3.10.2011

The Status of Black People in Japan: Part VII - The Effect of anti-Black Stereotypes and Western Privileging on the Japanese construction of Blackness

This series continues with a focus on anti-Black stereotypes, western privileging and conflicting perceptions in the early 19th and 20th centuries (Meiji period). 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. 92-95). Russell is a professor in the Faculty of Regional studies at Gifu University.

The process of seeing blacks through Western eyes is repeated in the nineteenth century with Japan's steady exposure to white American anti-black stereotypes. In 1854, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, returning to Edo Bay to conclude a commercial treaty with Japan, treated Japanese negotiators to a blackface minstrel show - 'a serenade of pseudo-darkies,' as one witness to the performance put it (McCauley 1942: 77) - performed aboard the flagship Powhatan.


NINETEENTH- AND EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY FORMULATION

Perry's 'Ethiopian minstrels,' as they were called, performed in several locations throughout Japan, including the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda, as well as in the Ryukyus, Macao, and Hong Kong. According to William Heine, acting master's mate and the principal artist of the expedition, Japanese were delighted by the comical, cavorting 'blacks.' In Hakodate, the minstrels performed 'songs and dances of plantation blacks of the South. 'They were also a hit at a reception held for the commissioners of Matsumai and other high ranking Japanese officials. 'They applauded in every possible way and shouted again and again: 'Kussi! Kussi!' That word signifies the greatest degree of pleasure, mental and physical' (Heine 1990: 154-5).

Real blacks did serve aboard the Powhatan, but, sadly, little is known about them. Note: In fact, a former Black slave turned whaler, Pyrrhus Concer (1814-97), arrived in Japan in 2845, almost a decade before Perry and his black honor guard (Koshiro2003: 183); see also Bill Bleyer (2006), ‘Legacy: Pyrruhus Concer’s story. Bleyer incorrectly states that Concer ‘was the first black man Japanese had ever seen,’ ignoring almost 200 years of interactions between Japanese and Blacks.

When Perry officially presented himself to the Japanese on 14 July 1853, two ornate foot-long rosewood boxes containing his credentials and a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Japanese emperor were 'guarded by a couple of tall, jet-black Negroes, completely armed' (Perry 1968: 98) who opened the boxes, removed their contents, and displayed their seals before the Japanese (Wiley 1990: 318-19). These stewards also served as Perry's personal bodyguard. Six armed blacks escorted him when he landed in Edo Bay in 1854. Blacks also held responsible positions as captains of the gun. How Japanese reacted to them and how they, in turn, regarded the Japanese are unknown. Their role may be dismissed as simply ornamental, yet the commodore's decision to use blacks in these roles is highly significant given his emphasis on their physicality and his use of their bodies as a twofold projection of American power: The blacks are imposing, yet not so powerful that they have escaped domestication, for they serve – and protect – a white master. Indeed, their dramatic display would appear to be intentional. According to William Heine, who was a witness to the event, Perry was intent upon out-pomping the Japanese. Unlike the Dutch and Russian emissaries before them, the Americans did not 'kneel and crawl, backward and forward, time after time' to their Japanese hosts. Perry would have none of that; the Americans would enter the reception pavilion standing erect, for 'the commodore has made up his mind; no disgraceful humiliation would be inflicted on him' (Heine: 73; original emphasis).

The impact of Western attitudes toward blacks in shaping Japanese attitudes is apparent in the journals of delegates of the 1860 Embassy to the United States and London and of the 1871 Iwakura Mission to the United States. Stopping in London on his return to Japan from America, a member of the 1860 mission wrote: 'The faces of these natives are black as if painted with ink and resemble those of monkeys... According to the Americans, they are the incarnation of apes' (Dojin wo miru ni kau-iro sumi wo nuru gotoku saru gotoshi ... Beijin no kala nile kono dojin wa saru no kesshin nari to zo) (Wagatsuma and Yoneyama 1980: 64).

Note: Oddly, Wagatsuma’s English translation of Daedalus omits ‘the Americans’ (Begin): cf. Wagatsuma 1967: 415.

