Arama They Didn't

11:59 am - 04/11/2012

Book is Behind Bullying of Mixed-race Children

News photo

Opinion/Editorial/Letter posted on JapanTimes' website:

Dear Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hirofumi Hirano,

My three beautiful children were all born in Japan and went to Japanese public schools. Their mother is a native Japanese of Japanese ethnic background, and I am a Canadian citizen of African background.

Since my children are light brown, they were often teased by other kids because of the color of their skin. The culprits were cruel, directing various racial slurs. Among others, "black and dirty as burdocks" was one of the terms that often came up.

But, when I once ran across and brought home a picture book, "Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake" ("The Reason the Carrot is Red") from the local library, my children got quite upset.

Written by renowned Japanese author of children's literature Miyoko Matsutani, the story unfolds like this: A carrot and a burdock ask a white radish (daikon) out to a bath. The burdock jumps in the water but soon hops out because the water is too hot; it remains black. The carrot stays in the hot water longer and turns red. The daikon cools the bath with some cold water and washes himself thoroughly, which turns him shining white..

At the end, the three stand beside each other to compare their color. The burdock is black and dirty because he did not wash his body properly; the daikon is white and beautiful because he did..

When I was talking about this story during one of my lectures on human rights issues at a PTA meeting in Fukuoka, one of the participants, a Japanese mother of an African-Japanese preschool boy, started crying and saying that her son was taunted, ridiculed and called "burdock" after his pre-school teacher read the aforementioned book to the class.

When the little boy returned home that day, he jumped into the bathtub, started washing his body and crying, "I hate my light brown skin, I hate the burdock, I'm dirty and I want to be like the white radish!" How can this child have a positive image of himself?

We all felt sad after hearing this story, because the book associates the color black with dirt. The story's underlying message is clear: "You'll be black and dirty like burdocks if you don't wash yourself well in the bath." So children with darker skin will be victimized by the message it conveys.

How can such a book still be in libraries and preschool classrooms in increasingly multiracial contemporary Japan?

I called the publisher, Doshinsha Publishing Co., and demanded the book be recalled, saying it was racist. The publisher disagreed. My demand to meet with Matsutani to discuss revising the portions of the book I considered objectionable was also rejected.

Yoichi Ikeda, the editor of the book published in 1989, told me over the phone that the story was the author's version of a Japanese folktale.

"Matsutani is not promoting racism, she was just handing down to Japanese children our rich culture," he said. "And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools."

Surprisingly, the book is quite popular and was even selected as one of the Japan School Library Association's "good picture books."

The author, editor and publisher, as well as Japanese educators who use the book, should face the fact that it insults many people in today's multiethnic society. It's important to have story characters with a positive image, so children who identify with them can develop high self-esteem.

"Gobo-san no Iro wa?" ("What Color Are Burdocks?") is my counterargument to Matsutani's picture book. The story goes: One sunny day, a group of children visits a farm and harvests daikon radishes, carrots and burdock. They put the muddy vegetables in a bath but find the burdocks are still black after washing.

The children take the "dirty burdocks" to the bath again. The burdocks get upset and jump out of the water, saying, "We are already clean. Black is our natural color."

Carrots and radishes join them, saying, "Yes, we are all clean," and they all sing and dance together. "Black is beautiful, white is Beautiful, red is beautiful all the colors in the world are equally beautiful!".


Writer and illustrator Joel Assogba is a passionate public speaker and the author of "Gobo-san no Iro wa?" ("What Color Are Burdocks?") (Daddy Publishing, 2004). He lived in Japan from 1994 to 2011 and is now back in Ottawa with his Japanese spouse and their three children. He can be contacted at Send your comments on this issue and Hotline to Nagatacho submissions of 500-700 words to



I thought this was really interesting. It's an interesting perspective on light-skin standards of normality ( and to some extent beauty) and it helps demonstrates how expansive that norm is across the world. How many other POC here have experienced this or are at least aware of the "scrubbing the 'dirt' off your skin in hopes of being lighter" within your respective communities? This stuff is bananas. Also, I have no idea about these tags...

tomoeicemaiden 11th-Apr-2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
Kinda OT, but this is my main problem with "whitening" skincare products. I believe makeup can be used as artistic expression, and I can't refute the history that demonstrates CLEAR(note clear, not white)skin has been perceived as a sign of fertility, but most skin/makeup companies market whiter/lighter skin = beautiful. This is problematic and until these marketing methods change I will continue to boycott "whitening"(and "anti-aging", but that's a different conversation) products. It's just so tragic that young kids of color are bombarded with messages that their skin color is not as beautiful and thus internalize at a young age that being treated as inferior is the natural order of things. I hope this book gets pulled from all schools in Japan. Thank you so much for posting this, I wouldn't have known about this unfortunate kids book otherwise.
uledy 11th-Apr-2012 11:20 pm (UTC)
I love everything you've said down to the anti-aging cream bit! Skin whiting products will forever make me rage. Once in Japan I ran out of my specialized face moisturizer, so I went into the pharmacy and asked someone to help me find an appropriate cream for dry skin. The woman took me to the skin whiting lotions immediately. When I explained that I didn't want that, she looked at me like I was insane. I explained I have dry skin, but she shook her head and said "oh, I think this is best for you."

