Wednesday June 15, 2005
Copyright – The Guardian
Seventeen years after it was removed from bookshops for its racist content, the children’s story Little Black Sambo has made a comeback in Japan.
The tale of Sambo, a boy who uses his wits to survive after being stalked by tigers, was a hit in Japan when it was first published here in 1953.
In 1988, Japanese booksellers agreed to remove it from their shelves after a US-led campaign against its racist language and imagery.
Last April, Zuiunsha, a small publisher in Tokyo, decided to reissue the book – under its Japanese title Chibikuro Sambo – reckoning that today’s children would be as enchanted by the book as their parents were.
The gamble has paid off. About 100,000 copies of the 30-page book have been sold in the past two months and it has made it into the top five on the adult fiction bestsellers’ lists at big bookshops in the capital.
The publisher brushed aside claims that it was cashing in on a work that many consider racist, with its depictions of Sambo – a derogatory word for black people – with bulging eyes and exaggerated lips.
In the late 1890s Helen Bannerman, a Scot, wrote Little Black Sambo for her children while they were living in India.
“Times have changed since the book was removed,” Zuiunsha’s president, Tomio Inoue, told the Guardian. “Black people are more prominent in politics and entertainment, so I don’t think this book can be blamed for supporting racial stereotypes. We certainly had no intention of insulting black people.
“Sambo is a brave boy who gets his reward at the end of the story. He fights the tigers using his brain so that he won’t get eaten. It’s an exciting story and children love it. I hope people will see it the same way.”
Few protests have been voiced in Japan, which has a very small black community, although an online campaign against the book attracted messages from a few people, mainly Americans. “We have replied to all of them in English explaining our position and have heard nothing back, so I think they understand,” Mr Inoue said.
Meanwhile, the Japanese cosmetics maker Mandom said yesterday it had stopped showing a TV commercial after complaints that it was racist. In the advert, for face blotting paper, several black people wipe the sweat from their brows while a chimpanzee wearing an afro wig imitates them.
“We are very sorry and apologise to viewers and other people who felt offended,” a company spokesman said.