As a Black history educator, one of my favourite things to do is teach Black history from places where people least expect it – and Japan is one of those places! People often think that the Black community in Japan is relatively recent, but there has been a documented Black presence in Japan since at least the 1500s. Let’s take a look at five incredible Black history facts from Japan that will blow your mind!
1. Yasuke, the real-life African samurai
Have you heard of Yasuke the African samurai? Perhaps you’ve seen the 2021 animated show ‘Yasuke’ on Netflix. Yasuke was in fact a real person and was the first documented African to appear in Japanese literature! But what was he doing in Japan, and how did he come to be a samurai?
During the Nanban Trade Period from 1543 to 1614, Europeans first began arriving in Japan in significant numbers. Many traders, particularly the Portuguese, brought Africans with them to Japan as crew members or enslaved workers. One of the most famous Black settlers in Japan was Yasuke, an enslaved African, widely believed to be from Mozambique. He travelled to Japan in 1579 with the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano.
Valignano presented Yasuke to the Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (a powerful warlord). Nobunaga had never seen a Black person before and believed his skin had been coloured with black ink. He made him strip from the waist up and scrub his skin, astonished to see that the ‘pigment’ didn’t come off. This sparked Nobunaga’s fascination with the African man, and the two developed a friendship.
Yasuke learned considerable Japanese and adapted well to the local culture. He began to work in Nobunaga’s service where he trained as a Samurai and received his own house and plot of land, as well as a ceremonial Katana sword. He was present when Nobunaga was attacked by rival forces in 1582 and forced to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. After this, Yasuke joined forces with Nobunaga’s son Oda Nobutada, who sent him to live with Jesuit missionaries in Japan. Pretty cool story, huh?
Image source:Karthik B. K. / unsplash
2. Ethiopia and Japan are old friends!
One African country to have relatively longstanding ties with Japan was Ethiopia after Japan sent trade envoys several times to Ethiopia during the 1920s to develop their commercial relationship. This eventually led to the ‘Treaty of Friendship’ being ratified between Japan and Ethiopia in 1930.
You may have heard of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. He was a defining figure in Ethiopian history and a key figure in the Rastafari movement, popularised in Jamaica in the 1930s. The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 was attended by a Japanese minister and, in 1931, Haile Selassie sent an envoy from Ethiopia to Japan, headed by the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Heruy Welde Sellase. He also sent two lions as a gift, which were housed in a zoo in Tokyo.
The Ethiopian delegation observed the Japanese army to learn their practices and the 1931 Ethiopian constitution was partially based on the Japanese Meiji constitution. Japan and Ethiopia continued to strengthen their diplomatic ties after World War II and in 1956, Emperor Haile Selassie I visited Japan as a state guest, with the countries establishing embassies in their respective capitals in 1958.
3. Martin Luther King Day is celebrated in Hiroshima
Did you know that Martin Luther King Day is celebrated every year in Hiroshima? During his life, Martin Luther King was vocal in condemning America’s use of nuclear weapons in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1967, he wrote a letter addressed to the ‘People of Japan’ in which he acknowledged the devastation of nuclear warfare on the country. He also expressed a desire to visit Japan, but was tragically assassinated four months after writing that letter.
The tradition of celebrating MLK day was introduced to Hiroshima in 2005 by the former mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, who admired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work as an anti-nuclear activist. Akiba had studied and worked in the United States, where he learned more about Dr King’s work as an anti-nuclear activist. Akiba returned to Japan and became mayor of Hiroshima in 1999, often applying Dr King’s teachings to his work as a politician. Although he stepped down as mayor in 2011, he has done much to preserve Dr King’s legacy as an anti-nuclear activist, in Hiroshima and beyond.
Image source:Caitlin James / unsplash
4. D’art Shtajio, Japan’s first Black-owned anime studio
Have you seen the music video for ‘Snowchild’ by the Weeknd? Then you’re familiar with the work of D’Art Shtajio, the first Black-owned anime studio in Japan! It was founded in 2016 by twin brothers, Arthell and Darnell Isom alongside the animator Henry Thurlow. The CEO is Artell Isom; he first came to Japan in 2005, inspired by the anime artist Hiromasa Ogura who produced ‘The Ghost in the Shell’.
Through their work, D’Art Shtajio has been at the forefront of positively representing Black and ethnically diverse characters in anime. D’art Shtajio counts among its most famous clients artists such as The Weeknd, Pharrell and Jay Z. The Isom twins have been interviewed by Forbes, the Steve Harvey show, and GQ magazine.
5. Ariana Miyamoto, the Afro-Japanese beauty queen
Ariana Miyamoto is an Afro-Japanese model who shot to fame in 2015 when she won the title of Miss Universe Japan. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and African-American father, Ariana has spoken openly of the racial discrimination she received as a child, growing up as a ‘hafu’ (mixed-race person) in Sasebo, Nagasaki.
Her 2015 win of the Miss Universe Japan title proved controversial and divided public opinion. Her detractors maintained that Ariana, who did not look traditionally Japanese with her brown skin and curly hair, should not have won the competition. Ariana remained vocal on the importance of positive representation and was well-received by the international press, in spite of the mixed reception at home. Her achievement prompted a shift in the discourse surrounding beauty standards in Japan.
After winning Miss Universe Japan, Ariana was appointed the honorary ambassador for tourism for her hometown of Sasebo. Today, she continues to enjoy a successful career as a model and an actor.