But anyway, you comment about cosmetic ads reminded me of Beyonce Loreal skin lightening scandal:

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winds_daichi 11th-Apr-2012 11:57 pm (UTC)
No way! That would've completely taken me off course! What in beautiful Jesus Christ made her think that you were looking for whiting cream? >.> That was just plain rude. >.> "This is best for you." My ass.

I didn't know that scandal even happened.
uledy 12th-Apr-2012 12:12 am (UTC)
So much justified side-eyeing happening up there, haha XD

I think that scandal was in 2008. Here's a quick article about it at Huffington messed up.
fulllove 12th-Apr-2012 12:16 am (UTC)
Here in France, media often talk about the damage caused by whitening cream: skin cancer, pustule and more...

Edited at 2012-04-12 12:21 am (UTC)
chibi_rei 12th-Apr-2012 12:27 am (UTC)
Skin whitening products creep me out tbh.

Ugh that Beyonce picture reminds me off something that happened to a few of my teacher friends here in Korea. Most of them had yearbook/class pictures taken and, per the norm I guess (?), they got photoshopped. A few of the POC got photoshopped to look much lighter skinned. They all played it off as a big joke, but if it were me I would've been pissed.
tomoeicemaiden 12th-Apr-2012 03:28 am (UTC)
Oh. My. Good. She looks like a completely different person!!!!! AND IT'S NOT EVEN A SKINCARE/MAKEUP PRODUCT THEY'RE SELLING (not that it justifies it, but completely beside the point)!!!

Anyways, I'm so sorry about the encounter you had at the pharmacy. I wish people could just hear themselves when they say that kind of stuff to someone. So incredibly offensive. I would have been mortified if I were told that.
uledy 12th-Apr-2012 03:41 am (UTC)
Isn't it insane??? Whatever team was responsible for editing, touching up, inputting graphic designs, ect. had to make conscious choice to make her look so Caucasian. What does it say to children of color if one of the most visible Black women in world, who's praised for her beauty isn't beautiful enough to face the world in her own skin???

exdream1999 12th-Apr-2012 12:12 pm (UTC)
Just to clear some things up most lotions that have "whitening" on them aren't skin bleachers, they're using a whole line of lotions and cleanser etc. that are supposed to keep your skin clear.

I've been using one product from a whitening line for years now and my skin is the same color it's always been, but my freckles aren't as noticable as they were when I was younger.

I've only ever seen actual skin bleachers imported from other countries in Japan.

Though if you have dry skin, I still have no clue as to why she tried to give you things from a whitening line. Like, that's just. What?

And last, I can't believe that picture of Beyonce, that's just...For shame
yuliyudo 12th-Apr-2012 05:04 am (UTC)
THIS so much!

I was born with a lighter skin color than most of my countrymen (I'm from Indonesia, btw), so maybe I don't quite get the need to be fairer like many do. But I think it's still too much to be bombarding with whitening skincare products as if having darker complexion is a sin.

Some time ago I went looking for a moisturizer, and the salesgirl explained to me some brands. But all she emphasized was actually the whitening effects. This makes you rosy, this makes your skin brighter, etc. In the end I kinda snapped and said "I don't care about all those whitening effects. I don't need to be any whiter. Can't you just show me a normal product?" Geez = =
chibi_hime 12th-Apr-2012 05:16 pm (UTC)
I just want to point out that the purpose of "whitening" skin products isn't bleaching your skin whiter, but to lighten discoloration from acne or age spots.

it's unfortunate that they can't think of another way to market it.
Whitening cream, skin lightening cream... it all sounds pretty bad.

uledy 12th-Apr-2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
While some creams serve a skin evening purpose, in different countries and with different brands "whitening cream" does mean skin bleaching/lightening for purely aesthetic purposes, non-corrective purposes. While I don’t have problems with skin lightening creams fundamentally in communities of POC, as many of us tend to scar darker than our actual complexion, for example, many of the creams are used in hopes of gaining an overall lighter complexion.

Marketing in several countries promote these products as skin bleaching products, not a skin evening solutions. Different communities have different names for these products. I think that's what the commenter was speaking about. And I honestly don't think the naming of these types of products is as innocent as poor choice in words. I think it's all very purposeful and intentional.

*sigh* but what can you do?
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