Thursday, January 30, 2014
Black Studies in Japan
About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954
By Tsunehiko Kato
29 January 2014
Japan Black Studies Association [JBSA] was founded in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court decision in America. But it was not the founders’ intention to be timely. Rather, the establishment had its own root in Japanese context. Objectively speaking, the Association was part of newly liberated larger social and academic movements in Japan for enhancement of democracy, peace and human rights in the post-war and the emergent cold-war period. Although people were very poor, this period had liberating effects upon Japanese intellectuals after the long winter of militarism and oppression of speech. The encounter with American democracy and culture was the important part of the liberating effects.
But some intellectuals were aware that even in democratic America, there were people who had been excluded from it. It seems to be not an accident that JBSA started from Kobe where there were two kinds of U.S. military bases—that is, one for white soldiers and another for black soldiers. Those people who created JBSA were also aware that a post-colonial world was emerging in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America. They were keen on learning from their history and experience. So JBSA had from the start an interdisciplinary approach as well as post-colonial concerns.
But the Association did not start from nothing. It had a pre-history. Some of the Japanese scholars in American literature even in pre-war days had written articles and books on black literature in America and when Richard Wright published his “Native Son” in 1940, there were people who read the Japanese translation of it the next year. So it was not quite extraordinary that JBSA was founded by scholars in American studies, however marginal they were in the mainstream academic world.
JBSA was also unique in the way it was organized. One of the founders, Prof. Nukina didn’t like the idea of hierarchy and he insisted and others followed that there should be no head of our association. So everybody was supposed to participate in the JBSA as an equal. JBSA was not established as an exclusive academic organization, but was open to ordinary citizens interested in racial issues.
Although it was objectively part of the social movements, it defined itself not as a political organization, but an academic one with study of black peoples in the world as a sole objective. Another distinguishing characteristic of JBSA is that there is no stiff or formal atmosphere often associated with Japanese academic associations. These are characteristics of this association which, I suppose, made possible the long-life it has enjoyed since its establishment.
Until now we have had 10 workshops a year, which amounted to 500 times at the time of the 50th Anniversary ten years ago. We have published an academic journal at least once a year. This year’s issue is No. 82
I would like to call the people who founded the JBSA the first generation of scholars and they were succeeded by the second generation of scholars who spent their student days during the socio-political turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the rapid economic expansion.
For those who belong to these two generations Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes were the four major figures of black literature in America. Prof. Kitajima, former President of JBSA, writes in one of the issues of JBSA magazine that the world of “Black Boy” by Richard Wright not only resembled the situation in which he found himself in as a new English teacher at a local Junior College, but it also provided him with the alternative vision to change the reality from the perspective of the socially weak and social justice. This, I think, is the vision many people of this association more or less share.
However, what distinguished the second generation from the first was their new focus on black women writers. It was the scholars from the second generation that noticed the emerging black women writers such as Toni Morison and Alice Walker from the early 1970s and worked hard to follow their creative activities and translate their works and write books and articles on them during the 1980s and 1990s.
Japan in the 1980s was entering the new stage of social maturity as a result of the economic development. With the spread of higher education, a new generation of educated women was emerging and their frustration with the male-dominated Japanese society formed a receptacle for feminism and the feminist movements in the Western world. So the works of black women writers found eager readers among pioneering young and middle aged women and men. They seemed to encourage those men and women in Japan who were committed to creating larger social and cultural spaces for democracy and human rights in Japan.
Until the arrival of black women writers, people in black literature were quite marginalized in the mainstream of American literature studies. But the drastic change happened when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. I always remember what happened at the American Literature Association Annual Meeting in 1993 which took place immediately after the historic event. I was a chair of a panel on Toni Morrison at that time and found the room packed with people who suddenly got interested in Toni Morrison. This seems to me a beginning of the legitimization of black studies in Japan.
Under such a new phase of black literature in Japan, the third generation of scholars appeared.
During the 90s until now, along with the interest in black women writers, there has emerged new interest in the Caribbean literature stimulated by the works of black women writers of the Caribbean descent, which led then to the interest in black British writers from the Caribbean.
Of course, there are scholars in JBSA who are interested in fields other than black literature, such as black history, music, and other contemporary issues concerning blacks in America. Among the recent young members of JBSA are people who are into Hip Hop music and culture in the US as well as in the Caribbean and in Africa.
I would like to conclude this short essay by referring to the fact that these always changing and developing academic concerns have been stimulated and encouraged by the growing trend of internationalization of academic exchanges going on since the 1980s where scholars and writers abroad were invited to JBSA conferences and JBSA members were participating in conferences abroad.
(This paper is the abridged version of the forthcoming article of mine which is to be on the March issue of Journal of Black Studies edited by Molefi Kete Asante).
