Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy provided the Japanese with the first known opportunity to observe a major American performing art inspired by black culture: the minstrel show. The “Ethiopian entertainment,” held on the USS Powhatan, presented “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Plantation ‘Niggas’ of the South” to shogunate officials four times in 1854. While this performance initiated a binational cultural exchange, the 1878 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was an epoch-making event; the group’s successful concerts, given in three cities, offered Japanese audiences their first opportunity to appreciate genuine African-American artistic pieces—spirituals, distinguished from blackface minstrelsy.
The Japanese attitude toward African Americans at this initial stage was a mixture of pity and wonder. A growing self-awareness of Japan’s inferior status vis‐à‐vis Western nations, however, gave rise to a strong interest in slavery and racial oppression. The popularity of studies focused on American race problems since 1905, including multiple versions of the biography of Booker T. Washington, attests to prewar intellectuals’ attempt to define the position of the Japanese people by both analogy and contrast with African Americans. In the meantime, a partial translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), serialized from 1897 to 1898 in a liberal paper, the Kokumin, and a translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in 1921 paved the way for Japan’s introduction to the New Negro literature, the first major body of black writings gaining in popularity in the American literary market in the 1920s. Successive publications of works by W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes in translation in the 1930s generated a distinctive artistic backdrop comparable to the American Jazz Age. Various authors of the era—from novelists to haiku poets—learned about literary motifs informed by blackness and began to elaborate their own racial representations to delineate the affectional substructure of modernity.
Even though World War II briefly disrupted the expansion of the Japanese literary imagination through the creative inspiration of African Americans, a translation of Richard Wright’s Native Son within the year of the original publication (1940) signifies the persistence of interest throughout the war period. Indeed, defeat in 1945, resentment over the subsequent U.S. occupation, coincident remorse for their country’s imperial aggression, and anger at its eventual rearmament following the Korean War, in conjunction, reoriented postwar authors toward the development of black characters in diverse works over the following four decades. In addition, the civil rights movement facilitated studies in African-American literature in universities from the 1960s onward. Today, African-American literature is one of the most popular areas in English departments in Japan; one can find virtually every subject from the slave narrative to rap music in undergraduate course syllabi.