Oh Hell No! Chibikuro Sambo…Little Black Sambo!?!

I got an article from my friend Dinene the other day, and the article discussed a book that was re-released in Japan called Chibukuro Sambo or ちびくろさんぼ. Chibu in Japanese can be likened to the world small, or little. Kuro is the color, black and Sanbo means…Sambo.

I remember seeing this book months ago and completely overlooked it over after seeing the young boy in black face with the super red lips. It’s disrespectful. Not to say that it hasn’t been done to other races as well in media and literature. I actually remember seeing an old Merry Melodies cartoon (which I’m sure will never see the light of day again) which had very offensive caricatures of Japanese people. It was a different America then, but that doesn’t change the fact that the cartoon was/is offensive as hell:

See what I mean? Not cool, right?

The article I read about Chibikuro makes mention of one of the stories where “Little Black Sambo” uses his clothes to help ward off a group of hungry tigers. I was quite curious about the book, so I went to my local bookstore, ACADEMIA in IIAS Tsukuba, Japan and asked for the book. Sure enough the store worker went right to it. This is what she gave me:

ちびくろさんぼ or Little Black Sambo.

Why? Sigh...I couldn't believe it!

So apparently there is a three-book-set for ¥3000. I had absolutely no intention of buying the book, but I took a picture because it really bothers me to no end. How, in this day in age, do people still get away with nonsense like this?

I wasn’t around during the Martin Luther King marches or the Jim Crow laws (the laws that segregated blacks), but my freaking parents and grandparents were. When I see black people being represented like this, my mind goes back to the stories my Mom and Dad used to tell me, those documentaries I used to watch about a very different south (I’m from Georgia). A south where black people were viewed and treated and depicted as animals, as second class, as inferior.

I don’t know for sure if this author of this book knew what they were doing when they printed it, because in Japan I honestly think there is an element of ignorance behind stuff like this. I remember while I was teaching at AEON, one of the songs they wanted me to teach was Shortening Bread, but I refused to teach it to the kids, for very similar reasons…it’s a song with a similar undertone (to AEON’s credit though, they were extremely professional about the situation). I also remember seeing a video clip (thanks again, Dinene) of Japanese people dressing up in black face to imitate Billy Blanks. They weren’t necessarily doing it to be racist, but it’s not an excuse, you have to be more sensitive than that.

With this book though, it’s the title that makes me suspicious “Little Black Sambo,”. Sambo was a derogatory term used for black people before the Civil Rights Movement (probably even much further back). It was derogatory then and it’s derogatory now. I really couldn’t believe how easy it was to get a hold of this book. I thought the book had been pulled of of shelves, but I guess I was wrong.

Donald Ash

P.S.-Here is a link to the article I read before venturing out to the book store:


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  • This kind of stuff always bothers me alot. As I said when I emailed you before, being mixed and living in a rural area has an interesting problem. My Mom and Dad had enough problems back then for being interracial and being married.. I’m really surprised to see something like that lying around today.. anywhere. Granted, I also had to read heart of darkness 5 times in undergrad. >_> Did not enjoy that.

  • Alva

    The picture is disrespectful; but the story is actually fun.

    Sambo got new clothes and goes off in the jungle with it with joy, only to meet up with some tigers. He gives them the clothes to ward them from eating him. Only to make the tiger more greedy and rivalous about the clothes. He climbs a tree as the tigers attack each other for the other clothes. The tiger runs around the tree and eventually melt into butter.
    Sambo then climbs down the tree, puts on his clothes and takes the few tigers’ amount of butter home for his mom to cook pancakes. He and his family ate a lot… A LOT of pancakes.

    I thought the story was creative, though I didn’t like the pictures.
    I’m sort of happy about the story coming back… but not the picture too!

    • Donald Ash

      I’ll never know how fun the stories are because I won’t be reading them.

  • Rebecca Quinn

    In Ireland Sambo is short for Sandwich. Like a Ham Sambo.
    I didn’t know it meant anything derogatory.
    I will never say that again. How is this still going on in this day and age I’d like to know.