Miyoshi characterizes the attitude of the delegation toward the Africans they encountered in the Congo as monotonously contemptuous:

All remarks about the Africans are more or less the same, sneering at their bare bodies and black skins, occasionally adding further details concerning their body odor and movement, their tattoos and ornaments. Some describe the chain gangs of slaves, but none expresses any sympathy for the captives; nor do they deplore the inhuman treatment of the Portuguese.
(Miyoshi 1979: 60-1)

Yet such attitudes mark a significant departure from Japanese condemnations of Dutch slavery in the seventeenth century.

Beasley has described the disparaging Japanese discourse on Africans - and Asians - during this period as 'an account of the world as seen from the first-class cabins on the Far East run or from the salons of western capitals' (1995: 87). Beasley notes that this discourse relied less on first-hand Japanese observation than on hearsay that reflected not only the attitudes of their hosts, but also the degrading social conditions in which the non-whites they did encounter were forced to live in the Western-dominated world, and that it expressed the relief of Japanese travelers who, spared similar treatment, 'began to see themselves... as "honorary whites'" (215-16).

However, Japanese could also be critical of their white hosts and show sympathy and even admiration toward blacks. In Tokumei Zenken Taishi Bei-o Kairan Jikki (Journal of the Envoy Extraordinary Ambassador Plenipotentiary's Travels through America and Europe, 1878), Kume Kunitake (1839-1931), the private secretary to Iwakura Tomomi (1825-83), describes the African slave trade in critical terms, noting the harsh treatment of African slaves and commenting favorably on efforts by whites to establish schools for former slaves, who, he notes, received instruction not only in the three R's but also in Greek, Latin, and the sciences (213). After visiting one such Negro school in the South, Kume remarks that blacks had made considerable progress, noting their election to Congress and that some had amassed sizable fortunes (216). 'Skin color has no relation to intelligence' (hifu no iro wa, chishiki ni kankei nai kala), he writes, noting that 'The blacks also produce brilliant intellects against which uneducated whites stood no measure' (kokujin ni mo eisai haishutsu shi, hakujin no jugaku naru mono wa, yaku wo taru ni itaran) (216). Such enlightened sentiments may have been offered as a testament to the civilizing powers of Western learning; they may have also reflected the tutelage of progressive whites eager to share their egalitarian ideals. Whatever their source and motivation, they offered the assurance that if Africans in America had the potential to obtain equality with whites by mastering Western learning, then so too did Japanese.

The attitude of Japanese adventurers in Africa toward blacks during the Meiji Period is equally ambivalent. Although they were not averse to accepting the dehumanizing portraits of Africans painted by whites, their travel logs also depict oppressive, racially stratified white-dominated lands in which their own subordination to whites was a source of consternation and resentment. Wrote one Meiji traveler of South African apartheid:

The oppressed blacks in this so-called civilized country are miserable. I would like to challenge these realities for the sake of humanity and ask the English who act as if this were normal is there any difference in the intrinsic worth of blacks and whites as human beings? If I could receive a clear answer, I would revise my opinion of them without hesitation. But if they could not answer, I am afraid my respect for the Englishmen of South Africa would disappear. At any rate, even if it were impossible for blacks to have the same social status as whites, where is the cruel necessity for separate train cars? Should we not pity the weak? I would like to point this out to the wise Englishmen and I shall never cease to hope that they will strive to care for the blacks and to add to their welfare.
(cited in Aoki 1993: 75-6)

Most Meiji Japanese were in no position to witness the situation of blacks first hand; they would remain heavily dependent on Western sources. This was particularly true when it came to defining culture and civilization. As DeBarry puts it, 'In the mind of many in the rising generation [of Meiji intellectuals] the word of a western philosopher or sociologist would carry more weight than all the classics of the East' (1958: 131). This privileging of Western discourse is evident in the writings of europhile Fukuzawa Y ukichi (1834-1901), whose discussion of cultural hierarchies in Bunmei-ron no Gairyaku (An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, 1875) reproduced Western racial hierarchies, privileging the West as the apotheosis of 'civilization' (bunmei), trailed by a 'semi-civilized' (hankai) Asia and 'barbaric' (yaban) Africa (Fukuzawa: 24). Although Fukuzawa's europhilia was qualified with the caveat that Japan acquire only the most useful elements of European culture, his hierarchical ranking of races and cultures leaves no doubt about the place of Africans and other non-Europeans on the ladder of cultural development.

