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White Day: March 2002

Author:Martin Pauly, Issue: March 2002, Topic: Commentary

(Editor's note: Occasionally, we bring back a classic for a rerun. Since Valentine's Day and "White Day" are coming up soon, we thought newcomers (which is 90% of you!) would enjoy this article.)

Recently I went to a "snakku" with several colleagues. A hostess with a few years on her poured me a drink. Her English was very good and she mentioned that she had taught English on both the high school and college level and had spent a few of her younger years as an exchange student in the US.

Several conversations were going on at our table and the topics "Valentine's Day" and "White Day" kept popping up. "Bet you don't know the real story of White Day," she said. "Ah, wasn't it started by a candy company to increase its sales of chocolates?" I answered. "There's more to it than that," she said, as another drink was poured.

"Ever been to Matsuyama in Shikoku?" I told her I had, and said that I had seen the beautiful castle. "Oh good, because that's where the White Day story starts. After the war the GHQ had a large installation in the center of the city, close to the castle. There's a fairly deep moat around the castle and sometimes the kids would swim in it. They weren't supposed to but things were a little chaotic after the war... and you know how boys are." We started to talk about raising kids, especially boys, so I had to steer her back on course. "Hey, get back to your story. It's really interesting." "Ah, sorry," she replied. "Want some more ice with the drink?'' "Anyway, like I was saying, one of the boys had some trouble in the water and his friend yelled for help. Two black American soldiers were walking nearby and one of them jumped in. The water was too deep for the boys but too shallow for a jump and the soldier broke his leg. But he, with the help of some passersby, managed to pull the boy out of the moat. It was a very heroic thing to do." As drinks were served and she put some raisin butter in my mouth she added that the boy was the mayor's nephew. "As you can imagine, the mayor was very happy and wanted to show his appreciation. His staff got in touch with the local US military commander and told of the mayor's plan to declare March 17th (the day of the rescue) Kokujin no Hi. But the mayor's staff had one question. What should they call the day in English?

The commander was overjoyed because he was always interested in improving community relations. He immediately sent a message saying that 'Negro Day' would be OK. This was in 1948 and that was the acceptable term for black people at the time. Do you remember Jackie Robinson and the old Negro League?" I told her I was too young to remember but I had heard of it. "Well, that name was immediately squelched because a word that sounds like Negro has a bad meaning in one of the Shikoku dialects." "Oh, what does it mean?" I asked innocently. "Har, har, har!" she laughed loudly. She said something to one of the younger hostesses and they both roared hilariously. "OK, OK," I said. "I don't want to know. Just continue with your story."

"Well, the commander understood the situation so he suggested 'Colored Day,' as that was another acceptable term at the time. But the mayor's staff didn't know that and were confused. Perhaps the American had misunderstood the situation? Hadn't the commander read that the two men were black? They looked in some reference books and found that there were yellow people, and red people, and white people, and brown people. They didn't want to honor those people. The mayor had specifically wanted to honor the black men. So the mayor sent a hurried message back to the commander (because the ceremony was going to be the following Sunday and they had to get the posters printed) asking if Black Day was acceptable. The commander wanted to say yes, but knew that the term "black" was considered derogatory in the late 40's." "Wow, what a complicated situation," I exclaimed. "It gets better yet," she said. "Have another Pocky and a drink."

"The commander was up for promotion and didn't want to jeopardize his career so he got in touch with the GHQ in Tokyo. A high-ranking lawyer from MacArthur's personal staff was flown down to Matsuyama and a large group of Americans met with the mayor's staff. After a four-hour meeting they came up with the name 'Rainbow Day.' It was a compromise for both sides but everybody seemed relatively happy." "I'm glad the story has a happy ending," I said. "But... uh.... I realize I'm a bit drunk, but what does this have to do with White Day?" "Oh, it's not finished. It gets better. It seemed like things were OK. There was an annual Kokujin/Rainbow Day celebration. But a strange linguistic development was taking place. The Japanese started to think that "rainbow" was the translation of "Kokujin" and school kids who were practicing their English would yell 'Hey, there's a rainbow!' at black soldiers instead of 'Kokujin da!' And at the same time Americans who were studying Japanese would point to the sky after a rainfall and tell Japanese people, 'Kokujin wa kirei desu ne.'

The error had stuck long after the Occupation was over, and in the '60s the mayor's son (who was now the mayor) appointed a commission to investigate the matter. The word "Black" was beginning to gain popularity in the US. Remember 'Black Power' and the song 'I'm Black and I'm Proud, Shout It Loud?'" "Sure," I answered, revealing my age. "So the commission proposed to the mayor that 'Black Day' was a good choice. The mayor readily declared March 17th as Black Day and ordered flyers and posters to be printed. But, unbeknownst to the mayor, there was a man on his staff who was a burakumin (an outcast). He had kept his origins secret but was now in a position to make a statement and what a statement he made. As he was in charge of publicity he ordered thousands of bilingual posters printed. When the posters came out there was an uproar and the mayor had the posters pulled down. Black in katakana was 'buraku'. And the name of the rock group he had invited was Black Sabbath, which came out as ...." "Buraku sabetsu," (discrimination against the buraku) I interjected. She then started to tell me about the Burakumin Liberation League and how some people wanted to openly discuss the topic and others thought it better not to. I was getting tired though.

"As you can imagine there was hell to pay. The man was fired. The name of the day was changed to White Day because the name of the black soldier was John White. And another strange development started happening. Japanese people thought that White Day meant Hakujin no Hi and started giving presents to white people on March 17th." She suggested that I remind Japanese people of the meaning of White Day and see if I could get some nice presents. So last March 17th I went into some offices at the Honbu of the U. of Tsukuba and reminded some of the workers of the meaning of White Day and waited for presents. It was at that point that I realized that the hostess had made up the story - most of it.

<< The Cherry Blossoms are Coming: March 2002 | Master Index | A Boy's Advice to a Priest >>

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