Japan’s Peculiar History with the African-American Civil Rights Movement
How an island Empire across the Pacific inspired and supported such champions of Black liberty as W.E.B. DuBois, Elijah Muhammad, and Pearl Sherrod.
Summer 1942 in the Midwest was abnormally warm. The sweltering heat of southern Illinois beats down on a group of young Black men, glistening jewels of perspiration resting on their pores, their strained breath audibly forcing their way out of their flared nostrils. The occasional passerby in East Saint Louis would have easily mistaken them for laborers. They were mixed members of the Black nationalist paramilitary Pacific Movement of the Eastern World (PMEW) and Nation of Islam (NOI), training for an imminent invasion of the mainland United States by the Japanese Empire. They were not preparing to repulse the invader, but to welcome them and join their fight.
Much historiography — even those concerning such movements of African American liberation — fails to include even a mention of such organizations as PMEW and the Ethiopian Peace Movement (Chicago) or NOI notable Elijah Muhammad’s deep friendship with Japanese agents. The stories, figures, and organizations which appear in this article should not and can not be relegated to mere anecdotal status in the annals of the history of colored struggles. I approach this topic not from the purely Pan-African lens, nor from the sole standpoint of Japanese history (there are countless existing sources for these both); rather, the 20th century histories of Black Americans and the Japanese nation’s struggle for acceptance in the community of world powers was at times complicated, at times ironic, but inextricable from the rising importance of race in the conflicts and global politics of the late 19th and early 20th century, which often pitted the ‘colored races’ in an existential struggle against the ‘white race’.
Our story begins on 28 May 1905, over the Tsushima Strait — a narrow strait dividing southern Japan from the Korean peninsula. It is 9:30 in the morning and Russian Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov orders the flag of surrender hoisted aboard his ship, cruiser Izumrud. Over the last two days, two-thirds of Imperial Russia’s fleet were sent to the bottom of the sea by the Japanese navy led by a diminutive Admiral Tōgō. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the Russian fleet’s disaster marked “a catastrophe for the defeated side almost unparalleled in the history of naval war”. The battle sealed the decisive victory of Japan — undefeated on land and sea during the two-year war.
Following two centuries of isolation from the world, the ancient feudal society was forced open by Western gunboats in the mid 19th century and quickly modernized. This victory over Russia was the culminating result of Meiji-era reformers’ efforts. More importantly to this narrative, it was the first time in modern history that a colored nation defeated one of the foremost European powers.
News of the Japanese victory sent shock waves across Europe and celebrations across Asia and Africa. As Japan looked outward to feed its growing industrial might and population, European powers, particularly those with colonial possessions in Asia, faced the imminent threat of a new player to the chess game in China, which the Europeans controlled through ‘foreign legations’ at major Chinese port cities. One German newspaper wrote of the Russian disaster as a grave blow to “all these who believe in the great commercial and civilizing mission of the white race throughout the world”.
In the Ottoman Empire however, the committee of reformer-activists popularly known as the Young Turks were elated. They saw Japan’s victory not only as a victory over Russia, but over western values, expressing admiration at Japan’s eager adoption of western weaponry and technology, without losing their distinct culture or “Eastern spiritual essence”. Colonel Pertev Bey, a Young Turk who had been a military attaché with the Japanese Army headquarters during the Russo-Japanese war, wrote a several years later, “We will rise shortly… with the same brilliance as the Rising Sun of the Far East did a few years ago! In any case, let us not forget that a nation always rises from its own strength!” Similar commemorations were seen from British Egypt to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
“Indeed, all movements of national liberation in Asia were inspired by that outcome, which seemed to prove that the white man was beatable.” — Rotem Kowner, University of Haifa
Through the next three decades, expectation for Japan to become the torch-bearer of Asian and colored emancipation from the white man’s rule was growing in certain activist circles of colonial nations. In Japan, however, the dichotomy between fiery Pan-Asianism, championed by a generation of writers such as Kita Ikki and Ōkawa Shūmei, and the desire to join the ranks of the “civilized nations” tugged at her very national identity. By this point, however, Japan had an admirer in a certain scholar from Massachusetts.