With the importation of Western 'scientific' racism, Meiji intellectuals like Fukuzawa reconfigured evolutionist cultural hierarchies in which Japan's internal minorities occupied the barbarian category, but increasingly their Otherness was racialized, and their discrimination, marginalization, and forced assimilation justified on 'scientific' grounds. In Japanese attempts to prove themselves the equals of the West, to forge (in both meanings of the term) a national identity, to modernize, and to compete with the West, the Other was pushed further toward the periphery. The ascription of barbarity, backwardness and squalor to Japan's minorities served these ambitions well, since it not only confirmed the relative closeness of Japan to the West but also provided Japanese with a civilizing mission of their own, one that aimed both to elevate the primitive Other and themselves as well.

In Part VIII, we’ll explore Darwinist thought (i.e. race and place) and the impact it had on the Japanese construction of Blackness.

Suggested Reading/References

Aoki, S. (1993) Afurika ni watatta Nihonjin (Japanese in Africa). Tokyo: Jiji Tsushinsha.

Beasley, W.G. (1995) Japan Encounters the Barbarian, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bleyer, B. (2006) ‘Legacy: Pyrrhus Concer (The link associated with this story is broken).

Fukuzawa Y. (1962 [1875]) Bunmei-ron no gairyaku (An Outline of a Theory of Civilization), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten

Heine, W. (1990) With Perry to Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii 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.

McCauley, E.Y. (1942) With Perry to Japan: The diary of Edward Yorke McCauley, Allan B. Cole (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Perry, M.C. (1968 [1856]) The Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institutional Press.

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

\Wiley, P. B. (1990) Yankees in the Land of the Gods, New York: Viking.

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

21 comments:

  1. If you're reading this series, please leave a comment and let me know. This isn't a glory-seeking request. I'm concerned about how this history, which has been mostly hidden, is impacting you. Are you reading things that piss you off or give you reason to hope for better relations between Blacks and Asians? Are you shocked or surprised to learn that we do indeed have a place, good or bad, in history? When I was organizing this post, I found myself alternating between being dismayed and being validated.

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  2. I'm reading for knowledge, pure and simple. if anything, it's killing what little one-dimensional Utopian view I still had of Japan from my high school days - for which i am grateful.

    To be honest, I'm not even disturbed by most of which I've read so far. It's as if I was mentally prepared to encounter it and went, "Ah, here we are!" when it was revealed.

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  3. I am reading these posts also...Very interesting to see the history of racism and how it spreads....but also was great to read their perception pre-white influence.....

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  4. Reading every post. I somewhat cosign with leoprincess but its mostly striking my "Dammit white people!" cord but thats a good thing because it gets struck every time I go to a museum. These posts are like one long exhibit to me. I think of them as preparation to my upcoming move.

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  5. As for Moi: always reading, never surprised.

    And I commend you for all the work which clearly has gone into this outstanding series.

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  6. Has anyone heard from Hateya or what region of Japan does she live?

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  7. I've been playing catch up on this series

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  8. @ModestGoddess,

    Thank you so much for your concern. My family and I are safe. We live on the northernmost island, Hokkaido. The eastern side was devastated by the tsunami, but we're safe here on the western side.

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  9. I'm following this series, and I'm getting a serious, much-needed education. You never know what you don't know until someone points it out to you. Most of the time, I'm reading and am too preoccupied with trying to incorporate this information into my knowledge base to even think about responding. Don't let that stop you. Please continue to share.

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  10. @ Hateya - Thank goodness you and your family are ok. I was thinking about out. My prayers go out to all those suffering in Japan.

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  11. I just came across this series, and I think it's fascinating and informative. Thank you for writing this. Also, I'm very glad that you and your family are okay.

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  12. Its good to hear that Hateya wasn't hurt in that epic natural disaster.I hope her friends and family were also safe.

    This series is mostly making me think about, the future of the world and POC in particular.

    Even though White hegemony hasn't lasted long in terms of years, reading things like this has made me wonder if it's impact with supercede it's removal. I think White colonial influence was for lack of a more diplomatic term, EVIL. For a great many reasons.I mean once evil gets let out, you can't put it away again. Once it's out, it's out.

