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Filling the void: Disseminating ‘blackness’ in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, I was invited to the Japan Black Studies Association’s (JBSA) annual conference at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. In attendance were educators who’d traveled from universities all over Japan. Teachers of black literature, black history, black music and other contemporary issues related to the black struggle gathered for a weekend of research-paper presentations and fellowship.

It was my honor to be the keynote speaker this year. The theme of the 2017 conference was “Black Lives Matter.” My presentation, “Perpetual gaijin,” was about navigating life as a black man on two continents when you’re viewed as an alien or “other” (“gaijin” meaning foreigner/outsider) on both, yet making that life matter through writing and activism. It was well received.

Looking out at a congregation of some of Japan’s best and brightest minds was initially a bit disconcerting, like I imagine Anpanman would feel speaking at an otaku convention. But that feeling didn’t last long, because I knew that I was surrounded by like-minded people: those who’ve devoted their time, intelligence and ingenuity to ensuring that one day, here in Japan, that insipid justification for all manner of alienating behavior — “we don’t know anything about black people” — will become a platitude of the past. I commend all of the Japanese intellectuals who have undertaken the awesome task of disseminating “blackness” in Japan, and from my limited interactions with some of these professors, the future of black studies here looks to be in apt and empathetic hands.

And a big shout out to Fumiko Sakashita, secretary general of the JBSA, whose assistance throughout my preparation for the conference was invaluable. Her arduous efforts have been integral to the association’s continued success. Bravo! In fact, it was my intention to write an in-depth piece profiling some of the JBSA members who presented papers at the conference.

For the past three years, Black Eye has kept its focus fixed on black lives here in Japan, but I felt this would be the perfect opportunity to break with that tradition. I planned to share with you the Japanese perspective on the importance of black studies in Japan and their approaches to it. But, sadly, none of these teachers were available at the time of writing.

I’m still determined to make that happen, though. Why? Because I’m of the mind that education — along with, of course, legislation — is one of the major keys to addressing race issues. And how blackness (in all its multitudinous manifestations) is introduced to Japanese minds is of paramount importance.


To date, white historians, educators and the media have been the primary purveyors of blackness globally and, to put it mildly, this has been an unmitigated disaster. That is to say, when information hasn’t been inundated with inaccuracies and erasures, it’s incomplete to the point of footnoting the extensive history of black contributions to humanity into irrelevance.

This remains an impediment to black strides towards equality, dignity and respect on a global basis. Not to mention the direct history between people of African descent and Japanese, which has been woefully under-taught. What the populace doesn’t know leaves a void that often gets filled with what they think they know, which history has shown easily lends itself to the baser aspects of human nature.

Academically, here in Japan, the filling of that void has been largely in the hands of Japanese educators but, as a venerable scholar of color here in Japan once said, “Blacks must communicate directly with the Japanese and explain the meaning and substance of black aspirations.” That gentleman’s name is Reginald Kearney, Ph.D., an educator who first blessed these shores in 1957. Yep, you read that right, 1957! But I’ll come back to that.

There are a number of professors of African descent living and teaching in Japan. Some specialize in areas of research like anthropology, sociology, history, politics — even race relations — but the majority of the ones I’ve met over the years are (or were) teaching language-related curriculum, mostly English, which by no means should be discounted.

Any conspicuous non-Japanese living here knows that whatever your occupation, in the minds of many Japanese outside your circle of friends and family, you’ll always be moonlighting as that. First and foremost, your primary and perpetual occupation is that of representative of the outside world. And, particularly in the case of black people, where the knowledge of our vast diversity is sorely limited (encapsulated in the convenient and reductive label kokujin), our behavior and attributes will invariably be attached to anyone who even vaguely resembles a “kokujin” and amended to the list of stereotypes and presumptions already floating around about our ilk.

