Race, Masculinity, and Military Occupation: African American Soldiers' Encounters with the Japanese at Camp Gifu, 1947-1951

Article excerpt

In February 1947, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was relocated from Okinawa to mainland Japan to join the occupation forces of the U.S. Army as part of the 25th Infantry Division. The 24th Infantry Regiment was stationed at Camp Majestic in Gifu, which is located 270 miles southwest of Tokyo in central Japan. (1) It was there that African American soldiers, as representatives of the Allied occupation forces, would have their first extensive face-to-face contact with Japanese citizens. Ironically, African American occupation soldiers, whose major mission in Japan was to democratize the defeated nation and disseminate the values of freedom and equality among the Japanese population, served in a segregated U.S. Army.

This essay examines the early postwar encounters of African American soldiers, many of whom served in the 24th Infantry Regiment, with Japanese citizens around Camp Gifu under U.S. military occupation during the period from 1947 to 1951. (2) African American GIs in Japan explored and enhanced the racial and gendered sense of justice, power, and identity within the boundaries of the privileged status that they enjoyed as members of the U.S. occupation forces as well as the racial discrimination that they encountered both in the U.S. Army and Japanese society after the end of the Second World War. The "trans-Pacific interaction" of the racial-sexual ideology and practices surrounding black masculinity were central to the formation of racial, gendered, and national subjectivities among African American GIs in occupied Japan. In seeking out eyewitness and other accounts, I consulted the oral history collection at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, major black newspapers and magazines, the NAACP papers, U.S. military records, and autobiographies and memoirs written by African American GIs and Japanese residents in the area around Camp Gifu. (3) This study illuminated how African American soldiers grappled with the terms of military occupation, race relations, national belonging, and gender/sexual norms in their encounters with the Japanese in Gifu.

In occupied Gifu, African American soldiers reconsolidated, reconstructed, and complicated their sense of "American-ness," "blackness," and notions of masculinity through their daily personal encounters and exchanges with local Japanese women and men. The overseas military experience in Japan, the defeated "non-white nation" that African Americans had admired as their racial ally before the war, encouraged African American GIs to reconfigure their racial identity beyond the domestic context of racial oppression and discrimination found in the United States. African American soldiers, like white GIs, asserted and performed the "victorious" American masculinity in their romantic and sexual relationships with Japanese women by invoking influential U.S. orientalist representations of Japanese femininity. Some African American GIs further developed their fraternization with Japanese women into marriage and childbearing and confronted the institutional, organizational, and ideological barriers against interracial intimacy and sexuality in both Japan and the United States.

This analysis is built upon the historiography of African American military experiences, African American-Japanese relationships, and the postwar U.S. military engagement in Japan. Most historical studies of the African American-Japanese relationship have investigated how black intellectual and political leaders forged interracial solidarity with the Japanese, or critiqued Japan's imperialist aggression in Asia within the parameters of the black global struggle against white supremacy, as well as the U.S.-Japanese relationship during the first half of the 20th century. (4) The centrality of race and nation as analytical categories in these earlier studies of the pre-war African American-Japanese relationship usually ignored the gender and sexual dynamics of the "trans-Pacific exchanges" between African Americans and the Japanese. …


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