Discovering Black Literature in Tokyo

By Christopher Williams

                On my second day in Tokyo, I decided to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Established in 1869, during the second year of the Meiji Era, the Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto temple that is dedicated to venerating the spirits of Japan’s war dead. Officially, there are over 2,466,000 divinities that are enshrined at the site. It is here that that Japan honors the souls of its soldiers who fought in wars from 1853 until the Greater East Asian War or what we in the West generally refer to as World War II.

Once I left the Yasukuni Shrine, I strolled through the adjoining business district. As I walked down a main street, looking for something to eat, I noticed a series of bookshops. I stopped at a few of them, scanning the Japanese titles, which I did not understand. It was obvious that the Japanese respected information because of the abundance of books, magazines and other forms of literature that I had seen since my arrival.

                At one shop, I noticed some titles in English, so I paused for a few moments to see if they had anything that interested me. All of a sudden, I saw an author that I was familiar with—Claude McKay,    a leading literary figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Wow! It was quite a pleasant surprise to find a used copy of Mc Kay’s novel, Banana Bottom along a Tokyo street. I picked it up, while my eyes danced around, searching for more Black authors. Momentarily, I discovered books by other African American writers which included: Gayle Jones, Paula Marshall, Langston Hughes and Charles Chestnut. Right at my feet, there was enough material to teach a course in African American Literature.

                Since I was least familiar with the works of Mc Kay and Chestnut, I decided to purchase    Banana Bottom, The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth. Stumbling upon these works reminded me that African Americans do not understand the impact that our culture has had on the rest of the world. One really has to travel outside of the United States in order to fully appreciate the global impact of African American history and culture. This is a phenomenon that African American artists have understood going back to the days of Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker and many others.

As I sat on the Tokyo subway, skimming through Banana Bottom, I recalled the Florida couple who I met earlier that afternoon at the Yasukuni Shrine. They admitted that they introduced themselves to me because they had not seen another Black person since their arrival in Tokyo several days earlier.  I told them that three days is nothing because when I had first arrived in northeast China, I did not see another Black person for several weeks, probably a month. Indeed, it does feel strange, surreal perhaps, but I do not feel harmed or damaged by the experience. I noted that it is simply the price of the ticket for seeing the rest of the world.

       During the subway ride, I observed some Tokyo youth sitting across from me, dressed in a Hip Hop style. Watching them interact with each other made me realize that discovering these books in the middle of Tokyo was not an accident because the Japanese have had an interest in African American culture and history for decades. For example, the Japan Black Studies Association was established at Kobe University for Foreign Studies on June 22, 1954. 1954 was the same year as the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

      One of the Japan Black Studies Association’s founders, Nukina Yoshitaka, stated that he was motivated to establish the organization because he believed that the Japanese, then under U.S. military control, shared common interests with African Americans. He maintained that both groups were victims of American capitalism and imperialism. Consequently, African Americans and the Japanese had suffered psychologically under the crushing heel of white supremacy. Apparently, the founders of the Japan Black Studies Association seemed to be conscious of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois who declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,–the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”