    I mean, I was talking with a friend from Pakistan and we got into discussion of the caste system. Long discussion but I said I respected the fact that at least in Asian countries a caste system is out in the open, and acknowledged for what it is. I said that in western countries even though there is a little social mobility for the most part, especially in America, there is a caste system, first based on race, secondly on class(depending on who you are). But because most people refuse to see it for what it in fact is, it's influence is that much more powerful because it is hidden in plain site.

    We were talking about this book called India Rising and about how socially today many Indian people are beginning to question and outright, reject the caste system.

    So as the future looms and many countries that were formerly European colonies gain their independence and power back, and Europe and its settler colonies diminish in stature and influence at least on the world stage(it's bound to happen, their populations are aging and therefore dying out faster than they can replace them. In order to stay separate they will have to accept a loss of numbers and power that comes with that, or they will have to mix.)what will really change?

    Will it be the lighter skinned wealthy POCs oppressing the darker skinned, poorer POCs? I'm not being cynical here but I'm seriously wondering.

    In many places even without Western influence these class/skin color prejudices already existed. White people just came in an exploited preexisting conflicts.

    It's just something that I've been thinking about. I'm inclined to believe some social hierarchies are inevitable, but I prefer the social heirarchies that are based on merit, not place of birth. Not these in particular(race/class) but in general.

    If the world is moving towards that then the future looks less repetitive,and by that measure less depressing. If it isn't then the future seems more messy. Will we just repeat the same mistakes?

    How confident can we be that white supremacy, and all the inherent problems it causes, will die with it's empires?

    Thats what's been on my mind.

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  13. @Everyone

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and perceptions. It's a relief that so many of you find this series worthwhile.

    @leoprincess
    it's killing what little one-dimensional Utopian view I still had of Japan from my high school days - for which i am grateful.

    I once had a similar view of China and now I'm grateful to be able to view these relationships between our peoples with more objective eyes.

    @Creolenola
    Very interesting to see the history of racism and how it spreads

    There's no doubt anti-Black racism spread to other countries/people exactly like this. It's almost surreal watching this "unfold" right before our eyes.

    @Goddess-Maverick
    These posts are like one long exhibit to me. I think of them as preparation to my upcoming move.

    And it's especially for you, Cinnamon, Amaya and all WOC who plan to come East that I upload this information. Knowledge is power. At present, we know more about how the Japanese perceive us than most of them do. Several of my Japanese friends and companions are deeply unnerved by these events. They've never had an opportunity to understand many of their feelings. One very lovely older woman even apologized for only thinking of me as an "unique individual" because she now knows that she was looking upon me as an exception and not an actual member of a proud people who have made positive contributions to this world.

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  14. Forgive me for double-posting.

    @Ankhesen
    And I commend you for all the work which clearly has gone into this outstanding series.

    I'm just the messenger, yet it does require hard work and volumes of time to put it all together because it isn't my research. I wish it were.

    @Amaya
    I'm getting a serious, much-needed education.

    And Black women need education beyond academics if we hope to advance in this world. Having such concrete details at our fingertips is empowering.

    @GK
    I just came across this series, and I think it's fascinating and informative.

    Thank you for dropping by to read this series and for your concern for me and my family.

    @Student
    My family, friends and I continue to be safe although we might not be eating healthy for awhile. I'm not worried because I have a six-month supply of black-eyed peas, which are added to curry. Go figure. ;)

    reading things like this has made me wonder if it's impact with supercede it's removal

    It's very difficult to see evidence to the contrary. Black people continue to only be lauded as athletes and entertainers. We are hardly ever recognized for our contributions to science and medicine. I suspect much of the world views us as a stagnant people, a people who have already reached the limits of their potential.

    But because most people refuse to see it for what it in fact is, it's influence is that much more powerful because it is hidden in plain site.

    One of the things I can appreciate about Japan is how open the caste system is although they seldom speak of it. It's so obvious even a visitor can't miss it.

    Will it be the lighter skinned wealthy POCs oppressing the darker skinned, poorer POCs? I'm not being cynical here but I'm seriously wondering.

    I'm fairly certain this is already a reality. The "white" man is too clever for his own good. He created a caste system within a caste system within a caste system and thrust us into it.

    In many places even without Western influence these class/skin color prejudices already existed.

    No Japanese person would doubt this; hence the discrimination against the Ryukyus (Okinawans) and the Ainu, who actually have fairer skin. That's an entirely different crackhead issue though.

