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).

Japan on the Record: Japan and Blackness

Cover for the podcast JAPAN ON THE RECORD

Last year I discovered the excellent UBC Meiji at 150 Podcast. I was late to the discovery, but enjoyed working through the 120 episode backlog. Since then the host of the show, Dr. Tristan Grunow of Yale University, has gone on to create Japan On the Record, a show where scholars of Japan can share insight into the news of the day. I really love this as an idea, and I think these kinds of podcasts are probably the best thing that universities can do to for public engagement. But I digress. Today I wanted merely to celebrate Dr. Grunow’s recent efforts on the podcast in light of the death of George Floyd and the most recent wave of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has had a great turnout in Japan.

Starting with his powerful 8 minute 46 second “silence” episode, Dr. Grunow has recently been featuring a series of Black scholars of Japan, and just like with the Meiji 150 podcast, JOTR is introducing me to all sorts of different research that I would not be aware of if I stayed merely within my own narrow interests.

Long ago, as a student in Japan, living in an international dorm and being othered for the first time, it didn’t take me long to see where I as a white guy was on the racial hierarchy in Japan when compared to my classmates of Black, East or Southeast Asian, or Filipino heritage. (Which in turn, helped me to better see the racial hierarchy in Canada. What is that famous quote about travel teaching you more about own country?). Take a listen to some of the following episodes below that dig much deeper into Japan’s relationship to Blackness, and subscribe to Japan on the Record1 for future episodes to widen your perspective about this country.

Please take a listen to the following episodes (and subscribe for future ones!) to learn more about Japan’s relationship to Blackness:

  • Dr. John G. Russell gives historical perspective on how the Japanese were introduced to Black people, and also a very enlightening interpretation of that Nissin commercial with Naomi Osaka. Link →
  • A roundtable of Black scholars on Japan, and their experiences studying Japan differ in Japan compared to the US, where Japan studies is oft-considered a “white space.” Link →
  • Dr. Reginald Jackson breaks down that NHK video, Japanese depictions of Black people, and discussing Japanese adoption of Black culture. Link →
  • Black Okinawan biracial communities, and how oppressed Okinawans showed solidarity with Black Americans, with Dr. Mitzi Uehara Carter Link →
  • Dr. Marvin Sterling talks about minority communities in Japan, and how they use Reggae as an expression of identity. Link →

  1. Non-disclaimer: I am not affiliated with this podcast or Dr. Grunow. I am just a fan who wants to share this show far and wide!

Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

Continue reading “Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time”

Ethnocultural Diversity in Kelowna

It has been 10 years since Canada has had a comprehensive census. This year the results have been trickling out from StatsCan, and today the stats that I have been waiting for all year were finally released: immigration. Some high level findings:

  • 250 ethnic groups
  • 1 in 5 Canadians are foreign-born
  • 2 in 5 kids have an immigrant background

The Globe and Mail also did a breakdown on Aboriginal and Immigrant demography across the country.

My community: Kelowna

I dug into the Kelowna data to find out how my city has changed over the last decade. Kelowna has a reputation for being “old and white,” but the consensus over the past few years has been that this is changing. Now we have the numbers, let’s see if this bears out.

StatCan says that the immigrant population of Kelowna is 13.9%.

Compared to 2006, this is has actually dropped. Back then it was 14.8%.

Let’s take a look at how this compares with other communities (the Kelowna CMA is pretty broad, and includes West Kelowna and Peachland, so I broke it out in the following table):

Community Immigrant pop. Total pop. Percentage
Kelowna CMA 26455 194882 13.6%
Kelowna 17835 127380 14%
West Kelowna 4360 32655 13.3%
Vernon 6785 59720 11.4%
Penticton 5715 43432 13.2%

Interesting to compare the ratio between Kelowna and its neighbours to the North and to the South. Vernon has its Vernon and District Immigrant and Community Services Society, and Penticton has its South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services.

Why does Kelowna have no immigrant services center?

Immigrants can be hard to see

Maybe the reason that people feel like there are more immigrants here is being there are more visible minorities? That certainly is true: in 2006 visible minorities were a mere 5.2%. In 2016 visible minorities have increased by half to 7.8%. Kelowna proper (ie. not the West side or outlying regions) has a 9.5% ratio of visible minorities. Here is a chart showing the ethnic origin of the Kelowna population in 2016:

Pie chart showing ethnic origins of Kelownaites: European = 83%, Aboriginal = 7%, Caribbean = 1%, Latinx = 1%, African = 1%, Asian = 7%, Oceania = 1%

So things are getting a little less white. However, this cannot all be attributed to new immigrants. When looking at a where immigrants are coming from, you can see some interesting trends:

table of kelowna immigrant origin countries. See link for full table.

Normally we get a lot of immigrants from the UK and US, which likely affects the visibility of our immigrant communities. Philippines-based immigration has shot up recently, as has Jamaica(?). South Korea has a really strong showing, as has Mexico. Germany is way down. And for all the furor, Syrian refugees are a tiny minority.

