Part IX: The pre-war period and the Japanese construction of Blackness.

The series continues with the pre-war period, African, African-American and Japanese alliances, and the Japanese construction of Blackness. Links to earlier posts and references/suggested reading can be found at the end of this document.

The following excerpts were reproduced 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. 99-103). Russell is a professor in the Faculty of Regional studies at Gifu University.


Pre-war Japanese interest in African and African American people was fueled by a mixture of idealism, nationalism and imperialist ideology. For the most part, Japanese elites were well informed about conditions in black America, as well as being deeply and more directly concerned with anti-oriental movements in California and Hawaii and discriminatory laws targeting Japanese. Japan's interest in the question of racism had led it to introduce an equality clause at the League of Nations in 1919, which was supported by many black intellectuals who drew parallels between Japan's quest for equality with the West and their own quest for racial equality in America and who saw a need to internationalize the struggle against white privilege and racial oppression in world affairs.

Toward these ends, contacts between African Americans and Japanese had taken shape: in mid-February of 1919, a month after Japan's attempt to introduce the racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations, the W.E.B. Du Bois-organized Pan¬African Congress met with Japanese in Paris. That same year, a delegation of prominent African Americans leaders met with Japanese in New York prior to the peace conference to seek Japanese support 'to remove prejudice and race discrimination in all nations of the earth' (Kearney 1998: 87).

Japanese attempts to ally themselves with black people in the United States - and elsewhere - were both pragmatic and reasonable, given the discrimination both groups faced. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of racial equality left much to be desired, for not only did Japan's racial equality clause not question the right of League members to possess colonies (at the time Japan was also seeking a guarantee from the League of its rights to the Shantung Peninsula in China, which had been seized from Germany during World War One) but its demand for 'fair and equal treatment' applied only to 'civilized nations' (bunmei koku) and League member states - not to their colonies and subject peoples.

Note: For a critique of the racial equality clause, see Morikawa 1998: 35-60 and Kearney 1998. Kearny notes that had Japan’s proposal been adopted, ‘Japanese nationals residing in the United States could demand that no distinctions be made against them on account of race and nationality. In addition, Liberia and Haiti, as members of the League would become able to make demands on the United States, which native-born Americans could not. For black Africans to receive equal democratic treatment accorded to other non-white members of the League, they would have to leave their country and reside abroad (90).

Japan's ruling elites were less interested in securing equality for non¬whites than in ensuring that Japan, as a sovereign nation and member of the League, would be afforded the same privileges as Western nations, including the right to overseas colonies. The equality clause would not have prevented Japanese and other League members from discriminating against their own internal minorities. Nor did it dissuade Japan from supporting the Western powers' recarving of Africa following World War One and South Africa's annexation of Namibia in 1919, or from pursuing close diplomatic and economic ties with that racist state (Morikawa 1988: 44-8). Indeed, Japan's leaders were not averse to bending the principles of racial equality when it served the national interest. This was certainly the case in South Africa, where Japanese were exempt from the restrictions that applied to non-whites and enjoyed many of privileges held by its white minority. It might be argued that such treatment, while falling short of that desired of the racial equality clause, was in practice not inconsistent with the clause's main objective of guaranteeing Japanese equality with whites. Although the rhetoric of 'Africa for the Africans' expressed Japan's desire to remove whites from the affairs of the continent, Japan itself was exempt from the demand and had few qualms about affiliating itself with racist white regimes that allowed it access to African markets and resources. Between 1910 and 1920, Japan had become South Africa's second largest export market, and by 1933 Japan ranked among its six major suppliers of goods (Yap and Man 1996: 248). In the end, the Japanese countenanced discrimination so long as they themselves were exempt (albeit only partially and ambiguously), they could maintain national prestige, and they were elevated above other people of color.

African American responses to the Japanese were mixed. While not unreserved in his support of the Japanese, as editor of The Crisis and Phylon, W.E.B. Du Bois had persistently pointed out the hypocrisy of American criticism of Japan's aggression against China while America itself maintained a military presence in Haiti and remained silent on the English colonial presence in India. Another prominent voice, Langston Hughes, was more qualified in his assessment of the Japanese. In I Wonder as I Wander (1956), Hughes describes his two-week visit to Japan in 1933. Already a celebrity among the Japanese literati, Hughes meets with fellow writers, attends a play in Tuskiji, and meets backstage with its cast, who greet him 'with open arms,' and he is 'welcomed as the first Negro writer ever to visit their theater' (Hughes 1986: 241). Later he is invited to the Pan Pacific Club, where he makes a speech in which he informs his audience that in America 'it would hardly be possible for white and colored people to dine together at any of the leading clubs or hotels,' 'compliments the Japanese people on being the only noncolonial nation in the Far East, having their own sovereign government,' and expresses his hope that 'they would not make the old mistakes of the West and, like England, France and Germany, attempt to take over other people's lands or make colonials of others' (243). Although sympathetic to Japan, Hughes was no Japanophile. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Du Bois, who were willing to overlook or downplay Japan's colonial abuses, Hughes sympathized with the Chinese and Koreans, who 'were in somewhat the same position as Negroes in the United States' (276). Suspected by Japanese police of being a communist spy and of expressing anti-Japanese sentiments, Hughes was deported.

