When the Japanese became “yellow”

Inspired by his recent interview in Japan on the Record I sought out some of Professor John G. Russell’s work on race in Japan. In his analysis on the Nissin whitewash scandal last year, this extraordinary paragraph:

Even though the Japanese have been seen to whitewash themselves, it hasn’t been simply a matter of skin color and that is why the term “whitewashing,” at least in the Japanese context, is inadequate and misleading. After all, the Japanese have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white, as did early European missionaries and merchants to the country, whose accounts of the Japanese they encountered were otherwise devoid of descriptions of their physical appearance. Indeed, according to University of Haifa professor Rotem Kowner in “From White to Yellow” (2014), it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Japanese came to be seen — and eventually came to see themselves, at least rhetorically — as members of “the yellow race.”

Hence in lightening Naomi Osaka’s countenance, Nissin was not trying to minimize her blackness but possibly trying to emphasize her Japanese-ness. Ironic.

In fact, Russell refers to anthropologists Hiroshi Wagatsuma and Toshinao Yoneyama who point out:

Japanese have not only traditionally viewed their skin as white but that they view the texture and color of their skin, smooth and unblemished with freckles, as purer and more aesthetically appealing than Caucasian whiteness.

This might sound wacky to Westerners, but only proves (once again) how race is a social construct, not a fixed reality. For example, “whiteness” has gone through many iterations. From my review of The History of White People:

The ranking and re-ranking of people by those at the top of society is highly dependant on the prevailing political winds and threats to the position of the elite. During the first World War, the Germans were down-ranked out of whitehood, and soon Americans were to worry about “Soviets” and “the feebleminded Juke-Kallikak-Polish-Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian-mongrelized-Alpine Under-Man.” Later, as America faced immigration “crises” from Asia and Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, previously outsiders, were invited into whiteness. The race to whiteness is competitive and relativistic.

John G. Russell’s piece shows how as the Japanese were introduced to Western race theory, they were constructing themselves, and also how the result was unique and independent from the West. Racial constructs are not universal (though they are universally wrong).

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