On “Transpacific Antiracism”: An Interview with Yuichiro Onishi

This post is the second of a series on Afro-Asia in which I explore the myriad political strategies, alliances, and cultural connections linking people of African descent and persons of Asian descent. In part one, I examine the deep roots of Afro-Asia. In this second post, I interview Dr. Yuichiro Onishi about his first book, Transpacific Antiracism: Afro-Asian Solidarity in 20th Century Black America, Japan and Okinawa (New York University Press in 2013). Dr. Onishi is Associate Professor of African American and African Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Keisha N. Blain: What are the factors and/or motivations that led you to write Transpacific Antiracism?

Yuichiro Onishi: In retrospect, my sojourn in Japan in the mid-1990s, after graduating from Macalester College, set the course; this experience pushed me in a direction toward the transpacific approach to “race studies.” Then I was working in a warehouse putting price tags on brand name clothing imported from Italy. This warehouse district was in the City of Kawasaki, just outside of Tokyo, located in the heart of the heavy industrial area. Working near my section were migrant workers from various parts of Southeast Asia. Also, just outside of this warehouse district was the segregated neighborhood of Zainichi Koreans, Korean residents of Japan whose descendants were brought to Japan as colonial subjects during the first half of the twentieth century. All of this “difference” in Japan was new to me. I knew little to nothing about the growing immigrant population in Japan, let alone the histories of “Japan’s minorities,” such as Korean residents of Japan, indigenous people called Ainu, and Okinawans. As I became cognizant of Japan’s “racial history,” I started to call into question the myth of Japan as a homogeneous nation.

My encounter with “difference” also brought me back to what I studied in college—European immigrants and white American workers’ racial formation—how they participated in the construction of whiteness through violence and discrimination against Blacks as a way of dealing with their own social and economic miseries resulting from the rise and expansion of industrial capitalism. Rather than crossing the color line in solidarity with Black workers to usher in a new society, these workers defended their property interests in whiteness, thereby making the labor movement an agent of racial status quo and white supremacy rather than of human emancipation. At the time I was re-reading David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness. I began drawing a parallel between white working class racism, including the story of how Irish immigrant workers became white, and Japanese workers’ racial construction of national identity through discrimination against and contempt toward Asian workers. An affinity between whiteness and Japaneseness piqued my curiosity. Upon entering the Graduate Program in History at the University of Minnesota to work with David Roediger I began considering how I might develop a research topic in the context of U.S.-Japan relations to get at this dynamic of race-making on both sides of the Pacific. Although my ideas were still inchoate, I was interested in unpacking instances of opposition to “global whiteness”—how constituents of social movements in Black America and Japan, by way of forging cross-racial and transnational solidarity, developed an argument against the theory and practice of white supremacy. So my project evolved from there—exploring connections between Black America and Japan in the context of radical movements.

Also, during my sojourn in Japan I regularly went to a progressive resource center called Pacific-Asia Resource Center, or PARC (pronounced paruku) in Tokyo. PARC was a product of the Japanese New Left (see the back issues of its English-language publication AMPO: Japan-Asia Quarterly Review). Consistently activists and intellectuals associated with PARC engaged in the localized projects of antiracism, anticolonialism, and anti-imperialism, as well as transnational activism to combat neoliberal globalization in solidarity with peoples and activists of the Global South. During the Vietnam War, those associated with PARC joined the peace movement led by the antiwar organization called Beheiren (Bentonamu ni Heiwa o Shimin Rengo, or Citizens’ League for Peace in Vietnam). In my book, I write about Beheiren as one of the collectives that shaped the work of transpacific antiracism. Personally, this inroad into the space of Japanese radical movements opened up a new horizon, especially in terms of honing a critical perspective. I located the presence of “another Japan” that is connected to various radical movements. When I frequented this place in the mid-1990s, Muto Ichiyo, one of the leading New Left intellectuals, if I recall, was teaching an English language seminar using Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Blain: How would you describe the significance of your work and Afro-Asia as an area of scholarly inquiry in general?

