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 LEARNING

Start brushing up on your kanji to prepare for the annual Japanese Language Proficiency Test, this year taking place on Sunday, December 3 throughout the country. Passing the coveted ikkyu (level one) is considered the ultimate mark of achievement for a non-native speaker, indicating a comprehensive level of fluency and a guaranteed boost on a resume. Those who want to take the test must apply in advance by September 5, and application forms can be picked up for ¥500 at many bookstores (see www.jees.or.jp for a complete list). Results will be announced mid-February.

For more information, call the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services at 03-5454-5577. NU

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Chibikuro Sambo
by Helen Bannerman, translated by Mitsuyoshi Natsuya, with illustrations by Frank Dobias (Zuiunsha, ¥1,000)

Little Black Sambo, or Chibikuro Sambo in Japanese, is back on store shelves in Japan for the first time in 17 years. Actually, it’s not on the store shelves because the reprint has proven so popular that it’s almost impossible to get hold of a copy.

Probably the most controversial children’s book of all time, Little Black Sambo tells the charming story of how a young boy fends off a succession of hungry tigers by feeding them his fancy new clothes piece by piece, eventually triumphing when the selfish tigers chase each other around a tree and melt into butter, which Sambo and his parents, Mumbo and Jumbo, pour over a huge stack of pancakes. Mmm, mmm—just like Aunt Jemima used to make.

The book was pulled in 1988 after protests both in the US and at home (Nagano Olympic bid officials, anxious to appear cosmopolitan, even sent letters urging parents to burn their copies). But now, tiny publishing company Zuiunsha is reprinting the story in a glossy new hardcover with the same illustrations and translation that were used in the original 1953 version, which was published by Iwanami Shoten.

Little Black Sambo has always had its supporters, even if their strongest response to the racism charges was that British author Helen Bannerman was just a naive old sweetie no more racist than any other turn-of-century British colonial in India.
Certainly, Bannerman was no Hitler, and the substance of her story is respectful: Sambo is the hero of the tale and his parents are nothing but wonderful, loving people. In fact, the book is almost universally considered not only charming, but also a bona fide classic of children’s literature, vividly illustrated, written to a beat, and with a cracking ending.

The Japanese reaction has been largely sentimental; Chibikuro Sambo sold over 1.2 million copies here before it was pulled, and it still arouses nostalgia—natsukashii! You don’t find that many people in Japan who think it’s a racist book. Then again, you don’t find that many black people in Japan either.

That Bannerman and illustrator Frank Dobias portrayed their young protagonist as black even though he was clearly in India (there are no tigers in Africa, to my knowledge) is one of the clearest indications that Bannerman’s attitude, if not antagonistically racist, was at best unintentionally condescending. After all, it’s not as though she made the name up; a century ago, sambo was a moniker for all non-whites—Indians, blacks, Southeast Asians. One imagines they all looked somewhat the same, as it were.

In the June edition of Bungei Shunju, Zuiunsha’s Tomio Inoue takes the whole “racist vs. insensitive” discussion to a new level, saying that it’s OK to reprint the story since “in the world today, there aren’t feelings of discrimination toward black people because we see them active in many areas and having a positive impact on many people… I think we need to have more faith in the children of Japan.”

Inoue claims that Sambo was a common name in northern India meaning “excellent,” and he describes Dobias’ golliwog-like depictions of the supposedly Indian child as a “bold use of color.” In the US, where the book is also in print and has been a regular bestseller, illustrator Fred Marcellino apparently solved the debate with The Story of Little Babaji, in which he changed the names of the characters to Babaji, Mamaji and Papaji. But the Japanese version keeps the original names and illustrations. And while an online petition protesting the Japanese reprint has sprung up, it has only garnered a few hundred signatures, many from abroad.

In a country where the black population remains small, it seems that many Japanese don’t care that sambo is considered to be as offensive as “darky” or “pickaninny.” In the two months since it was published, Chibikuro Sambo has already reportedly sold over 100,000 copies.
Roy Mustang



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