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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Multiethnic Japan by John Lie 
30th-Jan-2009 11:59 pm
Lie, John. Multiethnic Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
          Summary: In this scholarly monograph, John Lie explores the history of Japan's various minority groups. He then argues that Japan has always been a multiethnic society and that the current monoethnic ideology stems from the postwar period and Japan's renunciation of (multiethnic) empire.
          Comments: What a wonderful, lucidly written book! Besides stating in no uncertain terms things I've already known intuitively about Japanese language (e.g. gaijin = white person, gaikokujin = non-white person; bunmei = the West) and culture (e.g. Japanese "race" and cultural homogeneity as modern social constructs), it also had plenty of new revelations on offer: I had not previously imagined Lie's central thesis about the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the implications of its rejection, for example...and yet it makes perfect sense. His laundry list of famous Korean-Japanese was also intriguing; they're like black people in the U.S., taking up the rare star-studded career as athlete or entertainer because they are often institutionally barred from more ordinary occupations.
          One of Lie's most controversial claims, that the burakumin constitute an ethnic minority group in Japan, is quite a brain bender. At first I wasn't convinced. They're certainly a minority group, but why wander into the fuzzy definitions of ethnicity? In some ways, it seemed akin to calling gay men and lesbians in the United States an ethnic group. But I thought Lie made a compelling argument about how Jews, a religious group, acquired "ethnic minority status" in Europe through discrimination, and I suppose the same argument may be made for the burakumin. Still, I'm not sure how well it serves his argument to call them an ethnic group, other than to utilize them in further exploding the overarching cultural homogeneity thesis.
          My other main quibble with Multiethnic Japan, and it's relatively small, was Lie's seeming overeagerness to leap to the defense of Japanese people as not "really" racist. Uhh...why is this necessary if you're arguing against a single cultural disposition? So there's nothing about Japaneseness that makes you inherently racist--fine--but that doesn't eliminate the argument that many Japanese people tend to be profoundly bigoted against black people. It felt like he was making excuses and blaming American media, but my own experiences in Asia have led me to believe that there's more to the story. Certain stripes of bigotry struck me as distinctively homegrown and domestically perpetuated/passed down from one generation to the next.
          Rating: 7.5/10 - A great contribution to the literature that should be accessible even to casual readers from one of the world's premier sociologists.
(Deleted comment)
2nd-Feb-2009 11:54 pm (UTC)
*nods* That's the strict definition he seemed to be using: Inherited minority group status. Genetics are a whole different story, of course, and suspiciously ideological when invoked in almost all discussions of group difference. Intuitively, though, ethnicity seems to be associated with some sort of cultural difference, and I wonder how much cultural difference there is between burakumin and non-burakumin. I think it's the concept of culture that makes Lie's claim feel controversial.
4th-Feb-2009 01:21 am (UTC) - ethnicity
Good to see a book acknowledging a fact. I only lived in Japan for one year in 1994, but even then I was aware of the existence of the one million Korean Japanese, along with the Ainu and Burakamin for example.

Two questions came to mind as I read this, 1/ where does the author place the ever-increasing number of Brazilian Japanese now resident there?

2/ Your comments about racism in Japan against blacks...I certainly saw this, but given the behaviour of some of the American military personnel that I saw (and the blacks in the US military by default stand out more) would this also be an influence? I also wondered if there was a connection between Japanese racism and American, in the sense that the major Western media/cultural influences upon the country are US, and god knows that blacks have a pretty appalling representation in US media. In a larger context, how much would have been "imported" along with the technology and the ideologies of Imperialism copied from the West in the late 19th Century?

anyhow, thanks for the review, I'll go check out my local university library for this.
4th-Feb-2009 01:34 am (UTC) - Re: ethnicity
Re: #1 - Lie doesn't really focus on them, but I'm sure he would count them as them as ethnic minorities in Japan as well.

Re: #2 - Well, those are questions which scholars could (and most likely will) debate for generations. I doubt the U.S. military has anything to do with prejudice against blacks. Assuming that soldiers of all races are equally likely to behave badly, if their behavior mattered then Japanese people would have a low opinion of Americans of all races, not just blacks in particular.

Personally, I don't find variations of the "They got it from us" argument to be particularly compelling in itself. To suggest that Japanese people (or Asians in general) are passive vessels filled up with Western thought is offensive--and it can't be the whole story. Ideas and ideology can be changed, mediated, and outright rejected. Besides, as an example, what teaches children to call their black teacher "monkey"? Bet it's not the 21st century American media.
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