3.23.2011

Part VIII: Darwinist Thought and the Japanese Construction of Blackness.

This series continues with a focus on introduction of Darwinist thought the effect Western notions of race and place had on the Japanese construction of Blackness. Links to earlier posts and references/suggested reading can be found at the end of this document.

The following excerpts were reproduced from Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (Second edition 2009) edited by Michael Weiner/ chapter 5: “The other other – The Black presence in the Japanese experience” by John. G. Russell (pp. 95-99). Russell is a professor in the Faculty of Regional studies at Gifu University.

The introduction of Darwinist thought in the early Meiji period would see Japanese notions of Self and Other transformed by Western notions of 'race. The American zoologist Edward Morse (1837-1925), a professor at Tokyo University, introduced Darwin to Japanese audiences in the 1870s. Several translations of Darwin's Descent of Man (trans. 1879) were published during the Meiji period. Even more widely translated were the works of Herbert Spencer, of which around thirty translations appeared between 1877 and 1900 (Siddle 1996: 12).

Western scientific notions of race were not imposed on Japan from the outside but were employed by Japanese elites to support various, often conflicting, domestic agendas, ranging from nationalism and socialism to anti-Christian and anti-Buddhist ideologies (Shimao 1981: 94-5). For others it provided a means to account for - and reproduce - the conditions they presumed were responsible for the emergence of Western power. Nationalists had only to survey the condition of their Asian neighbors to surmise the fate that would befall those who were unable to compete in nature's struggle of the fittest. At the same time, social Darwinism offered a scientific basis for Japanese notions of hierarchy and proper place, as well as spurring a pre¬occupation with the question of where Japan ranked in the social evolutionary scheme of things. Within Japan, the 'science of race' was employed to justify policies directed at the subjugation of its own internal minorities. The Ainu were not only racialized but became a 'dying race,' whose culture had to be 'preserved' - deposited in research laboratories, warehoused in museums, and exhibited - before their inevitable demise (Siebold 1996: 20). With the support of Heinrich von Siebold and other Westerners, Japanese scholars launched their own 'scientific' forays, inaugurating Ainugaku (Ainu Studies), which embraced the Ainu with the same kind of paternalistic, imperialist nostalgia that Westerners had displayed toward their own 'primitive' Others whose time on earth was numbered. Note: See Oguma (1195: 2-86) on the impact of social Darwinism on Ainu studies.

If for the Japanese the Ainu represented the 'lowest rung' on the evolutionary ladder within Japan, social Darwinism left little doubt as to the positioning of Africans and their descendants in the global racial hierarchy. Racist caricatures of Africans as primitive exotics were not confined to scientific discourse; they were also to be found in Western popular culture imported to Japan. While Japanese intellectuals were extolling the virtues of Hegel and Spencer, the masses thrilled to such scientific romances as Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon (trans. 1880), Henry Morgan Stanley's Through the Dark Continent and In Darkest Africa (trans. 1890 and 1899, respectively), and other works that cultivated the image of Africa as a savage 'dark continent' (ankoku tairiku), imagery that would later serve as a template for Japan's own adventure-story writers, illustrators, and armchair explorers.

Through its encounter with the West, Japan's notions of race and place continued to evolve among its elites. Earlier expressions of revulsion toward whiteness were gradually subsumed, while perceptions of blackness grew increasingly negative, and other markers of racial difference were re-evaluated in the light of Western cultural capital and power. By the Taisho Period (1912-26), long, straight black hair, once so desirable as marker of traditional beauty, had been replaced by the modern pageboy stylings and would, by the post-war period, be permed and dyed in imitation of white Hollywood stars. At the same time, the adoption of European aesthetic values produced self-doubts and insecurities, inviting a self-reflexive awareness through which Japanese began to adjust their own worldview to the realities of the West's encroaching cultural authority and power. Nowhere is this adjustment more apparent than in Japanese attitudes toward their own physical appearance, which they now began to regard as 'flawed,' an intolerable deviation from European standards of beauty. This recalibration of aesthetic sensibilities was facilitated, ironically, by invoking indigenous aesthetics as a rationale for its acceptance, as the following passage from Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's (1886-1965) In'ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows, 1933) makes clear:

From ancient times we have considered white skin more elegant, more beautiful than dark skin, and yet somehow this whiteness of ours differs from that of the white races. Taken individually there are Japanese who are whiter than Westerners and Westerners who are darker than Japanese, but their whiteness and darkness is not the same... For the Japanese complexion, no matter how white is tinged by a slight cloudiness... Thus it is that when one of us goes among a group of Westerners it is like a grimy strain on a white sheet of paper. The sight offends even our own eyes and leaves none too pleasant a feeling.
(Tanizaki: 31, emphasis added)

In developing his argument, the power relation embodied in racial status relationships is not far from Tanizaki's mind, whites and blacks providing self-reflexive mirrors through which Tanizaki attempts to rationalize Japanese feelings of inferiority toward whiter-skinned Westerners, while commiserating with blacks as fellow objects of white racial contempt.

