Thursday, July 1, 2010

Race in Japan and the United States compared

I’ve just returned from a month in Japan, sponsored by the Organization of American Historians and the Japanese Association for American Studies, and paid for by the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission. I was a resident scholar at Kyoto University for two weeks and gave lectures there and at other universities in Kyoto and Tokyo. It was a wonderful opportunity for intellectual exchange with Japanese scholars of race, comparative and American studies. My host, Yasuko Takezawa, an anthropologist at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at Kyoto U. (and one of only two female full professors in the arts and sciences there!) is a brilliant scholar of race across cultures and she introduced me to a number of other scholars who are working on comparative race issues. You can read more about her research here.

Of particular interest to me was new research on the burakumin, or untouchable caste of Japan, and other “invisible races” – groups at the bottom rung of Asian societies who are apparently phenotypically indistinguishable from other members of society but are marked in other ways (although often by imagined physical differences as well). Until recently, Japanese scholars denied that the burakumin were a racialized group, and resisted comparisons between the burakumin and racial minorities in other countries. However, Takezawa and other scholars are now calling for a broadly comparative approach to racialization that does not assume either a universal conception of race or racism, nor that race is an exclusively Western phenomenon only recently imported to the East. Archival research suggests that the burakumin were singled out as a race apart, with hereditary difference that justified separation and subordination, as early as the medieval era, and that such discrimination was often accompanied and produced by a racial ideology that figured them as physically different and inferior.

I found a great deal in common between their research on “invisible races” and my own findings about the history of race and racism in U.S. trials of racial identity, in which race did not depend necessarily on appearance or ancestry, but at least as much on racial performance, associations, “character,” and other “invisible” attributes. Even within the black/white paradigm, racial science has developed side by side with these other, equally insidious narratives about difference and subordination. While I don’t think that means racism is necessarily a universal feature of human societies, it does suggest that we can learn a great deal by widening our comparative perspective beyond the Atlantic world to other, less familiar cultures.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

The notion of "impurity" (and thus 'purity' as well) seems critical here in any comparative analysis, as both the Burakumin and the Dalits in India have historically been associated with occupations having to do with handling items christened (ritually and otherwise) "impure" by the elites in the surrounding society: in the case of the latter, this meant any ritually "impure" work involving leather, "butchering, or removal of rubbish, animal carcases, and waste." The Dalits also "work as manual labourers cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers;" while the Burakumin have likewise been historically associated with "occupations considered 'tainted' with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners)." A phenomenological description of the part played by notions of purity/impurity intrinsic to the society's division of labor is fundamental, and such work might also consider the literature on emotions such as "disgust" and shaming mechanisms involved in the enforcement of social norms. In the case of the Dalits, the purusa sukta of the Rg Veda (10.90) [diacritics missing] could be said to provide a conceptual template for the religious sanction and ideological legitimation of the later caste/jati system insofar as the sudras, those representing the Cosmic Man's feet (Purusa engages in a cosmogonic sacrifice/dismemberment in which various parts of his body represent the four parts of the varna system), were excluded from the Vedic "twice-born" initiation ceremony. I'm not aware of a comparable text in the Japanese case but it would be interesting to see if any mythological or religious texts perform a similar function (that said, I do not believe the Vedic conception and praxis of varna is perfectly coextensive with the modern caste/jati system, even if the former is a necessary precursor or condition of the latter). Interestingly, "varna is a Sanskrit term varna (वर्ण) derived from the root vr, meaning 'to cover, to envelop' (compare vrtra). Derived meanings include 'coat, mantle; outward appearance, exterior form' and hence 'colour', and more generally 'kind, sort, character, quality.'" It's no doubt tempting to think that "color" here may include reference to skin color and thus be linked to "racial" or ethnic categories.

Ariela Gross said...

