Japan's Market for African Culture

Tokyo teenagers flock to buy hip-hop fashions - and learn something about Africans, not their stereotypes.

Some of the world's biggest foreign corporations - American firms Kodak and Chrysler head the list - have found it difficult to prosper in Japan, claiming that unfair trade barriers prevent their success.

But Hisham Elhag isn't deterred by the challenges of breaking into the world's second-largest economy. "I agree with Americans that the Japanese market isn't all that open, but that's the reality," the businessman from Sudan says.

He works hard at market research: "I constantly walk around to see the fashions on the streets, and I ask my Japanese friends to translate local magazines so that I know exactly what's the latest."

Mr. Elhag is one of a contingent of African entrepreneurs in Tokyo who are finding fortunes by selling street fashions to Japanese teenagers. Elhag and colleagues from Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria work in a lot filled with tent-covered stalls in Harajuku, the fashion mecca for Tokyo's youths. Here they sell American-inspired hip-hop fashions, shoes, and watches. More than half of the 40 stalls in Free Park Harajuku are African-operated, and other Africans work for or run stores in the vicinity.

Being allowed to work in Japan isn't easy for Africans. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs keeps a tight rein on immigration due to the soaring number of illegal immigrants from developing countries. There are only about 112 registered Sudanese currently in Japan, and most earned their right to stay by marrying a Japanese.

As a self-employed single man, Elhag went the harder route by applying for a business visa, which entails rigorous screening. But his presence, along with the other Free Park tenants, is building bridges between races in a homogenous country with a long history of mistrusting foreigners.

Harajuku teems with young Japanese decked out in Polo Sports, Tommy Hilfiger, and Timberland gear. Girls braid their hair into cornrows and boys waddle around in extra-large pants. Simply put, baggy rules.

Decked out in a brand new Ralph Lauren vest and extra-large pants, junior high school student Mariko Kimura says the Africans and the fashions they popularize allow young Japanese to express themselves a little more freely.

"The looseness is a well-calculated fashion, you know. Parents don't really understand it, but it's more fun to be loose than tight," she giggles. "Plus it's cool and funky too."

But in some ways, the African merchants are importing more than style. Teenager Yoshiharu Shindo has worked at the Free Park for more than a year and says he considers Elhag his oni-chan or older brother.

"He teaches me a lot about Sudan," Mr. Shindo says. "We also talk about life in general and share a lot of problems together too. I think it's a good thing that more and more Africans are coming into Japan so that we can get to know each other more through this common language called hip-hop."

The attitudes of Japan's younger generation toward blacks and Africans are different from those of their parents' generation says Tsuneo Ayabe, a cultural anthropologist at Tsukuba University near Tokyo. "More and more young Japanese, unlike their parents, are exposed to the outside world at a younger age through traveling, music, and fashion. If they can relate to it, they accept it," he says.

Many Japanese adults still tend to associate blacks or Africans with old stereotypes such as not working hard. But the Africans here by no means fit that mold.

According to Masatoshi Mori, who manages the Free Park, the Africans' motivation and approach to their work has astonished and changed the perceptions of many Japanese around him.

"They never take vacations. Their stores are open even during the Christmas and New Year holidays," he says.

Elhag, who came to Japan two years ago after getting a degree in political science and economics in Sudan, keeps his stall open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week and has been spending his free time studying Japanese.

"If you don't have a way to communicate with your customers, you cannot go anywhere in your business," he explains.

Japan's economic doldrums have hit the Free Park, so the entrepreneurs here aren't taking home as much money as they did a few years ago.

Mr. Mori estimates that some of his tenants were clearing more than $80,000 a year during better times.

"One guy surprised me recently with a story that he built a huge swimming pool back in his home country," he says.

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