Black, Yellow, White in Japan and Asia

JPN - Black Sambo - Ufu and Mufu - Robert Moorehead
Black Sambo characters: Ufu and Mufu, popular in Japan – photo by Robert Moorehead


My need to think about Blackness in Asia goes far beyond the fact of my father being an African-American soldier stationed in Japan during the Korean War. It goes beyond anti-Black attitudes among Asians that I have experienced, and the anti-Asian attitude I have experienced among African-Americans today. I knew that a superficial and very American notion of anti-black racism in the United States would not do to understand my own place in history and the languages I would use to uncover and do my part to undo its power in the world.

Anti-black racism takes on an almost “natural” quality for some, when they justify it by its widespread “truth.” It has been made more prevalent on most continents around the globe in the present day, because of its widespread structural element spread through the rise of normalizing the “nation-state system” and the role of colonialism and military occupation. Colonialism was a process of expansion that spread the images and governing modalities repeated in far-flung locations around the globe, mirroring the anti-black attitudes of the European colonizers. However, this was not a “pure origin” of anti-black racism. We can say that colonization intensified and made more structural, some anti-black and anti-indigenous, as well as anti-primitive attitudes already present in places that were wanting to not be colonized and defeated by the European, and later—the United Statian military machines in colonizing and globalizing worlds.  To be “included” in the system of world nations, to be able to trade, to be considered legitimate, one must become a nation and do certain things. In the nation, blackness, at those times of nation-building between the 15th century to today, was not meant to be desirable.

Encountering Whites "capturing" aborigines in the South Pacific were reported by Asians to their people to enhance their ideas of blacks.
Encountering Whites “capturing” aborigines in the South Pacific, were reported by Asians to their people which influenced their ideas of black subordination. Photo from Queensland Archives

Historians have noted, so far, that trade business existed between continental Africans and the Chinese existed as early as the seventh through the ninth centuries A.D.  The most visible Blacks were those Africans brought as servants and workers by the Arab and Persian leaders to China during that time (from the T’ang through the Sung Dynasty).  During these times there were a few certain provincial governors who felt that the Arabs and the Africans were “ruining” their own economies and wrote laws barring association of any kind, with Arabs and Africans. In the language of those times, Arabs and Africans were all called “Black” and more accurate “black barbarians” and “black devils” as ways to dissuade the locals from humanizing them and relating with them.  But most of the time, friendly trade existed until the rise of European colonizers and the downplaying of African and Arab strengths through wars–both military and economic.

During this same period, Korea and Japan began encountering Black slaves from various locations, including African slaves and servants who came with the Europeans. In addition, Malaysian and South Asian negrito tribals, and Black-Asian aboriginal tribal peoples were also enslaved and used as indentured labor by White nations during the colonial period. At the same time, “northern” or “East Asian” armies attempted continuously to invade and conquer their southern neighbors, by land and sea. Since the Southeast Asians and South Sea peoples were of darker complexion and with some having similar physical features with Africans, they were all considered “black” by the northern Asian invaders and traders. Condescending attitudes towards the Southeast Asians, Filipinos, and all tribal people, came concurrently with the desire to rule and be superior.

Before a “black” was solidified in people’s minds, as something to look down upon, there were the others that were already excluded, violated, used, and belittled. All kinds of lower caste groups and ethnic groups in China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere existed.  Through time, these prejudices have remained. In China, what is called “Chinese” is the Han culture. It has worked to dominate and silence other representations (unless they can exploit and manage them). In Japan, the Ainu, the Buraku caste, the Okinawan, the mixed-race, were obviously the “other.” But through centuries, Japan obliterated ethnic groups and incorporated and assimilated until now, people actually think that the Japanese are “one” people. It’s this kind of silencing and forgetting and warping, that gives me impetus to continue writing and thinking and researching and presenting. This Japanese reality of incorporation, is no different from most other nation-states, no matter how much they protest.  There is the mainstream “supposed to be” and “good” and then there is that which is degraded by the nation, unwanted, dispensable, and historically revised to make the nation and those that buy into its primal suggestion, priority and superior.

