Solidarity and Contradiction

Against the Current, No. 171, July/August 2014

Seonghee Lim

Transpacific Antiracism:
Afro-Asian Solidarity in 20th-century Black America, Japan, and Okinawa
By Yuichiro Onishi
New York: New York University Press, 2013, 243 pages, $45 hardcover.

YUICHIRO ONISHI’S TRANSPACIFIC Antiracism discovers the voices and actions of what Nikhil Pal Singh calls in his Black is a Country the “worldliness” of Black Radicalism. By studying anti-imperialist movements since World War I in three different places — the United States, Japan, and Okinawa — Onishi examines the underlying aspirations of various oppressed peoples, and their efforts to develop emancipatory ideas and connect themselves in their struggles for freedom, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity.

In so doing, Onishi contributes to the study of Black Radicalism developed by scholars such as Cedric J. Robinson, George Lipsitz, and Robin D. G. Kelley, who have often used the term “Blackness” as a political commitment, rather than indicating a skin color, to challenge the existing racist-patriarchal capitalist system. Their idea of Black Radicalism thus embraces multi-ethnic solidarity of the oppressed in their struggle against various forms of domination and in their search for an alternative, more democratic, society.

In his first two chapters Onishi examines how and why the rise of Japan as a world power during WWI and in the 1930s inspired many Black leaders in the United States, including W. E. B. Du Bois, in their attempt to challenge global white supremacy.

Onishi recognizes the existence of diverse reactions to imperial Japan’s determination to compete with Western rivals. For example, Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association, which globally galvanized the idea of Black pride among millions in the African Diaspora, saw it as proof of the power of “non-whites,” while Hubert Henry Har­rison and Cyril Briggs evoked Japan in order to “bring the vision and aim of New Negro radicalism into sharper focus” and mobilize coalitions among oppressed people internationally.

In other words, Japan was an “index” to show their concern with “the lives of the restless Black masses in the United States and darker people under colonial domination.” (40) Onishi refers to this kind of political imagination of Black leaders as “pro-Japan provocation.” (21)

Onishi does acknowledge the problem of Black leaders who overlooked Japanese imperial aggression against other Asian people that lay underneath the rhetoric of racial equality. But he believes that it is important to recognize what Japan represented to Blacks at a deeper and more complex level.

Japan at the 1919 Paris Treaty invoked the language of racial equality and insisted that the peace treaty should have the “race-equality clause” in it. (25)

While this attempt was aborted — and although its real intention was to attain Japan’s equal footing into the dominant world of imperial competition — Black leaders associated themselves with Japan because they saw racism in Western countries’ attitude toward the Japanese. They saw  Japan as a race rebel.

The effort also reminded Black leaders of what they had been agitating for: the abolition of racism in every nation. William Monroe Trotter and Hubert Harrison, for instance, had been criticizing Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for not denouncing racism. They participated in organizing the 1918 Liberty Congress at which 115 delegates from across the United States met to present Black political demands, one of which was to call for “democracy for the colored millions worldwide.” (23) For Onishi, this presented the “international anti-racism” aspect of Black Radicalism.

Internationalized Black Radicalism

According to Onishi, the pro-Japan provocation disappeared by the mid-1920s, but reappeared in Du Bois’s writings in the 1930s. While many Black leaders during this time promoted the New Deal as the way to bring about racial equality, Du Bois embraced the notion of “voluntary self-segregation,” rather than the idea of being integrated into mainstream New Deal liberal politics.

Some began to focus on class issues and supported the interracial unionism of the CIO, but Du Bois reemphasized race issues and thus was criticized for prioritizing race over class issues. For Du Bois, however, race was central to capitalism in sustaining its class system, and thus liberation from class exploitation could not be achieved without overcoming racism.

Du Bois also emphasized the linkage between the Black freedom movement in the United States and the liberation of colored races around the world. He looked for a new path other than the “nation-bound” and “color-blind” policies of the New Deal and the CIO. In 1937 he toured Europe and Asia and was impressed by Japanese Pan-Asian policies in Manchuria. Onishi argues that Du Bois was looking for “a third path to overcome the effects of white Europe” and hoped that Japan could unify Asia to resist its power. (71)

Nevertheless, Onishi points out the irony that Du Bois ignored Japanese colonial projects in the name of Pan-Asianism, although he does not delve in depth into how brutal Japanese colonial occupation was — an occupation that left a legacy scarring Japan-China relations, as well as Japan-Korea relations, for generations.

Onishi also claims that Du Bois implicitly promoted heterosexual normativity and patriarchical gender roles by supporting Japanese masculine and military politics and by praising male politicians as liberators, such as Matsuoka, a principal architect of imperialist Japanese policies.

In his third chapter Onishi shifts his focus to Black Radicalism in post-World War II Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, studying the activities of a collective called Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai (Association of Negro Studies). The association did not have any Black member in ethnic terms, but they constructed their own distinctive discourse of Black Radicalism called “colored-internationalism.” Onishi thus argues that “the category of race had less to do with personal identity than the politics of identification.” (100)

In its search of emancipatory ideas, the collective drew inspiration from the tradition of the Black freedom movement in the United States, from 19th century abolitionism to Harry Haywood’s idea of self-determination and Robert F. Williams’ advocacy of armed self-reliance. While examining the personal history of the several members of the collective, including Nukina Yoshitaka, Furukawa Hiromi and Nakajima Yoriko, Onishi documents that desires rose in Japan for democracy, peace, and an independent path from First and Second postwar worlds.

