Japan and Jamaica became diplomatically linked in 1964, two years after the Caribbean island’s Independence. However, it was not until 1992 that Jamaica established an embassy in Tokyo, under the leadership of Ambassador Derrick Heaven.
Long before that - in the 1970s - Jamaicans had started to arrive in Japan, swept there on the pulsating waves of reggae music. Bob Marley and the Wailers spread reggae across the globe and it found fertile ground in Japan. The growing popularity of reggae in the Far East prompted visits by other reggae artistes and entertainers, who became Jamaica’s first ambassadors to Japan and the region.
Japan soon became an established tour stop for reggae artistes visiting the region. The trend has continued and Japan is the number two market for reggae, behind the United States.
The first generation of Jamaicans to settle in Japan was largely musicians. Many started families there. Decades later, there is a small but growing number of second and even third generation of Japanese Jamaicans, mainly offspring of Jamaican fathers and Japanese mothers.
Reggae artiste David MacAnuff, known as Mackaruffin, is one of the long established members of the Jamaican community in Japan. The drummer settled in Tokyo in 1986 after quitting the band he was touring with and striking out on his own.
Others who came to Japan early included Winston Lindsay, who arrived in Kobe from St. Ann via the United Kingdom, almost 30 years ago. He operates Restaurant Jamaicana, the only Jamaican restaurant in that city.
Since 2000, the population of Jamaicans in Japan has experienced something of a growth spurt. An increasing number of Jamaican teachers have come to Japan to work. The government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program was established in 1987 with the goal of assisting the process of “internationalization” by bringing in university graduates from English-speaking countries. They work mainly as assistant language teachers (ALTs), assisting Japanese English language teachers in classrooms in the public education system.
Jamaica joined the JET Program in 2000. To date over 350 Jamaicans have worked in Japan under the program. Several have opted to remain in the country after concluding their contracts. Many other Jamaicans have been recruited as ALTs by private companies and Jamaicans comprise a significant portion of the teaching staff of many companies. One company, INTERAC, established a permanent recruitment office in Kingston a few years ago.
Other Jamaicans came to Japan to study, mainly on the prestigious government of Japan-sponsored Monbusho scholarship.
Jamaicans have also begun to make their mark in other areas, establishing small businesses like restaurants, and participating in commodity trading and other areas of commerce. Meanwhile, Jamaicans are still involved in entertainment. Montegonian Monique Dehaney, for example, is an in-demand Tokyo-based singer. Damian “Gana-Gana” Young is an Osaka-based dancer and choreographer.
Today, there are fewer than 1,000 Jamaicans residing across Japan. Many face the challenges of adjustment to a different culture, including learning a new language. But the community has established a foothold in Japan and Jamaica’s outsized reputation and the strength and depth of its culture has given the Caribbean country’s brand an impact that other nations, some much larger, can only dream of.
Jamaican cultural events, for example the annual “One Love Jamaica Festival”, attracts thousands wanting to dance to reggae rhythms, drink Red Stripe beer and eat jerk chicken. The exploits of Jamaica’s athletes, especially the imitable Usain Bolt, have captured imaginations across Japan.
A few Jamaican products, such as jerk seasoning and rum, are readily available in Japanese stores and Jamaicans are regularly invited to appear on television programs because of the curiosity and excitement that surrounds Brand Jamaica.
The signs are unmistakable. Jamaica is becoming more noticeable across Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun.