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date: 26 June 2017

The Reception of African American Literature in Pre-war and Post-war Japan

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy provided Japanese with the first noticeable opportunity to observe a major American performing art inspired by the black presence: the minstrel show. The “Ethiopian entertainment,” held on the USS Powhatan in May 29, 1854, presented “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Niggas of the South” to the shogunate officials. While the bi-national cultural exchange was facilitated thereafter, the 1878 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers became an epoch-making event; their successful concerts given in three cities provided Japanese audiences with the first opportunity for appreciating genuine African American artistic pieces, the spirituals, distinguished from the blackface minstrelsy.

Japanese attitudes toward African Americans at this initial stage was the mixture of pity and wonder. A growing self-awareness of their own inferior status vis‐à‐vis the Western nations, however, consolidated a strong interest in slavery and racial oppression. Promotion of studies specialized in American race problems since 1915, including Bun’ya Takiura’s critical biography of Booker T. Washington (1927), illustrates the attempt by pre-war intellectuals to define the position of Japanese by both analogy and contrast with African Americans. In the meantime, translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), serialized from 1897 to 1898 in a liberal paper, the Kokumin, and an abridged translation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in 1921 paved the way for the introduction of the New Negro literature, the first major body of black writings gaining in popularity in American literary market in the 1920s. Successive publications of works by Claude Mackay, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Jean Toomer, in translation in the 1930s, generated a distinctive artistic backdrop comparable to the American Jazz Age. Various authors of the era—from novelists to haiku poets—learned about literary motifs informed by blackness and began to elaborate their own racial representations to delineate the melancholic substructure of modernity.

Even though World War II disrupted such attempts of Japanese authors to expand their literary imagination by the creational incentives from African Americans, translation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, done within the year of the original publication (1940) signifies the insistence of the same interest throughout the war period. Indeed, defeat in 1945, resentment over the subsequent U.S. occupation, coincident remorse for their country’s imperial aggression, and its eventual rearmament under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in conjunction, reoriented the post-war authors to developing black characters in their diverse but evenly relentless fictional situations over the following four decades. As well, the civil rights and black power movements facilitated studies in African American literature in universities from the 1960s onward. While Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin keep offering dissertation topics to graduate students, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have cultivated not only new readers of black women’s literature but also researchers of black feminism. Today, African American literature is one of the most popular areas in English departments in Japan; one can find virtually every subject, from the slave narrative to rap music, in the undergraduate course syllabi.