2.26.2011

The Status of Black People in Japan Part V: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (Rangaku – Dutch Learning)

Part I: Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)
Part II: Color Symbolism
Part III: Imaging Blacks in Advertising
Part IV: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (First Contact)

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. 88-90).

With the importation of Rangaku (Dutch Learning) came not only knowledge of Western geography and science but also Western prejudices against Africans and other subjugated races. Geographic references to Africa based on conversations with the Dutch were, on the whole, unfavorable, depicting its inhabitants as salacious, savage, stupid, inferior, and cannibalistic. It is important to recall that few Japanese writing on Africa had ever visited the continent. Most of these accounts were filtered through information obtained second-hand from European merchants and missionaries. Even when Japanese set foot in Africa, their perceptions of the continent and its peoples were colored by their European mentors.

The general scholarly consensus has been that Japanese perceptions of blacks were monolithically negative (Miyoshi 1979; Wagatsuma 1967, 1978; Wagatsuma and Yoneyama 1980; Reischauer 1988). Citing the journals of Japanese envoys dispatched to the United States in the nineteenth century, Miyoshi (1979: 60) notes the revulsion they felt toward black skin. In his discussion of modern Japanese attitudes toward blacks, Wagatsuma writes, 'Although they are ambivalent toward Caucasian physical characteristics, the Japanese are unequivocally and unanimously negative toward the negroid features of black Americans and Africans' (Wagatsuma 1978: 121; emphasis mine). Wagatsuma and Yoneyama (1980) attribute this phenomenon to cultural values involving traditional Japanese aesthetic predispositions.

In fact, Japanese attitudes toward black people have been neither static nor universally negative. Rather it appears attitudes evolved in tandem with Japan's exposure to outside cultures, principally – but not exclusively – those of the West, whose own attitudes toward blacks and other dark-skinned peoples were decidedly negative when it encountered Japan in the sixteenth century. Cultural reductionist models that attribute Japanese anti-black attitudes to deeply embedded, remarkably static traditional aesthetics or to a visceral revulsion toward black skin tend toward an ahistoricism that retreats from interrogating power relations in the construction of color prejudice writ large and the role Western racial paradigms have played in the global invention of black alterity. Such models fail to explain why racially ascribed attributes such as laziness, stupidity, and hypersexuality – which Japanese had ascribed to outsiders regardless of skin color - came to be associated primarily with dark-skinned people. Nor do they explain why - unless one is prepared to posit a universal negrophobia – these traits are identical to those ascribed to blacks in the West. Conversely, Japanese predilection for whiteness does little to explain why whites – whom one might assume would have been privileged by virtue of their 'white' skin – were nonetheless despised during the early stages of Japanese-European contact as uncivilized, hirsute barbarians and feared and mocked as tengu (long-nosed demons). Only gradually did whites come to be regarded as the embodiment of civilization, sophistication and physical beauty.

While there exists a negative symbology surrounding the color black in Japan, the extent to which it informed premodern Japanese attitudes toward 'black' people is debatable. This is not to suggest that Japanese were colorblind. A variety of terms were used in premodern Japan to refer to dark-skinned outsiders, including kurobo ), kuroboshu, and kurosu. The last was employed in the sixteenth century to identify black Africans, but by the Edo period (1615-1867) it had grown to include all dark-skinned people (Fujita 1987b: 240, 243). Another Japanese term, konrondo ("black slaves"), is derived from the Chinese ideograms for kunlun-nu, 'slaves from Kunlun"), Kunlun originally referring to a fabled mountain range that was believed to span parts of Tibet and India. By the fourth century, the term was applied to frontier tribes and Khmers, and, in the eighth century, Malays and Africans.

Note (summarized):Originally, the Chinese applied this term, Kunlun, to Malaya race and the races of the South-West and as Chinese knowledge expanded, the term was applied to the native races of countries around the Indian Ocean, including the Negroes (Duyvendak 1949:23). The term was also used as a sobriquet for a fourth-century priest and a Chinese consort, perhaps owing to their dark complexions. Despite their dark complexions, these individuals enjoyed positions of power and privilege in premodern China. By the 10th century, accounts of Kunlun with “frizzy” or “wooly” hair would suggest an African origin.

Although konrondo originally referred to East Indians, like its Chinese cognate, it too later grew to include Arabs and Africans (Fujita 1987b: 244). The derivation of kurmbo a pejorative term for blacks and dark-skinned people that is often glossed in English as 'nigger,' is somewhat more obscure.

Note (summarized): Kokujin (black person), is a neutral term. Kurumbo (black one) is pejorative and belittling. In Japanese, the suffix – ‘mbo’ connotates childishness, immaturity and disreputable character. Shimbo(u) (white one, whitey) was once applied to albinos and Caucasians. This suffix is also used to express endearment, as in akambo (baby). Kurumbo is also applied to naturally dark-skinned and tanned Japanese.

Citing an unidentified philologist, Wagatsuma contends that the term was derived from Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), since the dark-skinned servants aboard the Dutch ships were 'identified as people from Colombo' (Wagatsuma 1967: 432). Philologist Suzuki Tozo (who presumably is Wagatsuma's unidentified source) makes essentially the same ' claim. While these terms sometimes conflated Africans with Malays and other dark-skinned peoples, such was not always the case. A letter written in 1618 describes the konrondo on the Dutch ships as originally coming from Kaburi (Africa), adding that the Dutch called them suwaruto yongozu (zwartze jongen; black youth)."

