Wednesday, January 29, 2014

About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954

The Project on the History of Black Writing is pleased to welcome our colleagues from the Japanese Black Studies Association, one of the oldest professional organizations in the field.

[By Tsunehiko Kato]

Japan Black Studies Association was founded in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court decision in America. But it was not the founders’ intention to be timely. Rather, the establishment had its own root in Japanese context. Objectively speaking, the Association was part of newly liberated larger social and academic movements in Japan for enhancement of democracy, peace and human rights in the post-war and the emergent cold-war period. Although people were very poor, this period had liberating effects upon Japanese intellectuals after the long winter of militarism and oppression of speech. The encounter with American democracy and culture was the important part of the liberating effects. But some intellectuals were aware that even in democratic America, there were people who had been excluded from it. It seems to be not an accident that JBSA started from Kobe where there were two kinds of U.S. military bases, that is, one for white soldiers and another for black soldiers. Those people who created JBSA were also aware that a post-colonial world was emerging in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America. They were keen on learning from their history and experience. So JBSA had from the start an interdisciplinary approach as well as post-colonial concerns. 

But the Association did not start from nothing. It had a pre-history. Some of the Japanese scholars in American literature even in pre-war days had written articles and books on black literature in America and when Richard Wright published his Native Son in 1940, there were people who read the Japanese translation of it the next year. So it was not quite extraordinary that JBSA was founded by scholars in American studies, however marginal they were in the mainstream academic world.

JBSA was also unique in the way it was organized. One of the founders, Prof. Nukina didn’t like the idea of hierarchy and he insisted and others followed that there should be no head of our association. So everybody was supposed to participate in the JBSA as an equal. JBSA was not established as an exclusive academic organization, but was open to ordinary citizens interested in racial issues. Although it was objectively part of the social movements, it defined itself not as a political organization, but an academic one with study of black peoples in the world as a sole objective. Another distinguishing characteristic of JBSA is that there is no stiff or formal atmosphere often associated with Japanese academic associations.  These are characteristics of this association which, I suppose, made possible the long-life it has enjoyed since its establishment.

Until now we have had 10 workshops a year, which amounted to 500 times at the time of the 50th Anniversary ten years ago. We have published an academic journal at least once a year. This year’s issue is No. 82.

I would like to call the people who founded the JBSA the first generation of scholars and they were succeeded by the second generation of scholars who spent their student days during the socio-political turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the rapid economic expansion.

For those who belong to these two generations Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes were the four major figures of black literature in America. Prof. Kitajima, former President of JBSA writes in one of the issues of JBSA magazine that the world of Black Boy by Richard Wright not only resembled the situation in which he found himself in as a new English teacher at a local Junior College, but it also provided him with the alternative vision to change the reality from the perspective of the socially weak and social justice. This, I think, is the vision many people of this association more or less share.

However, what distinguished the second generation from the first was their new focus on black women writers. It was the scholars from the second generation that noticed the emerging black women writers such as Toni Morison and Alice Walker from the early 1970s and worked hard to follow their creative activities and translate their works and write books and articles on them during the 1980s and 1990s.

Japan in the 1980s was entering the new stage of social maturity as a result of the economic development. With the spread of higher education, a new generation of educated women was emerging and their frustration with the male-dominated Japanese society formed a receptacle for feminism and the feminist movements in the Western world. So the works of black women writers found eager readers among pioneering young and middle aged women and men.  They seemed to encourage those men and women in Japan who were committed to creating larger social and cultural spaces for democracy and human rights in Japan.

Until the arrival of black women writers, people in black literature were quite marginalized in the mainstream of American literature studies. But the drastic change happened when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. I always remember what happened at the American Literature Association Annual Meeting in 1993 which took place immediately after the historic event. I was a chair of a panel on Toni Morrison at that time and found the room packed with people who suddenly got interested in Toni Morrison. This seems to me a beginning of the legitimization of black studies in Japan.

Under such a new phase of black literature in Japan, the third generation of scholars appeared.

During the 90s until now, along with the interest in black women writers, there has emerged new interest in the Caribbean literature stimulated by the works of black women writers of the Caribbean descent, which led then to the interest in black British writers from the Caribbean.

Of course, there are scholars in JBSA who are interested in fields other than black literature, such as black history, music and other contemporary issues concerning blacks in America. Among the recent young members of JBSA are people who are into Hip Hop music and culture in the US as well as in the Caribbean and in Africa.

I would like to conclude this short essay by referring to the fact that these always changing and developing academic concerns have been stimulated and encouraged by the growing trend of internationalization of academic exchanges going on since the 1980s where scholars and writers abroad were invited to JBSA conferences and JBSA members were participating in conferences abroad.

(This paper is the abridged version of the forthcoming article of mine which is to be on the March issue of Journal of Black Studies edited by Molefi Kete Asante).

- Tsunehiko Kato, Ritsumeikan University and JBSA President 

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