The Inside Story: Entrepreneur, activist works to bring awareness to racial issues in Japan

Photo courtesy Edward Scruggs
Leila Odagaki strives to educate the public about the plight biracial and mixed-race Japanese nationals face in Japan’s slowly changing society.

Japanese society doesn’t hesitate to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to Leila Odagaki, it’s undoubtedly about the inside story.

One look at the mixed-race entrepreneur and it’s obvious her journey cannot be described in mere words, whether it’s the eye-catching spirals that curl her hair or the body art that highlights about 70% of her skin, it’s safe to say she stands out.

In fact, she is diversification personified, the product of an African American father and a Japanese mother. And because of her appearance, she has had to stand aside, stand down and stand back at times in her native Japan — experiences that are unfortunately not unusual among members of the biracial or mixed-race community who were born and raised here.

The movement against racism amid the fallout of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota about 1½ years ago triggered worldwide outrage and also inspired the 37-year-old to stand tall in the face of prejudice in Japan. And Odagaki has joined the chorus of people voicing resistance, her efforts mainly on Instagram.

“I want other mixed-race people to see an older mixed or half-Japanese and say, ‘Oh, that’s also a way I can go,’” she told The Japan News. “I don’t have to go the way Japanese society is pushing me or expecting of me, I can go where I want to go. That’s what I want to see as well, because I didn’t have that growing up.”

As movements commenced across Japan in 2020, Odagaki appeared in a YouTube series a Tokyo organization supporting the Black Lives Matter movement released earlier this year. The ongoing series focuses on the way Japanese society talks to and constantly points to the differences among members of the mixed-race community. She strives to educate the public about some of the prejudicial behaviors — from the subtle to the outright — that are generally accepted here.

Her battle continues as an uphill challenge that began while she was still in the womb.

Photo courtesy of Leila Odagaki
Odagaki spends a moment of leisure at the used bookstore she runs in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture.

Taking to Instagram

Odagaki finds herself teetering along a narrow wall that separates her Japanese and independent-thinking American sides. She said the members of the social media audience she targets include those who are trying to better understand anti-Black attitudes here and elsewhere.

Her physical appearance has long been an issue in Japan, but she decided there’s no need for her to choose one side or the other. Odagaki said she identifies as mixed, not only because it’s true, but it also provides a soft landing spot in a world of labels.

Ethnicity and attitudes associated with Japanese nationals of mixed race certainly have played a role in Odagaki’s presence on social media as she strives to impact change wherever possible by helping this country self-examine its biases.

“What I want to do is present short — five minutes, 10 minutes max — videos of instances that I feel are easier to digest,” Odagaki said about providing a road map for dealing with discrimination.

Odagaki said she’s not necessarily a role model, but her posts serve as ignition points for social conversation. She boldly questions attitudes and long-standing standards that have impacted those struggling with their identity here for decades.

“I don’t really want to come off as accusatory, but just offer something to consider. Things are going on in the world and maybe you’re wondering, ‘I don’t get it.’ So, I hope that maybe listening to another point of view can maybe bring some perspective into this,” she said, adding that some Instagram users aren’t so willing to admit Japan’s quickness to label anyone and treat them differently just because of race.

“I understand it’s scary because it’s challenging a lot of what you thought was false or things that you thought were true. And that’s everything from your education to your upbringing, it challenges a lot of things and I know it’s a gradual process, and I just hope that my videos help in that transition of being more open-minded.”

However, she said some Japanese nationals tend to discount subtle behaviors that can come across as offensive or demeaning.

“It really invalidates things that you notice,” she said. “And I really do try to think about it from their point of view — as a Japanese person or a white person or whatever — they really don’t know this world, they’ve never been there. I understand it, I’m not saying they’re a bad person, but they can do better.”

The in-house struggle

Born in Fussa, Tokyo, as a military brat with her father in the U.S. Navy, Odagaki also lived in Hawaii from toddler age to 8. She returned to live in Kanagawa Prefecture, moved to Nagoya in 2011 and out to Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, in 2020 with her partner.