Onishi: The work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Reginald Kearney, Ernest Allen, Jr., Gerald Horne, Vijay Prashad, Bill Mullen, and George Lipsitz was essential. I wanted to build upon this body of work, all the while expanding it. One of the key insights presented in this body of work is that Blacks and Asians found each other in the struggles against not just racism but also imperialism, colonialism, and war. Responding to the challenges of creating a new society, the participants of Afro-Asian solidarity engaged in the creation of insurgent political projects aiming to usher in a more inclusive, just, and egalitarian community.  In my book, I focused on Black Americans’ efforts to forge cross-racial solidarity with Japan in the first half of the twentieth century and the nature of Japanese and Okinawan people’s engagement with the Black liberation movement in the second half of the twentieth century. The racial appellation “Afro-Asia,” as I use it in my book, highlights the presence of multiple currents of resistance—anti-imperialist, anticolonial, anti-war, and antiracist; they were the raw materials out of which this collectivity that my book refers to as Afro-Asian solidarity has acquired meaning and exercised shaping power in social struggles. I explore a myriad of intellectual and radical political activities in Black America, Japan, and Okinawa in the twentieth century to track the formation of such communities of struggles, especially how the “culture of liberation”—a conceptual language borrowed from Cedric Robinson—made the grounds for resistance to white supremacy productive and generative. I make an effort to emphasize that activists and intellectuals operating within each community of Afro-Asian solidarity in Black America, Japan, and Okinawa possessed a deep commitment to do all that is required to transform the community of struggle they forged as a basis for a new society. In other words, that which gave form to Afro-Asian solidarity was an uncompromising ethical stance, albeit at times with certain kinds of intellectual and political rigidity.

Blain: What are the main arguments and/or themes in the book? 

Onishi: The argument in my book stresses the dynamism of the culture of liberation – how diverse participants of Afro-Asian solidarity making inroads into this culture found ways to become a “critical race theorists” of sorts. Entering this space, these activists and intellectuals underwent transformation. I rely on the conceptual framework, “moving in a racial groove,” as Du Bois put it in the context of theorizing Afro-Asian solidarity in the 1930s, to describe and analyze the experience of race among activists and intellectuals engaged in Afro-Asian solidarity work, especially how they developed strategies to make connections across multiple currents of resistance. An outcome of their concrete engagement was that fashioning themselves as agents of social change, Black, Japanese, and Okinawan intellectual activists and other supporters of Afro-Asian solidarity developed sharp insights into the workings of race. For them race had less to do with a matter of personal identity and injury. That is to say, it had little to do with skin color but everything to do with power and politics. Activists enmeshed in Afro-Asian solidarity work recognized that race was a product and property of modernity that made and remade the modern world and race within it. It possessed rationalizing power, both in the service of domination and resistance. My book dramatizes how, in the context of opposition to white supremacy, race emerged as a political category of struggle with necessary moral and ethical quality and vitality.

Blain: One of my favorite parts of the book is your chapter on Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai (Association of Negro Studies). Tell us more about this group. How did they personify the vision of the “black radical tradition”?

Onishi: Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai (Association of Negro Studies) was established in Kobe, Japan in 1954, just one month after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It was a group made up of intellectuals of eclectic interests. I introduce the founder and principal organizer named Yoshitaka Nukina. He was a left-leaning scholar who was in the orbit of the Japanese Communist Party in the aftermath of the Pacific War. During the prewar period, he became a serious student of American literature, especially the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also discovered Esperanto and immersed himself in the progressive wing of the Esperanto movement tied to Japanese radicalism. He continued his association with this movement after being repatriated from Java, Indonesia; it had a strong presence in the Japanese Left in the postwar period. Meanwhile he was moving closer to the study of African American life, culture, and history by way of discovering the intellectual tradition of white abolitionists –from William Lloyd Garrison to John Brown. He also read widely in Black studies’ humanities and social sciences literature drawn from CPUSA’s International Publishers and such periodicals as Political Affairs, Masses & Mainstream, and The Nation. The gravity that held together this highly heterogeneous sphere of intellectual activity, best embodied in Nukina’s life and other members of Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai, was a searching effort on their part to not just construct the paradigm of human liberation capable of exceeding the boundaries of western political thought, but also actually practice it in the domain of everyday. This principled stance became foundational to Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai, and the members of this collective put this perspective to work throughout the Civil Rights era. Along the way they constituted a distinct community of struggle that linked up with Robert and Mabel Williams and other Black liberation movement activists, such as Julian Mayfield, who was in exile in Nkrumah’s Ghana in the early 1960s and John Henrik Clarke, who was leading the Freedomways collective, the vector of the Black Left, in Harlem. The Black Radical Tradition moved from strength to strength certainly over time, but also across the Pacific. As Cedric Robinson states (and I use this passage as an epigraph) in Black Marxism (2000), “As the culture of liberation, the [black radical] tradition crossed the familiar bounds of social and historical narratives.” Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai is still in existence after 60 years with at least 100 members. It continues to put out its periodical and brings together scholars and teachers through a monthly lecture series and an annual meeting.

