The Status of Black People in Japan: Part IV: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (First Contact)

Part I: Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)
Part II: Color Symbolism
Part III: Imaging Blacks in Advertising

Discussing Japanese and racism is a particularly frustrating problem because Japan is one of those crazy places where it’s easy to believe that everyone is batshit insane, even you. Nothing here is simple. George Weller, the author of First into Nagasaki said, “In Japan, … things are never done the easy way if a painful one exists…”

At this point, we’ve already discussed the concepts of uchi/soto, imaging of Blacks in advertising and color symbolism. Now it’s time to backtrack and explore first contact between African and Japanese peoples. This is important because even now knowledge of the Black/Japanese relationship is still filtered through others and they are not hell bent on showing that relations could be better between our two peoples.

The following excerpts were collected from Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (Second edition 2009) edited by Michael Weiner/ chapter 5: “The other other – The Black presence in the Japanese experience” by John. G. Russell (pp. 85-88).

As I am unfamiliar with this history, I will cut/paste it as is and include a reference list at the end for those of you who may wish to do serious research in the future.


Until recently, scholars on both sides of the Pacific have tended to view Japan's encounter with the West as almost exclusively between Japanese and Europeans, downplaying the presence of non- Western people. In addition to the presence of Malays, East Indians, Indonesians, and Southeast Asians, there was also an African presence, consisting of Africans who accompanied Europeans to Japanese shores as sailors, servants, interpreters, artisans, and slaves. Images of dark-skinned foreigners, some depicting Africans, can be found in sixteenth-century namban prints. While Japanese artists were not above producing demonized portraits of foreigners, the so-called southern barbarians - white and black - many of these prints are not dehumanizing caricatures, instead capturing in colorful detail the procession of Western power and the place of blacks within it.

The mid-nineteenth-century artist Hashimoto Sadahide depicted the dignity and grace of black servants he encountered in Yokohama. His written impressions of the Africans stress the similarities between their customs and those of the Japanese and describe African women as 'rather charming' and as 'bear[ing] themselves with a sort of female dignity,' concluding that they are 'no different in human nature, being kindly and compassionate' (cited in Meech-Pekarik 1987: 44). By the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century, however, such sympathetic portraits would give way to broad caricature closely modeled on Western anti-black stereotypes. The written archive from this period does not ignore the African presence. Sporadic references to Africans do appear, although for the most part they are limited to their roles as servants and slaves, as objects of Japanese fascination and derision. Unfortunately, we know relatively little about how premodern Japanese viewed Africans and even less about how the Africans, in turn, regarded their Japanese hosts. What records we do have come from Japanese who had contact with Europeans, and whose views of the Africans, consequently, were tainted by Western prejudices.

Historians trace Japan's first contact with blacks to the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch traders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, some scholars contend there was an African presence in premodern Japan as a result of Chinese trade with Africa during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. According to Coupland, 'In 976 a great sensation was produced at the court of the Tang Emperor by the arrival of an Arab envoy with a 'negro slave' in his suite; and after that date Chinese books repeatedly refer to 'negro slaves' and... to the Arab slave trade which produced them' (cited in Filesi 1962: 21). Duyvendak (1949: 23) asserts, 'thousands of them [Africans] are sold as foreign slaves.' Chinese scholars maintain China had already established trade relations with the African kingdoms of Kush and Axum during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), though 'African scholars tend to take a rather more skeptical view' (Snow 1988: 2). An intriguing reference to a 'black' man, presumably African, that suggests an African presence in Japan by way of Korea is found in a document produced in the 1670s:

In the country of Inaba [Tottori Prefecture] there was a man of seven feet height. He was from the country of 'kuro.' He had been captured in the Korean war [1592-8] and brought over to Japan. His color was that of soot and people called him kurombo. (cited in Wagatsuma 1967: 43)

Beginning in the sixteenth century, one obtains documented evidence of Japanese contact with Africans. In 1546 Portuguese captain Jorge Alvarez brought Africans to Japan. According to Alvarez, the initial Japanese reaction to them was primarily curiosity: 'They like seeing black people,' he wrote in 1547, 'especially Africans, and they will come 15 leagues just to see them and entertain them for three or four days' (Cooper 1965: 66). The most well ¬documented case is that ofYasuke, a Mozambican youth brought to Japan by the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1537-1606), who was presented to daimyo Oda Nobunaga in 1581.5 The first Japanese reference to Yasuke appears in ata Gyuchi's (1527-161?) Shincho Koki (Chronicle of the Life of Oda Nobunaga) of 1600, wherein he is described as a healthy young man of 16 or 17, black as a bull, and possessed of a fine character (Fujita 1987a: 30). An account of Japanese reaction to Yasuke written in 1584 by the Portuguese Jesuit Luis Frois (1532-97), who accompanied Valignano to Kyoto, relates an incident in which the townspeople, clamoring for a glimpse of the African, broke down the doors of a Jesuit residence. The ensuing melee resulted in the death and injury of several participants. Upon seeing the African, Nobunaga had him stripped and bathed to determine for himself if his skin color was natural (Cooper 1965: 71). This aspect ofYasuke's life is frequently cited by scholars; less well-known - but no less remarkable - is the remainder of his life. Retained as an attendant by Nobunaga, he later accompanied him into battle against rival lord Akechi Mitsuhide (1528?-82), who, upon defeating Nobunaga at Horyuji, spared the African and subsequently released him.

Fujita places the number of Africans temporarily residing in Japan during the sixteenth century at several hundred. Some came to Japan as slaves and servants, others as sailors, soldiers, and interpreters. Their roles were not limited to serving Europeans. Like Yasuke, a number of Africans were employed by daimyo in various capacities, as soldiers, gunners, drummers, and entertainers (Fujita 1987a: 30-3; and Leupp 1995: 2). During the Edo Period (1603-1867) a small number of black Africans lived in the Dutch settlement in Deshima. Despite the policy of national isolation, records show that Africans mingled freely among Japanese visitors and were allowed occasionally to leave the island, as were their European masters.