This is a fascinating discussion of the religious discourse behind the Indian caste system, far beyond my area of expertise to comment on. But I do want to respond to the final point. I do not equate “race” with “color” – or any particular phenotypical or physical marker that has at times been associated with the production of racial categories. As I understand it, “race” is not an existing attribute of human beings, then given meaning through practices of racism or discrimination. Race is a powerful ideology, which came into being and changed forms at particular moments in history as the product of social, economic, and psychological conditions. Fundamental to race is a hierarchy of power. Professor Takezawa posits two features to “race”: first, that “racial characteristics (visible and invisible physical features, nature, ability, and so on) are believed to be ‘inherited’ from generation to generation, genealogically mediated by bodies, and determined by the lineage of a group, and they ‘cannot be (easily) changed’ by environment or external factors”; second, exclusion and hierarchy are central to “race” and “manifest themselves in collusion with politico-economic or social institutions and resources.” By these criteria, we may find that a religious group like the Jews in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe have been racialized, although certainly the myths that rationalized their exclusion and genocide were not the same as those that justified African enslavement. In my research, I found that even within the black-white paradigm, “color” was only one basis of “race”; indeed, it is the shifting bases of race and racism that make them so challenging to eradicate. Further, I should note that ideas of “pollution” and “impurity” are common in racial discourse, whether attached to a practice like leather-work, or to beliefs about alien origin, both of which operated in the case of the burakumin.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I hope you did not think I was claiming that you thought racism or the notion of "race" is or was exclusively or predominantly about color, or that I thought such a thing. Similarly, I did not claim nor mean to imply that notions of purity and pollution were ONLY associated with occupations, only that in the aforementioned cases that this was in fact the case. I'm curious generally how (and perhaps why) notions of purity and impurity come to be associated with racial discourse.

But I appreciate your clarification and elaboration of the concepts and conceptions at work here.

My own views about the meaning of terms like ethnicity and race have been shaped by Philip Kitcher's writings. And while I'm not at all, like yourself, an expert on racism, I'm very much interested in the subject, particularly in how ethnic groups like Jews and Arabs who, while historically and otherwise are quite close to each other, exhibit the darker implications of Freud's notion of "the narcissism of little differences." While many of us are familiar with the history and recalcitrant virulence of anti-Semitism (anti-Jewishness more precisely), few folks today are sensitive to contemporary Israeli discourse among both elites and the hoi polloi about the "animal nature" of the Arab: hence Palestinians and Arabs are referred to as living in a jungle, proliferating like ants, similar to snakes or, in the case of Palestinian leaders, behaving like crocodiles. Cf., for instance:

"Rabbi Itzhak Ginsburg, author of a book ('Baruk the Male') glorifying Baruch Goldstein, the man who committed mass murder against Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994...was quoted in Maariv as saying that 'the Arabs are closer to the animal than to the human.'" One problem here being that not only was the rabbi given a forum in a major daily newspaper to express his ideas (four page interview no less, including a headline that read 'The Arab Has Little Intelligence; His Nature is Animal-Like'), but this Talmudic scholar at Joseph's Tomb in the center of the Palestinian town of Nablus, "was presented as a great Torah scholar, a man worthy of respect who was professing an opinion as valid as any other." What is worse, "this interview did not cause any scandal in Israel, either among the authorities or the readership of the newspaper." "Why?" asks Sylvain Cypel, "Because Rabbi Ginsburg was simply expressing, in extreme terms, a very diffuse attitude in Israeli society, one combining scorn for and great alienation from the Arab."

Alas, a significant section of Israel society subscribes to the belief enshrined in the popular slogan, "A good Arab is a dead Arab." As Cypel notes, there's a related phrase, "heard a thousand times in Israel, uttered in a tone of hope or regret: 'How much easier everything would be if there were no Arabs!'"

Not for nothing have various forms of "Orientalism" "flourished in the Jewish community of Palestine from its beginnings up to the present day," the more sophisticated versions of this discourse prevailing in "the university departments of Near-Eastern, Arabic and Islamic studies--departments, moreover, that have traditionally furnished a major part of the intelligence services."

Of course, much more might be said about this specific form of racism and discrimination in Israel and the Occupied Territories, but to date it has received, comparatively speaking, very little attention from Anglo-European academics. It certainly helps illustrate the proposition that "fundamental to race is a hierarchy of power," as well the the two attributes of "race" posited by Takezawa. Perhaps more academic attention in this regard would help us appreciate at least one reason why the conflict in this part of the world remains so intractable.