Ethiopian_Concert -_Sanada_Treasure_Museum_-_DSC09589
Photo of Japanese Byobu (screen) of Blackface entertainers from Commodore Perry’s traders in Japan.

In addition to the need to maintain a “self” in relation to outsider encroachment — the rise of colonialism, came intellectual “knowledge.” This knowledge would be the theoretical ways in which domination is acted out onto the world. Race theory was the rage of intellectuals in China, Korea, Japan, and “Indochina.”  Because of European encroachment through military threats as well as through theoretical “truths” that were used to conquer and divide people in favor of European powers, the intellectual traditions of Asia had to “take on” the intellectual life of “the West” and to consider and use the so-called “race science” complete with its White-at-the-Top-of the Hierarchy” system of seeing and considering human beings.

Of course, in relation to this, the rise of a need for “Yellow Supremacy” would have to happen. People anywhere would not stand for simply following the people who came from Europe to control them.  This, coupled with dominant Asian systems of patriarchal sexism, chauvinism and authoritarian forms of rule that would commit genocide and internally colonize people within their own lands, would be used to foment their own resistance to European colonization and American rise to power.

During World War I and through the Interwar Period into World War II, African-Americans arrived in Asia and formed vibrant communities in China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, as well as to a lesser degree in places such as Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. These communities spread such things as food as well as the most enduring aspect of these communities: jazz music. Several indigenous jazz bands rose up in these places, giving credit to the African-Americans that lived in these locales.  Osaka, Shanghai, Manilla and other places, developed strong jazz club cultures including music, clothing, and sense of style.

Along with the spread of Jazz, of course, came Blackface. When the Americans were traveling and living in Asia in the 1920s and 30s, white people often painted their faces black, and their lips big red, and dressed as cartoons of black people to entertain.  Commodore Perry, credited with bombing Tokyo Bay to force Japan to trade with the west, was to have entertained the Japanese with Blackface minstrels entertaining them, while black servants served everyone. These are deep images that stay with cultures unfamiliar with certain people.  Remember that Asians knew nothing about the genocidal methods of “capturing slaves” that the Europeans had developed (this doesn’t mean the East Asians did not have slaves and didn’t know about slavery. What I”m saying is that on a scale of millions and millions across continents was something the Europeans had been able to “invent” through the use of technologies). During these periods, many Japanese, Korean, and Chinese musical groups were born, that wore blackface. This tradition still exists today.

Recently, Korean popular entertainment has come under fire for blackface depicted on television shows. The same has happened in Japan. There is a Japanese Motown-music singing group dressed in Blackface, as well as a group called Momoiro Clover Z. As well, a children’s book of two little Black Sambo “brother and sister” kids complete with its line of dolls, and anime, entitled Ufu and Mufu, continuing to be popular in Japan.

KOR - Gameshow
A petition was started in 2014 because of this performance of blackface on a Korean Game show.

When confronted by local people, along with Africans and African-American and Rights groups, being asked to stop these depictions, both in Korea and Japan, people were told by the locals that these were “not racist” and that they were meant to honor Black people and Black entertainment.

The black person, black people, depicted in caricature is supposedly honoring black people? From an East Asian point of view, how else would they “perform” a black person? Perhaps without caricature? It is increasingly made more of an intense problem because in present-day entertainment, the need for entertainers to be “authentic” is called for. Only blacks can play blacks. Only gays can play gay. But how are we to think of this tradition when behind the outcome,  histories are so different and also borrowed from dominant “American” culture? It is a painful reminder for African-Americans, and yet for the East Asians, it is not painful but joyous. It is racist. But different and therefore must be approached differently, in attempting to address the locus of change and understanding, or at least consideration. Both in East Asia and in the United States, the “other” has no say so. In asking this question, what is being called important, needing to be questioned? Who decides?

The question of yellow supremacy and its connection to white supremacy must be asked, so that blackness and its position can be dislodged from its lower and invisiblized place.