Tsunehiko Kato, Ritsumeikan University and JBSA President. “I have been in Black Studies in the United States, especially the study of black women novelists such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker etc., and for the last seven years I have shifted my research interest to Black British authors such as Caryl Phillips."
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Jerry W. Ward, Jr
Professor Tsunehiko Kato’s eloquent essay on the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSA) provides relief from the glut of always already interpellations of the face (and other body parts) of the Other who occupies an interstitial transnational location in the postcolonial diasporic interrogation which is a simulacrum for academic discourses in conversation with postmodern debris of gendered desires. In Professor Kato’s essay, one hears the voice of a human being speaking to human beings about a subject that is dear to his heart and that he invites us to share.
JBSA was founded in 1954, the year Richard Wright published “Black Power” and “Savage Holiday.” Given the importance of Wright’s works for Japanese scholars prior to their having ocular proof of the fault-lines in America’s practice of democracy (e.g., segregated military bases), any future dialogue and collaboration between African American scholars and their Japanese colleagues can begin with the importance of empirical history for international exchange. Professor Kato makes it clear that the early stages of Japanese engagement of Negro literature was mediated by reading experiences which did not have to be filtered by theory. I use the term “Negro literature” for the sake of historical accuracy.
Timing is crucial. By highlighting Professor Kitajima’s response to “Black Boy,” the essay allows us to understand why Japanese literary scholars may be more in synch with African American scholars than foreign scholars who became interested in black writing after LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka challenged “the myth of Negro literature” in 1962. I surmise, for example, that Japanese intellectuals were better prepared to appreciate the experiential grounding of Wright’s response to George Padmore’s “Pan-Africanism or Communism” in “Black Power” and “The Color Curtain” (1956) than their Chinese peers who might have given greater weight to Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois as politically engaged men of letters. My ideas about the locations of literary sympathy and interpretation have to be debated in rigorous exchanges which are informed by fact rather than theory.
Professor Kato whets my appetite for such exchanges between JBSA and the Project on the History of Black Writing, because I believe African Americans can learn much from how JBSA members formulated questions over a period of sixty years. And the third generation of JBSA members can learn from PHBW why contemporary African American literature, culture, and criticism appear to create a ball of confusion.
The admirable specificity of Professor Kato’s narrative brings to the foreground, for me and perhaps for others who have taught African American literature in China, how Chinese scholarship is more strongly motivated by and mediated through what can loosely be called Eurocentric theoretical discourses. My impressions are buttressed by reading the three volumes of “Critical Zone: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge” (2004, 2006, 2008), which are seminal in articulating what a global community of scholarship might be.
My concern about barnacles of misunderstanding regarding African American thought is anchored by a recent “reading” of Wright’s “Savage Holiday.” In “Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013), John C. Charles interprets Wright’s novel “in the context of his post expatriation search for aesthetic and intellectual freedom beyond the reductive labels of mid-twentieth-century American racial and political discourse”(21).
From the exchanges I have frequently with Chinese colleagues and students, it is easy for me to imagine their not questioning a distinction between Wright’s privacy and his agency, an agency that is judiciously assessed in Claudia Tate’s “Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocol of Race” (1998) and Abdul R. Jan Mohamed’s “The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death” (2005). Professor Kato’s essay persuades me that JBSA members might question the theoretical implications of John C. Charles’ interpretation with more critical alacrity.
Professor Kato’s reflection on the history of JBSA strengthens my determination to call for establishing an online African American Research forum among African American, Chinese, American, and Japanese scholars at the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, Central China Normal University, October 25-26, 2014. Without dismissing the virtues of theory, I am convinced that future international exchanges about African American literature(s) and culture(s) ought to be marked by greater recognition of shared historicity and production of knowledge , the kind of historicity that Professor Kato has most gracefully delineated.
29 January 2014
"I am far luckier, thank God, than 89% of my fellow New Orleanians. I have been blessed by the prayers of my relatives and friends. My fortunate circumstances strengthen my resolve to return permanently, to restore my house, to help to restore Dillard University and other educational institutions, to join Dave Brinks and others in grassroots efforts to prevent the NEW New Orleans from becoming a “corporate colony” with a minimal non-white population that is controlled by wealthy and extreme neo-conservatives. I must encourage more people to return.
The natural disasters that are now elements of a national tragedy persuade me to fight a repetition of the Reconstruction era and the nadir of African American experiences, to speak loudly against a replay of the Great Migration. Commitments must gradually erase the depression and periods of near-insanity that have afflicted me since August 29 2005. I must devote myself to the practice of civic virtue in New Orleans." (Jerry Ward, Jr.)