The period of the Nanban (“Southern Barbarian”) in Japan 南蛮貿易時代 Nanban bōeki jidai, from 1543 to 1614, is named such to mark the arrival of the first Europeans to Japan and the ensuing establishing of certain relations of power and culture.
The Portuguese arrived earlier in China and Southeast Asia. Of course, this was the period in the most recent memory, of black bodies arriving in Japan from the “outside.” They arrived as slaves to the Portuguese and Spanish, then the British and Americans. The bodies were not only “African” we think today.
There were black bodies as slaves that were not only from the African continent, but also Gujrati (South Asia) and Malaysian as well, among others. Not only this. We must understand that from these places I just mentioned, there were different kinds of “black,” different hues and heritages. Creole people, for instance, are an example of one kind among others. We must remember that there were Black indigenous Asians as well, who were written about and depicted BEFORE the arrival of these slaves linked with the Europeans, who lived in Southeast Asia, China and Taiwan–their present-day place-names.
In popular consciousness, trained by our national textbooks and cultures, the black body has been portrayed in a variety of ways, including absent. In absence, certain assumptions of nation, self, community, race and ethnicity, are often controlled by dominant forces of thinking, doing, being.
Black Asians have existed for centuries. Certain black persons may have come from other lands as traders and settlers before the arrival of the Nanban slave blacks. Most of these records are gone. Often, African nationalists would claim that all Black people originated on the continent we now call “Africa.” People have forgotten that continents have changed, sunk, shifted, arisen through time. The search for single and reduced origins is a modern invention of the mind. It is problematic when we attempt to work with diversity and social justice today. In thinking these thoughts on this post, I want to point to the slave trade.
The image of African slaves, and the history of Blackness today, is often dominantly portrayed through the lens of a Black Atlantic slave trade. Paul Gilroy’s writings and thought are important on this topic. However, there lies the open diversity of other spaces-places-times outside of that reality and timeline, experience and identity in their diversity.
The Black Pacific holds a myriad histories. It is another way of translating a counter-memory to the idea of a “Pacific” or “Asia,” which by its naturalizing forms, leave out the fact that we are talking most often about “The White Pacific.”
The Portuguese slaves were not what people commonly think of when thinking of “slaves.” The images of the Black Atlantic slave trade, the series “Roots” in the United States, and other books, depict a singular kind of slave in chattels, in loin cloth, toiling. This is real. I do not say that it does not exist as real and history. But what I am saying is that there were and are many many different kinds of slaves.
The slaves that arrived in Japan were not only work horses of heavy labor. Some were clerics, translators and interpreters, guides. Some spoke Japanese and perhaps other Asian languages fluently. From the accounts I have read, some of the slaves were well-respected and the Japanese took kindly to them. This is a part of the idea of Blackness in Japanese history. It is different from how blackness arrives in consciousness in the United States, or Germany, or in Kenya or South Africa, India and Sri Lanka or Kurdistan. It also challenges pervasive notions of “natural” and essentialized notions of a universal Asian racism against Blacks. Racism is learned.
Black guides helped Commodore Perry when he arrived at Japan, to guide him to the correct places and people. It is also known that when the Americans a la Commodore Perry, arrived in Japan, they first went to Okinawa. The Okinawans are NOT JAPANESE. Japanese colonized the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). But while Commodore Perry traveled to the Japanese islands from Okinawa, one of his men raped an Okinawan girl. The locals then murdered that man. Black slaves that were at this latter “revenge” event, apparently, did not stop it.
What is also true is that the Japanese saw how the Portuguese, Spanish, Brits and Americans treated the Black bodies. This then, puts a first initial “stamp” into the people of the Japanese islands, traveling mostly by stories and rumors across Japan, as to how whites treated blacks. They were not quarantined (although it is written that there were slaves’ quarters) in Japan, and it can be imagined that there might have been offspring born of relationships between some of them and Japanese women.
More research needs to be done for this period in regards to the slaves themselves. The paintings depicted above in the slide show I show on this post, show slaves fanning and taking notes and accompanying their Portuguese overlords. Black as inferior, then, is an early cultural memory, now globalized through the reach of the colonial enterprise, alive today in our minds and systems of consideration, priorities, concern, and “human” universalism. Hypodescent is intensified via European race science moving through general populations, then being proliferated through colonial contact and settler and colonized communities, then combining with local Asian forms of colorisms that were most often formed through caste-system notions of color and hierarchy based on indoor/outdoor work and modalities.
To deconstruct racisms, we must look at history and the different forms in different locales, then face accountability and use ethics and creativity to shift the operation of race-making and racism and the ways we view difference-in-action in ourselves and others, contexts by contexts.
Nanban trade info at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanban_trade