I interrupted my reading of Miriam Silverberg’s masterpiece in order to peruse two articles which call attention to Japan’s earliest exposures to African and African-American people(s) and culture(s) and the historical significance of these contacts. The corpus of identity issues in Japan, especially with reference to race, minority and discrimination, is not only of personal interest but, in my opinion, has carried political and cultural weight from medieval times up to the present day. My intention here is to expose the ways in which images of black people have been a matter of considerable importance to Japan’s history by making specific reference to Gary P. Leupp’s Images of Black People in Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Japan, 1543-1900 and Yukiko Koshiro’s Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan. I also want to investigate historical similarities between black people and Koreans (the latter whom I covered in a previous post) in regard to racial acceptance and rejection in a country which constantly redefined its position towards other ethnic groups in order to benefit its shifting geopolitical agenda. Lastly, I want to show the impact of African Americans’ striving for social justice and how this inspired and mobilized Japanese leftist movements.
Interesting things I learned from reading Prof. Leupp’s article:
- The first appearance of black people in Japan occurred in the 16th century;
- Black people arrived on European ships, either as slaves, sailors or attendants to Christian missionaries or traders;
- They were the subject of intense fascination among people of various social status (both upper-class and commoners);
- One famous African was a man from Mozambique to whom Oda Nobunaga gave the name ‘Yasuke.’ Nobunaga was so intrigued by this foreigner that he put him on his payroll. Yasuke fought for his new master until Nobunaga was forced to commit suicide. Akechi Matsuhide (Nobunaga’s vanquisher) spared Yasuke and eventually released him from service;
- Before the deterioration of tolerance towards foreign presence and the closing of the country in the early 17th century, black people were allowed to move freely, take Japanese wives, buy Japanese slaves and were even recruited in the service of various daimyō;
- The black people employed by the Dutch East India Company served as translators at the shogun’s court and sometimes engaged in smuggling European goods;
- African people were often confused with Indian people. This confusion contributed to radical revisions of Buddhist art as when Bodhidharma and Sakyamuni Buddha were depicted as having black skin.
With the advent of Dutch Studies (Rangaku), the overall positive, tolerant attitudes towards people with dark skin changed radically. Derogatory descriptions and terms started to appear in poetry and scholastic writings as early as 1764. In all instances, dark skin was associated with low status and a lack of civilization. However, some scholars adopted a more skeptical view. For example, Ōtsuki Gentaku, a Dutch Studies scholar, had this to say:
Among koronbō [a term heterogeneously spelled referring to black people, which only later started to carry derogatory connotations] there is certainly a distinction between the noble and the lowly and the wise and the foolish.
Following the weakening of bakufu closed-country policies and the arrival of the Black Ships in 1853, interactions with white Westerners became more widespread. Feelings of appreciation and awe for Western superior technology and weapons gave way to disparaging attitudes towards all non-white people, especially those colonized or conquered by the West. These included non-Japanese Asians such as Indonesian, Chinese Koreans, etc. White color skin became associated with superior intellect while the opposite judgement was accorded to dark color skin. Questionable Western perspectives of an absolute racial hierarchy (with white-skinned Europeans and Americans at the top and black Africans at the bottom) were readily accepted. Moreover, foreign racialist attitudes had a role to play in the dissemination and assimilation among the Japanese people of the idea that blacks belonged to an inferior civilization. The American envoy, for example, was no stranger to such circumstance:
In Yokohama on 23 March 1954, Perry announced a ‘minstrel show’ after dinner and drinks with his hosts. (One diary referred to the event as an ‘Ethiopian Concert’). Crewmen in Perry’s vessel, The Powhatan, put on black faces and sang ‘Mistah Tambo’ and ‘Mistah Bones’ to the apparent delight of the Japanese in attendance. The show was a huge success.
|Assembled Paintings of Commodore Perry's Visit, 19th Century|
This and other similar depictions of black people as innately inferior or as objects of ridicule became ingrained on the Japanese psyche. Soon, Japanese scholars and politicians started to promulgate this notion far and wide. For instance, various members of the ambassadorial missions to US were recorded as making the following distasteful remarks:
The blacks are inferior as human beings and extremely stupid.
