About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954

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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