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Educator calls for better understanding of black history in Japan

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Special To The Japan Times

On occasion, I still get asked this question: Of what value is a column dedicated exclusively to black issues — particularly here in Japan?

Generally the query comes from the kind of people who, upon hearing “Black Lives Matter” proclaimed, want to answer “All Lives Matter.” People optimistic enough to think that we are headed steadfastly toward a global recognition of human equality, or perhaps cynical enough to believe that inequality and discrimination persists because all human beings are not created equal.

I hear these people out, of course. I try to keep my mind open, to be ready to question even my most fundamental premises and assumptions. The impetus to do this is the drive to live outside your sphere of comfort, a gift that living in Japan just keeps on giving. But nothing I’ve heard to date has made me question the notion that breathed life into Black Eye in the first place: that the more available knowledge about the diversity of blackness here in Japan there is, the better for all.

As I mentioned last month, what people don’t know leaves a void that often gets filled with what they think they know, which can lead to unpleasantness — and a newspaper column can only do so much to fill that void. This is an issue that must be engaged on a number of fronts, primarily via institutions of higher learning. So I was gratified to learn that black studies are being taught here by scholars — Japanese and non-Japanese alike — who have dedicated their lives to filling the void, thereby helping Japan to face the challenges of an increasingly diverse, multiracial and multicultural society.

Dr. Reginald Kearney is one of these educators. The 79-year-old native of Hackensack, New Jersey is a retired professor who currently resides in Okinawa, the same island where, 60 years earlier, he was stationed as a 19-year-old member of the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, in 1957, it was still Occupied Okinawa (the reversion to Japanese control didn’t happen until 1972). When I spoke with him he painted, through anecdotes, a vivid portrait of life as a Force Recon in Occupied Okinawa.

“In his book ‘Blowback,’ Chalmers Johnson called Okinawa ‘the last colony,’ ” Kearney says. “And when I was a marine in Okinawa it was more of a colony than it is now because the U.S. was actually administering the government there. Theoretically you could go where you wanted in Okinawa, but unofficially it was segregated.

“The first time I went on liberty, I went to a club just outside the base, with a couple of black guys and Bradley, a white friend of mine. The girls would dance with Bradley but whenever me and my boys asked they’d decline. So we asked Bradley to ask the girls what was up with that. The girls told him that black guys didn’t usually come to that bar. That they went to this place called Four Corners. So we left Bradley to go check this place out. Four Corners looked like a little Harlem in Asia. It was nothing but black guys. You had dudes walking around in capes and whatnot.”

After his military service was completed, Kearney returned to the U.S. and attended Morgan State College in Maryland, majoring in political science. In 1963, as a student at Morgan State, he interned with then-Republican Congressman Charles Mathias. He calls it one of the most fruitful opportunities he had as an undergraduate. Kearney even attended the March on Washington, and he lived not far from the National Mall (where the march was held) at the time. And since the congressman hadn’t attended, Kearney wound up writing the congressman’s reaction to the march.

“Mathias modified it, of course. Said I’d gotten a little carried away,” Kearney says, laughing. “But it’s in the congressional record.”

He later attended the University of Ceylon (on a Fulbright Scholarship), the University of Hawaii and Kent State University on his way to achieving his doctorate. His 1991 dissertation was entitled “Afro-American Views of the Japanese: 1900-1945.” In this seminal work, Kearney focuses on a period in Black-Japanese relations that is sorely undertaught. This was a time before the period we currently live in, where the relationship between people of African descent and Japanese can best be characterized as “unfortunate.”

During this 45-year period, black Americans thought of the Japanese as “champions of the darker races,” and some of the greatest black thinkers and activists in American history, like W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells and James Weldon Johnson, viewed Japan as an ally in the struggle against white supremacy and inequality. The title of the dissertation’s Japanese translation, published in 1995, was “Nijuuseiki no Nihonjin: Amerika Kokujin no Nihonjinkan.”

Kearney is of the mind that though relations have deteriorated quite a bit since before WWII, our differences are by no means irreconcilable. On the contrary, he sees promise in the fact that Japanese people are “educable.”

“I don’t see Japanese as racist in the way (the term) is used in the U.S.,” says Kearney. “In the States they ought to know better but the Trumps and the like, they insist on being ignorant. I think it’s more accurate to say Japanese are cultural chauvinists. But things have changed considerably over the years. For example, I remember when I first came to Japan, little kids would follow me down the street saying ‘gaijin, gaijin, gaijin.’ There was no animosity in their salutations. What they were saying was simply ‘You don’t look Japanese.’ Later though, once my son, Yoshi, was in elementary school, that changed. One day they saw me and started up their ‘gaijin’ chant and a girl among them said, ‘No, that’s Yoshiharu-kun’s father.’ So by having a son in school, as far as the kids were concerned, put me in a very different category than just a strange foreigner.

“You see, the word ‘gaijin’ means a person from outside the country, but in some contexts it could also mean just an outsider. So my status changed from ‘outsider’ to ‘a father of a friend of ours.’ “

I was digging the term “cultural chauvinism” but struggling to distinguish it from the ignorance that feeds the fear and hate at the root of racism. I’m speaking of the kind of racism that made a Donald Trump presidency not only possible but inevitable, the kind that bolsters those Confederate flag-waving white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, just days ago.

“It’s ignorance, yes, but there are some important differences. See, you can’t come at it from the perspective of America,” Kearney said, “because Japanese are educable. For example, my first wife, when she went home and told her parents we were getting married, her father said, ‘We’re samurai! We’ve never had any foreigners in our family.’ He told her to go find a Japanese, any Japanese! And I suspect he was as serious as a heart attack. But when my son, Yoshiharu, was born (his first grandson), his whole attitude changed. About a month later, he sent me some unagi (eel), which was a token of his change of heart.”

This seemed to illustrate for Kearney how “educable” his father-in-law was, so I pressed on. I was curious about his thoughts on the complexity of blackness and how he manages to convey this to his students.

“It’s kind of difficult to get Japanese to understand that ‘black’ is little more than a concept that originated in the American experience,” he said, “especially when they see someone who identifies as black but phenotypically is tan or brown or even white. Communicating why takes patience and skill. I use the term ‘black,’ but only in an American context. But it’s not a satisfactory term because it’s not descriptive enough.”

As an educator myself, I was curious why he believed black studies to be essential in Japan. And as an author whose work is currently being translated into Japanese, I was eager to hear what kind of impact, if any, his own work, published in Japanese over 20 years ago, has had on Japanese readers.

“Well, I think it’s important that Japanese have some understanding of African-Americans and our experience and significant contributions to American history and culture. They need to know what America is really about. They also need to learn that, historically, African-Americans have looked at the Japanese very favorably. That’s important for them to know. But whether or not my book has had a positive impact, or any impact, on Japanese, I really can’t say.

“I think it’s more important though, that blacks in the U.S., that all Americans, learn black history,” he adds. “For the reason you alluded to in your column last month. That these are the people coming to Japan, and traveling to other countries as well, and if they are not knowledgeable, then when they get into discussions with people, they’ll likely perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices more so than help people understand what America is truly about.”

Kearney is the father of three sons and has four grand-kids. He’s happily retired and, with his wife, Mariko, spends his free time scuba diving in Okinawa. Life in Japan has been very good, and for a man pushing 80, he looks like he has a great deal more life in him yet. But I wondered why he’d decided to make Japan his home.

“I’ve lived in Japan a long time, in a number of capacities,” Kearney says. “I came here first as a marine. Next as a student. Then I came as a researcher and eventually as a professor. And my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. If it hadn’t, well, I could have always packed my bags and left long ago.”

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.