W.E.B. DuBois, a prominent sociologist, writer, and an early advocate of African American issues — and the first African American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard — was also an ardent Pan-Africanist. He had participated in the Pan-African conference hosted in London in 1900 where he drafted a speech calling on the European nations to grant self-government to their African colonies.
In a 1897 article, DuBois proselytized his idea that the self-examining African American would hold pride in his African heritage while contributing to American society. He “would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.” In Japan, DuBois found the ‘model non-Western’ society which joined the ranks of the modern nations while preventing the dilution of — nay, concentrating — the traditional national spirit. DuBois himself credits the Russo-Japanese War as the spark of consciousness about East Asia among American Blacks, Japan’s victory having smashed the “foolish modern magic of the word white” .
While DuBois had held a fascination with Japan’s meteoric rise onto the world stage for decades, some claim his visit to the island nation at once cemented his views and turned him into a defender of an ambitious empire. In Reginald Kearney’s masterful article , he describes African Americans’ positive attitude towards Japan in the 1930s over a backdrop of several factors: first, Japan’s diplomatic support of Ethiopia (then, the only African nation never colonized by Europe and struggling from Italian invasion) portrayed her as the powerful defender of the colored man against the European; second, Black interpretations of Japan’s own colonial activity in China; and third, first-hand accounts from Japan. In regards to the latter two topics, DuBois’ own experience and writings contributed to this end. In 1936, the venerable doctor embarked on a trip through China, Manchukuo (Japanese puppet state in Manchuria), and Japan. In Manchukuo, having praised the development accomplishments of the Japanese authorities in the last four years, Dubois noticed that there was no trace of the overbearing racial hierarchy that was the characteristic of European colonialism. Of course, this was not to be the case in the ensuing years, nor was Japan’s support for Ethiopia maintained for long — in the same year of DuBois’ visit, Japan signed a pact with Italy agreeing to recognize her claims in East Africa in exchange for Italy’s diplomatic recognition of Manchukuo. Visiting the heights of Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula (the site of a major and bloody battle of the Russo-Japanese War), DuBois referred to it as a “historic ground” where the Japanese “made Europe surrender to Asia”.
“The colonial enterprise by a colored nation need not imply the caste, exploitation, and subjection which it has always implied in the case of white Europe” — W.E.B. DuBois upon touring Japanese-controlled Manchukuo
Much like Britain, Japan was a resource-poor island nation and, like her European counterpart, Japan’s motive to expand into Manchuria was for industrial raw materials. Many African and Middle Eastern independence activists became disillusioned with Japan’s intentions at this time, as did some African-American activists. However, DuBois understood this entirely, justifying Japan’s conquests as an intervention to ‘save’ China from its own self-created anarchy, and as a necessary way to gather wealth to prevent white hegemony in Asia. Bemoaning European presence in China, India, and Southeast Asia, DuBois remarked, “Japan was surrounded with guns pointed at her heart”. Here he points out the fundamental difference from European expansion in that Japanese colonialism had national defense as its base strategy.
“Americans and Europeans, [DuBois] wrote, proceeded to make it difficult if not impossible for Japan to buy raw materials, raising the prices of items such as cotton and iron until Japan was forced to annex North China.” — Reginald Kearney
From Manchuria, Dubois landed in Osaka, Japan, as the guest of a major local newspaper. As he travelled the country giving speeches in front of university students and political notables, he was welcomed with banquets and lodged at the very best hotels. Kearney summarizes, “for the first time in [Dubois’] life, he stood in a land where white people did not control directly or indirectly.”