She opened Bakezori Books in April 2018 in Toyokawa to sell art reference books to tattoo artists and enthusiasts. Odagaki and her partner also run Back in Black Tattoo Studio in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, and a second location, Company, in Toyokawa.

Odagaki’s cultural exclusion began about the time of her conception. She said the fact that her mother wed a foreigner of a dark-skinned complexion created a schism within the family.

“I think the biggest awakening that I was different was that my Japanese family refused to see me,” said Odagaki, who has a sister three years her junior and a younger half-brother. “And it was because my mom married out of race — not just with an American man, but with a Black American man. They weren’t having it. They had already cut me off before I was birthed.

“I felt like a foreigner in my own home,” she said, pointing out that she began life behind the starting line. Odagaki said she has never met some of her relatives, a number of whom are now deceased.

The home environment, which became predominantly Japanese when her parents split up, preached conformity. She said her mother and grandmother pushed her to be as Japanese as possible in a society that was — and still is — fixated on a person’s exterior.

“They thought, ‘Keep trying — straighten your hair, stay out of the sun.’ They couldn’t see that it wasn’t going to happen,” she said about her home life. “In their eyes, I wasn’t trying hard enough to fit in. They couldn’t understand that they were raising a mixed kid — they were raising the kids that they wanted, not the ones that they had.”

That element of her upbringing was evident when she said her mother would go alone to Tokyo to attend family events with Japanese relatives. Only after some time did her grandmother and a few relatives start to occasionally visit.

The racial pestering at home wasn’t always one-sided, though.

“I got pushback on both sides of my family,” Odagaki said. Her father sometimes indicated she was “off code,” another way of saying not Black enough, and his comment that she was “lucky” to be so light-skinned was another signal giving her the sense she was not fully supported on either side of the family.

Hitting barriers despite citizenship

The recent contributions that numerous half-Japanese Olympians made at this summer’s Tokyo Games likely gave the country a strong sense of the growing number of mixed-race nationals, a community that includes the everyday person who doesn’t have the kind of remarkable skills that garner huge media attention.

That means the constant barriers and unwelcome comments can hit just as hard as cruel epithets.

Odagaki said the battle is never-ending as social pressures and individual notions of what being “Japanese” means bombard the mixed-race community. Because of her citizenship and language ability, she can certainly cut through that jungle easier than foreign residents. But those assets are nullified at times.

“When I go to city hall, they don’t see a Japanese girl,” she said. “They see a foreigner, and I get treated as such. When I’m walking down the street and the police see me, they don’t see a Japanese girl, they see a foreigner and I get stopped.

“There’s nothing you can do. It all starts with what you look like. It doesn’t matter how well you speak, how long you’ve studied here, your last name — it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t.

“Japan has a real serious problem when it comes to this kind of exclusion. And as a mixed person, I’m kind of right in the middle. I can manage here because I have all the Japanese privileges — I have the paperwork and I have the name, and I have those things. Someone who’s completely foreign doesn’t.

“I think in Japan they don’t see it, or they don’t want to see it. I don’t know. I don’t think a Japanese person has been confident enough to talk to me about it honestly, unless they were here [on social media] to chastise me about something.

“So if someone who’s half sees me and says, ‘She’s half and she still faces these things,’ what about someone who isn’t Japanese at all, what is it that they’re facing?’

“Maybe this [activism] will get some conversations going, and I really hope these conversations can reach places that can start making a difference, whether it’s a [school] faculty [member] or something on a much bigger scale. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Odagaki said she has familiarity with the Black experience here and abroad, but she cannot be a spokesperson for one race or the other.

“I don’t want to speak for Black people, because the truth is, I’m not. I’m mixed. I kind of have an advantage that this isn’t foreign territory to me. I’ve lived here for so long — I have a juminhyou [resident card] and a honseki [house registry], so I don’t think it’s my place.

“I really want to be an entry point into the realization of a much bigger problem when it comes to being foreign here or immigrants here who often experience tokenism, or are mistreated or are even treated as invisible or lesser.”

Her affinity for tattoos is certainly not invisible. And the extra challenges from society because of them are just part of another chapter for Odagaki, whose complete story knows no bounds.