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  • A Persistent Parallax:On the Writings of W. E. Burghardt Du Bois on Japan and China, 1936-1937
  • Nahum Dimitri Chandler (bio)

I. The Theoretical Itinerary of a Perspective—1897-1909

In the first public articulation of the first stage of his intellectual maturation, in a lecture presented at the inaugural session of the American Negro Academy in early March of 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois had already expressed his fundamental sense of the circumstance of Japan understood as a certain kind of whole within the context of modern global historicity. In conjunction with the core insistence of his presentation—that is, the necessity and possibility of the articulation of a cogent and unique ensemble of ideals on the part of the "American Negro"—Du Bois in parallel fashion declared the same measure for late Meiji-era Japan: "For the development of Japanese genius, Japanese literature and art, Japanese spirit, only Japanese, bound and welded together, Japanese inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the wonderful message which Japan has for the nations of the earth" (Du Bois 1897, 10). [End Page 291]

Three years later, in his presidential address to the third annual meeting of the same organization, in the context of offering the first thematically distilled proposition of one of the two or three most central conceptions of his entire itinerary, namely his thought of a "problem of the color line" spanning the entire trajectory of modern history on a global level under the title "The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind," Du Bois again called attention to Japan as "the one bright spot" in all of Asia, as an ongoing challenge to the European and American promulgation of a "color line" in that region of the world by way of their imperial and colonial subsumption of the nations, peoples, states, and empires therein (Du Bois 1900, 98). Such coerced and militarily forced subsumption was in high throttle at the turn of the twentieth century, not only indexed by the direct imposition of foreign rule in various contexts over the previous four centuries, completely displacing any previous claim to sovereignty, but also and especially indicated by the imminent imposition of extraterritorial sovereignty by Western powers at the expense of the host country, massively afoot throughout the region at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, along the coasts of China, on Hong Kong island and its surround (and likewise, but on a different register, Taiwan) through the system of so-called treaty ports, where such process had begun in earnest in the 1840s (Fairbank 1969).

Thus, it must be understood that the appearance of Commodore Perry off the coasts of Japan in 1853 and 1854, demanding rights to establish trading ports on territory under the imperial authority of the Japanese emperor—a concession granted in full to the United States some four years later through fundamentally coercive negotiations from the American side, which were followed by other European powers, notably Britain (and resulting in agreements, in which, for example, an American citizen or a British subject was not subject to Japanese law, and their actions could not be judged or penalized according to the Japanese legal system, but only in the consular courts of the relevant foreign power)—was simply an expression of this more general regional and global process. From the advent of the Meiji restoration in 1868—an oligarchic revolution that was in part set in motion by the humiliation of those treaties and what they represented, that overturned the bureaucratic military rulership under the hereditary authority of a shogun [End Page 292] of the previous two and a half centuries (with lineaments referring back to the thirteenth century C.E.), and which restored the emperor-ship to singular authority—Japan had sought to revise, rescind, or revoke those treaties. Only in the late 1890s was such finally accomplished.

Thus, Du Bois, nearly half a century after the American intervention, recognizing this ongoing initiative toward the historic imperial subsumption of Asia, in particular China and Japan, by way of his formulation of a "problem of the color line" wrote in 1900 of Japan: "The one bright spot in...


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