In 1936, the Japanese ambassador arranged a trip to Japan for American writer, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. During this trip, Du Bois traveled through both China and Japan with the purpose of witnessing, first hand, the reach, and effect of Japanese Imperialism. Du Bois’ trip to the East was deemed successful, but his time there affected him in other ways as well. Below is a retelling of Dubois’ time in Japan.


After Shanghai, Du Bois arrived in Kobe where he was met by a delegation, processed through customs, interviewed by reporters, and escorted to his hotel. After settling in, he was whisked away to Osaka, “the industrial center of Japan” and “entertained at a ‘Sukiaki’ party in Japanese style.” The following morning he was officially welcomed by the vice-governor of the province and the mayor of Kobe. His first lecture was delivered to seven hundred girls at Kobe College. He lunched with the faculty there, and then moved on to lecture and attend a tea at Kansai Gakuin. That night, forty principals and officials ofthe prefectural board of education had a dinner for him. He noted that there were four ladies among the guests.

The next morning the governor sent his secretary and automobile to take Du Boissightseeing. The exclusion ended with a ride about the harbor on the municipal launch. That night, Du Bois gave his “Message to Japan” in the hall ofthe Nichi Nichi, a newspaper with a circulation offive million. He also mentioned that his arrival in Japan was announced twice in nationwide radio hookups.”

Du Bois arrived in Osaka as the guest of the Osaka Mainichi and Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspapers. Beneath the headline, “Du Bois Speaks to Japanese at Osaka Mainichi Hall,” was a photograph with the caption indicating that he was speaking to business and civic leaders as the guest of the largest newspaper in Japan. His theme addressed the possibilities of Japanese youth. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, he painted a vivid picture 0f Japanese development and of the national character and discipline as factors in Japan’s assuming a position of world leadership. The Courier bragged that their columnist, an Atlanta University professor, was received as a “world-famed scholar and benevolent educator” at a banquet in his honor, and that the superintendent of education had welcomed him on behalf of the governor of the prefecture.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Japanese scholars seated around a table at a conference in Tokyo, Japan in 1936.

After Kobe and Osaka, Du Bois spent the next two days sightseeing in Nara and Kyoto, ancient capitals 0f Japan. In Kyoto, he again delivered lectures at the Buddhist University and Doshisha University. Du Bois was obviously quite impressed by the images that he saw in Japan and tried to share some of those imbibed as he rode the train from Kobe to Tokyo:

“I went through a land cultivated by the square yard, toiled over on hand and knee; drained and protected by hedge and ditch, bush and tree; there were white and grey homes, nestling low, clean and busy; here is neatly piled rice straw, narrow roads and paths, railways and sudden factories, warehouses, rivers and canals. Always there are trees, bamboos, pines, and maples; shrines and stone lanterns appear, hills and lakes and everywhere workers with bent backs. Lake Biwa flies by on the left and a great mountain, grey with snow.”

Upon his arrival at Tokyo station, Du Bois was met by photographers, reporters, and friends. The next morning he visited the grounds of the imperial palace and Meiji Shrine. He reported that his biography ran in installments for three days in the Mainichi Shimbun. During a luncheon at the Pan-Pacific Club where he shared the stage with the ambassador to Turkey and Japan’s member of the Olympic Games Committee, Du Bois reminded the audience that “Negro prejudice in the United States was one cause of anti-Japanese feeling” and “the defeat of the anti-lynching bill in 1924 was brought from the West by the South at the price of Japanese exclusion.” At night, officials of the Foreign Office hosted a party complete with geisha. “The girls,” he reported, “gave old Japanese dances WITH MUSIC, and then we danced modern music with them.” He described them as “modest and beautiful in their kimonos of silk and high-piled raven hair.” “One lovely girl with charming manners spoke [English] quite well and especially waited on me,” he confided. Her name, he learned, meant Happy Spring.”

IMG: Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. Wikicommons. Public Domain

Du Bois admitted that he had never before received such attention and evidence of welcome as he did in Japan. He found it more astonishing since he had no official status and “came only as a private citizen, none too welcome in his native land.” From the time of his temporary landing at Nagasaki until two weeks later when he left Yokohama, he was not allowed to forget that he was the guest of a great country ready to do whatever necessary to make his visit a pleasant experience. Thus, for a person used to “being received on sufferance or with embarrassed efforts at cordiality,” Du Bois pronounced his visit “an experience never to be forgotten.” The government of ]apan did not allow him to pay a cent for railway fare; the Foreign Ministry provided banquets and extended every facility; the colleges, from the Imperial University of Tokyo down, were especially gracious. He was received at the best hotels as an honored guest, with proprietors personally taking pains to look after his comfort and often allowing him special rates. He was provided with willing escorts and interpreters, and given courtesy and consideration wherever he went. “Even in the presence of whites from America and England there was not the slightest apology or hesitation,” he noted. He shared one such experience:

“On the last day, as I was paying my bill at the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, a typical loud-mouthed American white woman barged in and demanded service. In America the clerk would have immediately turned to her, if not to wait on her at least to apologize or explain. But not in Tokyo. The clerk did not wink an eye or turn his head; he carefully finished waiting on me and took time to bow with Japanese politeness and then turned to America.”

AUTHOR

This article is a small section of a complete article originally published under the title, “The Pro-Japanese Utterances of W.E.B. Du Bois,” Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 13, Article 7 by Reginald Kearney. This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the Afro-American Studies at ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst. For access to the full article, visit: scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol13/iss1/7

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