The laws of the land separate the blacks. They are just like our eta caste… The whites are of course intelligent, and the blacks stupid. Thus the seeds of intelligence and unintelligence are not allowed to mix together.
It seems that the whites are beautiful and shrewd and intelligent; and the blacks are ugly and stupid. So the whites always despise the blacks.
Statements like these were proof of the enthusiasm and willingness by which Japanese people adopted and routinely parroted Western behavioral norms and morals. The deep-rooted racist structures of the colonial West appeared in the mind of the Japanese as perfectly acceptable social prerequisites for a strong national economy and state-of-the-art military. There were only a few resisters to this view but it’s important to mention that they existed. However, when the tenets of Social Darwinism began to make incursion in the Japanese academia, these dissenting voices were largely suppressed in favor of a theory that stimulated and endorsed feverish dreams of empire — a modern nation’s new grail — and Japan’s superiority over non-Japanese Asian nations. It also upheld the social divisions in the society as the discourse of nationalism became more ingrained and accentuated: discrimination against Koreans and burakumin was now not only admissible by centuries of tradition but it was also justified by modern science imported from the West.
Strange as it may seem, the fate of the earliest contacts between Japan and black people suffered the same fate as the Koreans. While the initial exposure to blacks and Koreans before and during Tokugawa rule was graced with vibes of inquisitiveness and acceptance, after the Meiji Restoration these tendencies took a turn for the worst, mostly under the auspices of Western influence. For decades afterwards up to the end of WWII, Japanese scholars and statesmen became entangled in the push for world racialization both at home (where domestic legislature and tradition discriminated against burakumin and Koreans) and overseas (where the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was ideologically and materially built upon racialist views of Japanese superiority). And even though Japan tried to use the exploitation of blacks in the USA as a warning signal to other Asian nations and urged them to unify and stay strong against Western imperialism (under the aegis of the Japanese Emperor, it was implied), in the end, as Mr. Leupp wrote, “such exploitation itself served racist and fascistic goals.”
But there was another side to relations between Japan and black people. Prof. Yukiko Koshiro describes in her article the substantial role that African Americans played in Japanese culture and politics. She argues that African American history, literature and especially the struggle for recognition, acceptance and equality were extensively celebrated in Japanese arts and politics as early as the 1930s. In her detailed exploration of race relations beginning with the Meiji period, prof. Koshiro manages to put together a pastiche of positive causes and effects resulting from the interactions between Japanese and African Americans. In fact, she argues that,
Throughout the twentieth century, African American struggles for freedom and equality have inspired Japanese people far beyond the doomed rhetoric of alliance under the Japanese banner of Pan-Asianism. Those Japanese who attempted to build different kinds of trans-Pacific relations with African American people…dissented from the troublesome race ideology of the nation, challenged it, and envisioned a better Japan.
Before race relations took a sour turn, it is worthy to remember that the Iwakura Mission of 1871-1873 showed respect and admiration for African American advancements in society and politics. The encounter with African American culture had a constructive effect upon members of the mission who went on record stating the following:
It is obvious that skin color has no bearing on one’s intellect. Therefore, those ambitious blacks who saw the importance of education strove to learn and work harder and became great intellectuals, for who uneducated whites were no match.
The history and social condition that befell African Americans were a source of inspiration for Japanese people, especially for the nation’s newly-ensconced statesmen who tried to replicate the gains of a supposed inferior Asian race back at home. Just in the same way that black people managed to secure rights and freedoms in America (albeit limitedly), so Japan wanted recognition of its worth as an equal, strong Asian nation on the world stage. Even though it sought the validity of white supremacy in this matter (validity which, ironically, was incentivized by colonial prospects and, in time, came to be applied brutally against other non-Japanese Asian races) it can be said that Japan’s earliest understanding of African-American people was handled with natural, positive charm.
