The Black Experience x Asia as Method

I want to take a moment to appreciate and substantiate the work by a YouTube channel called The Black Experience Japan. I’ve been following it for some years now and I am amazed by the diversity of stories and experiences that are given time and space to be expressed and archived.

The Black Experience Japan

At the Black Experience Japan our mission is to share the totality of the black experience in Japan. Through our various video series and documentaries, we aim to create a composite of black experiences in an attempt to paint a more accurate picture of life in Japan for the black individual. We share stories and experiences that will provide insight, information and at times entertainment.

The series has been running since 2017 and has now expanded to include black people (and people with interracial parents) living in China, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore. It has 227 000 subscribers and so far 146 published interviews. The narrative anchor point for all of these videos is the black experience. Other than that, there is an unforeseeable range of topics and experiences discussed.

Some are curated, such as “What Japanese People Think Of Black People” and “I’m Married to a Japanese“. There is also a documentary titled: The SHOCKING Reason Black People Are Moving to Asia. Most episodes, however, are unstructured or semistructured interviews and they are often edited to flow like conversations. The format and presentation may seem simple and quite common in the YouTube sphere, but the people involved and the quality of the actual content of the interviews and conversations are the distinguishing factors. And quite frankly, just fascinating.

There is one episode in particular (embedded below) that I recently watched and found very inspiring, as I reflect on diplomacy as mediating estrangement. It is a conversation between Ranzo (the host and co-founder of the channel) and Dustin – a US American, infused with perspective from his wife Asako who is Japanese. Their conversation add a lot of enriching nuance to the black experience. Asako also reflects on her experience of moving back to Japan after 10 years of living in the US, where they met.

In general, the channel offers many sophisticated articulations of what relocating means in terms of blackness, agency, opportunity, safety and racism. Here is another video of two US American parents reflecting on an interview their daughter had given on the channel, where she was reflecting on being culturally Japanese. The parents talk about how they approached raising their kids in Japan and their own experience doing so.

The Black Experience Japan and the individuals that share their stories on the channel (and the YouTube users who comment on the videos) creates a discussion on not only a diversity of experiences in and of Asia, but also in and of each black persons country of origin. The interviewees talk about why they moved and what they left behind, what they seek and enjoy about being in Asia. They also elaborate on the difficulties they have faced, how they overcame them and give advice. Some even share their current struggles.

But then…

I wonder if these conversations could be sanctioned by Swedish cultural diplomacy; with this degree of sincerity and resolution; while promoting national goals and interests and representing national values? This is a rhetorical question, obviously. The answer is no. Because of reasons related to how diplomacy (and cultural diplomacy in particular) is generally understood and operationalized, and how cultural policy is implemented and utilized. In other words, the limits and constraints to Swedish cultural diplomacy, in my view, lies in the combination of actors, narratives and rhetoric that currently habituate the field. For example, how cultural attachés are recruited – what knowledge and experiences are sought after?

Other limits are related to established formats and spaces through which the content of diplomacy is mediated. This is essentially a different way to problematize issues that practitioners of cultural diplomacy are concerned with, i.e. inclusion and diversity. Here are two examples of divisive issues that they are preoccupied with: Who is cultural diplomacy for? and this one – concerning the instrumentalization of critical and honest contributions by minorities. The links point to videos from an international conference titled Cultural Diplomacy in the Age of Populism (2018).

Nonetheless, to fully appreciate the significance and gravity of what The Black Experience Japan is offering, I want to briefly provide a conceptual resource called Asia as Method.

Asia as Method

The potential of Asia as Method is this: using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point, societies in Asia can become each other’s point of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuild. On this basis, the diverse historical experiences and rich social practices of Asia may be mobilized to provide alternative horizons and perspectives. This method of engagement, I believe, has the potential to advance a different understanding of world history.

Chen, 2010, p. 212

The notion of Asia as Method was conceptualized in the 1960s by Takeuchi Yoshimi – a Japanese sinologist. Based on his idea and formulations, Kuan-Hsing Chen, quoted above, revisited the idea in a book in 2010. Chen wants to offer an analytical base from which one could keep a ‘critical distance’ from representations and ideas that get their thrust from imperial, colonial and cold war discourses. For example, to move away from taken for granted ideas about Asia and nation-state. In other words to deimperialize, decolonize and “de-cold war” knowledge production.

Asia as method is a point of departure that recognizes the influence of western knowledge production and its matrix of reference points in understanding and perceiving the Asian self. It is in the spirit of Edward Said‘s book Orientalism – to deconstruct a western-centric imagination. It is also in the spirit of Dipesh Chakrabarty‘s book Provincializing Europe: Postcoloniality and the Critique of History – to offer confidence to decenter European history. Asia as method is a continuation of those efforts, through which Chen offers additional momentum to the trajectory set by Frans Fanon and Stuart Hall. Its contribution is a theoretical proposal – to build conceptual and imaginative resources through and with Asian experiences and histories.

Chen doesn’t define Asia (and neither did Takeuchi Yoshimi btw). He calls it an “open-ended imaginary space” (p. 282). I think that is wise. The ambiguity in this regard is a productive component to the idea. Because the point of asia as method is to increase our frames of reference and expand our imagination in regard to what Asia is and can be. Additionally, he uses the word method to signify a mediating process rather than a scientific procedure. It sounds very much like diplomacy to me!

Moving Forward

The Black Experience Japan is all of the above. Not at once and all the time, but as an approach and ongoing conversation it amounts to all of the above. Similar to Chen’s notion of Asia, Black is an analytical anchor point. Both these anchor points deal with embodied historical and theoretical predicaments that have a lot in common. That is the spirit of DIY Cultural Diplomacy. And I am excited to have discovered resources that develop and expand this perspective, such as:

The Afro-Asia Networks Research Collective, who runs the Afro-Asian Visions blog above, even published a manifesto in 2018, calling for “a collaborative approach to histories of decolonisation that move away from interstate diplomacy, focusing on the realm of non-state actors and transnational networks“. There is a passage that speaks to the very ethos of DIY Cultural Diplomacy:

Artists, poets, and performers travelled and experimented with new ideas and techniques for intellectual and cultural expression to create new visions for the nation and for the world. They engaged critically with communist, socialist and democratic ideas in circulation, constantly re-evaluated their political loyalties, and built up networks of intellectual and radical sociability. Outside the key sites of international diplomacy, we know much less about the way in which actors across the South conversed with each other in the early Cold War era. At the same time, the methods of our historical discipline and the institutional structures that govern research continue to devalue scholarship outside the Western academy, and to under-represent the voices of women and people of colour. In other words, researchers need to ask new questions together and encourage practices that do not reinforce the hierarchies that the decolonising world sought to overcome.

Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective

All of this work offers credence to the DIY Cultural Diplomacy project. It tells me that the translocal mandate was and is real and achievable. To this end I see Hip Hop as a potent modality. In extent, I am concerned with how this modality can be encouraged, coordinated and resourced beyond the nation-state, but not without it. Yet not completely dependent on commercialism. This is something I’ll be thinking about as I move forward.


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