This provides the historical context of the collective’s interest in the discourse of Black Radicalism. Members of the collective studied, collected, and translated the works of Black writers and activists in the United States and published them in The Black American Liberation Movement: The New Negro Crowd (1966). In the process of translating them into Japanese, literary styles of the original were changed, but the “ethos” showing Black suffering and yearning remained. (118)

Nakajima, who had a personal connection with Robert Williams while she studied in the United States, endorsed his ideas and his work with Cuban and Chinese Revolutionaries as a political exile — life choices that she referred to as “colored-internationalism.” (128-135) Just as Nakajima recognized the global relevance of Williams’ ideas, Onishi identifies Nakajima’s and other collective members’ works as an internationalized Black Radicalism.

The Okinawa Struggle

Onishi’s final chapter discusses the internationalization of Black Radicalism that existed in Okinawa in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan had rendered Okinawa as a “stateless” territory. U.S. militarism in the island had escalated since 1965, using Okinawa as a training ground during the Vietnam War — not only disrupting local people’s daily lives but also increasing crimes committed by U.S. servicemen, especially heinous sexual crimes perpetrated on Okinawan women.

When the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Treaty set the timetable for the island’s return to Japan, Okinawans vigorously vocalized their discontent toward U.S. militarism and the Japanese government’s complicity, organizing the “anti-reversion” movement .

Onishi maintains that this movement expressed their rejection of the uncritical acceptance of “Okinawans’ sameness with the Japanese.” (140). Borrowing from Okinawa Times journalist and critic Arakawa Akira’s comments, Onishi continues:

“Repudiating the commonly accepted idea that entering into a social contract with the nation-state was a political objective worth pursuing, . . . Okinawans had to categorically reject ‘Japaneseness,’ which resides within ‘all political thinking on both the left and the right in Okinawa” and reach out for a new ontological category.’” (141)

Thus, in the process of anti-imperialist struggle against both the United States and Japan, Okinawans searched for a new category of identity.

Okinawans were not the only participants in this struggle. U.S. servicemen (both Black and white), pacifists (in Okinawa, Japan, and United States), and feminists (local Okinawans and foreigners) also took part, creating multi-ethnic transpacific coalitions.

Onishi pays special attention to Black GI rebellions within military bases in Okinawa, defying military orders in order to show their concerns for oppressed peoples and their desires for peace. For example, Specialist Quinton T. Allen II refused to stand for the national anthem at a base movie theater as an act of protest. He stated, “I don’t feel I have the right [to stand] when my people are oppressed” and subsequently listed Blacks, whites, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and Chicanos as his people. (147)

Their sense of connectedness with all oppressed people was evident in the name of the headquarters of the GI movement, “People’s House,” which welcomed both white and Black GIs who organized actions together, such as a hunger strike on October 9, 1972, to honor the fifth anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. (150)

GIs’ Black Radicalism had limitations, especially in its masculine nature and heterosexism — characteristics that Onishi refers to as “masculine dissent.” GIs often failed to acknowledge their privileged position over Okinawan men and seldom recognized the exploitive relation between U.S. service men and Okinawan women.

Challenging the limitation of male GIs’ radicalism, GI’s female family members (both white and Black), women workers in the military base, local Okinawan women, and female corps organized activities surrounding issues of healthcare and domestic and military violence.

They subsequently formed “Women’s House,” a multi-ethnic group built upon the principle of “self-determination for all oppressed people.” They acknowledged the “messiness” of oppressed people’s struggles, rather than simplifying complex social issues, and attempted to find “integrated analysis and practice” that would enable them to bring about changes “in a society structured by racism, patriarchy, misogyny, sexual exploitation and violence, and aggressive militarism.” (178-179)

Participants in the anti-reversion movement did not obtain their goals; Okinawa remained a key military space of U.S. and Japanese imperial power. However, Onishi recognizes a more important aspect of social movement than the immediate result: This movement produced new knowledge and praxis for social change, and revealed a new form for human activity and life.

Onishi correctly points out that the movement was an action “creating art in everyday life” and planting seeds that “sprouted a striving to create a world other than the one structured by the values and truths upheld by those in the position of power.” (144-148). While pointing out the limitations of Black GIs’ masculine dissent, he also keenly examines their underlying motivations and desires to connected with people acting for human liberation and creating a new community.

In this sense, Transpacific Racism contributes invaluably to the study of social movements, even if its explanation about the underlying motivation of African Americans’ pro-Japanese provocation may not be satisfying for some readers. It beautifully captures the desire of oppressed people to develop revolutionary ideas and practices by learning from “ancestors” whose skin color might have differed from their own.

By acknowledging the shortcomings of the movements that he examines, Onishi presents his own desire to find a better understanding of how future social movements can overcome the limitations of previous ones.

July/August 2014, ATC 171