Another example of positive Meiji attitudes towards African Americans was the translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin which came out in print in 1896. The publication of similarly-themed books continued in the Taishō period with the appearance of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography in 1919. In a show of admiration for black culture that continued to be evidenced in Japan around this time, many prominent African American leaders were invited to special events or held lectures at distinguished academic institutions. For example, James Weldon Johnson became the first African American to be invited at the emperor’s garden party in 1929 and W.E.B. Du Bois visited Japan in December 1936. When relations between Japan and America became tarnished, even ultranationalists like Mitsukawa Kametarō and Kita Ikki turned in their writings to examples of African American struggles, such as Marcus Garvey’s call ‘return Africa to the Africans’, in order to spark a national reaction against Western influence.
Unfortunately, this seeming appropriation and defense of African American culture was nothing but a facade. While Japan continued on an imperialist path and began occupying other Asian nations, it borrowed Western methods of discrimination and exploitation in their dealings with their colonies. Western racist hierarchies of social division started to be enacted both at home and overseas with little concern for the hypocrisy behind political maneuvers like the racial equality motion put forward by Japan at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Here, Prof. Koshiro is in agreement with Prof. Leupp when she observes that “Pan-Africanism [was] merely one branch of Japan’s Pan-Asianism.”
Into this complicated fold of identity politics and race enter the Japanese Marxists who regarded African Americans as “a revolutionary resource” and “as the vanguard of the world’s proletarian movement.” Prof. Koshiro’s article deals at length with Japanese Marxists and the cultural and political impulses coming from African Americans which galvanized their movement. I found this part to be the most interesting.
Japanese leftists fighting against imperialism at home were largely and brutally crushed. Some of them, like Katayama Sen (1860-1933) and Ishigaki Eitarō (1893-1958), successfully fled to the United States where they continued their fight against social injustice while drawing inspiration from the emancipation of African Americans. Katayama built relations with African American radicals and even published their writings in his journal, The Liberator. Ishigaki portrayed the struggles of black people throughout his work. For a Japanese immigrant to make art which criticized the discriminatory culture of his adopted country and to imbue this art with proletarian flavor (at a time when socialist trends were frowned upon) is nothing short of remarkable. It’s no wonder that in 1938 his works were removed and destroyed after
the New York City Concil found it offensive that a Japanese not only took it on himself to interpret American history, but also publicly gave African Americans a heroic appearance. Worse, the concil also condemned Ishigaki of panting Abraham Lincoln “with Negroid features.”
The close ties between Japanese leftist intellectuals and African American culture survived WWII. Unfortunately, the sources of WWII tragedy — embodied in the emperor system, militarism and oligarchic control of the economy — survived as well and they now thrived and enjoyed the protection of the American occupation. With the American occupation in force, the sufferings of the Japanese people were being compared to African American persecution. Marxist historians like Kikuchi Ken’ichi saw similarities between the exploitation of black people in the US and Japanese people in Japan. As the social emancipation of both ethnic groups was kept in line and regimented under the new imperialist order of capitalism, Nukina Yoshitaka published in October of 1956 the journal Kokujin Kenkyū (Journal of Black Studies), which further cemented the relations between leftist intelligentsia and African American culture.
But the most notable social development in Japan during the postwar years was the emancipation of Japanese minorities who found new strength to voice their discontentment with decades of state-enforced discrimination and abuse. These minorities sought inspiration for their challenges in the historical experience of African Americans. As a result, burakumin, Ainu, Korean and Okinawan people
“stood up to challenge the notion of Japan as the land of a homogenous population. Their postwar movement looked at the African American experience as a lesson and a model, and it hoped to eventually find a solution for a universal pattern of discrimination.”
The two articles I dealt with in this post made me acknowledge the depth to which black people and African American culture were able to permeate the historical and social edifices of Japan. Prof. Koshiro especially articulated the interlinkages between African American struggle for social justice and Japan’s battle for recognition on the international stage, but also at a domestic level with regard to minority issues. Resistance against Japan’s imperialist action in Asia (and the repulsive racism which it demonstrated in its expansion) existed with the impetus of African American influence. But this was only expected because, as we saw from prof. Leupp’s essay, the links between black people and Japanese people ran deeper than one might think.
|The Noose, 1931|