Prior to the ban placed on Japanese slavery in the late sixteenth century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), privileged African and East Indian slaves in Japan kept Japanese slaves and mistresses, as did their European masters (Clemons 1990: 33--4). Significantly, the ban on the traffic in Japanese slaves applied to all foreigners, white and black alike. Equally significant is the fact that the Africans were allowed to have Japanese slaves at all; if Japanese considered blacks grossly inferior, it is unlikely they would have permitted them to own Japanese slaves. By the seventeenth century, however, restrictions were introduced that specifically prohibited Africans from consorting with courtesans, though doubt remains as to the degree this was enforced, for these restrictions did not prevent Japanese hosts from introducing Africans to the pleasure districts (Fujita 1987b: 253). Africans were also involved in criminal activities, mostly involving smuggling and the theft of animals and food, and, perhaps due to their mistreatment by the Dutch, were sometimes abetted by sympathetic Japanese who were charged as accomplices. Indeed, some Japanese expressed shock at how cheaply the Dutch valued the lives of their black slaves. Wrote Physician Hirokawa Kai:

The kurobo (blacks) ... perform backbreaking and dangerous tasks for their masters without complaint. They work hard, climbing the masts of ships without the least display of fear. The komojin ["red-hairs"; i.e., the Dutch] have brought many of them here. I cannot fathom the ways of the red-hairs, who work and lash [their slaves] as if they were beasts and who kill the young and the strong who resist, throwing their bodies into the sea.
(cited in Fujita 1987b: 251-2)

Hirokawa goes on to note that sick blacks rarely received medical treatment and were poisoned by the Dutch if their condition deteriorated. Another writer reports that if the ailing blacks did not respond to treatment they were kicked to death (Fujita 1987b: 252).


Mansell Upham, a South African historian and former diplomat at the South African Embassy in Tokyo has researched the genealogy of European families in South Africa and discovered a property inventory documenting the sale of one “Anthony Moor from Japan,” who was registered as a son of a Japanese mother and a Moor father, to a European settler in Capetown in 1701 (Japan Times, 16 December 1993: 3, and personal conversation 1993). Although the term “Moor” is racially inconclusive and the inventory does not confirm that he was in fact Black African, the finding does raise the question of the extent of miscegenation between Japanese and Black Africans in premodern times. – J.G. Russell

If you’re read this far then you’ve seen that relations between Blacks and the Japanese were not as bad as expected upon first contact. Yet, an evil called Rangaku (Dutch Learning) may have doomed the perception of Black people forever. To be continued.

References/ Suggested Reading List

Clemmons, E.W. (1990) “The History of Blacks in Japan: The Japanese response to the African diaspora from permodern times to the twentieth century,” undergraduate thesis, Amherst College.

Cooper, M. (1965) They Came to Japan: An anthology of European reports on Japan, 1543-1640, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Duyvendak, J.J.L. (1949) China’s Discovery of Africa, London: Probsthain.

Filesi, T. (1987a) China and Africa in the Middle Ages, California: University of California Press.

Meech-Pekarik, J. (1987) The World of Meji Print: Impressions of a new civilization, New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill.


  1. I'm rendered speechless.

    Not digging the whole owning of Japanese slaves, of course. Not kosher at all.

    But it's good our initial interactions were amicable.

  2. Whites just mess up everything. In the high-school and elementary books they dare not talk about this, for fear of what? Another reason why I stick to going out of my way to reading books that talk about true African history, cause those school books don't say nothing but bs! Thank you Hateya.

  3. Oh my, this is so interesting. I've only read up on Africans as far as mainland China and Taiwan and had assumed that they had reached Japan but never with concrete research. This was such an eye-opening read.

  4. @Ankhesen

    When I first stumbled upon this information, I thought I had misread.

    @Amanda O
    cause those school books don't say nothing but bs

    Amanda O, they want us to believe that we're worthless, they want us to believe we've made no substantial contribution to the world and they want us to believe that everyone hates us as much as they do. Things become significantly more difficult for them when we realize these things are not true and we can discover alternative versions of history via diligent learning. In order to do so, we must seek as many sources as possible.


    I'll be posting the entire chapter here. I do believe they tried to pretend that we had no presence in Japan until post WWII. The truth will set us all free.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Replies
    1. You're welcome. We're fortunate someone did this research.

  7. unfortunately, there are some mistakes - jorge alvares, whom you suggest to be the first to bring black people to jp in 1547 actually died in 1521...
    lets try to find out the truth together - i'm writing phd about african-jp relations now and it's important for me...
    please, write me, if you have any information about it - mailforr1@mail.ru

  8. http://mindennapi.hu/cikk/egyhaz/kocsmakban-is-hirdette-az-iget-az-egyik-legnagyobb-terito/2011-12-03/10319

    I thought you might be interested in this. I am researching early Japanese contact with foreigners and came across your page. The picture above is from a Hungarian site, but as far as I can tell, it's Jesuits missionaries in Japan. One of the entourage is black. (Not the purpose of the site that it comes from, but it seems to be strong evidence for what you are saying.) My impression is that Europeans in the 1500s didn't have a developed sense of "race" perse; it was more "heathens" vs "non heathens". I read an article which I am trying to locate, unsuccessfully so far, about early Europeans as reporting that Japanese as "fair" or "white" I can't remember which word was used - perhaps it was a result of hanging out with aristocracy who got less sun exposure.

    It's great research!


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