Thursday evening, a month and a half after NHK was resoundingly panned for its racist animation depicting the George Floyd protests on the children's news program Kore de Wakatta! Sekai no Ima (Now I Understand! Our World Today), the national network aired a 30-minute special on Black Lives Matter and its relationship with Japan as part of its series Baribara, the "Barrier-Free Variety Show."
Baribara checks all the boxes of a typical Japanese variety show – interviews, sightseeing, and gags galore – while featuring both hosts and guests with various backgrounds and disabilities in the name of embracing inclusion. Normally jovial, its Black Lives Matter special begins on a different note: a shot of officer Derek Chauvin staring into the camera as he kneels over George Floyd, whose face and body are blurred. From the spot lit studio, Yokohama-based author and activist Baye McNeil addresses the audience:
This is Derek Chauvin. This is a man who is committed to what he believes. He's willing to kill for it, he's even ready to die for it. But what does he believe? He believes that Black lives don't matter. I believe the opposite, and people all over the world share my beliefs. We believe that Black lives do matter. And we are even more committed than Derek to assuring that our lives matter all over the world.
A half-hour program can barely scratch the surface of anti-Black racism in the United States and Japan. However, through its diverse panel of Black guests, including a tarento, an artist, a student, and a university professor, Baribara manages to introduce a variety of subjects, from growing up Black in Japan, to the history of slavery in America, to blackface and appropriation in Japanese media, and beyond. The host and guests even discuss last month's gaffe, giving some hope that we can continue to expect such accountability from NHK moving forward.
The special doesn't baby its audience or sugarcoat the harsh reality, but remains accessible and even fun, especially through the enthusiastic participation of its host and guests. Such a balance may have come with practice. As Philip Brasor writes for The Japan Times, Baribara doesn't make light of the struggles that people with disabilities face every day. But through "variety show solutions" to issues its guests introduce, and the practicality of its hosts' advice to audience members with disabilities, the program is informative and entertaining. Of course, the assumption that a variety show by and for people with disabilities, or featuring Black residents in Japan, could become less enjoyable than mainstream television just because it acknowledges their lived experiences also exposes our biases, as well as our need for more diverse programming.
Which raises an important question: what next? How can NHK and other media continue this important conversation with its audience all over the country? The top of the Baribara webpage states:
Baribara is the barrier-free variety show that removes obstacles for all minorities. Weaving their words with laughter, we challenge ourselves to be authentic while discussing topics that have become taboo. We strive for a world where "other people's problems" become ours. Everyone's different, and everyone's great. As we aim for a society that embraces such diversity, we continue to evolve ourselves.
Even though all of NHK's media should share this mission to promote inclusivity, Baribara takes on the responsibility, as if to fulfill the network's diversity quota. And despite being aired on national television, its content is considered controversial, described using the loanword taboo. We can't help but wonder whether Baribara is the only space in which NHK will address discrimination in Japan across its six channels, and if so, whether Thursday's special will be the network's last comment about anti-Black racism for the time being, especially now that its first attempt can be overwritten.
Regardless of NHK's decision, the guests will no doubt continue the conversation throughout their work, activism, and everyday lives. Outside television, Black athletes have shared stories of their experiences and musicians have implored Japanese fans to learn more about racism, while grassroots groups and community organizers continue to create educational opportunities online and open to the public. In other words, Black Lives Matter will flourish in Japan with or without the help of Japanese mainstream media – but NHK would do well to learn and grow alongside its audience.