African American and Japanese people share a rich history of nearly two hundred years of transnational engagement and activity. African American writers discussed Japan as early as 1828, and, in the African American and abolitionist press, the 1860 Japanese Embassy to the United States inspired a perception of transnational solidarity between African American and Japanese people based on the shared experience of racial prejudice and the right of all men to participate in the affairs of the world. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Japanese ideas surrounding Blackness were very different from the racial ideologies prevalent in Europe and later the United States. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War inspired African American admiration for Japan as a global leader in the fight against racism and imperialism, although Japan expanded its imperial activity across Asia throughout the early 20th century. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese racial equality bill made Japan even more of a symbol of the fight for racial equality to African American civil rights leaders and writers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese intellectuals were inspired by the African American struggle for civil rights, as well as their transnational engagement with African American people, to promote anti-imperialism within Japan. Meanwhile, in the 1930s, pro-Japanese organizations proliferated across the United States and influenced tens of thousands of African American people. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended much, but not all, African American sympathy for Japan. The FBI was concerned that Japanese military agents would racially agitate African American people into subversive activity. As part of the war effort, the Japanese military did plan pro-Japanese racial propaganda targeted toward America’s Black people. During the Occupation period, many Japanese people adopted negative racial attitudes toward Black people. At the same time, during the postwar period, many Japanese and African American people shared transnational relationships free from the increasing racial prejudice perpetuated by the American state. Japanese and African American relations, as well as representations and perceptions of Black people in Japan, have continued to change throughout the 21st century.
African America and Japan
African Diaspora in Asia
The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.
Bangladeshis in Italy
The Bangladeshi population in Italy boomed in 1990, spreading from Rome and forming local enclaves shaped by migration chains; it is the second-largest Bangladeshi group in Europe and sees a preponderance of Sunni Muslims, a large majority of working-age men, and poor access of women to employment. Although both Italian institutions and migrant associations promoted a monolithic image of the “Bangladeshi community” as a category of political visibility, Italian Bangladeshis present considerable variety in terms of geographic origin and ideological affiliations and important differences in terms of social origins between endangered middle classes and urban middle classes with steady economic situations. Interaction with the Italian institutions results in further differentiation between “legal” and undocumented migrants, which overlaps, in part, with that between those in northern Italy, where Bangladeshi workers are generally entitled to full rights, and those in Rome and the south, where the informal economy is widespread. The large presence of undocumented working-age men fuels marginality and exploitation, both by natives and co-nationals. Patronage relations between co-nationals are crucial in providing access to emigration, housing, and employment and add to the dynamics of self-organization, especially in the case of secular associations. A peculiar characteristic of Italian Bangladeshis is the tendency to form mononational organizations (both secular and Islamic) that proliferate by virtue of scissions, along with transnationalism and entrepreneurship. In contrast, the new generation tends to move beyond communal introversion and transnationalism, but this is limited to only those with promising careers. Even among young people, extensive areas of marginality exist; this results in the persistence of attitudes typical of the migrant generation and reproduces among those who grew up in Italy the distinction, characteristic of the situation of the migrants, between those who have been successfully incorporated into Italian society and those suffering social exclusion.
Bukharan Trade Networks in Eurasia
Bukharan trade networks functioned as significant conduits to the movement of goods and people throughout Eurasia. Evidence of trade activities of Bukharans in the early modern period extends from the northern shores of Russia, east to China, and south to the Caspian, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In the Russian Empire Bukharan merchants became a privileged diaspora community that played a significant role in commercial life of Siberia. In Siberia theyoften maintained commercial and religious ties with their Central Asian communities; they seemed in some cases to established close ties with the Siberian Tatar community as well. Bukharan merchants were not necessarily from the city of Bukhara per se, but rather, probably due to the prestige of Bukhara, the Russian imperial state applied the moniker Bukharan (Bukharetin–singular; Bukhartsy–plural) to merchants that hailed from a variety of Central Asian cities and towns. In Siberia, some Bukharans served the Russian imperial state not only as merchants but also in the service of Russian imperial commercial and diplomatic administration. They served the Russian imperial state in various roles, includingin the customs administration and diplomacy. Commercial and spiritual reasons brought this diaspora community to Siberia. While the Russian state courted Bukharan immigration to Siberia for the economic benefits they could bring, Bukharan immigration to Siberia predated the Russian conquest. Bukharans came as proselytizers to Islam at the behest of Siberian Khan Kuchum, if not earlier. State policy toward them reflected a larger state economic strategy of building and maintaining an expanding empire and the army necessary to the project through activist commercial policies. Bukharans played integral roles in Siberian life yet maintained a distinct Bukharan identity. While their integrated economic life resembled that of Russians enough to elicit strong pressures to rescind their tax advantages, Bukharans defended their rights before the state and before their neighbors with savvy and enjoyed various tax privileges into the early 19th century. Although Bukharans lost market share to the Armenians in Astrakhan and the establishment of direct Russian involvement in theRusso–China trade undermined their role in that trade, Bukharan trade networks continued to be an important part of Eurasian commerce. Bukharans may have increased the share of European wares in their trade portfolios, for example. . Meanwhile, Siberian and transit Bukharans continued to cooperate generations after Siberian Bukharans had been settled in the Russian Empire. In short, Bukharans provided simultaneously adaptive to their new homeland and changing market conditions while, at the same time, maintaining the mercurial distinctness of a mercantile diasporic community. Despite their long-standing roots and presence in the Russian Empire, the imperial state counted them as a distinct population as late as the empire-wide census of 1897. That Bukharans were only subsumed into the category of Tatars by the Soviet state testifies to their enduring presence as a distinct group in the Russian Empire.
