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Black Scholars Who Make a Specialty of Asian Studies

Last updated on August 12, 2013


I received the following question from a new BT reader this afternoon. He asked: “Why do you find Japan so fascinating?” My quick reply to the question: “I find Japanese history and culture fascinating, the Japanese interesting (from a sociological point-of-view) and life in Japan, as a case study of a nation trying to gain respect in the international a.k.a. multicultural world order. The new BT’er also asked: “Why don’t you focus on Africa instead of Japan?” Well, here comes the long answer!

Unlike past “norms” when life in Japan was mainly reported from the point-of-view of the victim or victor of wars with Japan, my current norm for examining Japan has more to do with how the Japanese and Blacks have interacted over the centuries. For example, some of my research looks at how the Japanese viewed and formed opinions of Blacks over the ages. We were seen:

  • as warriors like Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758 – 811), a Black man who is considered the first Shogun of Japan during the early Heian Period (check Chinese and Japanese historical records)
  • as servants for the Dutch (1543)
  • as samurai, like Yasuke (1582), who was personally trained by Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and later played a crucial role in Nobunaga’s last battle Honnou-ji no hen
  • as minstrels thanks to Perry’s sailors in blackface 
  • as Little Black Sambo
  • as marginalized negro soldiers during the post-World War II occupation living in segregated barracks (i.e, Tachikawa AB)
  • as whatever those that import “their” prejudices teach, preach, or tell
  • as our own worst enemy as times

Other parts of my research deals with the works of Black and Japanese scholars who focus on African & African-American – Japan relations.

“Contrary to popular misconception, there are large numbers of Black scholars whose academic research has nothing whatsoever to do with skin color or race relations” (Fikes, Jr., 2002). 

To help the BT’er better understand why I chose to focus on Japan, I recommended the following publications from my constantly growing library:

  • African Presence in Early Asia (Rashidi and Sertima)
  • African American Views of the Japanese: Solidarity or Sedition? (Bracey)
  • The African American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia, 1895-1945 (Gallicchio)
  • The Black Samurai: A Novel of Feudal Japan (Bracey)
  • Black Samurai: Work, Travel, Culture, Religion, Struggle, and Perspective of a Black American Man (Brown)
  • America Encounters Japan: From Perry to Mac Arthur (Neumann)
  • Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (Samuels)
  • U.S. Japan Strategic Reciprocity (Olsen)
Many Black academics often fall into certain academic fields that connect them to the color of their skin. There is nothing wrong with this but I want to follow the path of Blacks that have made it possible for other Blacks to provide information on Asia, in my case Japan, from an Afro perspective. 
It is largely unknown to most white American scholars -and to most people in general- that Blacks have a rich history of research and teaching in Asian studies. Possibly the first African American to have a profound and scholarly appreciation of Asian culture was the Harvard University-trained attorney Berry Armstrong Claytor who worked at the Library of Congress from 1916 to 1957. Claytor taught himself to read Chinese when no other Library of Congress employee was capable of translating Chinese language materials in the library archives. Claytor published two works, one of which is, Title Index to Independent Chinese Works in the Library of Congress (1932). 
Robert Lewis Gill was the first African American to earn a doctorate in Asian History, in 1942. His dissertation at the University of Southern California was on Legal Aspects of the Position of the Chinese in the Philippines. Germain A. Houston (Ph.D., Harvard) who teaches at UC-San Diego published two books: Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan (1986) and The State, Identity, and the National Question in China and Japan (1994). 
I hope to follow suit by conducting research and publishing books (fiction and non-fiction) on Japan from an Afro point-of-view. A friend of mine asked if I was worried about “limiting” my audience (a.k.a. potential consumers) with, as he called it, “a narrow focus.” Back to my short answer, “Nope!” 
I recommend the following scholarly papers if you are interested in learning about Japan from a different perspective:
  •  The Critical Reception of James Baldwin in Japan: An Annotated Bibliography by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Toru Kiuchi (1991)
  • The Significance of Afrocentricity for Non-Africans: Examination of the Relationship between African Americans and the Japanese by Suzuko Morikawa (2001)
  • The Convenient Scapegoating of Blacks in Postwar Japan: Shaping the Black Experience Abroad by Sherick A. Hughes (2003)
  • Lighter than Yellow, but not Enough: Western Discourse on the Japanese Race, 1854-1904 by Rotem Kowner (2000)
  • Race and Reflexivity: The Black Other in Contemporary Japanese Mass Culture by John Russell (1991)
  • Black Scholars Who Make a Specialty of Asian Studies by Robert Fikes, Jr. (2002) (ref. source of info.)
In the meantime, I will get back to working on my research assignments on Japan, Korea, and China.


  1. guavajelly guavajelly June 23, 2008

    I’m loving this blog and your perspectives on Japan–I just had a few moments to sit and read some and will hopefully go back and try to read some archives. And thanks for the shout out a few posts back (mitzi here).

    Now about this posting–I’m looking forward to hearing more about your research on Japan from an Afro perspective. It’s something I am interested in as well and am in still the beginning stages of formal research. I would love to hear what your research findings show on Japanese scholars studying African Americans in the US. I know of a couple of Japanese PhD students who have been doing some really interesting work on race relations in the US South. I projects like theirs put into tension with those studies done by Japanese and US Scholars in Japan on African/African-American and Japanese relations inside Japan could be quite fascinating. It could produce a new and more open kind of scholarship that can help shift the racist (let’s not be afraid to call it what it is, shoot) underpinnings of some theoretical foundations which inform not only those in academia but folks like marketers who make light of monkeys and certain politicians. um, hmm..

  2. zurui zurui June 27, 2008

    Mit-chan, thank you for your feedback.

    I would love to hear more about the research projects driven by the Japanese PhD students in the South.

    You are on point in saying that additional open scholarship in areas typically not of interest to mainstream Japan and the United States researchers could open the floodgate to “correcting” or dispelling the untruths that persist in academia, the media, politics and other areas.

    More importantly maybe seeking the truth will just help people get along! I look forward to hearing more about your work. Best of luck with your thesis and on your voyage to Okinawa!

  3. Thaihorse Thaihorse September 14, 2008

    I really enjoyed reading this, I have had a deep interest in Japan and Japanese culture for some time. I finally made a short visit to Japan last fall and it was everything I expected and then some.

    I am saving up to return for another visit n March 2009. I have been thinking hard on a way to be able to live and work in Japan besides for teaching English. Your posting has given me a lot to think about. I will continue to check this post to keep up with your progress and I hope to get the opportuity to meet you in person in Japan one day.

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