Yuichiro Onishi is changing the way we think about race.
By Danny LaChance
A warehouse job wasn't at all what Yuichiro Onishi envisioned for himself years ago when he decided to move back to Japan shortly after his graduation from Macalester College. As a 12-year-old, he had left Japan when he moved with his parents to the United States. His plan as a 22-year-old was to return and rediscover his native land. With a B.A. from a good U.S. college and fluency in Japanese, he figured, he could find a professional entry-level position of some sort and experience Japan as a young urban professional.
But when the plane landed and the dust settled, such jobs were nowhere to be found. Instead, Onishi found work in a Kawasaki warehouse slapping price tags onto fabrics. The days were long and the work monotonous. Today, though, Onishi says he's grateful for that blue-collar Japanese work experience because that's what pushed him to pursue a career as a scholar of African American studies. Now a faculty member in African American & African studies and Asian American studies, Onishi recalls how his coworkers would make disparaging remarks about Southeast Asians living in Japan. “They'd say that these workers had dirty, hard, and painful lives, and ‘we are not like them," Onishi recalls. Those remarks struck him as something more than just nationalism. They were, he wanted to say, racist—an expression of white supremacy.
To people who think of race as biologically based and Southeast Asians as sharing a common racial denominator with the Japanese, such a suggestion might seem ludicrous. How could Japanese disgust at Filipinos be called racist? Xenophobic, maybe. But racist?
But as an undergraduate, Onishi had learned that race was far more complicated than simple biological classification. Path breaking work by scholars like former University of Minnesota professor David Roediger has shown that our biological lineage has sometimes borne very little relation to how others perceive us racially. Reading Roediger's book The Wages of Whiteness between shifts at the warehouse, Onishi was learning that in the 19th century, Irish immigrants were initially not considered white by Anglo Saxons who had been living in North America for generations. They had to prove their status as white—often at the expense of black people. “These European immigrant workers became white at the expense of blacks," Onishi explains. “They would distance themselves from blacks by saying, ‘We're not like that. We're not like slaves; we're wage workers."
It's a pattern that historians have documented in numerous instances. Historically, Onishi says, “race has less to do with color than with politics and power." Those in power have often manufactured and assigned racial categories to people, often illogically, in order to dominate them socially, politically, and economically.
Convinced that what he had witnessed in his coworkers was tied up in this global history of race, Onishi wondered how the Japanese had been perceived racially on the world stage. How did people of color in the United States think about the racial identity of the Japanese people? To find some answers, Onishi enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at Minnesota, where he studied the relationship between African Americans and Japanese people during the period between World War I and World War II. He began to detect an important, shared sense of racial solidarity between the Japanese and African Americans.
When it comes to race, Onishi says, Japan occupies a unique and contradictory position in the world. Its history of dominating other Asian peoples and countries parallels European and U.S. histories of imperialism, colonialism, and racialization in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, he notes. In a sense, Japan had a white polity and transformed those it dominated—Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese—into nonwhite peoples.
But what most fascinated Onishi were those instances when Japanese and African Americans recognized their commonalities. After World War I, Japan demanded that President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points plan include a racial equality clause. That failed effort sparked the imaginations of black intellectuals and leaders in the United States, who had come to see their struggle as global, not just national. By pointing to the amendment's failure as an instance of U.S. racism on the global stage, black leaders were able to imagine possibilities of cross-national alignment with other people of color.
Indeed, when black intellectual and leader W.E.B. Du Bois toured Japan in the winter of 1936, he came across a series of woodblocks depicting the arrival, by sea, of Commodore Matthew Perry, the United States' first envoy in the 1850s. But instead of noting, as most historians would, the coming modernization of Japan, Du Bois saw something different.
“He noted that black sailors accompanied these expeditions. For him, that event wasn't the beginning of modern Japan, but the beginning of the coming unity between Asia and Africa," Onishi contends.
Those feelings of solidarity didn't just flow in one direction. During the U.S. occupation of Japan following World War II, blacks and whites living in the city of Kobe had to live in segregated camps. “Japanese people witnessed a Jim Crow military even as they were being taught, by the occupation authority-led education system, about the universality of American democracy," Onishi explains. Japanese intellectuals, meanwhile, were reading about the troubled history of race in the United States—in the translated writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright. In 1954, a group of them came together to form Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai, or Association of Negro Studies—an organization that still exists 53 years later.
Dancing across racial divides
By uncovering the lost history of racial solidarity that transcended oceans, nations, and actual skin color, Onishi hopes to help his students see that race isn't a fixed category. Because we've created race as a construct, we can reshape it in ways that unify rather than divide people. And the classroom, Onishi says, is where that change can begin.
Several centuries ago, American slaves from different parts of Africa created a racial identity for themselves despite their myriad languages, religions, and ethnicities. They found common ground in the Ring Shout, says Onishi—a dance that occurred in various forms across the African continent's vast cultural divides. “They performed the Ring Shout in the New World, and it became a language through which they forged racial solidarity. They became African and black," Onishi explains.
Onishi sees his classroom as a Ring Shout for the 21st century, a place where students can dance with one another through their words and ideas. It's a dance, he hopes, that just might forge among them a new racial identity, one rooted in shared values and objectives rather than differences of color or national origin.
To the mainstream eye, this notion of students with beige, brown, and black skin sharing a racial identity may seem be impossible—pie-in-the-sky, even. But not to Onishi. “The study of race is in many ways hopeful for me," he says, thinking about the utopian potential of the classroom. “Because it's a social construct, we can change it. We can reconstruct it."