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People who come to Japan can sometimes feel like they’ve been presented with a society akin to a Rubik’s Cube. There are different colors and moving pieces, it takes time to figure out how it all makes sense. For Ayana Wyse, solving the puzzle hasn’t just been a personal struggle. Instead, she has taken it on for her community.
From the suburbs of New York, the 33-year-old Wyse made the move to Japan nine years ago to teach in the Kansai region. She eventually moved to Osaka, a city she quickly fell in love with, and began carving out a life for herself there: She’s a photographer, event organizer, DJ, part-time teacher and, most notably, a podcaster.
Though it was love, eventually Wyse looked for some outlet to express her opinion on living in Japan. It was around 2015 that she began thinking the best way to do that would be via an audio format.
“Sometimes you just don’t want everyone looking at you,” she tells The Japan Times via video chat, “you just want people to hear you.”
In 2017, Wyse and her friend Alyse, launched the “Kurly in Kansai” podcast to fill what they saw as a void in the podcasting scene.
“I felt there weren’t — or aren’t — a lot of podcasts that have two black women hosting and talking about their experiences abroad,” Wyse says.
The pair cover topics such as discrimination, culture and working at a Japanese company, occasionally bringing on guests that specialize in the topic they’re talking about. The discussion is both casual and no-holds-barred with both hosts chiming in on current events and taking the odd detour into Japan-related anecdotes and geeky side-references.
Podcasts are uploaded monthly (sometimes twice a month) and generally run about an hour long. They can be found through Apple and Spotify, and Wyse also posts them to her YouTube channel, Yana_Yz.
“Our (target) audience is mainly black women, but it’s for anyone who wants to hear a different perspective about life in Japan,” she says. “We want everyone to enjoy it, but we may sometimes remind people that our experiences can be very different compared to those of other foreigners.”
The alliterative title is a catchy way to illustrate what the two friends intended their podcast to focus on. “We — black women, me and Alyse — live in Kansai and we’re talking about our experience,” Wyse says. “And we’re curly-headed,” she adds with a laugh.
From Episode 11 onward, “Kurly in Kansai” got its own R&B-tinged theme tune, courtesy of singer and producer Devin Morrison. And Tokyoites, don’t be discouraged by any digs you hear. “Kurly in Kansai” is about the love the hosts have for their part of Japan, with Wyse adding that she and Alyse share a “mutual disdain for the Tokyo hype.”
Nights in Osaka
Wyse’s love of music drew her into the Osaka reggae scene when she first arrived. Japanese music fans tend to dedicate themselves 100 percent to their chosen genres and Wyse was able to access the scene even though it was mainly made up of Japanese fans. However, she encountered some issues being a black woman amid a group of Japanese people who enjoyed reggae and its culture so devoutly.
“To me … I felt like I was like a token to them. That I was a cool accessory,” Wyse says of the scene. “They didn’t really outwardly show that to me, but every time I went to events, everybody who didn’t know me was really surprised to see a dreadlocked, black woman at an event where everybody else was Japanese.”
Cultural appropriation and being the one black person in a group of Japanese friends are the kinds of topics that wind up becoming key talking points on “Kurly in Kansai.” The Dec. 1, 2017, podcast, “Cultural Appropriation in Japan,” explores how Japanese culture is appropriated by the West, using examples such as white actress Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in Hollywood’s 2017 take on the classic Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell,” before moving on to discussing instances of the reverse.
In the West, fashion and music are now being scrutinized for mining minority cultures for their clout. But the practice isn’t viewed as very problematic in Japan, which has a centuries-old tradition of importing ideas from overseas and making them their own. With an increasing population of non-Japanese in the country, however, the Japanese are starting to pay more attention as to where the culture they’re experiencing is drawn from.
“I think (the Japanese) do appropriate, though mostly they try to appreciate the best way they can,” Wyse says. “I feel like they take that little bit, then they just overdo it and it looks really bad. They try to understand it, but (that understanding) only scratches the surface.”
Frustrated by the way reggae and black culture in general was being appreciated in Japan, Wyse decided to do something about it by starting a club night — Wonderground, a pan-African music event — with support from people she met via a group she founded called Black Creatives Japan (BCJ). Running since 2015, BCJ bills itself as a support collective that also operates as a networking community and platform for collaboration. Setting up BCJ and putting on music events, Wyse says, is a step toward being more than just another voice in the crowd. Her hope is that people like her will also be able to see their culture and experiences represented correctly.
“I don’t necessarily want to be in the forefront all the time,” Wyse says, “but I feel like no one’s doing this, so I might as well step up. I just want to have something that I care about exist and, hopefully, (for) people who are also interested to join in.”
Tweaking the rules
Through her experiences, Wyse has managed to solve at least one part of the puzzle that is Japanese society. Part of that solution is the realization that she cannot change the way things work here. Rather than being burdened by the everyday annoyances and pressures the majority of people living in the country feel, she has responded with a simple mantra.
“I say out loud, ‘I’m not Japanese, so this doesn’t affect me,'” she explains. “There are lots of things I ignore because I’m not Japanese. I don’t necessarily try to follow all the rules.”
Some of those societal rules and norms she’s referring to, however, can be too much to ignore — how women are treated by men, for instance, and how difficult it can be to stand up for what you believe is right.
“I do try to defend myself and defend other fellow women. It’s different for men,” she says. “It’s different for nonblack men and different for nonblack women, and so on. I definitely see things differently. But I try to step into other people’s shoes so that I can have a broader view of what other foreigners experience in Japan.”
The groups and events that Wyse has set up during her time here have enabled her to discover spaces that suit her, creating places where she — and others — don’t have to alter themselves in order to fit some perceived standard.
However, feeling as though she doesn’t have to conform to certain codes of Japanese society doesn’t necessarily mean that she isn’t part of it. Having been involved in organizing events, as well as volunteer work, Wyse isn’t opting out of society — she’s providing her own interpretation of it.
“I feel like I’m involved in the community, that’s more like it — I’m involved in the community, not the society,” she explains. “(Non-Japanese people are) meshing, but we’re not fully involved or part of it like in some other societies.”
Things change slowly in Japan. The puzzle may seem near impossible to solve, but each support group and podcast, like the twists and turns of a Rubik’s Cube, gets us closer to a cohesive goal.
By Rebecca Saunders, The Japan Times