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.