In Japan, there has been centuries of the whitening of the skin, through powder substances and pasty make-up, especially for girls and women. One can see in the present-day, the geisha or kabuki performances, where the white face is made intense and priority. The lighter a woman’s skin, the higher in caste she would be in the Japan of old, from the sixteenth through the early 20th century. However, this tradition has residues in becoming “elite” through contact, affinity with, and as “white” in East Asian culture. This would separate them as superior to their southern neighbors, the foreigners, and the slaves. White people in Asia, were not called “white” by the locals. Variously, in Japan and China, white people were referred to as “red” people. For example, the term “Haku-jin” or white person, or white people, in Japanese, is a fairly modern term, in relation to translations of western text into Japanese.

KOR - BLACKFACE Storefront
One shop of many in Korea, advertising Blackface products like dolls, Black costumes, microphones, afro wigs, etc.

What I’m pointing to, is that hardly anything in our lives, when it has to do with humans and culture, are born inside of one place. They are a traveling array of relationships across continents and cultures and what we call markers of hierarchies. These hierarchies can change through history, and the markers shift, and the intensities differ according to what is happening.  In a previous blogpost, I mentioned the desire for white skin and all things white in Thailand. If we are to think of Thailand’s relationship with the United States and the thousands of American soldiers that passed through its borders, in addition to how seeing the often unequal relations between white and black soldiers in the U.S. military during the Vietnam/Southeast Asian war, we can understand this borrowing. Added to this, is the feeling of fighting inferiority projected onto them by the Japanese and Chinese throughout history, and Japan’s relationship with the U.S., which parallels how nations such as Thailand are treated in international politics, like second-class citizens. This makes the need to intensify its national identity through asserting certain things, all the more self-evident. Blackness is something outside of itself, both as caste (lower) or foreign (American or African or European, etc.). Also, many of the products such as make-up for white skin, are produced in relation to Japan, or China.  Images produced by the more longer-standing U.S. and European allies such as Japan and South Korea, would be cultures that other Asians tend to mimic in relation to techniques of “rising.”

So there are many links. How do we address racism in Asia?  First let us understand each nation’s local forms and histories of racism.  Understand the language used.  For example, in Japan, racism is not so much a word as discrimination.

So Blackface is real, existing now for centuries, having traveled from various locations and meeting on stages and television cameras in front of the world. It is a confluence of anti-darker and anti-foreign, and anti-lower caste prejudices married with United Statian and European forms of scientism and nation-state structures that have been made global through expansive dominance and self-congratulatory displacements. It is culturally something turned into a form of self-evident superiority with no consideration for where it comes from or its effects. It is not a form of self-made evil without previous causes and conditions, for both gain and defense, exploitation and self-image. Nations are like individual people.

In this sense, I am glad that there are thinkers, artists, creators, and change agents that will be studied, sensitive to difference, and strong in efforts to change these things in all of its diversity.


4 thoughts on “Black, Yellow, White in Japan and Asia Leave a comment

  1. I enjoyed this. I wonder how hard you think the enterprise of dismantling the race concept in the popular imagination is. In my mind it’s somewhere between the nation-state itself (harder) and national borders (easier). It helps that the race concept has developed a lot of negative connotations among certain circles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment-response and wondering. I love your piece on Haafu by the way 🙂

    So… I think yes, dismantling is difficult. It will not become a global mindset in our lifetime. I view larger activisms like this (dismantling), are long-term work where we focus on changing little things now and in our lifetime that have effects in the future. Race and “Nation” are fictions of European colonization and globalization. Racism and national/ethnic identity is real because of this (as opposed to cultural heritage, for instance), and that is so because of the tendency of what you call: borders. But borders themselves are not an issue– it’s what we think of borders and what to do, the inside/outside thing. I view how we view DIFFERENCE as a problem to be the biggest factor. Difference has become linked to ostracism, annihilation, and anti-truth, and leading to anti-diverse ways of thinking and being that impact everything. So I view education (not in the traditional classroom sense, but through inserting different ways of thinking into conversations and spaces where people are open to change. After all, the other huge problem nowadays is that people want it easy, understandable, comfortable, etc. — which already goes against what needs to happen. But some people are ready and willing, although sometimes not ready at the moment, but get it later. In any case, let us not be silent, in whatever way we communicate. Thanks M!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry about the misspelling. Well, the book is not coming out until next year, fall. It’s been quite a chore working with a publisher! But hopefully it will come out this time for sure.


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