Sunday, July 17, 2016
England, Japan, and Race
This is the first of several topics I have been mulling over for a few years, which I will probably not pursue in an academic article (as I have a long queue of such articles to do.)
By presenting it in this format, I am essentially throwing a rough idea out there, not making an argument with attendant evidence. This first effort, which involves some historical similarities I have noticed in English and Japanese history where race is concerned, is no doubt full of weak points and scholars in the appropriate fields can no doubt poke a lot of holes in my loose theory. BUT, it's still interesting to think about.
First, a little background. I earned my Ph.D at the University of Illinois in 2011. My three examined fields were U.S. History (post-1815), Race and Ethnicity (with a focus on Native American and African American), and Southern U.S. History. My dissertation was entitled Race, Slavery, and Nationalism in Indian Territory: 1830-1866. I had to have a non-Western comparative element in my fields, and chose Japanese history, which has always fascinated me and which I almost chose as my graduate focus. I took Japanese history classes in both my undergrad and graduate studies, and was a teaching assistant in East Asian Civilization classes for two semesters. Nowadays I co-teach an upper division Japanese history class at Tennessee Tech.
Japanese history was a good fit for comparison when studying race in America for a couple of reasons. First, there is an indigenous, traditionally tribal people in the Japanese islands called the Ainu (genetically distinct from the Yamato or Wajin, or modern ethnic Japanese.) For centuries (along with other related groups like the Emishi) they were known as the "northern barbarians" and were eventually the focus of discrimination and efforts at forcible assimilation, not unlike Native American Indians.
Another reason to compare Japan and the English colonies/United States is the fact that, like that latter culture, Japan has developed a very strict racial hierarchy, with ethnic Japanese at the top (who also had a class-based inner hierarchy, with a group of Japanese "untouchables" called the eta), and the bottom segmented among the indigenous peoples like the Ainu, the Okinawans/Ryukyuans, and all foreigners (with Koreans probably bearing more stigma than other Asian groups.)
Studying Japanese history while also being immersed in American race studies, I noticed something else. When Japan entered their colonizing, imperialist period -much later than England had -they had similar attitudes about the "inferiority" of the groups they colonized, and were less than permissive about local rules and customs in the areas they occupied. These broad similarities started me thinking about a lot of other similarities, and how to explain them.
First, let me make a point about the European colonial powers in North America. Each major power had its own set of priorities in the New World, and those priorities would determine how they interacted with the natives. FRANCE was primarily after trade, especially the fur trade (this could be said of the Dutch, as well.) For that reason, they were not as likely as other powers to engage in full-scale settler colonialism (where you replace the natives with your own people, essentially). They tended to have more peaceful relations with Indians, establish fewer permanent settlements, and French traders frequently lived among Indians and freely adopted their customs and intermarried with them (bear in mind, this is a broad statement, and is meant primarily in comparison with the other European groups.) This is why most Indian tribes preferred the French over the English (though they all leveraged one European power against the others, to get the best deal.) Is this because the French are just naturally nicer people than other Europeans? Of course not. This only holds true in North America. In other places (such as the Caribbean), where the French had different goals, it was a completely different story and they could be just as vicious as anyone else.
SPAIN was primarily after resources, especially mineral resources. Right off the bat, Columbus set the tone by his horrible treatment of the gentle Taino people of Hispaniola, whom he enslaved and forced to provide him with gold. But contrary to The Black Legend, an idea propagated by the English that the Spanish were overwhelmingly cruel to native peoples compared to the English, the truth was more nuanced. A lot of Columbus's contemporaries were outraged by his cruelty. Bartolome de Las Cassas provides a good counterbalance: a clergyman (and contemporary of Columbus) who worked tirelessly for native rights, with considerable success. As with the French, we can say that the Spanish developed racial hierarchies of their own, but that they differed significantly from those established by the English, with considerable fluidity within them.
ENGLAND, though certainly after trade and resources, was primarily after land. The land in their colonies was quickly filled up, and there was always a desire for more land to the west, which brought them into conflict with the French and the Indians. Hence, as demonstrated in this map, the French (in blue) had a territory vastly larger then the English (in red), but there were many times more English than French colonists.
In addition to having a stronger desire for land, England differed from France and Spain in another very significant way. Spain and France were a lot more accepting of the mixed offspring of Europeans and Indians. While it is true that French plantation owners in the Caribbean colony of St. Domingue (later Haiti) had strict race laws where "mulattoes" were concerned, the French in general were more accepting than the English, who had anti-miscegenation laws for both blacks and Indians and who would called the mixed offspring of an English colonist and an Indian a "half-breed." Of all the European groups involved in North American colonialism, the English had the strictest race hierarchy, and -unlike the French, whose attitudes varied depending on their regional goals (and they weren't so "nice" in Africa and Asia) -the English carried these attitudes with them wherever they went, establishing strictly stratified racial hierarchies in all their colonies: North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa (though much of that was in place when the English took control of the country from the Boers, the English made it much more formalized), and so on.
In short then, the English and the Japanese, in their colonial ventures, were noticeably more prone to racial hierarchy and xenophobia.
And here are some factors which I believe contribute to the similarities.
1. England and Japan are both island nations. Their inhabitants would be less likely to regularly encounter other peoples than if they lived on mainland Europe or Asia, and strangers stood out more.
2. Both countries "unified" their island groups by striving against "primitive" northern "barbarians". The Emishi, Ainu, etc. in Japan -the very term shogun is short for sei-i taishogun, or "commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force against the barbarians" -and the Scots and Irish etc. in England (in both cases there were large barbarian groups to the north also smaller groups in need of subduing to the south, and of course in England's case the Emerald Isle to the northwest.) In fact, now that I think about it, in both cases the dominant group was composed of migrants from the mainland who took the islands away from their original inhabitants. In other words, the English and Japanese defined themselves against the "barbarians" with whom they struggled for their island home.
3. Both countries were attacked by a huge armada from the mainland which was miraculously defeated (against the odds). The Spanish Armada attacked England in the 16th century, and the Mongols/Chinese did the same thing (twice) to Japan in the 13th century, with similar disastrous results. For the Japanese, these huge victories against the great conquerors were a sign of divine favor, and the same can probably be said for the English. It added to their sense of being special and blessed.
It seems to me that these similarities would indicate that inhabitants of a beleaguered island nation might have a predisposition toward establishing racial hierarchies. As I said at the outset, I am no doubt missing a lot of things that a specialist in these two cultures would immediately see that could deflate my loose theory. Plus, when it comes to establishing racial hierarchies, the economic stimulus of slavery looms very large, as I pointed out in a previous essay.
Still... it's interesting to think about.