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  • Scholar Majima Ayu on how the racial discrimination inherent in America’s Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 caused all manner of Japanese craziness

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on May 7th, 2014

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    Hi Blog.  Today’s post is a history lesson, about a very different Japan that took racial discrimination very seriously.  Especially when Japanese were the victims of it overseas.  Let me type in a section from Majima Ayu, “Skin Color Melancholy in Modern Japan”, in Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel, Eds., Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013, pp. 398-401.  Quick comment from me follows (skip to it if you think this text is a little too academic for your tastes).

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    Pathos of the Glorious “Colored”

    Japan’s Racial Equality Clause was denied by the Western powers, and racial discrimination such as the Japanese exclusion in California still remains, which is enough insult to raise the wrath among the Japanese. — Emperor Showa, 1946.

    Although Japanese exclusion was largely caused by racial discrimination, some elites tried to deny this by replacing the issue with class issues, similar to the interpretation of physical grooming. According to the minister of war, Terauchi Masatake (1852-1919), the Anti-Japanese movement arose because Japan had sent “bottom-class workers” who looked like “monkeys in the zoos” to the United States. In fact, the Japanese government encouraged workers from farming villages to emigrate because these villages were so impoverished and their population continued to grow. Terauchi’s view towards the Japanese immigrants to the United States was shared among elites since racial issues originally emerged as labor issues. However, the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 did not support the Japanese elites’ interpretation of existing class issues but made obvious the racial distinction between Japan and the United States.

    As cited, the Emperor Showa (1901-1989) saw the Exclusion Act as “a remote cause of the Pacific War” (Terasaki & Miller 1995: 24). When President Woodrow Wilson met Ambassador Chinda Sutemi (1857-1929) in 1913, he was shocked by Chinda’s grave reaction to the Law, and knew then that war was more than a possibility. As a letter on 8 February 1924 from Secretary of State Charles E. Hugues to Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization Albert Johnson stated, “The Japanese are a sensitive people, and unquestionably would regard such a legislative enactment as fixing a stigma upon them.” It also aptly used the term stigma used before by Taguchi. In fact, opinions against the Japanese Exclusion Act were an immediate reason for public outcry in Japan. The population had become exasperated by the weak-kneed diplomacy that brought national dishonor amidst the emotional bashing from the mass media. This manifested in extremely emotional and near mass-hysteric situations, such as the suicides near the American Embassy on May 31, the follow-up suicides, the events for consoling the spirits of the deceased, and the countless letters sent to the Naval Department calling for war against the United States (Matsuzawa 1980: 363-4).

    While the situation heated up rapidly, it quickly subsided. However, the elites’ reaction against the Act remained strong. On the 15th of January 1924, Hanihara Masano, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, stated in a memorandum that to “to preserve the self-respect” of Japan, “the sole desire of the Japanese Government was to relieve the United States Government of the painful embarrassment of giving offense to the just national pride of a friendly nation”. Three months later on April 10th, Hanihara sent another letter to Secretary of State Hughes:

    To Japan the question is not one of expediency, but of principle. To her the mere fact that a few hundreds or thousands of her nationals will or will not be admitted into the domains of other countries is immaterial, so long as no question of national susceptibilities is involved. The important question is whether Japan as a nation is or is not entitled to the proper respect and consideration of other nations. In other words, the Japanese Government asks of the United States Government simply that proper consideration ordinarily given by one nation to the self-respect of another, which after all forms the basis of amicable international intercourse throughout the civilized world.

    Some criticized Japan’s contradiction in terms of its pressure on Asia, but their anger only focused on Japan’s national dishonor and on the insults to its reputation. According to Hanihara’s correspondence with Secretary of State Hughes, the Exclusion Act “would naturally wound the national susceptibilities of the Japanese people.” It would also bring the “possible unfortunate necessity of offending the national pride of a friendly nation… stigmatizing them as unworthy and undesirable in the eyes of the American people” and “seriously offend the just pride of a friendly nation.”

    Even Kiyosawa Kiyoshi (1890-1945), known as a liberal journalist, also took a critical stance of this. “Discrimination from the United States,” he wrote, “was due to regarding the Japanese as colored people. This is a disgrace to the most delicate matter of the Japanese ethnic pride.” On the 2nd of July at the Kokumin Shinbun, Tokutomi Sohou designated the 1st of July 1924 — the day the Anti-Japanese Immigration Law had passed — as the “Day of National Dishonor”. He explained the significance of the day to be one of “cutting ties with the United States”, and embracing their Asian brothers.” Tokutomi explained that the Anti-Japanese Law had caused “the Japanese to suffer unprecedented insult.” He also stated, “The immigrant issue is not simply a matter of US-Japan relations, it is the issue [lying] between the United States and the colored races” In the meantime, Nitobe Inazo (1862-1933) wrote in his 1931 correspondence on the night before the Manchurian Incident that the Exclusion Act was “a severe shock which came completely out of the blue… my heart was deeply wounded and I felt strongly insulted as if we Japaense were suddenly pushed down from our respected status to being the wretched of the earth.”

