From Tokyo to New Zealand, why Black lives matter

Protests against racial injustice circled the globe this weekend, from Tokyo to New Zealand and across Europe, as people demand changes.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Hundreds of protesters march for racial justice in Tokyo on June 14, 2020.

Holding handmade signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” hundreds of people marched peacefully in Tokyo on Sunday, highlighting the outrage over the death of George Floyd even in a country often perceived as homogeneous and untouched by racial issues.

Mitsuaki Shidara, standing in the crowd at Yoyogi Park, where the march began, said Japan has plenty of discrimination problems, but they're overlooked.

“We are all human first, but we are divided by nationality, gender, religion, skin color,” he said, wearing a pendant with the Japanese character for “love,” which he said was his favorite word.

“What’s happening in the U.S. shows racism is going on, even after 400 years,” said Mr. Shidara, who works for a food maker.

Mio Kosaka, another participant, said she had been a victim of discrimination at times while growing up in Beijing and Tokyo, because her parents were Japanese and Chinese.

“I think it is so wrong to discriminate based on appearance, and I wanted to relay the message that the American people have allies in Japan,” said Ms. Kosaka, who is studying design at a college in the United States.

“Some people don’t even know there is discrimination. Awareness needs to be raised,” she added.

Protests have continued across the U.S. but also in Europe, including Belgium, Germany, and Britain, as well as Australia, where people have been confronting racism and demanding change.

The demonstrators were pushed into action by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who said he could not breathe as a white Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee against his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In New Zealand, thousands protested in Auckland and Wellington on Sunday. The Auckland protest began at the central Aotea Square and ended at the U.S. Consulate, where people took a knee and observed a minute of silence for Mr. Floyd.

“When George Floyd took his last breath, it allowed the rest of us to breathe,” social activist Julia Whaipooti told the crowd, according to the news organization Stuff.

Ms. Whaipooti said that while New Zealanders were showing solidarity with people in the U.S., highlighting discrimination at home was critical.

In Wellington, New Zealand's capital, protesters marched from Civic Square to the grounds of Parliament, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and holding placards with slogans including “Racism is a pandemic, let’s fight it!”

Sunday’s turnout in Tokyo underlined how Japan has historically been reticent in dealing with diversity and is now trying to understand the Black Lives Matter movement and grapple with its own history of discrimination.

Such attitudes date back to the feudal era, with the Buraku underclass, and include more recently the offspring of marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese. The children are called “hafu,” derived from “half,” which critics resent as discriminatory.

Kyodo News agency reported that more than 1,000 people took part in Sunday's march, which went from the park through the streets of Tokyo's Shibuya area. The event's organizers put the turnout at 3,500, while police did not give a crowd estimate.

Last week, a rally with similar themes in Tokyo drew several hundred people, and one in Osaka, in central Japan, drew about 2,000. More Black Lives Matter gatherings are planned for next week, in the southwestern city of Fukuoka and the central city of Nagoya. The rallies reflect how more people of various backgrounds are becoming part of a rapidly globalizing Japan.

Although Japan is not reputed for police brutality, people have come forward recently, complaining that police have treated foreigners, especially Black people, unfairly, stopping them for no reason, or have handled people with unneeded force.

“There is no country without racism, and I think the countries that don’t portray it are just because people are ignorant of the problem,” said Kazuna Yamamoto, a Japanese woman living in Chile who was taking part in Sunday’s rally in Tokyo.

“There is inequality because certain people are definitely profiting or benefiting from it,” she said.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, the world's highest-paid female athlete, has also been vocal in raising awareness about racism in Japan and has gotten some flak on social media. Ms. Osaka, who has Haitian and Japanese parents, has expressed empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, and posted a photo of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who knelt during the U.S. national anthem, in protest of racism and police brutality.

“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the GRÖNLID,” Osaka said in a recent tweet, referring to a type of sofa sold at the furniture chain.

European protesters also sought to show solidarity with their American counterparts and to confront bias in their own countries on Sunday. 

In Paris, riot police fired tear gas Saturday to disperse a largely peaceful but unauthorized protest against police brutality and entrenched racism, as France’s minorities increasingly push back against a national doctrine of colorblindness that has failed to eradicate discrimination.

In London, far-right activists and soccer rowdies scuffled with police while trying to “guard” historical monuments that have been targeted recently by anti-racism protesters for their links to slavery and British colonialism.

The events in the two European capitals reflected the global emotion unleashed by the death of Mr. Floyd in the United States and the ensuing reckoning with racial injustice and historical wrongs. In both cities, protesters defied restrictions on public gatherings imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In Milan, Italy, protesters scrawled “rapist’’ and “racist’’ in Italian on the statue of a late Italian journalist who had acknowledged having had a 12-year-old Eritrean bride while stationed in the Italian colony on the horn of Africa in the 1930s. The statue of Indro Montanelli, inside a Milan park that bears his name, has been a flashpoint in Italy’s Black Lives Matter protests.

In Germany, protesters in Berlin on Sunday formed 5 ½-mile chain in a message against racism, among a range of other causes. Demonstrators were linked by colored ribbons, forming what organizers called a “ribbon of solidarity” that stretched southeast from the Brandenburg Gate to the Neukoelln neighborhood.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Geir Moulson in Berlin; and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report. 

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