April 18, 2022

Co-authored by Brian Niiya and Greg Robinson

In our many combined years of doing research on Japanese American history and literature, we each noted a striking fact with regard to intersections between Japanese Americans and African Americans: on the one hand, the topic has largely been absent from both academic and popular histories of Japanese Americans, while on the other, intriguing depictions of African Americans have appeared in English-language Japanese American literature from its beginnings, perhaps representing the unconscious views of the community. 

While Greg has worked to address the former topic in his own work, most notably in his newspaper columns in Nichi Bei Weekly and the essays in his book After Camp, little has been written on the latter. In the wake of the renewed interest in African American history brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, we decided to take a closer look at the presence of African Americans in Japanese American literature. It was an especially fun project, not just because of the richness and importance of the topic, but because of the opportunity it gave us to collaborate. Having worked closely together on the Densho Encyclopedia, we had long vowed to join forces on a more extended work. 

The product of our collaboration was an essay titled “African American Images on a Nikkei Canvas: Black Characters in Japanese American Literature.” While originally commissioned for the Densho Catalyst, it ended up being too lengthy to appear here in full, and ended up being published in serialized fashion on the Discover Nikkei website. While the entire work reflects our joint contributions, we soon realized that we could make a natural division of labor. With the extensive research he has done using prewar Japanese American newspapers—as well his searching out of early Nisei publications in mainstream outlets—Greg was well positioned to discuss depictions of African Americans in early English-language literary accounts. Conversely, in his work on compiling the Densho Resource Guide to Media on the Japanese American Removal and Incarceration, Brian had read a high percentage of literature from World War II and beyond, and was in a better position to concentrate on these later works. 

We noticed some trends and highlights in writing the piece. African American characters appear in some of the earliest works of literature by Japanese Americans, including the very first published novel by a Nisei, Karl S. Nakagawa’s 1928 The Rendezvous of Mysteries. These characters appear in diverse forms of Japanese American writing, including novels, memoirs, short stories, plays, and even science fiction. Many of the most celebrated Japanese American writers, including Hisaye Yamamoto, John Okada, and Jon Shirota, include such characters in their work.

Depictions of African Americans in early Nisei works—while very small in number—range from grossly stereotypical and flighty to earnest and positive. In the transition from the prewar to postwar generation of writings, we see a transition from works that tend to depict African Americans as marginal to those in which they are a routine part of the world the main characters inhabit. This no doubt reflects the fact that relatively few Nisei lived around African Americans, whereas Sansei grew up in postwar neighborhoods side-by-side with African Americans, in cities ranging from Chicago to Seattle to Los Angeles.

In part to keep the length of the piece manageable, we ended our survey in the early aughts, with a discussion of one of our favorite works, Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003), set largely in Los Angeles’s Crenshaw area in the 1960s. Brian is working on a piece that considers works since then, including a variety of genre works and a group of works that attempt to insert African Americans into the Japanese American World War II incarceration story to decidedly mixed effect.

To learn more, we encourage you to read the full piece on Discover Nikkei. As we conclude there, “[D]epictions of African Americans have been a part of English-language Japanese American literature from its beginnings and such depictions have continued throughout as part of the ebb and flow of Japanese American literature in general. These literary works have reflected the changing relationships between Japanese Americans and African Americans over time, even as historical works have, until recent decades, largely ignored these relationships… [I]n examining these works we can learn much about Nikkei’s feelings, fantasies and fears about African Americans.”

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director, and Greg Robinson, Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal.

Read the full series, “African American Images on a Nikkei Canvas: Black Characters in Japanese American Literature,” on Discover Nikkei:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4