    American’s racial categorization aggravated Japan’s anger, which turned to anxiety as a result of Japan’s diminishing sense of belonging in the world; “the world being limited to the Western powers,” as Tokutomi cited earlier, even if Japan earned a status equal to that of the Western powers, there would still be a great “distance” between them, namely one of racial and religious differences, and the whole difference between the East and West. The sentiment of being a “solitary wanderer” rejected by the West contradicts the manner in which Japan brought about its own isolation. Tokutomi also asserted that the express “Asian” had no other meaning beyond the geographical, and thus Japan’s self-perceptions and identity no longer belonged to Asia. The sense of isolation was actually based on the denial of “Asia”, and it came from Japan’s own identification built upon the idea of “Quit Asia and Join Europe”. It could be said that Japan’s contradictory identification came to reveal Japan’s inability to identify with either the East or the West, a situation that came about through the emergence of a consciousness of the racial distance, especially from 1919 to 1924.

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    COMMENT:  There is a lot here to parse and analyze, and I’ll leave space for Debito.org Readers to tell us their reads.  But mine on the most topical level is this:

    Look at how crazy racial discrimination makes people.  Mass hysteria?  Suicides?  Rumors of war?  Feeling rejected by the West after the elites had taken a risk and turned the national narrative away from the East?  Thereby laying the groundwork for Postwar Japan’s narrative of uniqueness and exceptionalism that fuels much of the irrational and hypocritical behavior one sees in Japan today (especially vis-a-vis racial discrimination towards anyone NOT “Japanese”).  Yet during Prewar Japan (when Japan was colonizing), the GOJ denied that it could even ideologically PRACTICE racial discrimination, since it was liberating fellow members of the Asian race (Oguma Eiji 2002:  332-3); and now we get denials that it exists in Japan, or that Japanese even understand the concept of racial discrimination because Japanese society allegedly has no races.  After all, racial discrimination is something done to us Japanese by less civilized societies.  It couldn’t happen in Japan.  Yet it does.  And when that is pointed out, then the denialism comes roaring back intertwined, as the above passage demonstrates, with the historical baggage of victimization.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

    6 Responses to “Scholar Majima Ayu on how the racial discrimination inherent in America’s Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 caused all manner of Japanese craziness”

    1. Markus Says:

      This was an interesting read because it made me realise again that not much has changed about the Japanese love for pseudo-scientific gobbledygook pertaining to skin color and an alleged “hierarchy of the races”.
      While most of the civilised world strives to see beyond race and especially get rid of discrimination based on skin colour, I am not sure if the Japanese in general would be okay with being labeled as “non-white”. From speaking to many Japanese during my time in Japan, there is still a creepy self-delusion going on among many, whose self-value and -esteem is based on an idea of the Japanese being “the only white people of Asia” or “the Germans of Asia”.
      A ridiculous concept of course, because it severely misjudges the last couple of decades of social history in the “white” part of the world, i.e. the concept of race (and nationality) becoming less and less important for almost anyone but the few far-right bigots who will never change.
      It could be called ironic that the fatal attraction to and importance of race and nationality is the biggest obstacle for Japan to be respected as “on par” with Western societies. They try so hard to be white that they forgot to read the air and go with the times.
      They (meaning – voting mainstream) needs to understand that the question the “white” world asks the Japanese of today is not “do you have the biggest GDP” or “how many Louis Vuitton bags does your wife own”, but “are you ready to enter the modern world with us where nationalities and race aren’t that important anymore?”

    2. Jon Says:

      During the apartheid era in South Africa I can recall talking to a Japanese family who had recently returned to Japan from several years residence there. They were very proud of the fact that Japanese were treated as ‘honorary whites’. Their complete acceptance of a racial hierarchy was disturbing, but it was curious that they seemed unaware that by being ‘honorary whites’ they had been firmly placed below whites on that hierarchy. Their old pal Hitler certainly regarded the Japanese as an inferior race and was prepared to make an alliance with them purely for expediency’s sake.

    3. Jim di Griz Says:

      ‘ the most delicate matter of the Japanese ethnic pride’.
      And so it remains.

    4. Rev. Daniel Rea Says:

      It pains me to write this, it really does. This sort of thinking in Japan today is going to continue making Japan irrelevant. Great Japan got the 2020 Olympics what a fine thing. Yet the lies Abe told to get it. The absolute head in the sand mentality that permeates Japan today about its problems and refusal to admit the problems, see the problems, and much less solve them is going to drive Japan into rejection by more and more nations.
      The problem of racism in Japan and the tacit approval of discrimination against non-Japanese is going to make other advanced nations turn their backs on Japan. This article by Majima Ayu really shows the extent to which Japan today will excuse and hide from the facts of their national problems today and why many in the world are turning away from Japan.

    5. manule Says:

      And the irony of all this is the fact that when they try to turn the eyes back to asia, they just found deeply resentful nations like Korea and China who were treated not like asian brothers but simply conquered slaves. No wonder there is not where else to look for a regional identity. Throwing money here and there seems to be not working so well anymore and that is the point for the ongoing isolation, sadly I said for the future of the very much needed integration of this nation into the world community. That just looks far and away…

    6. john k Says:

      #4 Rev. D.R.

      There is a good program on BBC called Talking Business with Linda Yueh. Interestingly last week she was talking about, with her guests, how countries are addressing the social issues of an aging society coupled with fewer people/workers to support it. They discussed Japan and stated categorically that Japan is attempting to address the issues by completely ignoring immigration. All the guests on her program agreed it is not the right course and is a ticking time bomb. But stopped short of outright criticism simply because there is insufficient evidence, factual, from other countries to suggest it wont work; simply because there is no yard stick as a measure. Only their own opinions that it wont and can’t work based on their economic arguments of what supports growth, society and ultimately fuels an economy.

      Japan’s lack of immigration is slowly being addressed by others, even if Japan wishes to bury its head in the sand. And is slowly getting more global attention than it has in the past.

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