3.04.2011

Part VI: The Status of Black People in Japan – A possible Chinese influence on the Japanese construction of Blackness

Due to the lengthiness of the series, the links to previous parts have been moved to the end of the post.

The following excerpts have been reproduced as is 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. 90-92).

One might object that this analysis neglects Chinese influence. Dikotter (1992) argues that premodern Chinese held Africans in contempt, viewing them as an inferior, ugly, and savage people, and notes their acquisition of African slaves prior to European contact. Given China's early encounters with Africans and historical ties with Japan, the possibility of a Chinese influence on Japan's images of blacks, predating Japan's exposure to European influence, cannot be easily dismissed, particularly in light of the fact that the preference for white skin in ancient Japan was itself rooted in Chinese aesthetics. The Japanese practice of oshiroi (cosmetic skin whitening) originated among the court elite of the Nara (710-94) and Heian Periods (794-1185) in imitation of the Chinese aristocracy, though among the elites of both societies, skin color served as a symbolic marker of class - not racial- difference. Indeed, the association of dark skin with low status predated Chinese contact with Africans, having its roots in the treatment of dark-skinned Chinese peasants who had acquired their 'black' skin toiling in the sun.


However, the question remains whether China's negative attitudes toward Africans derived from its own system of color symbolism or arose to justify its own, albeit limited, enslavement of Africans. Scholars disagree on the nature of premodern Chinese attitudes toward Africans. While Dikotter describes them as primarily negative, others suggest they were more ambivalent. Snow notes that Tang dynasty Chinese regarded the physical skills, discipline, and power of Africans with 'a mixture of admiration and awe' (1988: 18). Tang literature often depicted black Africans as resourceful, magical, heroic beings, though not the equals of Chinese (Harris 1987: 92; Filesi 1962: 19; Irwin 1977: 172). Song accounts reveal that they were impressed with the seafaring skills African displayed on Chinese ships (as, centuries later, Japanese commentators would be with the skills of korosu aboard Dutch vessels). Most scholars agree, however, that by the Song dynasty, with the growth of the African population in Canton composed, in part, of runaway slaves, Chinese images of Africans turned increasingly negative.

Significantly, many of the disparaging remarks made by Chinese about Africans that are cited by Dikotter as examples of pre-European-contact anti-African imagery are drawn from Song dynasty accounts, a period during which 'reports on the Arab slave trade became more common' (1992: 15). Chinese traders were dependent on Arab and Muslim middlemen for information about the African continent prior to actual contact, and they may have seen Africans through the eyes of these intermediaries (Dathorne 1996: 78, 85). Thus it is quite possible that these negative images of Africans were acquired from Arab and Persian slave traders. As Dikotter himself points out, 'The equation of 'black' with 'slave,' an important factor in the development of racial discrimination [in the West], was thus realized at a relatively early stage in China' (1992: 16). More intriguing, these second-hand accounts dovetailed with Chinese conceptions of primi¬tive kunlun barbarians as the ultimate Other. Indeed, prior to contact with Africans, the concept of Kunlun had lost its magical connotations and came to be associated with generic barbarian tribes without specific regard to skin color (1992: 76). Thus whether one is dealing with Persian, Arab, Muslim, Chinese or European accounts, negative perceptions of Africans were forged by conditions of slavery.

As in premodern China, there is evidence to suggest that attitudes toward dark-skinned people in premodern Japan were not uniformly negative and that changes in their depiction were - and continue to be - influenced by social and historical factors. For all its negative symbology, blackness had positive associations as well. Nesshi, the practice of cosmetically blackening the teeth, is believed to have entered Japan from Southeast Asia and, like oshiroi, it was practiced by the aristocracy and was central to Japan's aesthetic universe until it was outlawed in 1868. This was a time of tremendous social change, during which Japanese elites sought to eliminate customs and practices they believed the West considered uncivilized. Such considerations had a transformative effect on Japanese aesthetics. In 1683, an English visitor to Japan, Christopher Fryke, wrote that Japanese aesthetics were 'directly opposite to ours, taking Black to be the Livery of Mirth and Pleasantness, and White of Grief and Mourning.' Indeed, some Japanese representations portrayed the Buddha as both black and African. Describing the image of Sakyamuni Buddha in a letter to King James, merchant Richard Cocks wrote in 1616: '[I]n a littell Closet or Cubbard, was a negro or a blackamore's image, wch they tould me was the Idoll of Shacka [Shaka; the Buddha], the Cheefe god the[y] Adore ..."(cited in Leupp 1995: 4). This association of black Africans with the Buddha lasted well into the nineteenth century, though by then some Japanese had begun to doubt the wisdom of venerating the representative of an inferior people.

The reification of skin color into a static hierarchy of racialized entities would not take shape until the arrival of Europeans on Japanese shores, and vice-versa, where exposure to racial inequality reinforced status symbolism. Had Chinese hegemony continued into the seventeenth century, a stronger case might be made for the Chinese origin of anti-black prejudice in Japan.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan was exposed repeatedly to “white” American anti-black stereotypes. We’ll begin to examine this part in Part VII.

References/Suggested Reading

Dathborne, O.R. (1996) Asian Voyages: Two thousand years of constructing the other, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Dikotter, F. (1992)The Discourse of Race in Modern China, Stanford: Standford University Press.

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

Harris, J.E. (1987) Africans and Their History, New York: Penguin

Irwin, G. (1977) Africans Abroad, New York: Colombia University Press.

Leupp, G.P. (1995) ‘Images of Black People in Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Japan: 1543-1900,’ Japan Forum7 (1), April, 1-13.

Snow, P. (1988) The Star Raft, New York: Weidenfield and Nicolson.

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)

2 comments:

  1. Thought-provoking as always.

    Thus whether one is dealing with Persian, Arab, Muslim, Chinese or European accounts, negative perceptions of Africans were forged by conditions of slavery.

    This is something I've always found troubling no matter how many times I've come across it. Yet I wonder why the association of black skin with slavery has held on till today when we now know that at several times in history slavery was not limited to skin colour.

    Indeed, some Japanese representations portrayed the Buddha as both black and African.

    This is interesting. I've come across arguments online that "Buddha was African" because of these statues but I recall noting while in Japan that several Buddha depictions can be linked to different peoples and cultures.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @EccentricYoruba,

    Thank you for these posts.

    Yet I wonder why the association of black skin with slavery has held on till today when we now know that at several times in history slavery was not limited to skin colour.

    Human beings have a tremendous capacity for being willfully ignorant. Willfully stupid.

    I recall noting while in Japan that several Buddha depictions can be linked to different peoples and cultures.

    You're one of the rare people to actually pay attention to these various depictions. There is no one standard for Buddha statues.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are no longer accepted.

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