“The Japanese run Japan, and that even English and Americans recognize and act accordingly…. In Japan, [there was an absence of] English overbearance and American impudence that could be seen daily in China, India, Africa, the West Indies, and the United States.” — W.E.B. DuBois
Upon his return to the States, DuBois lauded the “courteous, neat, marvelously efficient, punctual” character of the Japanese and urged his Black compatriots to emulate them. Still, through his writing, it is evident that DuBois saw through several double standards of various lenses. First, he points out the “color line” double standard of the Manchurian issue leading to Japan’s pariah status among the League of Nations, even as Britain owned Hong Kong, and America, the Philippines. Yet after his visit, DuBois warned that the Japanese society had almost too efficiently adopted western capitalism and was witnessing the threat of exploitation of labor. Through these observations, DuBois inadvertently compiled valuable writings on interwar East Asian society. Seeing parallels between the Southern black indentured laborer and the newly emancipated Japanese peasantry, he extolled the Imperial Japanese Army and for being a driving part of this emancipation, even going as far as to claim that it “has become more democratic than the parliamentary system.” The violent assassination of wealthy industrialists by fanatic Army officers in the failed 1936 coup? To DuBois, an unavoidable part of the violent overthrow of capitalism. Yet it was these army men who took the greatest role of turning Manchuria into a rich industrial colony and spurred the development of industrial capitalism in the growing Japanese empire.
Even as the Second World War began in Europe and Japan reluctantly entered the Tripartite Alliance with Hitler’s Germany and Fascist Italy, the disillusionment which had struck most African Americans had not yet encroached upon DuBois’ mind. It was England, France, America, Germany and Italy to blame, espoused DuBois; “all those white nations which for a hundred years and more had by blood and rapine forced their rule upon colored nations.” DuBois saw the coming war as a race war, the final clashing of two civilizations (the white and the colored) over both territory and ideology.
When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor broke out on the morning of 7 December, 1941, the outspoken scholar referred to what most Americans would call “the day of infamy” as a momentous occasion when the balance in the power relationship which had held between these two civilizations for the last four centuries would be tipped irrevocably. In the tense wartime atmosphere, even the suspicion of being a sympathizer of Japan would have put a man in danger of prosecution and detainment. Not so for DuBois, as he not only showed no sign of concealing his views, but even published multiple newspaper columns on the coming racial justice which would be meted out by Japan to the ‘encroaching white powers’ in Asia.
While some lukewarm accusations were thrown about, DuBois never faced officially sanctioned backlash for his views. Others were not so lucky. In 1934 and once again in 1942, groups of pro-Japanese Black Nationalists were rounded up in highly publicized FBI raids and interrogated on their loyalty. Some cracked, yet others hardened their resolve. One of these was Elijah Muhammad — the famed leader of Nation of Islam (est. 1930), a politico-religious organization aimed at bettering the lot of Black Americans.
Elijah Muhammad, who first stepped into the premier post of NOI at 1934 and would lead it to his death in 1975, was, much like DuBois, committed to the cause of the full legal and economic improvement in the lives of Black Americans. But while DuBois sought ways for the Blacks to become more equal Americans, Muhammad’s ideology was heavily tinged with Islamism and an overall desire to uproot the American system, beginning with its racial hierarchy — in a 1933 speech, Muhammad remarked that, “the Japanese will slaughter the white man”. Unbeknownst to him, by this time the FBI were monitoring Muhammad with several spies for fear that the Japanese were attempting to establish a ‘fifth column’ organization through Black Nationalists. Was this an outlandish speculation?
Enter Satokata Takahashi. Very little is known about this cloudy and mysterious figure who existed through several aliases. What is known is that he was an ardent Pan-Asianist agent working as a bridge between the African American revolutionaries and the Japanese nationalist group Black Dragon Society (Kokuryūkai). This latter organization, founded in 1901, stationed agents across the world, sending funds and arms to anti-colonial uprisings throughout the Middle East and Africa. In the United States, the two notable organizations which received its patronage were NOI and the PMEW. Working through local religious and political notables, Takahashi gained connections with seditious Black nationalists- even establishing a personal friendship with Elijah Muhammad. In 1939, he collaborated with another Black Dragon Society agent by the pseudonym of Ashima Takis* to begin equipping the nascent PMEW to join in a predicted invasion of the mainland United States by the Japanese. The plan didn’t last long, as Ashima had a falling out with other PMEW members and fled under suspicion of embezzlement. After the Pearl Harbor attack, such organizations were categorized under treasonous activity and thoroughly scrutinized by the FBI — which discovered such wide links as a Japanese consulate member in New York who had amassed “several hundred pounds of literature pertaining to the American negro” and was promptly deported. Such was the deep web uncovered, connecting African American notables, Japanese diplomats, and Black Dragon agents, pointing to the decade-long grassroots work that the Japanese were undertaking in the United States. Discoveries along these lines may have had a double effect in inducing the United States government to act with greater suspicion and harshness toward its own citizens of Japanese and African heritage.
