positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 183-215
[Access article in PDF]
Beyond an Alliance of Color:
The African American Impact on Modern Japan
Few people realize the extent to which Japanese people have interacted with and been influenced by African Americans and their history. Japanese high school students today at least read excerpts from original works by Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., and Marian Anderson in Ministry of Education–approved English textbooks.1 Yet no Japanese history book pays homage to those African Americans who have played a substantial role in U.S.-Japanese relations since their earliest phase: Pyrrus Concer, a former slave who came to Japan before Commodore Perry;2 Carrie Wilson, the daughter of a former slave from Missouri, who married Masumizu Kuninosuke, an early Japanese settler in the famed Wakamatsu Colony in Sacramento, California, together with whom she heralded a history of Japanese immigrants of African American heritage;3 or the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro League who [End Page 183] visited Japan in 1927, four years earlier than the (all-white) All Star American Major League baseball team.4
Ever since the American media played up derogatory remarks on African Americans by Japan's Liberal Democratic Party politicians in the 1980s, the public seems to refuse to think any further, but take it for granted that all Japanese are racists who avoid contacts with African American people. It is time to bring to light long-ignored Japanese readings of African American history, literature, and struggle and investigate why the story of Japanese interactions with African Americans has been muted rather than celebrated.5
There are some reasons for the silence. Since the early twentieth century, the unity of the "people of color," Japanese and African Americans, posed a menace to Washington and also a threat to U.S.-Japanese friendship. The U.S. State Department had suspected and looked hard for evidence that African Americans and Japanese immigrants were forming a racial (antiwhite) conspiracy to stage a revolt against Washington.6 In fact, as Tokyo-Washington diplomacy became estranged in the 1930s, Japanese propaganda called for a trans-Pacific racial alliance between Japanese and African Americans as an anti-American (antiwhite) gesture.
Regardless, it is undeniable that Japanese views of and interactions with African Americans have affected the discourse of Japan's own identity in more than one way. 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 in fact dissented from the troublesome race ideology of the nation, challenged it, and envisioned a better Japan. By recognizing the complexity, contradiction, and potential of Japanese relations with African Americans, it becomes possible to construct a narrative in which African Americans receive due place in mainstream Japanese history. Only then does it also become possible to reclaim the trans-Pacific Afro-Asian century and look beyond.
To predetermine that skin color dictated the definition of Japanese attitudes toward African and African American peoples demands extreme caution.7 As Japan's full-scale Westernization began in the latter nineteenth [End Page 184] century, the nation's leaders and intellectuals tried to escape the fateful notion of innate racial inferiority, a pet "scientific" notion of the time, and struggled to advance their status in the white-ruled world. Japanese people developed different images of African Americans from the images of African people, because African Americans were colored yet modern and westernized.8 The Japanese displayed a mixture of curiosity and admiration regarding African American political struggles in the so-called land of democracy. In spite of their African origin, history of slavery, and skin color, African American people were westernized, that is, thoroughly versed in the American traditions of democracy and capitalism. The Japanese leaders were inclined to view African Americans as a model for young Japan in...