Interest in Hughes and African American views of the Japanese was not confined to the Japanese police; it was shared by the FBI, which from 1942 to 1943 commissioned the Survey of Racial Conditions in the United States - code-named RACON (for 'racial conditions') - to gather intelligence on African American organizations in order to determine the impact of communist and Axis, primarily Japanese, propaganda on the African American community, whom the FBI suspected of constituting a potential fifth column.
Note: See Hill 1995: 507-49.

Japanese agents had, in fact, attempted to propagandize American blacks by presenting Japan as an ally in the struggle against Western imperialism. The invasion of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy in 1935 brought blacks and Japanese together. Like Japan, black America held Ethiopia in high regard, since it had remained independent of European colonialism and had successfully defeated a previous attempt by the Italians to colonize it in 1896. Blacks around the world rallied in support of Ethiopia, raising money and sending medical supplies. In London, the International Friends of Ethiopia was formed, and in the United States, a group of black leaders, including Ralph Bunche, formed the Ethiopian Research Council. US blacks joined the Ethiopian army or volunteered their services as technicians, pilots, and teachers.

The Italo-Ethiopian War rekindled Japan's interest in Ethiopia. In the summer of 1935, a rally in Tokyo to protest the invasion, sponsored by the ultranationalist Kokuryii Kai (Black Dragon Society), was attended by 200 people. Japanese interest in Ethiopia was by no means new. In 1886 a translation of Samuel Johnson's (1709-84) Abyssinian novel Rasselas (1759) appeared under the title Oji Raserasu Den (The Life of Prince Rasselas). In 1905 the preface of a new translation mentioned the defeat of the Italians by Emperor Menelik II during the first Italo-Ethiopian War. Menelik II and the Battle of Adwa were also the subject of Japanese short stories and adventure novels set in Abyssinia.

Note: For a discussion of the Japanese image of Ethiopia during the Meiji and early Showa periods, see Aoki 1994: 3-18); Shirasi Kenji 1983: 171-97; and Okakura and Kitagawa, 1993: 29-61.

In the 1920s Japan developed relatively close diplomatic ties with Ethiopia. Haile Selassie met with Japanese at the League of Nations in 1920, the Ethiopian foreign minister was received in Japan in 1921, and economic missions were dispatched to Ethiopia to draw up commercial treaties. Japan's Ambassador to Turkey attended the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930. To Japanese, Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia was a symbol of white domination. As another non¬white people who had successfully escaped Western colonial domination, Japanese could easily identify with the Ethiopians. Both countries could boast of a history going back thousands of years into antiquity and of an equally long imperial line.

The attraction was mutual. Ethiopians felt an affinity with Japanese inspired by Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War and by Japan's successful modernization. The Ethiopian government adopted Japan as the model for its own modernization and modeled its constitution on the Meiji Constitution. In 1931 a diplomatic mission headed by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Walda-Sellase Heruy arrived in Japan. Later that year, Haile Selassie sent two lions to the Japanese emperor, and these were donated to Ueno Zoo. The following year, Sumioka Tomoyoshi, a Japanese diplomat, was awarded the Menelik II Medal, Ethiopia's highest honor, in recognition of his activities in promoting friendship between the two countries. Sumioka went so far as to postulate a linguistic link between Amharic and Japanese and suggested that Ethiopians and Japanese could trace their descent from a common ancestor who had emerged in Central Asia. Cultural and economic ties between Tokyo and Addis Ababa were to have been furthered through ties of blood as well. On 30 January 1934, the influential Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper reported that Kuroda Masako, the daughter of a Japanese aristocrat, had been chosen to wed Araya Ababa, a relative of Haile Selassie often described as a 'prince' in Japanese accounts. The event was widely reported in the Ethiopian, Japanese and African American press, where it was interpreted as indicting a lack of race prejudice among Japanese (Kearney 1998: 120-1; Okakura and Kitagawa 1993: 37-9). The marriage, alas, did not take place, allegedly because of Italian interference.

There seems little doubt that much of Japan's expressed solidarity with the Ethiopians was motivated by trade considerations and the rhetoric of race war. By 1927 half of Ethiopia's imports came from Japan, of which over 90 percent were cotton and artificial silk (Okakura and Kitagawa 1993: 31-2). The Japanese government, hard pressed to justify its own imperialist ambitions in China, including its invasion of Manchuria in 1931, refrained from criticizing the Italians. Eventually, Japan reached an understanding with the Italian Fascists, and in 1940 joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact; popular support for Ethiopia soon evaporated.