Ethnic Conflict in Modern Central Asia
Pre-modern Central Asia saw a lot of violence and wars that had religious underpinnings or originated from genealogical claims. The colonial and Soviet reforms brought about reconsideration of cultural diversity in the logic of ethnic division. In the 20th century, reference to ethnicity became the main language of spontaneous violence escalation and explanation. With the weakening of Soviet rule, the region saw a series of heated conflicts. The most massive of them were the 1989 pogroms against Meskhi Turks in Uzbekistan and the 1990 clashes in Kyrgyzstan that took the shape of ethnic confrontation between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. Lesser disturbances also emerged in the borderlands and in mixed-ethnicity villages. After the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s saw an increase in social and religious violence in Central Asia. However, despite the violence being different in character, Central Asia had already gained a reputation of a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many experts and politicians listed manifold potential ethnic conflicts about to break out in the region. In 2010, one of these predictions came true in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where a clash erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These expert assessments were also borne out by occasional conflicts over land and water arising between communities that live in the border areas. Nevertheless, the label of ethnic conflict does not always explain the reasons for violence. The conflicts in Central Asia arise and develop as a variety of local actions, which have different sequences, logic, and motivation. These actions are performed by very different agents—people, groups, and institutes that have their own interests and dispositions. Social and political slogans sound during the events, while the line of confrontation lies between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” The label of ethnic conflict simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.
Kachin Communities in Myanmar
The term “Kachin” is an exonym that references several subcommunities, all of which have traditionally resided in the northernmost region of Burma (modern Myanmar). The name “Kachin State” for this region evidences this historical connection. Kachin communities are identified as comprising six main subgroups, but the boundaries of these are often contested. Identity politics in Myanmar is complex and highly sensitive, given the ongoing conflicts in which many communities, including those identified as Kachin, have been involved for many decades; it is also ongoing. Kachin communities also have strong cross-border relations with cognate groups of people residing in northeast India, Yunnan, and Thailand, as well as a globally dispersed diaspora, which is particularly large in the United States, Japan, and Thailand. Kachin communities were impacted directly by the experience of British colonial rule from its beginnings in Burma in 1824, even though they were not brought under any administrative system until after full British control over the Burmese kingdom was established after 1885. However, neither British nor Burmese (later, Myanmar) administrations have been able to bring the Kachin region fully under their control. At independence from British rule in 1948, many Kachin elites hoped that there would be a federal system, but as hopes for this diminished with the emergence of a military dictatorship, the movement for resistance gained ground. As many other parts of the country fell into civil war, so too did the new Kachin State. The Kachin Independence Army was founded in the early 1960s and by 1963 had declared open conflict with the Burmese military regime. A ceasefire was signed in 1994 and provided some respite, but as the situation again deteriorated through exploitative resource extraction, environmental degradation, and the social harms caused by the widespread availability of narcotics and opiates, considerable popular support for a return to war was felt. The ceasefire collapsed in 2011 leading to more active conflict. This social and political upheaval over many decades has resulted in dramatic changes to Kachin communities and has impacted their tangible and intangible heritage irreparably. There is a great deal still to learn about the histories of Kachin communities in Myanmar, but to do so will require creativity and long-term support for and engagement with local scholars and researchers.
“National Races” in Myanmar
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung
It has been conventional wisdom to attribute Myanmar’s entrenched military rule and civil war to the presence of more than a hundred ethnic groups and the near-exclusive political and economic monopoly enjoyed by the central government. While the presence of multiple ethnic groups has made it difficult to negotiate a settlement that satisfies all parties, the conflict that has occurred in Myanmar since the late 1940s originated in the colonial period and is perpetuated by the policies and practices of political and military elites since independence. Cultural identities remained fluid in precolonial Myanmar, but the British colonial government’s attempt to categorize groups based on their languages and to favor some groups at the expense of others reified and rigidified ethnic identities, creating political and economic divisions along these lines. The postcolonial government’s inability and unwillingness to accommodate demands for greater political and territorial autonomy by minority groups, as well as military repression of these aspirations, have further intensified conflict. This has resulted in the death or displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and has sharpened ethnic divisions. However, while minority ethnic and linguistic groups share common grievances against the Bamar-dominated central government, they disagree on how best to promote group interests and interethnic peace. Political reforms in 2011–2020 saw a reduced military role in politics, greater willingness of a semi-democratic government to negotiate an end to civil war, and greater space and opportunities for minorities to promote their language and culture and to push for greater political autonomy. These prospects were crushed by a military coup in February 2021 that has transformed the nature of civil conflict in Myanmar and perpetuated a cycle of violence.