Addendum on Japanese immigrants

I would like to focus on the Japanese immigrants for a moment (for obvious personal reasons). If you break them down by gender you will see something interesting about this community:

Period Male Female
1981 to 1990 0 0
1991 to 2000 15 35
2001 to 2005 10 35
2006 to 2010 10 20
2011 to 2016 0 30

The Japanese immigrant community differs from other Asian communities on a few different variables, but one major one is international marriage. Japanese immigrants here are overwhelmingly female (70%), and from my experience are married to white dudes. Someday I will write more about how this impacts the community and the services it requires.

Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way

“Canada is a multicultural patchwork quilt, a country of immigrants.” These are common refrains about our country. Canada is home to over 200 ethnic groups, and has an official multicultural policy since 1971 (instituted by Trudeau the elder). Yet xenophobia and racism still remain, and multiculturalism is still a hot debate. The debate is not just between the natural-born and the immigrant, but also among the immigrants themselves. That is the topic I would like to explore below.
Continue reading “Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way”

Timeline of Japanese in the Okanagan

May is Asian Heritage month in Canada. Here in the Okanagan our local Asian Heritage Month committee has been working for months to ensure that there are a number of events and activities to raise awareness of Asian-Canadian contributions to our communities, and empower immigrants. It all kicks off next week. Asian history month opening gala poster This year, the Japanese community will be hosting the opening gala on Saturday May 6th. I will be there helping out, and I am going to other events such as Family Sundays and getting a tour of the Kelowna Buddhist Temple. The Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indian communities are all going to be doing different things so check it out.

In preparation for this year’s celebrations I did a little research into the experience of Japanese who began settling in this valley at the turn of the last century. I put together a simple timeline slideshow, to place some of the more important historical people, organizations, and events into the wider context of Japanese-Canadian history. Take a browse by clicking below, and I hope to see you at one of the AHM events this year!

Japanese in the Okanagan timeline

A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People

cover_history_of_white_people

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
Continue reading “A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People”

Off White

Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X was released in 1992 when I was just 14 years old. Denzel Washington’s performance was powerful and it struck me. I became very interested in Malcolm X. During a trip to a nearby city I bought one of those X caps. The next week I wore it to school. I was a young white kid in a rural mountain town that was overwhelmingly white. My highschool went from grade 8 to 12. I was in grade 9, and let me tell you, some of the older non-white kids did not appreciate my expression of solidarity. I suffered at their hands. Although I did know that racial hierarchy was wrong, at 14 I did not have the sophistication to know how to navigate it.

From this incident I took the wrong lesson — a lesson that I think many white Canadians learn at a young age — when it comes to race: keep your opinions to yourself.

Canada has over 200 ethnic groups, but is 80% “white.” Canadian policies make it easy to ignore our race problems. The multiculturalism policies enacted since 1971 allow us to hide under a veneer of inclusionism. The truth is since we don’t collect data on race we have no idea how big our race problem is. Canada’s last segregated school was closed in Nova Scotia in 1983! In 2016 we are more integrationist than the United States. Our government has a dedicated foundation to dealing with racism that nobody has heard of, and we have hundreds of years of discriminatory policy towards the indigenous population.

angus reid chart

As the majority, white people have a responsibility to stand up. The first step is confronting whiteness.
Continue reading “Off White”

Top of the bottom

“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?” the teacher suggested.

Each week at the private school, a parent comes into class to talk about what they do. There is a wide variety of professions to expose the kids to. There is the dad who is a musician. One mom taught the kids some yoga. Then there is my friend: a businesswoman who happens to be Japanese.

The school is predominantly white, well-to-do, and teaches an alternative pedagogy to the public school where my kids go (mixed race mingling with a blend of ethnic and economic heritages all lumped together). My friend is probably the only Asian in that school of privilege. She stands out. When it comes to her turn to talk to the children about what she does, she is stripped of her years of experience and skills and reduced to what she is.

“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?”

Upon hearing this I snarked, “You should tell the teacher you are gonna teach the kids how to make maple syrup! Or, teach them the rules of hockey! Show them white people what for!”

Continue reading “Top of the bottom”

Listening in — a short review of “Between the World and Me”

cover-between_the_world_and_me

When I think of my long struggle to “try and be a writer”, my confidence is shattered upon reading such a poetic, insightful, heartfelt piece as this. This is writing — the naked intimacy of it. Even if I cannot fully grasp the primordial fear documented in this book, Coates’s excellent writing gives me a peek into a world I cannot — by definition of my class and race — ever truly know.

I cannot know the fear, but I can understand it. And it can move me.

The message of this book will certainly have different effects on each reader. Had I read this in my younger years, I might have had more difficulty in understanding. But after a decade and a half of being married to — and properly educated by — a feminist, living every day in an immigrant family, and being a father to two multiracial girls, I have a much better sense of how those who think of themselves as white are so blind to the system that their ancestors put in place, and that they propagate every day at work, at school, at the supermarket, on the bus, and in their homes. Ever since returning to Canada five years ago, I have struggled with my own whiteness, struggled with the strained politeness of a country that is multicultural by policy yet not by practice, keenly aware of that sickly sweet, maple-scented smugness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched me with this book, likely in an unexpected way. I do not know if this book will touch you in quite the same way, but it is a powerful and beautifully written message that we should all heed and consider, and hopefully some day act upon.