Afro-Asian Lens on the Past

Dr. Crystal Anderson
Dr. Crystal Anderson

***This is the third installment of a short series on Afro-Asia in which I examine the cultural and political exchanges and historical connections between people of African and of Asian descent. See part one on the “Deep Roots of Afro-Asia” and part two on Yuichiro Onishi’s Transpacific Antiracism.

This month, I invited Crystal S. Anderson to share a guest post based on her current research. Dr. Anderson is an Associate Professor of English at Elon University. She teaches courses in American literature and American studies and conducts research in comparative ethnic studies (African American, Asian, Asian American), focusing on literature and visual culture. Her other research interests include modernism, speculative fiction, and Asian film.  Her work has appeared in Extrapolation, MELUS and Ethnic Studies Review, as well as several book collections. Her first book, Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production (University Press of Mississippi, 2013), explores the cultural and political exchanges between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Asians over the last four decades. Her next project will explore Orientalism and African American modernism in the twentieth century.


As a scholar of comparative ethnic studies who focuses on African American, Asian and Asian American cultures, I often face assumptions that these interactions are solely based in the 20th century.  While much of my research is contemporary, it is also informed by the knowledge that these interactions stretch far back into history.  A look at three images involving the Japanese allows us to frame past Afro-Asian discourse more comprehensively.

“Southern Barbarians Come to Trade”

“Southern Barbarians Come to Trade” is a namban screen attributed to Kano Naizen (1570-1616).  Here, the “barbarians” are Portuguese traders, whose presence can be seen in Japan as early as the 1500s.  This screen features several vignettes that make up the overall scene.  To the left, we see the Portuguese trading ship in the port with sailors working on various parts of the ship. As the eye pans right, we see Portuguese sailors unloading cargo, presumably to be traded.  However, there is a distinction between the Portuguese sailors, who have pale faces and many of whom are portrayed as overseeing the activity, and the laborers, who are painted with darker faces.  Clothing also distinguishes the Portuguese sailors, dressed in Western garb, from the Japanese, who wear traditional clothing for the time.

This image shows a confluence of African, Portuguese and Japanese cultures. We know that the Portuguese were expert sailors, and Ivana Elbi reminds us that trade in both humans and objects motivated their trade as early as 1444:  “The Portuguese captains considered themselves entitled to such a just and honorable reward for the risk and discomfort they faced in the service of God and Henry the Navigator” (168). At the same time, some African captives were trained as interpreters:  “They were often manumitted and permitted to pursue their own trading interests, in exchange for committing themselves to long years of service to the Portuguese expeditions” (171).  This helps to explain how Africans end up on a Japanese namban screen.  We also know that the Portuguese had a vibrant trade with Japan, providing them with goods from China that they could not procure themselves.  The screen reveals interactions not just between West and East, but African and Asian peoples.

“Samurai at the Sphinx”
“Samurai at the Sphinx”

The next image, “Samurai at the Sphinx,” is a photograph of samurai standing in front of the iconic landmark as part of the Ikeda Mission of 1863.  The mission was originally sent to France as part of an attempt to close Japan to Westerners. The samurai stopped in Egypt on their way back.  In addition to the juxtaposition of samurai in the desert, the image also gestures towards how far the Japanese ventured into the world, even as it sought to close its borders to the West.  Mark Erickson notes:  “The willingness of the Bakufu to send emissaries to the West was reinforced by its awareness of the close relationship between foreign relations and domestic politics; as a means to ensure the moral and material support of the Western powers in its struggles with domestic foes” (384).

The image may jar us, as it places the Japanese in Egypt, a well-known visual icon of Africa, but it should also remind us of Japan’s global impulses.  One can only speculate as to why the samurai chose to stop at Egypt on their way back to Japan. Were they curious about the people and its culture? Were they eyeing Egypt as part of some larger international alliance?  Moreover, the use of photography, a cutting-edge form of technology of its time, captures the moment, which also serves to place the Japanese within a modernizing and changing West.  This image is full of paradox.

“The Iwakura Mission to the United States”

Photography also captures the Iwakura Mission to the United States, 1871-1873.  Rather than an outdoor shot, this image shows much more detail of this stately diplomatic delegation.  Much more reminiscent of portraiture of the 19th century, all of the members of the delegation are dressed in western garb except for the leader of the mission, Iwakura Tomomi.   While there is nothing in the image that refers to African Americans, the timing of the mission cannot be ignored.  The Iwakura mission toured the United States in the wake of the Civil War, the culmination of the national wrangling over slavery.  John E. Van Sant observes that while the goal of the mission failed, the Japanese “delegates carefully studied American and European political, economic, and social institutions with the objective of adopting and adapting what would be useful in modernizing Japan” (20).  In the midst of impending modernization, the Japanese turned to the United States for inspiration, and America’s continued grappling with its race problem could not be lost on them.

The combination of these images provides comprehensive, and even contradictory views, of the Japanese within a global context, a context that often brought them into a discourse with Africa and African Americans.


  • Elbi, Ivana. “Cross-Cultural Trade and Diplomacy: Portuguese Relations with West Africa, 1441-1521.” Journal of World History 3.2 (1992): 165-204.
  • Ericson, Mark D. “The Bakufu Looks Abroad. The 1865 Mission to France.” Monumenta Nipponica 34.4 (1979): 383-407.
  • “Namban Screen by Kano Naizen.”  Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts. N.d, Web. 14 Mar 2015.
  • “Samurai at the Sphinx.” Angry Asian Man. 21 Aug 2012. Web. 14 Mar 2015.
  • Van Sant, John E.  Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-80. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

**Next Month: An Interview with Robeson Taj Frazier on his latest book, The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (Duke University Press, 2014).

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