As an unofficial envoy of all things un-Japanese, you won’t have perks like diplomatic immunity, but you will be granted substantial influence and presented with incalculable opportunities to educate your hosts. Or mis-educate them: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a cafe or bar straining not to overhear some emissary of a non-Asian persuasion diffusing disparaging propaganda about the world outside Japan like it’s indisputable fact. And I’m positive anyone harboring any delusions of racial supremacy sitting in earshot of this here conscripted ambassador of global blackness has heard some language that’s gotten their dander up as well.

All of which makes me all the more thankful that there are true-to-life professional educators of African descent here, doing the right thing, with the bona fides to back it up. Offhand, I can only think of a handful (but I intend to remedy that soon). Among them, there’s of course John G. Russell, professor of anthropology at Gifu University, whose research here in Japan is damn near legendary in certain circles. There’s Ben Karp, an adjunct fellow at Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies. And there’s Avril Haye Matsui of Aichi Prefectural University (an educator I’ve profiled previously on Black Eye), whose dissertation on the experiences of black women in Japan I had the privilege of attending.

I’ve also introduced you guys to Nsenda Lukumwena, an architect who teaches urban planning at Kwansei Gakuin University in Kansai. And, just putting out feelers in preparation for this article, a whole host of others have popped up on my radar.

So, in the coming months I plan to introduce some of these minds who have dedicated their lives to what professor Kearney characterized as “an uphill battle.” And ideally it won’t just be black scholars but Japanese scholars I’ll be speaking with too, because, as it stands, it will chiefly be Japanese curating blackness in Japan for years to come.


Back in March, I was co-teaching a couple of classes at Temple University Japan with Eric L. Robinson, creative director of Black Tokyo. (If you’re not familiar with BT, it’s a helluva resource for material related to the black experience in Japan.) We lectured about the sociology of race, racial profiling and Trump’s ascendency. It was then that I first heard the name Reginald Kearney.

“The impact of Dr. Kearney’s academic research and publications has contributed to my overall understanding of both past and present Japan,” Robinson said. “His works often examine the overlooked, disregarded or muted interactions between the Japanese and those of the African diaspora.”

Robinson told me that Kearney was one of his main motivations for his own research into the negative imagery of blacks, other foreigners and the U.S. military in Japan. I was hooked and wanted to know how I could catch up with the man. “Easier said than done,” Robinson said, informing me that Kearney teaches at a university in Okinawa during the academic year and spends much of his free time off the grid, scuba diving and such. “Good luck.”

I did some sniffing around and came to find out that Robinson wasn’t the only scholar inspired by Kearney’s work. Kearney’s exploration of the impact of Japan, Japanese and the idea of Japan on African-Americans has blazed a trail, and served as a resource for quite of bit of scholarly research on the relationship between blacks and Japanese.

“I think anyone interested in Japan tries to connect the dots, to draw connections between Japan and their own society or culture,” said John G. Russell in an email. “For white Americans, these connections are known (although some have opted to ignore or forget them); for black Americans, they are largely hidden, and it takes some digging to unearth them. Dr. Kearney was one of the first to take up the shovel, do the heavy lifting, and point out that black America’s relationship with Japan did not begin, as so many think, with the Occupation.”

I set out with due diligence to reach professor Kearney, initially with no luck. And just as I was about to give up and set my sights elsewhere, I got a message on social media from none other than the good doctor himself. I wound up interviewing him that very same evening. We spoke for over three hours, in what could best be described as a mini-graduate course.

During that conversation I decided it was time to find out — and of course share with you guys — about the true state of scholarship in Japan pertaining to Africans and the African diaspora, and the people behind it, regardless of their nationality.

I’ll be kicking it off next month with Kearney’s epic story, which spans six decades, from his experiences as a U.S. Marine stationed in Okinawa during the U.S. Occupation to the sweeping project he’s currently researching, on African-Americans who have expatriated or resided in Japan long-term. This will be followed by a series of profiles of other Japan-based scholars who have answered this crucial calling to fill the void.

This story is way overdue, but the wait is almost over. Stay tuned.

Black Eye usually appears in print on the second Monday Community page of the month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.

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