TOMODACHI Critical Conversations Series: What is BLM?

On July 25, the TOMODACHI Critical Conversations Series kicked off with a session titled “Part 1: What is BLM?”

As the Black Lives Matter movement became global, even making its way to Japan, the U.S.-Japan Council saw a strong need and opportunity to host a panel discussion on this important issue. Through the Critical Conversation Series, organized by USJC’s TOMODACHI Initiative, we aim to bring together the next generation of leaders in Japan and the United States in order to facilitate peer-to-peer learning by convening thoughtful and inspirational speakers, creating a safe space to share experiences and perspectives, and continuing to educate ourselves through dialogue.

The event was attended by 50 participants from both the United States and Japan, with most Japanese participants having studied abroad or spent at least two weeks in the U.S. They were split into eight groups, led by facilitators from the USJC U40 community committed to the ideals of diversity, inclusion and awareness through education and dialogue. The discussion groups were created to provide close peer-to-peer discussions in a safe space. 

The event began with welcome remarks by USJC President and CEO Suzanne Basalla. She introduced her former colleague, Consul General Karen Kelley, who she worked with at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo during the Great East Japan Earthquake and the recovery efforts that followed. 

Consul General Kelley offered opening remarks about her position as Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Osaka-Kobe and her experience as the first African American woman to hold the post. She shared that she is “heartened that young people, not only young people in countries around the world but young people in the United States across our diversity and across our ethnicity, are standing up and saying, ‘America we hold you to your ideals, and we want the America represented by the Statue of Liberty, and not this America that we see currently as being oppressive to any group of people.’”

The Fireside Chat featured Black Lives Matter Tokyo co-founder and organizer Juniper Alexander and TOMODACHI alumnus Iain Mason as moderator. It addressed the issues of why Black Lives Matter has had an extraordinary impact and how it has become a global movement, as well as why this issue is important in Japan. Ms. Alexander shared how the Black Lives Matter protests in Tokyo began as an effort to show solidarity for the movement in the United States and how it was amazing to see so many diverse groups of people standing up for this cause in Japan as well. 

The event then moved into discussion groups that provided the opportunity for attendees to connect with one another to ask the tough questions, be open, and listen and learn from one another’s experiences.

“We’ve never been taught racism in Japan seriously, and we have never questioned what we’ve been taught,” said Kota Kondo, a participant. “Changing education would be really tough, but now I know that is the goal for the BLM movement in Japan.” 

Eiko Megan Uchida said, “[The event was] very helpful in re-educating myself on the background of the BLM movement, and the insights of speakers have made this issue much more personal to me. I think this kind of platform is exactly what we need to deepen our understanding.”

After the event, the participants were given resources to continue their education and plan to share ways to keep in touch to continue the dialogue organically. From the survey, over 75% of attendees said their idea of the Black Lives Matter movement evolved as a result of this program.

The Critical Conversations Series will continue, with Part 2 focusing on the Japanese American experience and allyship, and Part 3 focusing on discrimination in Japan. We encourage everyone to join the conversation to share, listen and learn together.

Click here to watch “Part 1: What is BLM”?