Several prominent African American intellectuals visited Japan during this period, including W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. Translations of the works of several African American writers had appeared in Japanese, including Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (trans. 1927), Jean Toomer's Cane (trans. 1930), Du Bois' Dark Princess (trans. 1930), Walter White's The Fire in the Flint (trans. 1930), and several works by Hughes. Japanese leftists introduced their readers to black revolutionary figures such as Nat Turner, Demark Vesey, and Toussaint-L'Ouverture, who served as powerful symbols of resistance to white power and privilege (Koshiro 2003: 193). The African American press carried reports by blacks who had visited Japan and had been impressed by the kindness and hospitality of their hosts. When the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a black baseball team composed of players from various Negro League teams, played several exhibition games against Japanese teams in Tokyo in 1927, they received a warm welcome.

Note: Sayama 1990: 83, and 1993. Sayama argues that the Negro League played a major role in the emergence of Japanese baseball, describing it as ‘the mother of Japanese professional baseball.’

In part X, we’ll examine the effect the occupation and the post-war period had on the Japanese construction of Blackness.

Suggested Reading/References

Aoki, S. (1194) 'Meiji Jidai no Afurika-so: Bungaku sakuhin ni arawareta Africa to Nihonjin (The Image of Africa in the Meiji Period: Africa and Japanese as seen in literature), in Kawabata Mashisa (ed.), Afurika to Nihon, Tokyo: Jeiso Shobo 3-18.

Hill, R.A. (ed.) (1995) The FBI's RACON: Racial conditions in the United States during World War II, Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Hughes, L. (1986[1956])I Wonder as I Wander, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Kearney, R. (1998) African American Views of Japanese: Solidarity or sedition?, Albany; State Univeristy of New York Press.

Koshiro, Y. (2003) ‘Beyond Alliance of Color: The African American impact on modern Japan: 1543-1900,’ Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 11 (1), Spring, 183-215.

Morkiawa, H. (1988) Minami Afurika to Nihon: Kankei no rekishi, kozo, kadai (South Africa and Japan: The anatomy and history of the relationship), Tokyo: Dobunkan.

Okakura, T. and Kitagawa K. (1193) Nihon to Afurika Koryu-shi (A History of Japan-African Exchange), Tokyo: Dobunkan.

Sayama K. (1993) 'Densetsu no Niguro Boru: Nihon purp yakyu tanjo mitsushi' (A History of the Legendary Negro Leagues and Its Relationship to the Development of Japanese Professional Baseball) in Kokujingaku Nyumon (An Introduction ot Black Studies), Tokyo: Takarajimasha, 43-52.

Yap M. and Man, D. L. (1996) Color, Confusion and Concessions: The history of the Chinese in South AfricaL University Press.

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)
Part V: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (Rangaku ? Dutch Learning)
Part VI: A possible Chinese influence on the Japanese construction of Blackness
Part VII: The Effect of anti-Black Stereotypes and Western Privileging on the Japanese construction of Blackness
Part VIII: Darwinist Thought and the Japanese Construction of Blackness


  1. Thank goodness Langston Hughes wasn't a Japanophile. ;)

    Seriously, this segment referenced Reginald Kearney and his book African American Views of the Japanese: Solidarity or Sedition? I'll be summarizing various chapters and segments from his writings in a future series. Since the book solely focuses on the relationship between the two people, it might shed even more light on the situation.

  2. This was a really good one, Hateya.

    Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Du Bois, who were willing to overlook or downplay Japan's colonial abuses, Hughes sympathized with the Chinese and Koreans, who 'were in somewhat the same position as Negroes in the United States' (276). Suspected by Japanese police of being a communist spy and of expressing anti-Japanese sentiments, Hughes was deported.

    Langston Hughes *bows head* Ever the immortal Hughes. Good thing he wasn't a Japanophile, indeed.

  3. This series keeps getting better Hateya. It's amazing what pragmatism and self interest will prevent you from acknowledging.

    The hypocrisy of Japanese leadership as well as folks like DuBois, makes me shake my head. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. I swear the more I read this the more I feel like I'm getting a free college course! Splee!!! Thank you for taking the time to form all of this for us! Japan's propagandizing with African Americans reminds me of Castro.

  5. I swear the more I read this the more I feel like I'm getting a free college course!

    OMG, I know what you mean. It's like this is the type of stuff POC would LOVE to learn in school, but 99% of the time don't get to.

  6. @Ankhesen
    This was a really good one

    I aim to please. ;D

    It's amazing what pragmatism and self interest will prevent you from acknowledging.

    Few things in life are easier than being willfully delusional.

    @GoddessMaverick and Ankhesen
    I swear the more I read this the more I feel like I'm getting a free college course! Splee!!! and It's like this is the type of stuff POC would LOVE to learn in school, but 99% of the time don't get to.

    Knowing that this series has been empowering makes me very happy. Knowledge is power, but knowledge of ourselves is EMPOWERING.

    I have a few other things to offer in this "course" as well and I'll work on them as soon as I can. April is Hell month in Japan, so I'll be around less often, but I won't give up.


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