  • I saw this book or something similar at the library in my town (in Japan). My mouth dropped open a little. It really isn’t surprising in Japan, though. Respect of other cultures is not something that is taught. I’m pretty sure a lot of kids in Japan still learn racism from their parents. They just don’t get that something like this is wrong. I really think you would have to sit down and explain it to them.

    And for the record, I also hate it when black comedians paint themselves “white” and act white. Reverse discrimination isn’t cool either.

  • Ceci

    I stumbled on a recording of the Swedish group ABBA singing the “Pick a Bale of Cotton” song, but they made it sooo peppy and upbeat. Freaked me out. Now, the song isn’t a really slow one normally, but daggum…the song is about being forced to do work beyond what a normal human body can withstand …about breaking you down having to work so hard and so fast. I kept it despite it making me feel weird. It reminds me of how little we all really know about the lives of other people.

    I think books and music like this need to be kept…but as a reminder of how easily we can all become cruel, or demean others, how we can get so wrapped up in looking at things purely from our perspective that we totally miss what the event/book/music etc is doing to someone else. I’m scared if we don’t keep things like that book, humanity might actually regress because we’ll be tossing away a mirror that shows us the bad side of ourselves and the knowledge that a little disrespect could eventually lead to downright cruelty.

    Good and evil; it’s in everybody.

    • Donald Ash

      OH NO! Not the “Pick a Bale of Cotton” son!! :O Keeping these kinds of material is a different take on things, but a very thoughtful one, Ceci. Yeah, how does that saying go? “Those who don’t learn from history and destined to repeat it.” It can’t hurt for people, regardless of race, just to be more sensitive.

  • Dinene

    I’m glad you blogged about this book. It really needs to be pulled off the shelves. We need to educate the Japanese on what they think is harmless really is offensive. When I lived there and had to watch all my high school students gleefully dress up in black face, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess they just don’t know the history behind it.

    • Donald Ash

      Sigh…I know, right? I don’t think they’re being racist, but I completely agree with you…I don’t think they know the history behind it either 🙁

  • Honestly… I just thought it looks cute… And Sanbo sounds cute too… I think maybe that’s how Japanese think, it’s cute? I didn’t know it had a negative stuff.

    Also, what’s wrong with Shortening Bread song? I remember when I was little it was a song my mom would sing with me when she played hand games.. It was like “three little kids all sick in bed, sent for the doctor and the doctor said give those kids some shortenin’ bread… mommma’s little baby loves shortenin’ shortenin’ momma’s little baby loves shortenin’ bread” it was fun, is there bad things in the song? Actually I don’t know what is shortenin’ bread. lol

    Ooh, I remember seeing that! I thought it was supposed to be comedy? Even billy banks was there in on the joke, and americans on SNL and things dress up as black or mexican or muslim or other white people but everyone just takes the joke? :s

