Posted on June 13, 2005

Once Shunned as Racist, Storybook Bestseller in Japan

Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, June 12

TOKYO — A writer’s death can do wonders for pushing that back catalog. Less drastically, a few books acquire cachet by being banned.

Which may help explain why a reissue of “Little Black Sambo,” a turn-of-the-20th century illustrated children’s book attacked as being racist, is on the bestseller lists in Japan this spring.

The Japanese edition of “Sambo” was a big favorite here, from the time it was introduced in 1953 until it was yanked from bookstores in 1988 after a swift and effective anti-racism campaign.

The rap against it in Japan echoed that heard in the West years earlier: Sambo was a racist term for American blacks and illustrator Frank Dobias’ portrayal of the main character, with his bulging white eyes and exaggerated, thick lips, was tantamount to a boy drawn in blackface.

In April, Zuiunsha, a small Tokyo publisher specializing in reprints, bet that there was still a market for a book that had charmed generations of Japanese youngsters who, as adults, were unable to find the book to read to their own children.

The market proved him right. Zuiunsha reportedly has sold 95,000 copies in two months since bringing out “Chibikuro Sambo.” Despite being a child’s read at a thin 16 pages, “Sambo” sits among the top five adult fiction bestsellers at major Tokyo book chains.

“Some people buy it out of nostalgia,” said Tomio Inoue, Zuiunsha’s president, who gambled that he wouldn’t face a backlash for breaking the informal ban when he picked up the rights to the book. “Many readers didn’t know why it was out of print. They missed the book.”

“Sambo” has returned to shelves with few objections in a country where blacks remain extremely rare. One complaint has been published in an English-language newspaper, written by an African American resident of Japan. An online petition against the publisher garnered 263 signatures by Saturday, most of them from non-Japanese, many from abroad.

That is a far cry from 1988, when a mainly American campaign drove the book off Japanese shelves. The undoing was triggered by a report in the Washington Post that noted the popularity of a book “that most Americans thought had died a well-deserved death years ago,” as well as several Sambo-related doll items on sale in Tokyo department stores.

The article spawned a letter-writing campaign in Japan from the Assn. to Stop Racism Against Blacks, which was later discovered to be essentially a one-family enterprise.