Jared Diamond on “The Japanese Race”

Filed under: — tak @ 3:38 am

At Savage Minds, an anthropology group blog that I contribute to, a heated debate has erupted over Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a book that explains European imperialism by geography and ecology. This work has been made into a recently aired three-part documentary on PBS. The posts, now three in number (here and here and here) with endless comments, has spilled over to Crooked Timber and picked up by individual bloggers elsewhere. While some of the debates have moved to discussions on the minute details of Diamond’s argument, the impetus that triggered so much blogger enthusiam was the question of whether the assumptions behind his argument are racist despite his public denunciation of racism.

I tend to agree with my fellow anthropologists at Savage Minds. But for the most part I have stayed out of the discussion because I have neither read his book nor seen the television program.

Today, though, I found this article by Jared Diamond titled “The Japanese Roots” originally published in the June 1998 (vol.19) issue of Discover (via cbuddha’s del.icio.us tag for japanese anthropology). Curious, I read it right away. Now I am compelled to comment on this article, not because I study “Japan,” and not because I carry a Japanese passport, but because I now understand why my fellow bloggers felt so impassioned to critique Diamond.

In this article, Diamond explores the origin of the Japanese race. By slowly moving through archaeological, historical, linguistic, and genetic evidence, and punctuating his sub-arguments with discussions dealing with body hair, pottery shards, and the domestication of animals (among others), he arrives at the conclusion that “Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood.” That is to say, the Japanese race, and the knowledge of rice cultivation, came from the Korean peninsula. As a good scientist he admits that he cannot conclusively and exactly reconstruct what happened — that would require more evidence. But he focuses on one particular concept: that rice cultuvation was of a higher stage of development and thus gave whomever was growing this staple crop an advantage over others during military encounters. (Here I don’t follow him: I don’t understand why rice agriculture necessarily gives people more military might.)

I won’t go into detail here all of his arguments — it would be much faster for the reader to plunge into the article herself.

In reading this article I realized why there is such a fierce debate over Jared Diamond. If Guns, Germs, and Steel is anything similar in tone to this short Discover article, I can see why many people would find him appealing. His heart is in the right place and he believes that scientific investigation, such as the ones he conducts, can bring to light historical truths and mend geopolitical conflicts. Here is his concluding paragraph:

History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.

No wonder he is liked. Just like the way Diamond at the end of the PBS special reportedly shed tears in an African hospital filled with dying children (as noted by Ozma here), the ending of this short article also appeals to a sentimental justification of his science. This mention of the “enmity” between Koreans and Japanese (which by the way should not and cannot be compare to the conflict in the Middle East) is an appeal to one of the moral dilemmas facing humanity today: how can we stop people from fighting each other?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but he seems quite naive to think that whatever “truth” he will uncover in his field will solve geopolitical problems. If that is truly what he is seeking to accomplish, I believe he needs to re-examine the political history of his own discipline.

This post is getting way long, so I’ll stick to the article at hand. Take this excerpt, from the secong paragraph of this essay:

UNEARTHING THE ORIGINS OF THE JAPANESE IS A MUCH HARDER TASK THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS. AMONG WORLD POWERS TODAY, THE JAPANESE ARE THE MOST DISTINCTIVE IN THEIR CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT. THE ORIGINS OF THEIR LANGUAGE ARE one of the most disputed questions of linguistics. These questions are central to the self-image of the Japanese and to how they are viewed by other peoples. Japan’s rising dominance and touchy relations with its neighbors make it more important than ever to strip away myths and find answers.

Once again he explicitly frames the stakes of his research in geopolitical terms. But his hopes, I think, are already thwarted by his first two sentence in which he assumes without providing evidence that “the Japanese are the most distinctive in their culture and environment.” Stop right there, mister, because to those who know Japan’s modern history, he has just reproduced the rhetoric of Japanese imperialism!

I mean, why is Japanese culture perceived as the most unique? Where is the evidence? And how do you even measure cultural uniqueness, let alone compare it ?

The myth of racial homogeneity has been dismantled by Japan historians, most recently by Eiji Oguma in his A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Image, a translation of the 1995 discipline-defining work 『単一民族神話の起源―「日本人」の自画像の系譜』. This racism, which snugly fit with the emperor cult of seeing all Japanese subjects as having a common ancestor, is generally understood to have peaked during Japanese imperialism.

There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond. Take the example of Watsuji Tetsuro, who despite his engagement with Heidegger’s critique of ontology (or perhaps because of it), produced his 1936 work 『風土 人間学的考察』 (translated as Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study). Some Japanese critics have interpreted this book as using the argument of environmental determinism to claim Japanese racial superiority: he writes that certain climatic factors lend themselves better to philosophical and ethical inquiry. And of course, the monsoon climate, with which the Japanese race nourished itself, allowed for the highest form of cultural development. Sounds pretty racist.

Now Diamond does not argue this. But he shares with Watsuji a basic methodology of relying on environmental factors as a way to typologize groups of people according to “race.” The danger here lies not so much in the conclusions given by Diamond, but in the biologism of his methodological assumption. Why does he rely so much on the concept of race? Why, for example, does he assume that Japanese all speak Japanese and only Japanese? Or if he finds evidence of rice cultivation in Japan it is immediate understood to be that it was left by those who came from Korea? That’s like finding, hundreds of years from now, chopsticks and wasabi tubes in New York City and saying, since so many people ate sushi, there must have been a mass migration of Japanese!

But that’s not even the point here, for what it boils down to is that 1. he perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits, and 2. he has some theory of civilizational stages in mind whereby rice cultivation gives a military advantage over hunter & gatherer people. This is just too simplistic, however statistically sound it may be. I mean didn’t people actually mix agriculture and hunting, as was often the case in medieval Japan (noted by Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko) and is often noted in anthropological literature?

Instead of reading these simplistic assumptions about race, technology, and stages of civilization, I’d rather wait for the release of Civilization 4, in which the game designers rely on the same assumptions.

And finally, what does Diamond say about Japan in Guns, Germs and Steel? Japan was never ostensibly “conquered” by the West and proved to be quite superior militarily and economically. If anything this should prove his eurocentrism and blast his racial categories altogether. But I will probably never read the book to find out.

Powered by WordPress