Blain: What kind of primary sources did you use in your study? What kind of challenges did you encounter during the process of locating and/or analyzing these sources? What did you find most surprising and/or exciting about conducting research for this book?

Onishi: In general, if you are proficient in another language other than English, the possibilities for analytical and theoretical discoveries greatly widen in historical research. Seen from this perspective, then, the historical study of Black internationalism truly emerges as the subject of world history. I was always mindful of using my language proficiency to shape my identity as a scholar of Black internationalism, as well as a whole research process. As I mentioned earlier, the intellectual energies and resources tied to PARC, in an early stage, helped set my research agenda. Also important was the Center for the Study of Cooperative Human Relations, originally located at Saitama University (now at Rikkyo University in Tokyo). It is an archive of Japanese grassroots activism, and I was given unrestricted access to the uncataloged manuscript collection of Yuichi Yoshikawa (1931-). Yoshikawa was one of the central figures in Beheiren who facilitated the globalization of the Japanese peace movement during the Vietnam War. My effort to track Beheiren’s transnational organizing work led me to two archives in the United States, the Swarthmore Peace Collection and the Bancroft Library (particularly the “Pacific Counseling Service and Military Law Office Records, 1969-1977”). Meeting Tomokazu Takamine, the Okinawan journalist who chronicled Afro-Asian solidarity in U.S.-occupied Okinawa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a decisive moment as well. I visited Okinawa just a few weeks after the G8 Summit in the summer of 2000; on the eve of this international event, thousands of Okinawans and their supporters encircled the perimeter of Kadena Air Force Base (17 kilometer in length), the largest air base in the Asia-Pacific region, in the form of a human chain to demand a base-free society. The energies of dissent were still palpable, and the tour of sites of solidarity between Okinawan resistance and the GI movement helped bring my work closer to the ground, particularly the cause of peace and justice. Of course, the organ of Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai was vital, as well as the writings of key members, especially Hiromi Furukawa and Yoriko Nakajima, and their Japanese translations of key African American texts. All of these primary sources are products of social movements and concrete engagement at the grassroots, then and now, so I tried to hold on to the analytic orientation that would allow me to sustain the dynamics of a recursive movement between the past and the present so essential to history-writing that is bound up with history-making.

As far as challenges during the process of analyzing primary sources, the work of digging into W. E. B. Du Bois’s intellectual work, especially as it relates to his pro-Japan orientation in the 1930s demanded a careful analysis. It entailed the type of reading strategy that required utmost sensitivity toward Du Bois’s self-conscious efforts to determine the stakes of the political moment in which he occupied as he entered the crossroads of a moment that was world-historic, the crisis of racial capitalism and the coming unity of the Darker World to transform this system in the 1930s. To categorically declare Du Bois as an apologist for imperialist Japan was simply inaccurate. Also limiting was to insist on the failure in Du Bois’s thinking. The depth and breadth of his intellectual commitment to universal humanity, justice, and peace, not to mention his grasp of the workings of race in the modern world, so majestically presented in his Black Reconstruction in America (1935), ran counter to these analytical positions. I revised the chapter on Du Bois’s Afro-Asian philosophy of world history countless times, but I always returned to the observation Du Bois made during his visit in Japan in late 1936. While viewing a series of prints of Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1854 in the library of Tokyo Imperial University, he spotted Black sailors. His pronouncement, which appeared in his travelogue published in the Pittsburgh Courier, “I… saw a print of Perry’s expedition with Negro sailors,” always reminded me of Du Bois’s outlook on the place of Black labor in the creation of the modern world, in this case, the world-historic moment of Japan’s opening to the West. The challenge was that of placing Du Bois’s inflection on the globality of race under a careful analysis to account for the contingent and contradictory nature of his investment in Afro-Asian solidarity.