Perhaps more illustrious than Takahashi is his wife, Pearl Sherrod, leader of Detroit-based The Development of Our Own (TDOO). Of the organizations to which the Black Dragon society lent its patronage, TDOO was the most internationally-minded in scope. Inspired by the internationalist message spread by the Bolshevist movement of the 1910s and 1920s, Sherrod actively sought to create far-reaching political alliances across the globe, particularly in Asia, echoing Elijah Muhammad’s belief that the Blacks were ‘lost found members of the Asian nation’. TDOO was established by Takahashi and endorsed by NOI founder Wallace D. Fard. Originally a member of NOI, Sherrod broke off and joined TDOO after finding the patriarchy and religious synchretism among NOI leadership too much to bear. Due to Takahashi’s unusually progressive personal views, TDOO provided a rare space for women activists to gain valuable experience in leadership and organizational roles, despite reservations from male leadership within TDOO. Sherrod and Takahashi later got married, and while there was much debate on whether this was a union of love, that Sherrod’s critical position was secured through the marriage was undeniable. Certainly it was an intentional challenge to the existing ‘Jim Crow’ laws on interracial marriage. Upon her husbands deportation, she took over administration as the de-facto head and steered the organization’s direction to fit a more black feminist-oriented agenda, using the TDOO’s news outlet, Detroit Tribune Independent to publish harsh criticisms of the United States government on their policies towards the African Americans.
Sherrod was not without her detractors, however. Many Pan-African activists and Black feminist activists accused her of losing touch with the Africa-centric priority of the movement and being “infatuated” with Japanese imperialism. According to Keisha N. Blain, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, Sherrod saw the Afro-Asian alliance as the “primary vehicle” of Black liberation, while hardline Pan-Africanists argued that the political agency in the movement to end global white supremacy should rest with the Africans. Until the unfortunate withering away of her activist career in the late 1930s following a separation with her husband, Sherrod remained true to her Afro-Asian conviction, even raising $300 with the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association for Japan’s war effort.
“[Sherrod] remained steadfast in her belief that Japan’s military triumph and political ascendancy was a viable step towards realizing liberation for people of African descent — and all people of color globally. To that end, federal records indicate that Sherrod and a group of supporters made another visit to the office of the Japanese Consul in 1939 — this time with a financial contribution of an estimated three hundred dollars for the Japanese government.” — Keisha N. Blain, University of Pittsburgh
Japan never fully lived out its expected role as the champion of the darker races. The great race-based annihilation game that revolutionary African American and Japanese writers alike dreamed about in the interwar era never took place. The Japanese victory of 1905 may be interpreted as a spark for the liberation of colonial peoples, but it must also be acknowledged as the spark that launched Japan to colonial power status herself. In the decades following the unconditional surrender of 1945, Japan rapidly rebuilt her capitalistic industries and flexed her economic might with a vengeance, being welcomed back into the world community and once again, becoming a major player shoulder to shoulder with the Europeans and Americans.
Yet the history between Japan and Black America deserves to be studied with recognition, if only to highlight the intertwined nature of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism during their struggles for liberty and self-determination. It is undoubtable that Japan’s rise, as much as it had been corrupted, widened the breadth of possibility in the African-American activists, and especially the more revolutionary among these. Black Americans’ fascination with Japan was the beginning of a long history of Afro-Asian exchange that would inspire the African imagination and struggle for a society in which they not only belonged, but one whose terms they dictated — nor were the Japanese the last of the Asians to harbor this connection; Martin Luther King is said to have kept a portrait of Gandhi in his office, and Malcolm X, that of Ho Chi Minh.