest designs from across the world, or rocking a rare vintage sneaker find from one of Tokyo’s many high-quality thrift stores. The streetwear clothing brands, ‘A Bathing Ape (Bape)’ and ‘Human Made,’ launched by the Japanese fashion designer Nigo, are perhaps the best examples of an Afro-Japanese aesthetic. These edgy brands are extremely popular among hip hop artists and fans alike. Nigo has collaborated with artists such as Pharrell, Kanye West, Stormzy, Migos and A$AP Rocky on fashion lines, music and business ventures. Nigo has become the go to influencer in Japan for street fashion, and knowing Nigo is such a point of pride that the statement “I know Nigo” has even been made into an exclusive product. 

In your article 'Black in Japan: Shifting the Narrative' you mentioned the lack of images of being Black and abroad, and how this relates to certain hesitations when making travel plans. What is your experience with this in relation to Japan?

The first thing to note is that it’s hard to find travel marketing materials that include racially diverse models, and so sometimes it can be difficult to imagine yourself in those places – representation matters. This is especially true if we consider it within a broader context of histories of racial segregation and stories shared among families and friends about how when they “travel while Black” at home or abroad, in certain cities/countries they experience open discrimination or are treated as oddities. Social media has transformed how we learn about travel destinations and so you can now find numerous accounts that celebrate being Black and Abroad or share what the Black Experience Japan is like. In my experience, Japan is a “safe space” – not only referring to its famously low crime rate but also in terms of travelling or living here as a Black person. 

You have recently collaborated with the British Embassy in Japan for Black History Month to introduce Japan to another side of Britain. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

From Harry Potter to Beatrix Potter, Downton Abbey to Abbey Road, Queen to the Queen, Britain’s cultural exports are much loved in Japan. Yet, unfortunately, Japan’s image of the UK doesn’t include Black Britain. Working with the British Embassy in Tokyo, I produced an article in Japanese to introduce Black British history and culture to Japan. For example, I asked my Japanese students at Rikkyo University to assist me in selecting songs for a “Black History Month UK in Japan” Spotify playlist targeted specifically to a Japanese audience. Most interesting was the type of Black British artists and songs my Japanese students selected or left out, and why. In other words, how Japanese “gaze” at Black Britain. Further exploring intimacies between Black Britons and Japan, I am currently finishing up a research paper on the connection between Japanese pop culture and UK grime music. For example, grime artists such as JME and Blay Vision frequently cite and use sounds from Japanese video games such as Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon. In recent years, artists such as Stormzy and AJ Tracey have produced music videos in Tokyo incorporating the neon-lit streets of Shibuya and video game arcades as backdrops. 

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

As President of the Oxford Alumni Club of Japan, I have made some amazing connections with companies in Japan. Leveraging these relationships, I have been building links between Japanese companies seeking to hire global talent, and students in the UK looking to gain work experience in Japan. For example, one of my most successful projects was setting up 30+ paid summer internships in Tokyo for Oxford students at Japanese leading corporations and exciting tech startups. The project was even featured on Japanese TV – a business news show – and has since received over 1 million views on YouTube. The Covid-19 pandemic has put travelling for internships on hold, and so I am spending more time mentoring and delivering seminars to students in the UK about the opportunities related to learning Japanese at university and working in Japan. 

Do you have any favourite memorable experiences from your time in Japan?

Working as a foreign policy researcher for 2 and a half years at the Asia Pacific Initiative think tank was definitely the most memorable and unique experience. Not only did I get to meet and even work closely alongside some of Japan’s (and the world’s) most influential business leaders, politicians and intellectuals, but beyond this, I too had the chance to become a part of Japan’s policy making community. As a founding member of a major collaborative project that explores Japan’s global role and soft power in the 21st century, I helped lead on the publication of a Japanese and English book that shared the insights from our international working group’s discussions. 

What’s your favourite spot in Japan and what would you most recommend to someone coming for the first time? 

The Japanese karaoke experience with locals is a must. My favourite spot is Rainbow Karaoke in Shibuya. Making my way through the crowds of Shibuya’s neon-lit scramble crossing is always exhilarating. I stop off at a convenience store to grab a quick drink for Dutch courage. Arriving at the karaoke box, I select a room with the Dam karaoke system (the one with a good mix of Japanese and English songs) and reserve a room for 1 hour (all the while knowing that I will eventually extend it to 2 or more). Karaoke is a sophisticated sport. You practice and master songs for different occasions and groups – work, social, family, date, job interviews etc. This is the ultimate experience in Japanese culture as you have to learn to “read the air” to choose the right songs for yourself, electrify the group with your renditions, and support others if they are struggling (they will support you too!). Everyone is the star of the show; karaoke is a team sport. The karaoke booth is a space where time feels suspended and you can release all of your feelings or worries into the mic. Karaoke is a place where people open up, and so you can connect with your Japanese hosts or friends on a deeper level in this booth of soul connection. Karaoke is my top recommendation to experience and participate in the spirit of Japan.  

Any food recommendations?

Miso nikomi udon (udon noodles in a miso broth) from Nagoya. My first stay in Japan was in Aichi Prefecture, and so I got a taste for the “aka” red miso soup, which is the favoured miso paste in the region and is rich in umami – the fifth taste. Yamamotoya Honten in Nagoya Station is my favourite place to eat this flavourful dish and it comes with a side of delicious palate-cleansing pickles. For dessert, I would pick up a yomogi daifuku dusted with kinako flour (mugwort rice cake with a sweet adzuki bean filling) from a “depachika” basement level food court in a Japanese department store. My souvenir recommendation is Royce chocolate covered crisps, which can be purchased at most international airports in Japan. Friends in the UK always ask me to bring these back. 

This month we’re focusing on the word ‘furusato’ meaning ‘home’ not just in terms of where you were born, but also your heart’s ‘furusato’. Where do you consider your spiritual home in Japan?

My home in Japan is the convenience store (conbini). When I am outside of Japan, I miss conbini the most. When I visit other countries and find a Japanese conbini brand, I feel at ease. When I am travelling within Japan, it’s comforting to know that I will never be too far from the familiar embrace of the conbini shelves. Rarely is there a day when I don’t enter into a conbini. I go to buy food and drink, products for everyday life, chargers for my devices, to pay the bills, print documents, send and pick-up deliveries or just to take a quick break from the elements. Conbini are always the same but ever new, with periodical stocks of limited-edition products according to season or region. When I am most in need the conbini is there for me to supply that work shirt or fresh white tee that I can change into after spilling red miso soup onto my clothes. Even during more serious times of extreme weather and natural disasters, they play an important function in society. The conbini is familiar because I had visited them in my childhood dreams even before going to Japan. I had visited them in the form of a Poké Mart on the Gameboy to secure the supplies I needed to progress as a Pokémon trainer. Or in the form of item shops within the Final Fantasy series providing me with that desperately needed potion. The conbini has always fueled my life. The conbini has always been my home. 

Make sure to check out what Warren has been up to on his website, Twitter, and Instagram!

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