We can appreciate, then, the psychology that in the past caused the white races to reject the colored races. A sensitive white person could not but be upset by the shadow that even one or two colored persons cast over a social gathering. What the situation is today I do not know, but at the time of the American Civil War, when persecution of Negroes was at its most intense, the hatred and scorn were directed not only at full¬blooded Negroes, but at mulattos, the children of mulattos, and even the children of mulattos and whites. Those with the slightest taint of Negro blood, be it but half, a quarter, a sixteenth, or a thirty-second, had to be ferreted out and made to suffer. Not even those who at a glance were indistinguishable from pure-blooded whites, but among whose ancestors two or three generations earlier there had been a Negro, escaped the searching gaze, no matter how faint the tinge that lay beneath their white skin. And so we see how profound is the relationship between shadows and the yellow races. Because no one likes to show himself to bad advantage, it is natural that we should have chosen cloudy colors for our food and clothing and houses, and sunk ourselves back into the shadows. I am not saying that our ancestors were conscious of the cloudiness of their skins. They cannot have known that a whiter race existed. But one must conclude that something of their sense of color led them naturally to this preference.
(Tanizaki 1984: 32-3)

Having rhetorically adopted the perspective of whites, Tanizaki concludes that the preference for white skin is 'natural,' although, significantly, Japanese do not become aware of the 'cloudiness of their skins' until after their exposure to lighter-skinned Westerners, a point he finesses by positing some vague ancestral memory to account for this preference. His observations on the status of blacks in the United States, however, should chasten those who would decry Japan's blood chauvinism and preoccupation with racial purity as somehow uniquely Japanese. Tanizaki's narrative is explicit about the American racial hierarchy and the Japanese place within it. Having more or less accepted it, he is left with little recourse but to urge Japanese to resign themselves to their impurities and compensate for them by, as it were, praising shadows. Not only are 'white-skinned' Japanese unable to compete with the whiteness of Europeans, but, by the passage's end, they are no longer white but 'yellow' and are rejected by Caucasians as quite literally a 'colored' race.

Western views of race had a profound impact both on Japanese views of blacks and on their views of themselves, an impact not limited to scientific discourse on the subject. Much of their effect was provided though con¬spicuous displays of Western cultural capital, such as those Tanizaki describes at Ritsumeikan and other sites where proximity to and imitation of things Western served to enhance the social status and self-esteem of the performer. Their impact would increasingly manifest itself in the early pre-war and post-war years in American popular culture. In Tanizaki's era, Hollywood provided the template of fashion, behavior, and beauty for Japanese people, who, modeling themselves on Western movie stars, redefined themselves as moga (modern girls) and moho (modern boys). Hollywood provided them with its version not only of modernity but of primitivism as well, reproducing in a more palpable form the racist hierarchies of the social sciences while providing an iconography upon which Japanese could elaborate their own vision of ineffable black alterity. For if Hollywood offered Taisho Japanese - and the world - images of privileged, affluent, sophisticated whiteness, it juxtaposed them against those of black buffoonery and primitivism, images whose impact on Japanese popular culture and perceptions of blacks - and of themselves - would leave an indelible imprint on the Japanese imagination.

In Part IX, we’ll examine the pre-war period and the Japanese construction of Blackness.

Suggested Reading/References
Oguma, E. (1195) Tan-itsu Minzoku Shinwa no Kigen (The Myth of the Homogeneous Nation), Tokyo: Shinosha.

Shimao, E. (1981) ‘Darwinsm in Japan: 1877-1927,’ Annals of Science 38, 93-102.

Siddle, R. (1996) Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan, London and New York: Routledge.

Siebold, H. von. (1996) Sho Shiboruto Ezo Kenkanki (Siebold Study of the Ezo, Abridged), Japanese trans. Of Ethnologiesche Studien uber die Anio auf Insel Yesso (1881), Harada Nobuo, trans., Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Tanizaki, J. (1984) In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows), Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, trans., Tokyo: Charles Tuttle.

Part I: Uchi (us) vs. Soto (Them)
Part II: Color Symbolism
Part III: Imaging Blacks in Advertising
Part IV: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (First Contact)
Part V: Early Japanese Construction of Blackness (Rangaku - Dutch Learning)
Part VI: A possible Chinese influence on the Japanese construction of Blackness
Part VII: The Effect of anti-Black Stereotypes and Western Privileging on the Japanese construction of Blackness

4 comments:

  1. Mr. Tanizaki brought it home in this segment. What's amazing is how the Japanese went from this unhealthy state of mind to where they are as a people today.

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  2. I had no idea Tanizaki researched issues such as these! I had to read his novel "Naomi" last semester. You sort of get a taste of the Japanese fascination with whiteness in the 1900s. Guess I'll have to pick this book up too huh?

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  3. We can appreciate, then, the psychology that in the past caused the white races to reject the colored races. A sensitive white person could not but be upset by the shadow that even one or two colored persons cast over a social gathering. What the situation is today I do not know, but at the time of the American Civil War, when persecution of Negroes was at its most intense, the hatred and scorn were directed not only at full¬blooded Negroes, but at mulattos, the children of mulattos, and even the children of mulattos and whites. Those with the slightest taint of Negro blood, be it but half, a quarter, a sixteenth, or a thirty-second, had to be ferreted out and made to suffer.

    His phrasing is profound and so refreshingly honest. This passage resonated to me in how accurately he described the situation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Moonwalker723

    I'll definitely be buying "In Praise of Shadows" as soon as I verify whether or not we own a Japanese version because quite a bit of discussion will ensue after reading it.

    @Ankhesen
    His phrasing is profound and so refreshingly honest.

    Even in fiction, Tanizaki didn't fool around. This is why I always encourage people to read the literature of a target country rather than solely depend on a culture book.

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