Blain: Where do you think the field of Afro-Asia is heading? What areas would you like to see further explored?

Onishi: The recently published collection edited by Moon-Ho Jung called The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements across the Pacific (University of Washington Press, 2014) represents one of the important tendencies in the field of critical studies of Afro-Asian connections in culture, politics, and history, although it is not explicitly framed in the context of this field. The collection introduces a myriad of stories of resistance to white supremacy on the Pacific coast and across the Pacific in the twentieth century, particularly radical movements that traversed multiple terrains of struggles to advance the causes of antiracism, immigrant rights, prisoners’ rights, anarchism, feminism, labor radicalism, and antiwar. Throughout, it is attentive to both challenges and possibilities of multiracial coalitional politics in radical movements. It also brings to the fore the perspective of the grassroots, especially how activists enmeshed in the struggles developed a sharp critique of the connection between race and state power and from this vantage mobilized steadfast opposition to institutional and structural violence called white supremacy. I find this perspective on the nexus of race and state violence to be indispensable, for it is palpable on the ground among young activists and organizers today. Seizing our contemporary crisis marked by systematic assaults on basic desires and rights of Black Americans and immigrants of color to live a committed human life, they are mounting a critique of American liberal democracy tethered to economic impoverishment, criminalization, punishment, and confinement. They are making acute advances on all fronts—epistemologically, theoretically, politically, and culturally—to carry out the radical transformation of American democracy. And as mass demonstrations and protests against police violence spread across the United States in the wake of grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York, concerned citizens and activists around the world, including Tokyo protesters, rose up as well in solidarity to scandalize American injustice. In Tokyo, the participants of Afro-Asian solidarity marched through busy streets, displaying messages, written both in Japanese and English, that have now become the lexicon of this movement: “Don’t shoot,” “Can’t Breathe,” “End Police Brutality Now!” and “Black Lives Matter.” Not surprisingly, this Afro-Asian solidarity project in Tokyo was highly multiracial (#tokyo4ferguson). It brought together people of diverse backgrounds, and young organizers in Tokyo were thoroughly cognizant of this universality. My point is that the intellectual work of unpacking the power of this racial appellation, “Afro-Asian,” in the struggle, then and now, ultimately entails locating and tracking the force of insurgency/urgency guided by a certain kind of ecumenical authority in localized projects and transnational and global activism for racial justice. At its core, “Afro-Asian” represents a critical ethos honed through both reflection and action that is best encapsulated in the oft-quoted dictum made explicit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963): “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 

More About Professor Onishi:

onishi Yuichiro Onishi is an African Americanist trained as an historian of modern America. He writes the history of the African American-led unfinished struggle for democracy in the twentieth century called the Black freedom movement that intersects with places rarely seen as centers of the African American experience, namely Japan and Okinawa. He teaches courses in African American Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. A prolific author, his articles have appeared in various academic journals including the Journal of African American History and American Quarterly. His second book project, We Who Become Together: The Black Ethos in Japan, 1970-76, unearths an untold story of race and resistance in Japan between 1970 and 1976. In this study, he pursues the following two lines of inquiry: (1) how one group of progressive Japanese intellectuals managed to enlist moral and political support from thousands of concerned Japanese citizens through a petition campaign in the early 1970s and buoyed the legal defense campaign for the African American civil rights leader Robert F. Williams (1925-1996) in the United States and (2) why this cause of Black freedom resonated within the Japanese public sphere.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “On “Transpacific Antiracism”: An Interview with Yuichiro Onishi

  • I’m currently reading Dark Princess, and I see a strong ambivalence in Du Bois concerning the Japanese. I haven’t finished the novel yet, but the Japanese might even be characterized as antagonists! — trying to thwart at every step the black male protagonist’s connection to the Indian female “subaltern savior.” I haven’t seen much written on what seems to me Du Bois earlier ambivalence toward Japan — only on his unabashed support in the 1930s/early 40s during his travels. Given that by the end of the war, Du Bois admitted that the Japanese had behaved much like whites did with their Yamato racialism, there seems too often a collapse of the historical narrative of what Du Bois really thought about Japan.

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