The 1860 Japanese embassy inspired within the antebellum African American press an imagined solidarity that subverted American state hierarchies of ‘civilization’ and race. The bodies of the Japanese ambassadors, physically incongruous with American understandings of non-white masculinity, became a centre of cultural contention upon their presence as sophisticated and powerful men on American soil. The African American and abolitionist press, reimagining Japan and the Japanese, reframed racial prejudice as an experience in solidarity, to prove further the equality of all men, and assert African American membership to the worlds of civility and ‘civilization’. The acceptance of the Japanese gave African Americans a new lens through which to present their quest for racial equality and recognition as citizens of American ‘civilization’. This imagined transnational solidarity reveals Japan's influence in the United States as African American publications developed an imagined racial solidarity with Japanese agents of ‘civilization’ long before initiatives of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ appeared on Japan's diplomatic agenda. Examining the writings of non-state actors traditionally excluded from early historical narratives of US–Japan diplomacy reveals an imagined transnational solidarity occurring within and because of an oppressive racial hierarchy, as well as a Japanese influence on antebellum African American intellectual history.