The line separating Japanese discourse on people of African descent from Western discourse is a difficult one to draw given that Japanese-language accounts about Africans were written after contact with Europeans. Whatever the nature of Japanese premodern sensibilities, they do not appear to inform contemporary Japanese constructions of blackness. Rather, it is the lineage of Western-inspired imagery that survives. When asked what images come to mind when they hear the term kokujin (black person), most Japanese mention 'Chibi Kuro Samba' (Little Black Sambo), 'Kaze to Tomo ni Saranu no Mami' (Gone with the Wind's Mammy), 'Tomu Oji-san' (Uncle Tom), 'Tomu to Jeri no maido' (Tom and Jerry's maid, Mammy-Two-Shoes), and any number of contemporary popular black entertainers and athletes. All of these figures are clearly not drawn from Japanese mythology, history, and literature.

Thank heavens many young people today are NOT familiar with these stories. They're primarily familiar with black entertainers and athletes and they practice the same hero-worship as our own children. Distressingly, I've heard of at least one day care center teaching Little Black Sambo, derogatory terms included. Since it’s a private facility they're very little that can be done about it. Sambo, while disgusting and despicable to us, is cute and clever to them. – H

Also problematic to the understanding of Japanese constructions of blackness and attitudes toward blacks is the fact that the historical conditions out of which Western images of blacks evolved did not exist in Japan, whose own colonial projects involved neither the systematic exploitation of Africa nor the barbarities of the slave trade. This is not to suggest that other mechanisms of 'othering' based on culturally meaningful categories of difference (including skin color) did not exist in Japan prior to European contact, or that contemporary manifestations of Japanese racialism are entirely Western derived. Japan's treatment of its internal and colonial sub¬jects (Ainu, Ryiikyiians, Koreans, Chinese and South East Asians) as well as of burakumin, testifies to the prior existence of such systems.

If these practices existed prior to contact with the West, where did they originate and why? Hint: The Middle Kingdom. It remains to be seen if any of these researchers will allow Japan to be adult and own up to its own biases and prejudices.

References/Suggested Reading

Duyvendak, J.J. L. (1949) China’s Discovery of Afrca, London: Prosthain.

Fujita M. (1987a) ‘Nihon-shi no Okeru “Kurobo(u)” no To(u)jo: Afurika o(u)rai kotohajime (Early History of Afro-Japanese Relations: People called Kurobo(u) in the sixteenth century), Hikaku Bungaku Kenkyu(u) 51, 28-51.

Miyoshi, M. (1979) As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy in the United States, Tokyo: Kondansha International.

Wagatsuma, H. (1967) ‘The Social Perception of Skin Color in Japan,” Daedalus/i>, Spring, 407-43

Wagatsuma H. (1978) ‘Identity Problems of Black-Japanese Youth,’ in Robert L. Rotberg (ed.) The Mixing of Peoples: Problems of Identity and ethnicity, Stamford, Connecticut: Greylock, 117-129.

Wagatsuma, H. and Yoneyama, T. (1980) Henken no Kozo (The Anatomy of Prejudice), Tokyo; NHK Books.

10 comments:

  1. I remember reading about the school who was doing a play of LBS. The American parents were disturbed but the teacher's didn't stop. I just can't stop thinking about how great of a PR campaign westerners must have had back then. I dunno why I can't get that out of my head

    ReplyDelete

  2. The line separating Japanese discourse on people of African descent from Western discourse is a difficult one to draw given that Japanese-language accounts about Africans were written after contact with Europeans. Whatever the nature of Japanese premodern sensibilities, they do not appear to inform contemporary Japanese constructions of blackness. Rather, it is the lineage of Western-inspired imagery that survives.


    How utterly frustrating is that??? *sigh*

    Kick-ass post, Hateya. You do our sociology and history section proud.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If these practices existed prior to contact with the West, where did they originate and why? Hint: The Middle Kingdom. It remains to be seen if any of these researchers will allow Japan to be adult and own up to its own biases and prejudices.

    The Middle Kingdom = China right? Are the researchers trying to say that Japan was an utopia of sorts, without any cases of othering before contact with China?

    ReplyDelete
  4. @GoddessMaverick,

    I find the entire concept of LBS extremely disturbing and I can't yet find the strength to read the book. It's not something we can easily forget. Thank you for reading this series.

    @Ankhesen

    Though this series isn't popular, I'm attempting to be useful. :D Early on when I was specifically searching for information about the first Africans to arrive in Japan, I couldn't find much. It wasn't until I began reading the previous edition of this book did I finally stumble upon information about our "lost" history in Asia. Had I not been seeking information about my husband's heritage, I doubt I would have found enough information to share.

    @EccentricYoruba

    Are the researchers trying to say that Japan was an utopia of sorts, without any cases of othering before contact with China?

    They probably are and we should take whatever they say with a grain of salt because many are simply Japanophiles. On the other hand, Japan as a country, did not exist exclusive of China for many centuries. This little nation is also forever inventing and reinventing itself and this seems to be the primary reason why others refuse to make them accountable. This, too, is an insult to them as it implies that Japanese people are childish and stupid.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hateya, trust me when I say this series is doing well. This is first-rate work.

    ReplyDelete
  6. We should aware like these Apartheid white art. It's not good because every human beings has natural rights which give by God.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent blog!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sorry just scrolled below *facepalm*.

    But its really a great article.
    I've been contemplating on how skin colour has become some sort of hierachial system in many countries. But the influence of the West in the early days and even now is starting to make sense.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Not to sound ignorant, but what does LBS stand for? What is that work? I'm freshly out of high school, and can you tell they aren't giving blacks a BIT of the real history we need to know. They barely recognize Black History Month...just saying.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ji-chan, the only ignorant people are those who don't ask questions. LSB stands for Little Black Sambo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Little_Black_Sambo Be grateful you've never heard of LBS.

      As for Black History Month, you can do what I do, explore Black HISTORY every single day. The majority might be ignoring our wants and needs, but the Internet is affording us an opportunity to speak for and to educate ourselves.

      Delete

Comments are no longer accepted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.