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Heisei Transformations: Challenging skin color bias to create new definition of 'Japanese'

From left, Michael, David and Sanshiro Yano perform as the "Yano Brothers" onstage in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, on Dec. 23, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

TOKYO -- J-Pop, R&B, hip-hop ... Music born of a fusion of genres flooded over a small stage of the "Tokyo Club" bar in the capital's Shinagawa Ward at the close of 2018. The bar was hosting the first live performance of the "Yano Brothers" in roughly two years.

Between songs, 39-year-old performer Michael Yano told the crowd, "I would like to turn the things that I've learned -- the things I have experienced -- into songs and lyrics." He was joined on stage by his brothers, David, 37, and Sanshiro, 35.

In the latter half of the 1990s, Michael became a pioneer in Japanese professional soccer's J-League as the first Japanese player with African roots. He was born in his mother's home country of Ghana to a Japanese father, and came to Japan at the age of 8 in 1987. His parents lived separately, and he and his younger brothers ended up in a children's nursing home in the Tokyo area. At the time, there were still few Japanese with African roots, and from his very first day at elementary school, he was bombarded with slurs. His young classmates branded him a stranger and told him to go back to his country.

Back then, Michael could not speak Japanese, and conversations with his younger brothers were in English. One day, even though he noticed a classmate in the seat beside him call out to him, he did not know the meaning of the word the boy used -- "Bokuju." He was just happy he had a nickname until it was time for calligraphy class and he learned it meant "black ink."

When the class ended and he stood up from his seat, the boy next to him held up a box cutter and pointed it at Michael as if to protect himself. The teacher hurriedly ran to the scene to defuse the situation. Every day was the same, with fighting, and even though he never lost a fight for lack of physical strength, his isolation deepened.

Of the boy who sat beside him, Michael has another memory. It was from the time they were both members of the school soccer club in junior high school, and their coach told them to go shopping together. On the way back, they walked in silence, until the boy suddenly said, "You're amazing. Does everyone always stare at you like this?" He had noticed the looks that Michael had gotten from all the people they passed during their shopping trip. Then he added, "This is tough."

Tears began streaming down Michael's cheeks. "I'm sorry -- for you having to walk with me and be stared at like this too," he said. While he thought that the boy had finally understood his situation, at the same time, he felt pathetic for apologizing even though he did nothing wrong. He thought, "I want to walk around with people not staring at me, even just for one day. I want to become 'Japanese.'"

After playing for the J-League soccer team Shimizu S-Pulse Youth, Michael joined top-tier team Vissel Kobe in 1997. He garnered attention for being a player with African roots, but he felt like he was constantly viewed with the preconception that African roots equaled physical prowess on the field. After playing for three teams, he retired at age 23. "I wasn't given the chance to succeed, and I felt that I had finally had enough," he recalled.

After that, he entered the world of mixed martial arts, but due to health issues, his life became more centered around his musical activities. When he was young, he felt like he had no role model on which to base his decisions, and he searched for someone who had undergone similar experiences. Through working in music, he hopes that he can make sure "the next person to walk down this same road can do so more smoothly."

Since the three brothers were different ages when they came to Japan, each one picked up the language at a different pace. Besides their appearances as the Yano Brothers since 2013, David, the second oldest of the brothers, has been involved in work to support independent education in Ghana, while Sanshiro, the youngest, works as a pharmacist.

Sanshiro, whose awareness of his situation surfaced while he was in Japan, said matter-of-factly, "I thought I was Japanese." However, when he dropped out of a private university he had entered to pursue soccer, he ran head-on into the wall of "society." When he would go to a real estate agency looking for an apartment, they would tell him they would not help "foreigners," and even when he explained that he was a "hafu" or half-Japanese, he was still told that some landlords would not understand, and was refused. He came to realize, "Even though I consider myself to be Japanese, it doesn't necessarily mean that those around me do."

In his mid-20s, Sanshiro got into a different university, and became a pharmacist in his 30s. His life settled down, and he came to feel that society was changing. As he saw more people of African descent on the city streets, he no longer felt people staring at him.

But he had a change of heart three years ago. That was when he and his brother traveled to Ghana for the first time since they had moved to Japan. Many of their mother's relatives came to meet them, and told them of their early years. Even though they remembered nothing of Ghana, there was something nostalgic about it that tugged at their hearts. As they met each person, they felt a connection with them. Naturally, they came to understand that these were their "roots," and finally accepted them.

Now, Sanshiro no longer limits himself to the binary of Ghana or Japan. "My heart is Japanese, but I am also connected to Ghana by blood," he said. "Regardless of where you come from, everyone has an idea of the person they want to become. They should be able to realize that dream and be happy."

(Japanese original by Sachi Fukushima, City News Department)

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