    How confident can we be that white supremacy, and all the inherent problems it causes, will die with it's empires?

    If it dies out, we won't be around to witness it. "White" supremacy has virtually split my family in two. As a result of this indoctrination, many of my Native American relatives honest to goodness believe that those of us who are Black are simultaneously inferior. These particular people have the same mentality as poor "white" trash. They might not have decent food, shelter or education, but at least they're "white." Right. People like this spiritually wither away with their bodies following shortly. Until now, I've never been inclined to discover why they're so delusional. This series has made me anxious to solve this mystery for their sake and ours.

    In the end, we all need to know where we've been before we can figure out where we're going. For better or for worse, Russell's work proves that we have a place in someone else's documented history and that means a great deal to me personally.

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  15. Until now, I've never been inclined to discover why they're so delusional. This series has made me anxious to solve this mystery for their sake and ours.

    Same thing with my family. I have a whole side of white relatives in Tennessee. My maternal grandmother is the last of three daughters. Her two older sisters dropped her off on the south side of the Chi, to get married to white men and so that they could pass. My grandmother could have "passed" but she was really young and they thought it was better she stay with relatives.
    It was the great depression and I understand why they did it. One great Aunt died in childberth, the other one lived a long life. She died before my mother, my grandmother's last child, was born. My grandmother never stopped feeling pain over the fact that her own sister didn't acknowledge her. The way my great aunt saw it was that she could have made the "right" choice and been with her. But she chose to marry a black man so, in her mind that was that.


    Except for one female cousin, I don't even speak to. And she's the....I was almost about to type black sheep and then I thought about it and realized how deep all this shit goes. I know that when the expression was coined it was just about someone being markedly different but it's so ironic the significance it has in our family.

    The worst thing? My white relatives are...poor white trash. None of them has been to college or even graduated high school and they all live proudly off of welfare. No joke. Several members of my family in Chicago have. Many of them are overweight, and have prison records, but they are sooo ashamed to be associated with us and our black/indian blood. Until recently the feeling was mutual. Now I just pity them. They're so...deluded. It's crazy too because there is an OBVIOUS family resemblance. Even white people remark upon it.


    In the end, we all need to know where we've been before we can figure out where we're going. For better or for worse, Russell's work proves that we have a place in someone else's documented history and that means a great deal to me personally.

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  16. ^^^Yeah. That's how I deal with it. And I was so proud that there are non European,accounts of black people.

    I hate the fact that such a small group of people have caused so much damage to the world, I hope that when the get their comeuppence I'll be around to witness it.

    I do happen to think that some form of socialism would lessen the severity a lot of racial/colorism problems. I think alot of the "us and them" is made up to justify class disparity.

    Like notice how darker skinned people always have the hardest manual jobs? Hence the stigmatization of dark skin i.e. spending a lot of time out in the sun being associated with "lower class".

    There has to be some way to remedy that. So much technology has changed the world, I know new more subtle class distinctions will replace older overt ones. But I think the power of these associations will weaken. I hope anyway.

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  17. @Ankhesen

    I'm sure there's a very special place in hell reserved for Limbaugh and it's my sincere wish that he'll embark upon that journey sooner rather than later.

    @Student
    Now I just pity them. They're so...deluded.

    I'm trying to get to reach the stage where I can pity my relatives. Like yours, mine are mired in poverty and severely undereducated. A majority who so proudly proclaim their Indian-ness (they aren't full-blooded either), don't speak our ancestral languages, don't participate in the traditional ceremonies and don't practice our ancestral religion. Alcoholism and drugs are also rampant and they never ever take responsibility for their own situation.

    When they speak of losing their land, their languages, their culture, their traditions, and their names, they conveniently fail to recognize that we have lost these things from TWO continents. Our arms are open. We want them to come home. The bulk of our family in the South actually lives on our ancestral land. Instead, they'd rather pretend to be superior. Go figure.

    I hope anyway.

    Hope sustains us all.

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  18. Rush Limbaugh.....inhuman waste of carbon.

    If only this was a time in history when it was considered perfectly acceptable for him to have his tongue cut out.

    Nothing digusts me more than when people trivialize other people's sufferings which white people like him LOVE doing.

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  19. Nothing digusts me more than when people trivialize other people's sufferings which white people like him LOVE doing.

    And LOVE listening to other white people doing it.

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