    I think… knowing history is good so we don’t repeat the hate…but, people really need to chill out. Racism is about hate towards a certain ethnicity, isn’t it? Like the KKK, that’s racist. A Kinnect not recognizing two really dark skinned gamestop employees faces is not racist, just kind of bad programming. I think people who say “racist” a lot actually end up being the ones who help to keep racism around… Like lots of black youth saying “nigga” all the time… I really don’t think ancestors who wanted that word gone would be happy with that. Me and my friend (a black girl) were mimicking this really funny Japanese commercial where the family was pretending to be gangster and went all like “niggaaaaaa” and then this other black girl stopped us in the hallway when she heard me say “And he was like nigga!..” and she was like “b*tch that’s racist you can’t say nigga” and I’m like “eh..? you say it all the time… I just said it talking about a commercial with my black friend…>_> why am I racist?”… It gets a little silly… It’s like, if you want to stop racism then stop singling yourselves out all the time and distancing yourselves and expecting special treatment, right? For any race! I know at my old school, Asian cliques and black/mexican cliques would talk sh*t and make fun of white people, etc. all the time and each other, but if someone who wasn’t the same ethnicity said something they’d go off. How come? It’s like they think that it’s only okay for themselves to do and say things, but then when other people end up thinking it’s okay for them too since the others are doing it, they say “racist!” when they’re freaking endorsing it. I’m asian and white but I don’t get upset if someone makes a joke or I see something about asians or white people or culture, as long as it’s not hateful, then I’ll feel a little bad… But, if it’s cute, or if it’s joking (not maliciously), then I don’t care. Like the animation “Dr.Tran” omg I thought that was hilarious, and a lot of my friends did too, but there was some people I knew who got really upset… I don’t know why? They were upset because he lived in a hut… I just thought that was a stupid thing to be upset about, it’s funny! and people do actually live in huts so what’s wrong with that? >.> He’s a little boy from a small village in asia who has a voice that keeps saying he’s a doctor and super hero and crazy things happen to him. XD Or Asian americans with the “ching chong ling long” youtube vid, which I still thought was really stupid, I didn’t think “racist” I just thought “stupid blond girl who can’t speak chinese complaining about loud people” it’s not like she was being racist, if they’d be mexican or white or black she would have imitated that too :s it was kinda funny XD people need to chill… If there’s hate involved, I think it’s a bad thing yeah, but “racist!” doesn’t need to be thrown around so much. >_< I know there was the US slavery and hate towards a lot of ethnicities in history… but, US people fought hard to get away from racism and be equal in the past so their future generations could have better lives, but, I think today's youth are just making it harder to get rid of racism.

    Sorry if I don't make sense or anyone is offended, I wasn't trying to, just my thoughts from seeing it. ;;

  • Donald Ash

    Just like I mentioned in Dinene’s comment, I don’t necessarily think the Japanese people responsible for the book or the black-face skits are being racist. But I do think there is a level of ignorance associated with it (i.e.-they don’t the history behind what they’re doing). But even if it’s because of ignorance, does that make it okay? I don’t think so.

    That Shortening Bread song was one that was always associated with slave/plantation workers who had to feed their southern “master’s” kids. I found an old record of this song at a yard sale once, and it was a troupe of white males done up in black face. That’s the reason I wasn’t going to teach it to the kids. Where I come from, there were negative connotations associated with the song.

    Even we look back at some of the cartoons, my brother and I are avid cartoon watchers, the networks (Cartoon Network) pulled or changed some of the cartoons I remember seeing as a boy. One cartoon in particular that was pulled, was a Tom and Jerry cartoon (I still have it on VHS) where Jerry and another mouse dress up in black face to escape from Tom. They walk by, as the Shortening Bread song is playing, just before Tom discovers their ruse.

    As far as the little kids running around using “nigga.” Maybe they believe in a double standard, but I really can’t speak for them, I can only speak for me. My parents didn’t condone me running around saying “nigga,” and when I do have kids, I’m about 99.99999% sure I’ll be the same way.

    I consider myself to be a super open-minded person, so when I hear the word “nigga/nigger” I don’t just fly off the handle, I consider the context of the situation.

    I can’t claim to be a Civil Rights expert, because I wasn’t there, it was before my time. But I do know enough to be respectful.

    If there was a comic that made use of images associated with the Holocaust (even indirectly), I would feel the same. I respect what many of those families went through just because they were Jewish. Of course the books like Little Black Sambo are gonna resonate with me more because I’m black. Although I didn’t directly have to experience the tough times, I know that people were hung & burned, beaten, sprayed with high-powered water hoses just because of the color of their skin. I try to be pretty sensitive about those kinds of things regardless of the person’s race or religion.

    I agree that times are far different than they were, and that’s great. But I can’t see this book as cute, when I know that dressing up in black face was a poking fun at black people during a time when they weren’t respected or treated fairly.

    I really and truly appreciate you for speaking your mind so candidly, Macchan. Thanks for posting.

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